ISS Today: Buhari’s mystery illness unsettles the country and the continent


    First published by
    ISS Today

    You know things are going badly when even
    your wife criticises the way you are running the country –

    Nigeria’s First Lady Aisha

    recently told

    that if her husband,
    Muhammadu, did not jack up his performance, she would not
    bother to campaign for his re-election. “The president does not
    know 45 out of 50 of the people he appointed and I don’t know
    them either, despite being his wife of 27 years,” she said,
    adding that her husband’s government lacked

    Buhari’s chauvinistic response did him no

    I don’t know which party my wife belongs to,
    but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other
    room,” he said. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, standing next
    to him, looked totally unimpressed.

    Aisha Buhari’s political opinions may not be
    particularly relevant in themselves. But her radical departure
    from the almost universally observed custom of first ladies
    being totally devoted to their husbands, was surely

    When Buhari took over from Goodluck Jonathan
    in May 2015 after rare free, fair and peaceful elections – the
    first time an incumbent Nigerian president had willingly
    conceded defeat – he was hailed as the harbinger of a new

    His people and African fans
    abroad had high – if perhaps unrealistic – hopes that Buhari
    would end the country’s chronic corruption, defeat the Boko
    Haram insurgency in the north and finally unlock the huge
    potential of an economy which had

    officially overtaken South

    to become the biggest in

    But nearly two years later, he is still
    struggling. The economy has gone downhill fast, shrinking by
    1.5% in 2016, the first full-year contraction in some 25 years.
    Inflation rose steeply from 13.7%, year on year, in April 2016,
    to 18.72% in January this year, before improving slightly to
    17.78% in February.

    Buhari himself is regarded as honest and as
    Dianna Games, CEO of Africa at Work says, “he has made
    corruption unfashionable” in Nigeria. And he had registered
    some success in tackling this Hydra-headed monster. But not

    He is also credited with
    taking the fight to Boko Haram with far more energy than
    Jonathan did, with the help of neighbouring countries and the
    international community. But Boko Haram

    still terrorising local

    in the north. Meanwhile the
    chronic militant insurgency at the other end of the

    in the Niger
    the heart of the oilfields, is bubbling

    As Julia Bello-Schünemann, senior researcher
    in the African Futures and Innovation programme of the
    Institute for Security Studies in Lagos, points out, much of
    this has been beyond Buhari’s control. Not least the
    precipitous plunge in the international price of oil, which is
    Nigeria’s largest earner of foreign currency and state revenue
    by far.

    This has been aggravated by the drop in oil
    production, caused by the Delta insurgency. Bello-Schünemann
    adds, however, that Buhari has not helped matters with his
    uncertain and haphazard policy response to such external
    pressures. He has unveiled plans to tackle the recession by
    trying to reduce the country’s huge dependence on oil exports
    and encouraging diversification into agriculture and
    manufacturing. But implementation has been

    Economists are telling the government that to
    do that, it must let the naira float; allocating scarce foreign
    exchange according to market demand instead of the present,
    Abuja-directed policy of managing exchange rates by permitting
    imports of only products deemed by the government to be

    That has kept the naira-US dollar exchange
    rate at about 305-317. That is an improvement on the rate of
    about 197-199 that prevailed before the government unpegged the
    currency in June last year. But it is still a lot stronger than
    the black-market rate, which rose to 520 in February before
    settling back to around 460 this week. And this currency policy
    has encouraged unhelpful speculation.

