Feb 7, 2017 | 16:32 GMT

4 mins read

Nigerian Democracy Awaits a Diagnosis

Nigerian Democracy Awaits a Diagnosis
(DREW ANGERER/Getty Images)
It doesn't take much to expose the fragility of Nigeria's power-sharing system, which has guided the country's emergence from military rule for nearly two decades. The newest threat is a familiar one in the capital: the uncertain health of the president. In mid-January, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari took a 10-day medical trip to London. On Feb. 6, Buhari asked the country’s parliament to extend his leave of absence indefinitely. The news has caused a stir in Nigeria, fueling speculation that the country is once again facing a premature political transition that could inflame regional tensions. Even if Buhari returns in form, his extended absence will complicate the political landscape as an opposition coalition gears up for the next election in 2019.
The 74-year-old Buhari has raised eyebrows at home with a medical trip abroad before. In June 2016, the president headed to London, reportedly to address a persistent ear infection, leaving behind Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to serve as acting president in his stead. But the biggest difference with this trip is its seemingly open-ended nature. Buhari’s spokesman released a brief statement on Feb. 6 saying that the president was awaiting medical test results, giving no timeline for his eventual return to Nigeria. 

A Familiar Road

The renewed uncertainty over Buhari’s health has generated considerable unease in parts of Nigerian society. This is, in part, because of the tenuous balance of political power in the geographically fractured West African country. Since military rule ended in 1999, Nigeria has made significant progress in reforming its civil-military relations and strengthening its political institutions, putting an end to a post-colonial political history dotted with military coups. A critical component of that progress has been a power-sharing agreement installed at the time of the handover by the victorious People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The deal stipulated that high-level positions in the national government would rotate among each of the country’s six administrative regions, known as geopolitical zones. This fostered stability by giving each access to sources of patronage and ensured that no single region or ethnic group could monopolize power. 
However, the victory of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress in 2015 — which put the PDP in the opposition for the first time since 1999 — raised doubts about how this arrangement would weather the transfer of power. The basic shape of the political structure has survived so far, but calls have grown louder for a further devolution of powers to the regions, and the system may prove difficult to sustain if Nigeria continues to evolve into a multiparty democracy marked by more frequent power transitions. A premature end to Buhari's tenure in office would only revive these concerns. 
Nigeria has been down this road before. The 2010 death of then-President Umaru Yaradua, who also had spent several months overseas seeking medical care, stressed the foundations of the country's power-sharing structure. During Yaradua's absence, politicians from the country’s South-South zone began calling for him to step down and hand power to his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, who hailed from the south. A power struggle ensued as northern lawmakers worked to ensure that Yaradua, a northerner, was given a chance to return to office. Even though Yarudua's death essentially guaranteed the vice president's ascension, Jonathan's rise and subsequent re-election in 2011 were viewed as a usurpation of the north’s rightful turn at the nation's helm.

Absence Makes the Opposition Grow Stronger

With the time frame for Buhari's return still unclear, Nigeria is facing another prolonged period of uncertainty. Osinbajo is unlikely to divert from Buhari's legislative agenda, since he lacks a democratic mandate to do much beyond focusing on the day-to-day affairs of the presidency while waiting for Buhari to return. But eventually, if Buhari's medical leave extends into perpetuity, the acting president will have little choice but to expand his role. Considering the magnitude of Nigeria’s ongoing economic and financial crises, the government cannot afford to slip into paralysis until Buhari recovers.

If Buhari’s health is notably worse than has been disclosed, it would once again spur calls for the president to hand power to Osinbajo, a southerner from Lagos, stoking tensions among the country's geopolitical zones. Southern regions would be particularly vocal about replacing Buhari, a northerner, while the north would find itself facing the familiar prospect of giving up power prematurely. The ensuing tug-of-war could chip away at Buhari's power even upon his recovery, considering his handling of the financial crisis and reliance on a small circle of advisers have made him few friends in the capital. 
In fact, Buhari will face mounting opposition — particularly from the newly formed Action Democratic Party (ADP) — even if he returns relatively quickly. Hailed as a "megaparty," the coalition of disaffected politicians and opposition parties is organizing to challenge Buhari in the 2019 presidential election. To an extent, the rise of the ADP echoes the unification of the opposition under Buhari’s All Progressives Congress to challenge Jonathan two years ago in the 2015 election. Today's circumstances are not identical to those that faced Jonathan, whose government was widely seen as corrupt and had provoked a backlash by pursuing re-election for a second time. But Nigeria’s political alliances tend to be fluid, and Buhari’s health issues could provide additional fodder for a growing opposition weary of his style of rule.

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