Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent health problems led to the emergence of Nigeria’s health problems. This African country showed some weak spots that could cause instability if the transition of powers at the top levels of the state does not run smoothly.
In 2017 Muhammadu Buhari first left for London on 21st January. His stay, officially due to “routine medical tests”, was prolonged and he took a flight back to Nigeria only on 10th March. After returning home from his first “medical” leave in Great Britain, Buhari reduced his working day to a few hours and looked frail. On 7th May he had to leave again for London, after he had missed three cabinet meetings in a row and, something unusual for a devout Muslim like him, several Friday mosque prayers. On 19th August Buhari came back again to Nigeria, and on 30th August led his first cabinet meeting. But in the following weeks he worked partly from his home and missed several weekly meetings.
During his absence some political and civil society activists started a protest campaign in Abuja, calling for Buhari to resign or to come back to do his job. In some cases those activists clashed with Buhari’s supporters. On 7th August a spokesperson for Buhari, Malam Garba Sheu, declared the President did not want to resign since he had done nothing against the law. Buhari, in line with the constitution, had ceded his powers to his deputy who took Buhari’s place.
It’s worth noting that when in 2010 Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua basically disappeared from the public scene for two months before his death, the then opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari asked to know the truth about the chief of state’s health.
Buhari gave very little information about his illness, even if he admitted he had never been so ill before. But, he did pass his powers to his deputy, something Yar’Adua never did. It was the National Assembly that gave the then deputy President Goodluck Jonathan the powers. Afterward, Jonathan ran for President and was elected but then lost against Buhari in the 2015 elections.
Enter Yemi Osinbajo
Buhari’s style of government can be described as centralized. It is wrong to describe him as authoritarian, as some of his opponents do. He simply tends to centralize the decision making process. But his moves can be slow, due to the fact that in his inner circle he has to mediate between different ideas and different parties, each of which has some influence. Nigerian people nicknamed him “Baba go slow”.
During his absence, it was his deputy who took over his duties. Yemi Osinbajo, a pastor of a large evangelical church and a lawyer (who graduated at the London School of Economics), was chosen on the basis of a “gentleman’s agreement” governing the turnover at the head of the state. Basically, a Christian candidate for the presidency must team up with a Muslim deputy and vice versa. In this way the Nigerian political class tries to defuse religious and ethnic tensions linked to the sharing of power. Tensions that can lead to bloodshed, as happened in 2011, when Muslim Northerners refused to accept Goodluck Jonathan (a Christian and a Southerner) as a candidate to the Presidency for the People’s Democratic Party.
In his first months as deputy, President Osinbajo (a Yoruba from the South of Nigeria) had to fight different bigwigs within the All Progressive Congress (APC) who tried to sideline him, and he succeeded in resisting. And this happened also thanks to his supporters, first of all to Bola Tinubu, a powerful Muslim politician from the South. In the first phase, he focused on economical and juridical issues. While Buhari (a Northerner) “managed” the North of the country, Osinbajo dealt with the issues concerning the South. Buhari’s medical leave undoubtedly helped Osinbajo to consolidate his role. He had the possibility to show his skills, and on different issues he was effective. On thorny issues like the question of autonomist groups (like the Niger Delta Avengers) who attacked oil plants in the Niger Delta region he chose to promote dialogue and a possible deal instead of supporting the hard line of those who prefer a military solution.
The problem of succession
When Nigerians elected Buhari in 2015, they perhaps expected the President (a man in his seventies) to have health problems. But what happened in 2017 was an eye-opener. The problem of the possible succession to Buhari became a central issue in the political debate. Not that anyone contested the fact that in that case Osinbajo would take the stage. The problem is what will happen in the 2019 presidential elections. If Osinbajo takes the place of Buhari and finishes their term, will the Muslim political leaders accept his possible candidacy in 2019? And, due to his popularity, what will happen if Osinbajo wins?
At this moment, it seems that many Muslims will not again accept a Christian president after such a short mandate for a Muslim one. That is to say, they are not willing to waive the “gentleman’s agreement”. But this rigidity could create problems of governance and lead to a political impasse. Some commentators, like Max Siollun, (Foreign Policy, 1st June 2017) are therefore proposing to change the rules to guarantee more flexibility in the system.
The problem is that due to its recent political history, Nigeria can’t afford a void in the rules (written or unwritten) regulating the transition of power. It is true that a strict interpretation of the “gentleman’s agreement” can bring to instability, that is to the very same illness it was supposed to cure. But this sets of rule can’t simply be erased from the book.Eventually, it can be replaced by a new and shared set of rules.Buhari is (at least for now) back on his seat and the next presidential election will allegedly take place in 2019. So, there is time for a political debate aimed at reaching a complete new deal or fixing the bugs of the old one.