Sickening: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who three weeks ago, flew to the UK for medical tests, faces a raft of challenges including the tumbling naira and increasing fuel prices. Picture: REUTERS
Sickening: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who three weeks ago, flew to the UK for medical tests, faces a raft of challenges including the tumbling naira and increasing fuel prices. Picture: REUTERS

Lagos — A president who is flown abroad to seek medical treatment and given no firm date for his return: Nigeria has been here before.

Muhammadu Buhari, 74, travelled to the UK on January 19 for medical tests and was due back on February 5. He is yet to return and has not appeared or spoken in public for more than three weeks after asking legislators for medical leave.

On Monday, he talked by phone with US President Donald Trump, giving cheer to his supporters that he is not as ill as widely speculated. Yet his absence is heightening concern about government paralysis at a time when the economy is in recession and the stock market is sliding.

For many Nigerians, the situation recalls former president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s time in office. Like Buhari, Yar’Adua was a northern Muslim with a southern Christian vice-president in a country with often sharp sectarian divisions.

Heart Condition

Yar’Adua was flown to Saudi Arabia in November 2009 for treatment of a heart condition. It took about three months for the legislature to appoint then vice-president Goodluck Jonathan as acting president, as Yar’Adua associates sought to cover up the severity of his condition.

Yar’Adua eventually died in office on May 5 2010. Unlike Yar’Adua, Buhari formally transferred power to his
vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, before departing for Britain. "The experience of 2010 still hangs over Nigeria," Antony Goldman, head of London-based PM Consulting, said. "Partly as a result of that, the government has undertaken all the efforts to do what was not done in 2010."

Under the constitution, if Buhari cannot continue in office, Osinbajo would become president and he would choose a new deputy. That has not stemmed rumours of politicians jockeying for position to succeed Buhari, a former head of a military government.

The presidency has only said that Buhari is undergoing medical checks and has declined to disclose further information about his condition.

On Monday, Buhari spoke to Trump about the need for more equipment to deal with one of the worst crises the nation has faced yet — the fight against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the northeast, where thousands of people have been killed, more than 2-million have fled their homes and the UN is warning of widespread hunger.

Buhari is facing a raft of additional challenges.

Even as the central bank holds the naira around 315 per dollar on the official market, it has tumbled to a record low of 507 on the black market amid a dearth of foreign investment and as shortages of foreign-exchange mount.

Fuel prices that were to be slashed by two-thirds have risen 67% since Buhari took office. Africa’s second-biggest economy is likely to have had its first full-year contraction in a quarter century in 2016, while inflation is at an 11-year high.

Stocks Fall 

Since his departure, Nigerian stocks have fallen 4.5% to a nine-month low. They have dropped 6.9% this year, the world’s worst performance among 96 primary indices tracked by Bloomberg.

To allay public concern for Buhari’s health, the Nigerian government has shared photos of the president and cabinet members have relayed conversations they have had with the president. "The issue is not the president being outside of the country — he’s followed all the constitutional steps to allow that," Goldman said. "The challenge is when the president returns to the country to show that he is fit and able to continue in office."

Bloomberg

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