Nigeria's President Is Back -- Maybe

6 MINS READSep 1, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari arrived back in Abuja on Aug. 19 after a three-month medical leave.
(SUNDAY AGHAEZE @2017/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari's health and ability to fulfill his duties remain open questions after his return from a three-month medical leave.

  • President Muhammadu Buhari's return to Nigeria after a three-month medical leave will do little to assuage the concerns of his ruling coalition.
  • Despite the efforts of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who served as acting president in Buhari's absence, Nigeria's sustained financial weaknesses will translate into little more than small concessions to the Niger Delta.
  • Members of Buhari's ruling party increasingly will face the choice of staying where they are or defecting to the rival People's Democratic Party as the 2019 presidential election approaches and worries over the president's ability to defend his office deepen.

President Muhammadu Buhari is back in Nigeria. After more than 100 days in the United Kingdom, where he had been seeking medical treatment for an undisclosed ailment, Buhari returned home Aug. 19. For the duration of his latest absence — which followed a two-month medical stay in London from January to March — Buhari was more or less incommunicado, prompting calls that he resign or at least be more transparent about his health. The president and his team tried to push past the criticism by emphasizing the need for national unity in Buhari's first public address back in the country on Aug. 21. 

But his speech failed to allay Nigerians' concerns. By skirting the issue of his mysterious illness, Buhari reaffirmed his intention to keep his condition a secret and left the impression that his health is still a problem. Reports indicate, moreover, that after the president met with various security chiefs on Aug. 22, he canceled or postponed other meetings scheduled for that week. Buhari's senior special assistant on media and publicity later explained that the president had to work from home while repairs were made to his office, which had been damaged by "rodents" in his absence. Whatever the case may be, Buhari's behavior since returning to Nigeria has raised more questions than it has answered about the future of his administration and the country.

A Return Laden With Complications

Now that the president is back, he likely is too weak to carry out the functions of his office — to say nothing of the limitations of working exclusively from home. Reports from before his latest trips abroad, in fact, suggested that could work only a few hours a day. Buhari's limited schedule raises the question of whether he will continue to delegate his daily duties to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who emerged as a steady and capable leader while filling in for the president during his medical leaves. The answer could create complications in the Nigerian government.

Buhari and Osinbajo differ in their approaches to certain issues, chief among them how to deal with insurgency in the oil-producing Niger Delta. Since coming into office in 2015, Buhari has oscillated between taking a tough stance on the region's militants and giving them incentives to end their attacks on oil and natural gas infrastructure.

Energy Infrastructure and Ethnicities in Nigeria

Osinbajo, on the other hand, has refrained from tough talk and focused mostly on reconciliation with the militants. The vice president put his strategy to the test in August when various groups hailing from the Niger Delta, including the umbrella group Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), voiced their anger with a federal government they believed was unwilling or incapable of addressing their concerns or considering their proposed solutions. While the federal government agreed to meet certain Niger Delta demands, promising on Aug. 3 to legalize illicit refineries in the region by the end of the year and even provide them with crude oil, the country's continued financial strain in light of low global oil prices means that significant government resources are unlikely to be devoted to the relatively small region. Given Buhari's return, it is likely that the federal government will continue to make few concessions to the Niger Delta to buy the peace. Perhaps even more important, the question remains whether the various actors in the region are willing to keep dealing with the federal government in light of the relatively small concessions they have received. As it stands, the region's many actors have their own agendas and no group truly speaks for the Niger Delta as a whole. Consequently, mounting frustration in the absence of a substantial deal from Abuja may increase the risk of another concerted campaign of attacks on energy infrastructure in the months ahead.

Hindsight Is 2019

Buhari's return has done little to expel the notion that his time on the political stage is nearing its end. In fact, this perception will only grow as the country's political leaders shift their attention to the 2019 presidential election, which is now less than 17 months away. Even closer are the party primaries, which kick off in the last six months of 2018. While Buhari's All Progressives Congress has tried to show unity and support for its ailing leader, the party's other officials no doubt have considered plans for replacing him on the 2019 ticket. Nigeria's political system is more fluid than most, and it isn't unusual for politicians to switch parties. Several key figures in the All Progressives Congress, for instance, are former members of the People's Democratic Party — its principal rival and the party of former President Goodluck Jonathan. These officials could jump ship if they think Buhari's candidacy is doomed, or if they think the People's Democratic Party will retake the presidency.

Such a resurgence is certainly possible, thanks to the country's sustained financial weakness from low oil prices, unease over Buhari's health and the People's Democratic Party's attractive promise to zone its presidential candidate to the north, which could divide Buhari's support base there. In the months ahead, it will be important to track potential defections (or in many cases, re-defections) to the People's Democratic Party that would undermine the ruling party's ability to build a viable coalition in the run-up to 2019.

Moreover, if Buhari is unable to run for re-election — which seems likely at this point — the succession process would prove critical. Osinbajo has performed decisively as acting president, but he is a Christian who hails from Lagos and is not from Buhari's stronghold in the predominantly Muslim north. The possibility of Osinbajo heading the All Progressives Congress' ticket in 2019 would not sit well with Buhari's northern power center, since it almost certainly would mean the redirection of power and patronage southward. There are many other players who likely would be interested in making a play for the top spot on the party ticket. Should Buhari's health fail to improve, their ambitions will become increasingly obvious as jockeying for the position ramps up in the months ahead. But for any candidate seeking to become the ruling party's standard-bearer, the test will be the same: Unite the party as the People's Democratic Party prepares to take back the presidency.

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