Nigerian President's Long Absence Comes Amid Major Economic Crisis

Feb 24, 2017
Originally published on May 3, 2017 2:28 pm

It's been more than a month since Nigeria's president, Muhammadu Buhari, traveled to London on what was billed as two weeks' vacation — with routine medical check-ups. He hasn't been back home since.

His government says the 74-year-old is in good health. But many Nigerians are not convinced and wonder whether their president is gravely ill — or worse.

Buhari's long absence comes amid Nigeria's worst economic crisis in years and other pressing national problems, including a famine in the northeast, the region badly hit by extremist Boko Haram violence.

So reports this week that Buhari called the governor of northern Kano State, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, during a Muslim prayer meeting, and that their conversation was shared on speaker phone with worshipers, caused a stir.

It's hard to identify Buhari's voice during the brief conversation in Hausa, the northern Nigerian lingua franca, that was posted online. No matter, say his supporters and subordinates. The president is alive and well, they insist.

There was applause at the prayer session when the Kano governor reportedly told the president everyone was praying for him. Buhari expressed his gratitude.

Yet concerns remain.

All that's been officially said about Buhari's health is that he has had a persistent ear infection, for which he sought treatment in Britain last year — and was away for a while.

Speculation is rife that Buhari may be suffering from prostate cancer, memory loss, kidney illness or a plethora of other possible ailments.

"Hale and hearty" is the very British expression Nigerian officials have been repeating about the president's health. Information Minister Lai Mohammed was on message when he told NPR this week, "In his own words, there's no cause for alarm, he's well. He's hale and hearty. He just has to do more tests."

But Nigerians just want Buhari back home – to govern. For now, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is serving as acting president in Africa's biggest economy, a major crude oil exporter and the continent's most populous nation.

Buhari had what Nigeria's officials described as a cordial telephone conversation with President Donald Trump earlier this month, so he must be able to work, Nigerians say. If not, some social media posts say, the president must declare whether he is still fit to govern the country — and resign if he's incapacitated.

Meanwhile, Nigerian officials have been posting photographs of Buhari looking gaunt as he receives visitors in London.

Questioned about the president's current health status, and his Feb. 5 request from London to Nigeria's parliament for extended medical leave, presidential spokesman Femi Adesina told a news conference this week: "The president wants Nigerians to know that he appreciates their prayers, he appreciates their concerns, he appreciates their goodwill. And he has added that there is really no cause to worry."

Buhari wrote to lawmakers that he would remain in Britain "until doctors are satisfied that certain factors are ruled out." Adesina added that Buhari said his doctors had prescribed additional rest.

Nigerians needs to trust the president, Adesina said. "Let us learn to believe our leaders," he said. "This was a man we elected into office and he says no cause to worry. Let's believe him."

Prominent Nigerian lawyer and scholar Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is among those voicing doubts. He says it's the government who should trust the people enough to tell them what's going on with their president.

"Subterfuge has been used to manage this situation," Odinkalu says. "The inability to trust the people who, by the way, trusted you enough to give you a vote to rule over them, is beyond squalid."

Odinkalu says Buhari's absence alarms Nigerians because the country is in economic stasis, the naira currency in free-fall and Nigeria is grappling with a famine. The famine threatens the lives of hundreds of children in the northeast, the home of the deadly, seven-year Boko Haram insurgency. There are also militant rumblings in the restive, oil-producing Niger Delta.

Influential global newspapers have published critical editorials about Buhari's prolonged absence.

Nigeria's leader is "missing in action," wrote a commentator in Britain's Financial Times. "The tragedy of Nigeria is that policy-making has been so ponderous ... since Mr. Buhari took office that, dead or alive, it is not always easy to tell the difference."

Odinkalu, the lawyer, says it seems as if Buhari is abandoning Nigeria, but "Would a president who is responsible take off from his country and go and live in another country just to take a break?"

So why, chides Odinkalu, is Buhari's team not being frank with Nigerians about the state of his health? "It is either you're suggesting that Nigerians are terribly stupid or that President Buhari is irresponsible," he says. "I don't think President Buhari is irresponsible and I don't think Nigerians are stupid. So the people around him should simply square with Nigerians and say our president is unwell and needs time to manage his health. Now why is that so difficult?"

Nigerians have been here before. Ailing former President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua stayed abroad on sick leave for months before returning home to die in office in 2010. Nigerians ask whether this is déjà vu or if there might be a timeline for Buhari's return to Nigeria.

"When it is time for him to come," responds presidential spokesman Femi Adesina, "he will communicate the date and the time."

Many Nigerians — who have to make do with their country's dilapidated health service while wealthy compatriots seek medical care overseas — are not satisfied with that answer.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Nigeria's president traveled to London last month on what was billed as two weeks' vacation with routine medical checkups. He hasn't been home since. The government says the 74-year-old leader is in good health. As NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, many Nigerians are not convinced.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Reports this week that President Muhammadu Buhari called up the governor of Kano State during a Muslim prayer meeting and that their conversation was shared on speaker phone with fellow worshipers is still causing a buzz in Nigeria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT MUHAMMADU BUHARI: (Speaking in Hausa).

QUIST-ARCTON: Speaking in Hausa, the northern lingua franca, it's hard to identify president Buhari's voice during the brief conversation posted online. No matter, say his supporters and subordinates. The president is alive and well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Allahu akbar.

QUIST-ARCTON: There was applause when the governor reportedly told the president everyone here is praying for you. Yet there's concern. All that's been officially said about Buhari's health is that he had a persistent ear infection for which he sought treatment in Britain last year and was away for a while.

Questioned about the president's current health status and his request to Parliament from London for extended medical leave, Presidential Spokesman Femi Adesina told a news conference this week...

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

FEMI ADESINA: The president wants Nigerians to know that he appreciates their prayers. He appreciates their concerns. He appreciates their goodwill. And he has added that there is really no cause to worry.

QUIST-ARCTON: Adesina added that President Buhari says after more tests, his doctors have prescribed additional rest, so he's staying in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ADESINA: Let us learn to believe our leaders. This was a man we elected into office, and he says no cause to worry. Let us believe it.

QUIST-ARCTON: Prominent Nigerian lawyer Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is one person voicing doubts. He says the government should trust the people enough to tell them what's going on with 74-year-old Buhari.

CHIDI ANSELM ODINKALU: Subterfuge has been used to manage this situation. The inability to trust the people who, by the way, trusted you enough to give you a vote to rule over them is beyond squalid.

QUIST-ARCTON: Odinkalu says Buhari's absence since January 19 alarms Nigerians because the country is in economic freefall and grappling with a famine and extremist violence in the northeast. So why, Chidi Odinkalu, is Buhari's team not being frank with Nigerians?

ODINKALU: It is either you're suggesting that Nigerians are terribly stupid or that President Buhari is irresponsible. I don't think President Buhari is irresponsible, and I don't think Nigerians are stupid. So the people around him should simply square with Nigerians and say, our president is unwell and needs time to manage his health. Now, why is that so difficult?

QUIST-ARCTON: Ailing former Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua was abroad on sick leave for months before returning home to die in office in 2010. So many Nigerians are asking whether this is deja vu, or is there a timeline for the president's return to Nigeria? Again, Presidential Spokesman Femi Adesina...

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ADESINA: When it is time for him to come, he will also communicate the date and the time he will come.

QUIST-ARCTON: Many Nigerians who make do with their dilapidated health service back home while wealthy compatriots seek medical care overseas are simply not satisfied with that response. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.