from Africa in Transition

President Buhari Returns to Office

March 16, 2017

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari returned to Nigeria from medical leave in the United Kingdom on March 10. In his absence, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo served as the acting president for the fifty days that Buhari was out of the country. Upon Buhari’s return, it was unclear as to whether he would resume his duties, especially given his statement that he would need to return to the United Kingdom soon for further medical tests and treatment. However, on March 15, Buhari sent a letter to the national assembly stating that he would be resuming his presidential duties.

Nigerian commentators have noted that Buhari’s return was greeted with joy in the northern, predominantly Muslim part of the country, much less so in Lagos and other largely Christian, southern urban centers (Osinbajo is a Pentecostal Christian from Lagos). Popular opinion indicates that Osinbajo has received high marks for his stewardship during Buhari’s absence.

Throughout this episode, Buhari has followed the constitution scrupulously. He formally notified the national assembly on both the occasion of his medical departure, as well as his return and resumption of presidential office fifty days later. In addition, Buhari turned over his office to the deputy president as mandated by the constitution.

In spite of this, ambiguity continues to surround the circumstances of the president’s medical leave, and the condition of his health. On one hand, the president said that he was in good health and that he was on leave for rest and medical tests (the implication being that they were routine). During this period of medical leave, he remained in direct contact with world leaders, scheduling an over the phone meeting with President Donald Trump, and meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury (who has long been involved in conflict prevention in Nigeria). He also was in touch with Nigerian political figures, including acting President Osinbajo, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, and members of the Nigerian senate. On the other hand, members of his family and religious leaders, including the Sultan of Sokoto, called for “serious prayers.” Increasingly insistent rumors suggested that Buhari was suffering from an aggressive form of cancer.

Given Nigerian lack of transparency on matters of individual health and the history of African heads of state dying abroad, the persistence of such rumors is no surprise. At present, Nigeria faces greater challenges than during Yar’Adua’s presidency. These include: the Boko Haram insurgency, unrest in the Niger Delta, ethnic conflict in the middle belt, and the fiscal consequences of the fall in oil prices. Nevertheless, there has not been the general sense of crisis that was characteristic during President Umaru Yar’Adua’s fatal illness of 2010. Unlike Buhari, Ya’r’Adua did not formally hand over presidential authority to the deputy president when he left the country for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. Further, Yar’Adua’s staff blocked virtually all contact with outsiders, while Buhari has maintained contact with a range of interlocutors over the course of his medical leave