Mar 14, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

In Nigeria, a President's Illness Puts the Health of a Nation at Risk

(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • If questions about Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari's health persist, calls for the president's resignation will grow louder, especially among his southern rivals.
  • In the event that acting President Yemi Osinbajo permanently assumes Buhari's duties, northern politicians who feel robbed of power may lend support to the country's militant groups.
  • In the face of dwindling government funds, Osinbajo may scale back military operations across Nigeria, giving insurgents in the country's northeast room to thrive. 

After spending nearly two months recuperating in London, Nigeria's ailing leader has returned home to resume the responsibilities of office. But it is still unclear whether President Muhammadu Buhari is back for good. The president has warned the public that he may need to return to London in the weeks ahead to undergo additional medical tests, raising serious questions about the state of his health — and his ability to finish out his term.

A Political Insurance Policy

If Buhari's condition visibly deteriorates in the months ahead, his political opponents will seize the opportunity to demand his resignation. But the president's allies will quickly rally behind him as the country's politics break down along party lines. And in Nigeria, those splits often align with the country's deep geographic divides.

Energy infrastructure and ethnicities in Nigeria

Since 1999, political power in Nigeria has changed hands based on an informal rotation between the mostly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south. This system has provided a measure of balance among the country's diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups, giving each roughly equal turns at governing. Handovers of power, however, have not always gone smoothly. In 2010, the system fell apart when then-President Umaru Yaradua — an ethnic Hausa-Fulani from the country's north — died before completing his term.

In the months leading up to Yaradua's death, the president's waning health took a toll on his ability to lead, creating widespread uncertainty as to who was truly running the country. When he was eventually replaced by Goodluck Jonathan, an ethnic Ijaw from the south, it triggered an outcry among Yaradua's constituents, who argued that the rest of his tenure should have gone, by right, to a northerner.

Today's circumstances are different in one very important way: Buhari made arrangements for his absence. Before leaving for London on Jan. 19, Buhari temporarily shifted his presidential mantle to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, giving him the authority needed to push through policy during a difficult period of belt-tightening for the Nigerian government. Even so, uncertainty has clung to Buhari since his medical trip began in January, made worse by rumors that access to the president was strictly controlled during his stay in the British capital — a sign that his undisclosed illness could be severe.

Old Problems Flare Up

There are a few ways this situation could play out in the months ahead if the president's health does not improve. First, Buhari may choose not to step down, in spite of the widely held belief of his incapacitation. If this happens, regional tensions would rise as southerners grow eager to install Osinbajo in the presidency. (Osinbajo hails from Lagos, the country's southwestern economic capital.) Northerners, meanwhile, would be extremely wary of ceding power to their southern counterparts for the second time in less than a decade. At its worst, the brewing feud could eventually lead to a political stalemate, bringing the federal government to a standstill while leaders hash out who is in charge of the country.

On the other hand, Buhari may give up power voluntarily or pass away, leaving Osinbajo to rule in his stead. The southern politician would then stay in office until Buhari's term is scheduled to end in 2019, likely redirecting power and patronage to members of his own circle in the process. Politicians from the north, angered by the sudden reversal of their political fortunes, may respond in kind by funneling money and support to the country's militant groups as a means of putting pressure on the new president. Yaradua's death had a similar result in 2010, enabling Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi — an insurgency better known by its former name, Boko Haram — to spread rapidly throughout the country's north. The group's violent campaign began to ebb only when Buhari took office in 2015, concentrating the country's available manpower and resources on beating back the militants in an effort to protect and appease his northern supporters.

Politicians from the north, angered by the sudden reversal of their political fortunes, may respond in kind by funneling money and support to the country's militant groups as a means of putting pressure on the new president.

Osinbajo may not see Boko Haram as the pressing security threat that Buhari does, especially in light of the group's recent setbacks and Nigeria's current financial straits. If he takes charge of the government, Osinbajo may therefore start to pull back troops and resources from the ongoing fight against militancy. Groups like Boko Haram would take the opportunity created by the reprieve to replenish their stocks, coffers and ranks, which have taken a hit from over two years of steady losses against government forces. The insurgents would also have more room to link up with transnational militant groups operating in the wider Sahel region, perhaps even lending organizations local recruits in exchange for the resources and knowledge to bolster their own capabilities.

The north would not be the only region to face greater threats in Buhari's absence. The southern, oil-rich Niger Delta region has suffered intermittent militant attacks against its oil and natural gas infrastructure. Though these attacks have fallen off since late last year, they could pick back up if the militants' expectations of patronage are not met. After all, though Osinbajo is a southerner, he is from Lagos — not the Niger Delta. In his role as vice president, Osinbajo has advocated a conciliatory approach to the region's insurgency, but as president, his pro-business tendencies suggest that he would prove to be far from the blank check Niger Delta militants may hope for. In an attempt to force the new president's hand, the region's disillusioned fighters could renew their attacks on Nigeria's critical energy infrastructure.

A Difficult Recovery to Make

Getting Nigeria's finances in order is not an easy feat, as Buhari has discovered firsthand. But given the time Osinbajo has spent in the economic hub of Lagos and his clear desire to improve the country's business climate, the vice president could be expected to tackle Nigeria's money problems head-on as chief executive. His market-oriented reforms would mark a slight change from the more populist policies of Buhari, who has proved reluctant to let the naira float freely. While Buhari was out of country in late February, for instance, the Central Bank of Nigeria began to grant private citizens the ability to buy U.S. dollars for 20 percent more than the official going rate, in what amounted to a soft devaluation of the Nigerian currency.

As the country's acting president, Osinbajo also approved a 60-day plan to improve Nigeria's business climate. On Feb. 21, he passed a proposal to ease the entry and exit of goods and people across the country's borders and increase the transparency and efficiency of many Nigerian institutions. Though the plan is scheduled to last only two months, it highlights the market-friendly approach Osinbajo would probably take at the country's helm — that is, if he's able to within a precarious political system thrown off-balance by a president's untimely departure.

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