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Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has been more absent this year than he has been present.
Two weeks ago, the 74-year-old left for London to have medical treatment for an unspecified condition and it’s unclear when he will return.
In January, a planned 10-day vacation combined with “routine” check-ups, again in the U.K., stretched to nearly two months, fuelling speculation about the true state of his health.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and just three years ago leapfrogged South Africa to become the continent’s biggest economy.
Concern if president missing
So for its head of state to be missing for so long is cause for concern, particularly given its fragile democracy, with economic difficulties and security threats including the Boko Haram Islamist group.
As long as Buhari is away, who has power — and who might replace him -— will be the main focus, instead of addressing Nigeria’s many problems.
The last time Buhari was seen was two weeks ago with the 82 Chibok schoolgirls who had just been freed after more than three years held captive by the jihadists.
The photocall with the girls was carefully stage-managed, but failed to hide that Buhari was a shadow of his former self: gaunt, frail and painfully thin.
Immediately afterwards, he left for London.
Playing down the unspecified illness
Buhari’s aides have repeatedly played down the severity of his illness, even though he missed three consecutive cabinet meetings, Friday prayers and his grandson’s wedding.
During his first trip for treatment in June last year and in January, aides asserted that he was “hale and hearty.” But the language since has changed.
Buhari himself admitted in early March that he had “never been so ill” and had had blood transfusions.
After the Chibok photocall, his spokesman said the length of Buhari’s stay in London “would be determined by doctors,” leaving his absence open-ended.
It’s not unusual for African heads of state to travel to Europe for medical treatment — an indictment, if one was needed, of the state of domestic healthcare.
But Buhari’s latest absence and the lack of acknowledgement that he has been seriously ill raises wider ramifications.
Since independence in 1960 Nigeria saw decades of military rule. At one time in late 1983 Buhari himself came to power in a coup only to be ousted 20 months later by another coup. But in 1999 the country returned to civilian rule.
Since the president’s first absence in June last year, the army has twice issued statements reassuring the public that it is not seeking to take advantage of the situation.
Buhari’s election a watershed moment
Buhari’s election victory in 2015 was the first time an opposition party candidate had defeated a sitting president in Nigerian history and was a watershed moment.
He promised to defeat Boko Haram and in two years there has been progress.
The military has said it has reclaimed large swathes of territory in the northeast from Boko Haram. But suicide attacks continue and security remains precarious.
Progress in the counter-insurgency has revealed a large-scale humanitarian crisis in the northeast, where more than two million people have fled their homes and at least 20,000 people have been killed since 2009.
Buhari also is the figurehead for the anti-corruption movement, saying he would lead by example and get back the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been looted over the years from public funds.
On the face of it, he has had some success, putting dozens of former officials on trial.
But there has also been criticism that he has not tackled the root causes of corruption. If he were not around, the danger is of a return to impunity and corruption as usual.
Buhari said he inherited a “virtually empty” treasury and an oil-dependent economy on the skids when he came to power.
The sustained low global oil price has left Nigeria without cash, created a shortage of foreign currency, weakened its own currency the naira and forced up inflation.
Investment has stalled and the country, which has high levels of unemployment, has been in recession since August last year.
An absent president will do little to appease jittery investors and help plot a recovery.
North-south tensions complicate succession
During his absences Buhari, a northerner, has handed over power to his vice-president Yemi Osinbajo, a southerner. Many say he has been doing a good job.
But Nigerian politics is all about power and identity. Whoever has that takes precedence over any ability.
There long has been political tension between the mainly Muslim north and largely Christian south.
In 2010 when President Yar’Adua died in office. just over two years into his mandate, power was handed to his vice president, a southerner Goodluck Jonathan. But northern leaders felt they had not had their fair share of time in power.
If a similar situation were to emerge again with Osinbajo — a law professor and former pastor from the southwest — northern leaders would almost certainly demand that a northern politician replaces Buhari in the 2019 presidential elections.
And so the power struggle of Nigerian politics would begin again.