Nigeria: Speculation around president’s health underscores policy failings

10 Feb 2017

Nigeria: Speculation around president’s health u...
  •   The three-week absence of President Muhammadu Buhari has raised widespread speculation and rumour that he is seriously ill or has already died.
  •   Although there is little evidence to support the rumours, the prolonged absence comes amid unrest over poor economic conditions and has raised concerns of a breakdown in the policymaking process. 
  •   Even if the president were to return to Abuja in the near future, investor confidence will remain weak due to the slow-moving policy environment and broader concerns around the government’s economic competence. 

Confusion fuelling speculation

The disappearance from public view of President Muhammadu Buhari since 19 January has led to widespread media speculation over the state of his health. Buhari, who is 74, left the country for medical leave in London three weeks ago, sparking almost immediate rumours in Nigerian media and online that he was either already dead or seriously ill and incapacitated. The presidency sought to dispel the rumours on 22 January by releasing photos on Buhari’s official Twitter account showing him watching television from his London hotel room, while officials issued assurances that the president was well.

His failure, however, to appear in public has done little to assuage fears of his death, which were further fuelled on 6 February when the presidency declared that his medical leave in London would be extended, without providing a date for his return. Several senior presidential aides have admitted they have not been in direct contact with the president during his leave, though on 8 February Senate President Bukola Saraki, who has a history of rivalry with Buhari, said he had spoken to the president and that he was in good health. This was followed a day later by the presidency releasing photos of Buhari meeting the leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress Bola Tinubu and former governor of Osun state Bisi Akande in London.

As yet, there is no evidence to support the rumours that Buhari has died, and the most plausible explanation is that he is alive but possibly in ill health. Buhari’s disappearance from public view follows an earlier 10-day trip he took to London to seek medical attention in June 2016, reportedly to treat an ear infection, which has added to rumours about his medical condition, particularly given Nigeria’s poor record with regards to transparency around the president’s health. In November 2009, President Umaru Yar'Adua travelled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment and was not seen in public again and no details of his health were made public until his death was announced in May 2010. Some observers have indicated this precedent lends credence to the rumours about Buhari, though it would likely be harder to keep Buhari’s death a secret in London, compared to a more secretive jurisdiction like Saudi Arabia.

Policy vacuum

The prolonged absence has raised concerns of a breakdown in policy making at a time when Nigeria is facing its worst recession in 25 years driven mainly by weak oil prices. Although Buhari campaigned on a platform pledging far-reaching reforms delivered with military-style competence, he has been subject to persistent criticism over the slow pace of change. It took six months for him to form a government, while his efforts to concentrate power in a tight inner circle of loyal, but inexperienced, officials has further reduced the government’s capacity.

In Buhari’s absence, the constitution dictates that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo assume the role of acting president. However, with so many key policy initiatives hinged on Buhari, there are already signs of a further slowdown in government. This is particularly so with regards to Buhari’s economic growth plan that will provide a blueprint for recovery between 2017 and 2020 and aims to lift the economic growth rate to 7 percent by the end of that period. The government hopes to present the proposals to the World Bank in February in order to secure financing of at least USD 1 bn, but the specific details of what the economic reform plan will contain remain unclear and it is uncertain if the loans can be agreed in his absence.

The president’s health and the concerns surrounding delays to the reform agenda will feed into broader disquiet among investors over economic management. Foreign investors have been especially critical of the government’s reluctance to introduce a flexible foreign-exchange rate policy, instead pegging the naira rate to the dollar at 40 percent above the unofficial market rate. The policy has led to an enormous scarcity in dollars and made many investors reluctant to commit to new projects as they expect that the central bank will eventually have to devalue the naira.

In Buhari’s absence, it is unclear what action the government will take, if any, to such pressing issues. On 6 and 9 February, protests were held in several cities, including Abuja, condemning the stagnating economic situation and demanding the government respond. In response, Osinbajo issued a series of Tweets pledging to act on the protesters’ concerns, but this has done little to dispel the criticism of government inaction that predates Buhari’s leave of absence. Although it is possible that Buhari will return to Nigeria in the near future, the growing criticism of his leadership is likely to result in further such protests and concerns among investors over the management of the economy. If he is indeed ill, this will likely result in other figures, notably Osinbajo, playing a greater role in government, though the resulting power vacuum risks fuelling competition among different political leaders and thus further undermining policy development. 

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