    Some economists believe
    allowing the naira to float would unblock a flood of investment
    and the consequent sharp devaluation of the currency would
    force Nigerians to cut imports and boost local

    The Africa Report
    this week said that this had already
    begun to happen in small measure, with previous importers of
    rice and other foodstuffs now buying from Nigerian farmers
    instead. However, the journal also noted that for two years,
    Buhari and central bank governor Godwin Emefiele have resisted
    letting the currency float

    During Buhari’s sick leave,
    his deputy Yemi Osinbajo took a more liberal approach to the
    currency and was generally credited with doing a good job of
    managing the economy – and tackling the Niger Delta crisis. But
    this week Emefiele – perhaps emboldened by Buhari’s return –
    fiercely shot down the idea of freeing the

    saying his bank wouldn’t

    “faceless and criminally
    minded people to destroy the currency under the guise of a free
    float as is being

    Bloomberg reported him as saying independent
    estimates and purchasing power parity analysis by the bank had
    showed that the currency shouldn’t be so low on the unofficial
    market, which had been influenced by “criminal activities,” he
    said. He warned that inflation, already near 18%, would rocket
    if the naira were to be floated, citing the recent precedent of
    Egypt. This would aggravate the hardship Nigerians were already

    South Africans will be familiar with the
    notion of a government blaming its weak currency on criminal
    elements – after its competition authority recently charged a
    slew of domestic and international banks for collusion and
    price-fixing in currency trading.

    But few independent economists or potential
    investors believe such activities can possibly have a major
    impact on exchange rates. Such accusations mostly have a
    counter-productive effect, convincing investors that
    governments lack the political courage to tackle the
    fundamental reforms that would really improve the economy in
    the long term.

    A more cynical – but perhaps also rather too
    fanciful – interpretation of the Buhari administration’s
    reluctance to let the naira float could be that this would cost
    Nigeria its prized position as Africa’s biggest economy (in
    dollar terms).

    It overtook South Africa in 2014 through a
    so-called “rebasing” of the economy, which brought forward the
    base year for calculations from 1990 to 2010, thus taking
    fuller account of new sectors such as banking and telecoms. But
    economists believe that as the naira has plummeted, South
    Africa may already have regained its top spot, when the economy
    is measured in US dollars – or would certainly do so if the
    naira were floated.

    And of course, the other major factor in
    Buhari’s performance which is beyond his control is his

    He stepped off a plane from London this week,
    looking frail and admitting he had “never felt worse” after
    almost two months of medical treatment in the United Kingdom.
    He frankly admitted to his compatriots that he would probably
    have to return to London for further treatment

    His frankness was only partial. Buhari has
    not revealed the nature of his illness, which is only fuelling
    speculation among Nigerians that it is very bad. His illness
    has come at a most unfortunate time, sapping the energy he
    needs to tackle the country’s huge

    And the American strategic
    think tank

    Stratfor has

    that if Buhari were forced
    to leave office abruptly, that could reverse the gains his
    administration has made in the fight against Boko Haram. Their
    argument is that Buhari is a Muslim northerner and if
    Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, a Christian southerner, were to
    take over the presidency – that would infuriate notherners, who
    would feel cheated as they would believe another northerner
    should complete Buhari’s term, which is due to end in

    That would provoke some northern politicians
    into lending support to Boko Haram, Stratfor argues. It claims
    the same thing happened before, in 2010, when another Muslim
    northerner, Umaru Yaradua, died in office and was replaced by
    his vice president Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian

    This analysis seems rather extreme,
    suggesting that only a northerner could fight Boko Haram – or
    at least do so effectively.

    And in some ways, one could say, an Osinbajo
    presidency could be a good thing, injecting more youthful
    energy into the presidency. Games wonders if the mammoth task
    of cleaning up the mess he inherited from Jonathan was not
    always going to be too much for the 74-year-old

    But whatever other consequences it might
    have, if Buhari were to leave office before his term ended,
    that would probably upset the delicate religious and regional
    balance of power on which so much of Nigerian politics is
    predicated. And that could be disruptive, at a particularly
    difficult time for the country.

    Peter Fabricius is an ISS

    Photo: President of
    Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, gave remarks and answered questions
    at the U.S. Institute of Peace on July 22, 2015 during his
    first visit to the United States since taking office. Photo: US
    Institute of Peace