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Alex Thurston

From Jan. 19 to March 10, Nigeria’s 74-year-old president, Muhammadu Buhari, took an extended medical leave in London. After returning home, he remained weak; sometimes he missed Cabinet meetings and appeared gaunt in photographs. Then, last week, on May 7, he left again for London, framing the trip as a “follow-up” to his earlier leave.

Unlike the late Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua, whose prolonged incapacitation in 2009 and 2010 caused a constitutional crisis, Buhari has avoided short-term turmoil by formally designating his vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, as acting president during his absences. Whereas Yar’Adua’s inner circle clung to power and sought to prevent then-Vice President Goodluck Jonathan from acting as president, Buhari has shown full confidence in his deputy. A slight change of language in the most recent temporary transfer of authority, however, may indicate that Buhari’s inner circle is guarding its man’s position more jealously. For his part, Osinbajo has projected competence and confidence, winning praise from elites and ordinary Nigerians alike.

But if Buhari’s absences have been well-managed so far, the broader uncertainty is problematic for Nigeria. Fears are growing that Buhari will not be able to serve his full term, which runs through May 2019. His death or incapacitation would likely trigger the kind of all-consuming political infighting that could distract politicians’ attention from Nigeria’s many critical challenges. Those challenges include a limping economy, tensions in the oil-producing Niger Delta, a lingering Boko Haram insurgency and massive humanitarian crisis in the northeast, and various forms of intercommunal strife.

It would be difficult for politicians to give those problems the attention they need if the pre-campaign and behind-the-scenes maneuvering for the 2019 elections kick off early and in a chaotic fashion. Elections in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, are complex, expensive and high-stakes affairs. The 2015 election was particularly competitive: It was the first time in Nigeria’s history that an opposition candidate for president unseated an incumbent. One recent estimate puts the total spending by parties, candidates and elections officials in 2015 at 1 trillion naira, or $3.17 billion at the current exchange rate; some sources even estimate that Jonathan, by then the incumbent, spent some $10 billion in an unsuccessful effort to stave off defeat by Buhari.

The 2019 election will be pivotal for Nigeria, politically and economically. The question is whether it will help consolidate democratic gains and promote an invigorating debate about the country’s future—or instead will prove destabilizing and costly.

Even in a scenario where Buhari’s health improves and he runs again in two years, the next election will exert a strong gravitational pull on Nigerian elites. It is also possible that Buhari decides not to seek re-election. During the 2015 campaign, there were some statements from his party indicating that he would only serve one term, although party leaders ultimately said that there was no “deal” or “conditionality” regarding Buhari’s prerogative to run for re-election if he chose. But under the status quo, it appears likely that Buhari will seek a second term if he is able. His candidacy—not necessarily his re-election—could be a good thing for Nigeria, giving voters a chance to weigh in on his and his team’s track record.

If Buhari were to suddenly die, competing visions of Nigeria could surface in a ferocious way.

So far, his performance has been widely and justly critiqued both in stylistic and policy terms. His deliberative style slows down crucial and time-sensitive decisions, which became evident early on when he took months to assemble his Cabinet. Some of his promises remain unmet, especially his visions of a transformative anti-corruption agenda. His government has sometimes failed to react promptly to problems and discontent, especially in the Niger Delta, leading to crises that necessitate policy reversals.

But Buhari’s presidency, in and of itself, reflects a complex political settlement in Nigeria that balances the demands and aspirations of two key regions: the north, his home region, which felt it was “owed” the presidency after Jonathan’s controversial tenure, and the southwest, which has a key say in the administration’s decisions and personnel. If that settlement comes undone through Buhari’s death or incapacitation, the daunting task of finding a new political bargain will resurface. In a sense, the years between 2006, when then-President Olusegun Obasanjo bid unsuccessfully for a third term, and 2015, when Buhari was elected, were largely wasted ones in Nigerian politics, as questions of who would hold power loomed larger than questions of what those in power would do to help the country.

The political settlement under Buhari is not the only possible or effective one for Nigeria. Indeed, some key regions and groups—the Niger Delta, and the Igbo elite in the southeast—feel neglected and underrepresented in Buhari’s government. But it would be better to let those different visions and potential settlements compete for support in a noncrisis atmosphere.

If Buhari were to suddenly die, competing visions of Nigeria could surface in a ferocious way. Osinbajo might voluntarily step aside in 2019—but then again, having tasted the presidency, he might not. Meanwhile, the northern elites who currently voice confidence in Osinbajo as a caretaker would not necessarily accept him as permanent president, since he is from the southwest. Northerners who nurse presidential ambitions—Sen. Rabiu Kwankwaso, Gov. Nasir El-Rufai and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, for instance—might challenge Osinbajo for leadership of the ruling party. The former ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party, might find itself reinvigorated and with better prospects for victory in 2019. Across the country, governors and other elected politicians would put their fingers to the wind, and the trend of party defections, already well-established, would intensify. Both within and between the parties, competition would be intense.

There are two best-case, short-term scenarios for Nigeria as questions about Buhari’s health linger. First, it might be best if the status quo continues, despite the uncertainty. With Buhari’s presence holding the political settlement together, but with Osinbajo effectively running the government, the administration might be able to address some key problems before the 2019 campaign begins in earnest. Osinbajo, after all, seems to find a favorable reception in places Buhari does not, such as the Niger Delta. In a way, having a high-profile vice president-turned-acting president is doing the administration considerable good.

Second, it could be better for Nigeria if Buhari prepares to resign and if his team allows for an orderly transition to an Osinbajo presidency. Such a transition, especially if done transparently, could prevent the kind of crisis atmosphere that would surround a sudden announcement of Buhari’s death or resignation.

However, only Buhari and his advisers know the full truth of his health. If he is too ill to do the job, it is unfair of him to continue serving. If, however, his medical problems have a good chance of getting resolved, he may be right not to step down. The other, undesirable scenario is that Nigerians wake up one morning to headlines of Buhari’s death, and an all-out, destabilizing scramble for power begins.

Alex Thurston is a visiting assistant professor in the African Studies Program at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sahelblog.

culled from world politics review