Nigeria's Big Man Shows His Achilles' Heel
Nigeria's Big Man Shows His Achilles' Heel
Nigeria is a difficult country to govern, no matter who is president. And its current economic crisis — one that began as crude oil prices started tumbling in January 2014 — has only added to the challenges that President Muhammadu Buhari has faced in his first year in office. The economy, suffering from a general downturn, has contracted by almost 0.4 percent compared to last year. It is the first time since 2004 that Nigeria's economy has shrunk. The economic slump is increasing the already high rate of unemployment and pushing down salaries, among other indicators, which is contributing to a sense of malaise in Nigerian society. The security environment is not much better. Despite success against Boko Haram, a new wave of militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta region is leaving oil and natural gas infrastructure in ruins, and persistent violence among Fulani herdsman in the middle of the country is breeding more sectarian angst.
Against this backdrop, on Monday, the 73-year-old Buhari boarded a plane for London, where for 10 days he will receive medical treatment for what he says is a persistent ear infection. Ill health could explain Buhari's erratic schedule of late. In the past three weeks, he has canceled several trips, including a two-day working visit to Lagos, the country's commercial hub, a trip to Ogoniland in the Niger Delta to break ground on an environmental cleanup project, and a trip to Senegal to attend a regional summit of the Economic Community of West African States. In his stead, Buhari sent Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. Despite rumors that Buhari has Meniere's disease, an inner ear disorder, the important thing for Nigeria is that the president's duties are being affected at a time of rising political divisions and uncertainty, deepening economic challenges, and increasing sectarian and militant violence taking place in many corners of Nigeria.
Before leaving for London, Buhari asked rhetorically, "Is there anybody that doesn't fall sick?" But Buhari is not just anybody. In Nigeria, with its colorful political history, serious matters often come down to power politics. Even more important, Buhari has asserted himself as Nigeria's "Big Man," taking his place in a long line of powerful Nigerian presidents capable of tackling the country's woes. The Nigerian presidency was already a powerful institution, with limited checks on its power, but Buhari has amassed considerably more power — both for himself and for members of his tight inner circle. A president as powerful as Buhari, debilitated by a medical condition, is a troubling situation for a country dealing with as many crises as Nigeria. In the short term, Buhari's trip to London may serve to delay certain decisions that would normally be the prerogative of the president. (In Buhari's absence, Osinbajo is acting president.)
Complicating matters is the polarizing north-south schism in Nigeria, in which each half of the country believes it is owed its time in control of the presidency and the federal government's vast corresponding resources. The 2010 death of President Umaru Yaradua, a northerner, and the perceived usurpation of the presidency by Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner who was Yaradua's vice president, has inflamed the sense of entitlement held by some factions in the now-governing north. When Buhari won the presidency, the sentiment in the north was that an administration friendly to its regional interests would be in control of the country for at least the next four — and possibly eight — years. Consequently, the questions surrounding Buhari's health may intensify northern insecurities, especially since Osinbajo, the constitutional successor to the presidency, hails from the southwest. If Buhari were unable to finish his term, Osinbajo would come to power, and the existing political alliances would likely break apart.
Some of the pressures Buhari faces stem from the underlying tension between the Niger Delta and the rest of the country. Jonathan, who hailed from the Niger Delta region, brokered an amnesty agreement with the militants operating there and also gave the region patronage through his position, amnesty programs and security contracts. Buhari now must balance the interests of the coalition that helped him win the presidency with those of the economically vital Niger Delta, where he received minimal political support in last year's election. Under Jonathan, economic power and patronage was heavily concentrated in the delta region; any redistribution of that largesse under Buhari is a sensitive topic there. Buhari, to his credit, has extended the amnesty program, although at reduced funding, and maintained a few other patronage programs, but invariably some people, including members of politically powerful and militarily potent groups, will fall through the cracks. As the stream of patronage to the Niger Delta has slowed under Buhari, a renewed militancy has risen.
So when militants in the Niger Delta destroy oil and gas infrastructure, proclaiming that they want greater fairness for the disenfranchised people of the region, Buhari — the country's Big Man — cannot look weak by promising more of the country's shrinking resources to those who his fellow northerners see as criminals. Instead, Buhari must take a different approach, inviting prominent southerners such as Jonathan and former President Olusegun Obasanjo to travel to the seat of power, his presidential villa in Abuja, for consultations. Regardless of Buhari's power play, if both men are needed by Buhari to reduce militancy in the restive Niger Delta, then it is understood that concessions of some kind will be given to them. One logical concession would be a less aggressive investigation into corruption allegations levied against many former Jonathan administration officials.
A head of state suffering from a medical condition is a problem under the best of circumstances. But when a president as powerful — and under as much pressure — as Buhari seeks medical treatment in another country, the uncertainty can be disastrous.