On January 19, President Muhammadu Buhari departed Nigeria for London for ten days of vacation and medical tests. Since then, he has extended his stay twice, most recently on February 5. His spokesman did not say when he will return to Nigeria. Before he left, as required by law, President Buhari informed the National Assembly of his departure and that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo would exercise presidential power during his absence.
There is anxiety over the state of the president’s health. The Arewa Consultative Forum, probably the most important socio-political organization in northern Nigeria, has asked its members to pray for the president. So, too, has the Christian Association of Nigeria’s chapter in Niger state. The acting president, Vice-President Osinbajo has said that only President Buhari can speak about his health: “I think that the health status of Mr. President is an issue that only Mr. President would discuss at the appropriate time. Again, he is running tests and all of that. Before you determine your health status, you must be able to run the necessary tests, and do what doctors have asked to be done, and await the outcome of that before one can talk about any kind of health status.” Osinbajo said that he talked to President Buhari by phone: “Let me first say the president is hale and hearty. I spoke to him just this afternoon and we had a fairly long conversation. He is in good shape and very chatty.”
There is no tradition in Nigeria of transparency about the status of presidential health. Indeed, during President Umaru Yar’Adua’s (2007-2011) long illness, there was continued obfuscation, and toward the end of his life, his wife and others around him prevented virtually all contact with him. President Yar’Adua could not, or would not, sign over presidential authority to his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan. Government all but stopped. Memories of that episode doubtlessly heighten Nigerian anxieties now.
In the aftermath of the credible 2015 elections in which for the first time the opposition, led by Muhammadu Buhari, came to power, Nigeria is a democracy. But, its democracy is fragile, and Nigeria faces the challenges of the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, a low-level insurgency in the southern oil patch, reduced oil revenue due to the decline in oil prices, and related financial challenges. Under these circumstances, the personality of the president is more important than in other democracies with stronger institutions. Hence, Nigerians are praying for their president.