LAGOS, Nigeria, May 9 – President Muhammadu Buhari had warned Nigerians when he returned from nearly two months of medical treatment in London that he was likely to have go back. On Sunday night, he did just that.
But if few were surprised at his departure the 74-year-old has barely been seen in public since March the manner of his leaving gave cause for concern.
The news came just minutes after a hastily organised reception for 82 schoolgirls, who were released in a negotiated deal after being held by Boko Haram Islamists for more than three years.
Presidency spokesman Femi Adesina announced that Buhari’s doctors would determine how long he was away, making his absence open-ended.
“I have absolute confidence that government will continue to run smoothly while I’m away,” Buhari wrote on his Twitter account after formally handing over power to his deputy.
Buhari’s government has been trying to turn around the economy, which has been in recession since last year, and finally end Boko Haram’s bloody eight-year insurgency in the northeast.
Loss of momentum?
But there are concerns that given Buhari’s personal style of leadership, crucial policy decisions will not be made and his flagship war on corruption will lose momentum.
Buhari has been under pressure to disclose the nature of his illness. He has missed three of the last four cabinet meetings and other engagements.
His appearance at Friday prayers last week and Sunday’s carefully stage-managed photo-call with the Chibok girls were rare public outings and even then, still at the presidential villa.
The former military ruler already rapier thin appeared painfully gaunt.
Political allies and his wife, Aisha, have played down rumours he is too ill to rule.
“From what I can see, the president remains at the helm and his policies are being implemented,” Bola Tinubu, head of Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress party, said on Sunday.
But observers said that is up for debate, especially when it comes to Buhari’s signature war against corruption, where he has been both the driving force and figurehead.
“Buhari has been instrumental to the success of the current war against corruption,” said Debo Adeniran, of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders lobby group.
“A protracted stay in London will definitely reduce the momentum. Apart from individuals, state institutions involved in the fight may slow down because Buhari is not around.”
Buhari’s anti-graft campaign was already stuttering, with the government recently suffering a series of defeats in high-profile corruption cases in court.
With elections due in early 2019 and Buhari possibly unfit to stand, that has also brought forward the jostling for succession, likewise ensuring little in the way of government work gets done.
VP once again in charge
Buhari is not legally required to return to Nigeria within a certain timeframe, according to lawyer Femi Falana, who recently called for Buhari to go on medical leave.
“There is no constitutional limit to that,” he added.
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo is once again acting president, after being seen as having acquitted himself well during Buhari’s previous absence.
Buhari and his entourage have been keen to avoid a repeat of 2010 when there was a political vacuum when head of state Umaru Musa Yar’Adua fell ill and later died.
Osinbajo was a visible presence earlier this year, travelling widely, including to the Niger Delta region in the south, which has seen a resurgence in attacks on oil and gas infrastructure.
“What is important is that there is an able vice-president in charge. There is no doubt that Buhari has confidence and trust in his deputy,” said Falana.
Still, others argue an acting president does not have the same clout.
Opposition politician and former health minister Alphonsus Nwosu said Osinbajo will be at a disadvantage until the APC “determines if he (Buhari) is strong enough to continue in office or not”.
“The snag is that Osinbajo cannot exercise full presidential powers without deferring to his principal, which may slow down governance,” he added.
How long Buhari is away could also be a factor: when Yar’Adua fell ill, a cabal capitalised on his absence in a grab for power that led to chaos.
Eventually, the Senate moved to invoke what it called the “doctrine of necessity”, to make then vice-president Goodluck Jonathan acting president.