Buhari Faces Key Challenges in Nigeria as he Ends Medical Leave

  • President to address nation Monday following return from U.K.
  • Islamist attacks, sluggish economy confront President Buhari

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari returned from three months of sick leave in London to a nation wondering how strong a role he will play as his administration confronts re-emerging ethnic tensions, resurgent Islamist militant attacks and a sluggish economy.

Buhari, 74, may clarify his immediate future during a scheduled address to the nation early Monday. In his absence for treatment of an undisclosed illness, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has been running the government amid protests this month demanding that the president return to resume his job or hand over power to his deputy for the remaining two years of his term.

Muhammadu Buhari

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

“President Buhari certainly faces multiple challenges as he resumes duty,” Nnamdi Obasi, senior adviser on Nigeria at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said in an emailed response to questions. “The biggest challenge would be to calm nerves and curb divisions, to rally Nigerians around a common vision for the country and bring some urgency towards pursuing that vision.”

Africa’s biggest oil producer faces a host of threats. The economy contracted last year for the first time since 1991 amid low revenue from crude exports, a conflict with the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has killed tens of thousands of people and threatened parts of the northeast with famine, and secessionist agitation by ethnic Igbos and tensions between them and the northern Hausa people are intensifying.

Election Promises

Rumors of a military coup surfaced in May after Army Chief of Staff Tukur Buratai said he’d received information about individuals approaching soldiers and officers to discuss a plot. The armed forces dismissed speculation that there was a conspiracy to topple the government.

A former military ruler, Buhari was elected in 2015, marking the first time the opposition ousted a ruling party by a vote in Africa’s most populous nation. While he’s made some gains, there’s been stiff resistance from vested interests, said Antony Goldman, the head of PM Consulting, a London-based political risk consultancy specializing in West Africa.

“Time is running out,” he said. “There has been progress on security, agriculture and governance, but patience is a limited commodity.”

Religious Divide

How much authority Buhari continues to wield will be closely watched in a country roughly split between a mostly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south. The prospect of Vice President Osinbajo, a 60-year-old Christian, replacing him could stoke unrest in Buhari’s power base in the north.

“If he says he’s no longer capable and lets the vice president continue, there’ll be a problem,” said Charles Dokubo, a professor of political science and research director at the Lagos-based Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. “His core constituency will behave as if he’s sold out and mount a lot of pressure on him to continue. It will not be easy for him to relinquish power.”

Buhari’s return probably won’t have much impact on policy making or the nation’s economy, which has seen the naira currency weaken by 13 percent this year. But it may spur lawmakers to speed up passage of legislation because the president’s popularity in the north helped many members of his All Progressives Congress to win election to the National Assembly, Amaka Anku, senior Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, said in an emailed note.

Osinbajo’s loyalty to the president has solidified Buhari’s trust in him and will ease his return, she said.

“As Buhari remains quite ill and is unlikely to resume full presidential responsibilities, he will allow Osinbajo to continue to handle day-to-day governance tasks,” Anku said.

Buhari’s ability to deliver on promises such as battling corruption and improving security will depend on his stamina and how the government is able to focus on its priorities amid the distractions of looming elections in 2019, said Obasi of International Crisis Group.

“With barely a year to go until the election season, it’s now looking like a desperate race against very limited time,” he said.

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