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Vol 58 No 10

Published 12th May 2017


Bitter pills for the politicians

The lack of reliable information about Buhari's health has prompted ambitious politicians to seek to replace him in 2019, or before

If the management of news about President Muhammadu Buhari's illness had been deliberately designed to sow fear and despondency in the nation, its authors could hardly have done a more effective job. At every turn, there has been obfuscation, contradiction or just a worrying absence of any information at all. Buhari's latest departure on a medical trip to London, on 7 May, was announced just after he had welcomed 82 of the recently freed Chibok schoolgirls to the Presidential Villa at Aso Rock (AC Vol 58 No 5, Health checks). The girls, kidnapped by the Boko Haram militia over three years ago, were released as part of negotiations between their captors and Nigeria's security services (AC Vol 55 No 18, How terror twists the vote).

A shaky looking Buhari presided over the meeting with the girls, after which his communications team distributed pictures of a subsequent meeting between the ailing President and Senate President Abubakar Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara, Speaker of the House of Representatives. That's where the official information stops. 

The London trip was moved forward a few days, we hear, suggesting that the plan is to give Buhari enough of a medical boost to carry him over the line on 29 May, when he is due to deliver a landmark statement on the direction of his government, exactly two years into his first term. Others suggest he may use the statement to speak more frankly about his illness but on the present showing, that looks unlikely. There is no schedule for the London trip nor any indication of the diagnosis, let alone the prognosis. That all has to remain private, Buhari's spokesman, Garba Shehu, told the BBC a week ago, after repeated but courteous questioning. A decade ago, Shehu was Spokesman for Atiku Abubakar, then Vice-President to Olusegun Obasanjo.

Different strokes
By comparison to Buhari, Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has virtually disappeared from public view for almost three years since suffering a debilitating stroke. Nigeria's political system is more open and noisier, its hierarchies far shakier. Younger politicians and activists are far less cowed by or respectful of a gerontocracy. Nigerian journalists abhor a vacuum of news: now that gap is filled by some of the most surreal speculation on social media. That's where the political dangers lie.

Every official statement on Buhari's absence or presence is being parsed for hidden meanings. So when the Presidency referred to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo becoming coordinator of the government rather than Acting President, as agreed with the National Assembly, as stipulated by the constitution, some detect an attempt to downplay the role. Legally, Osinbajo should hold all presidential powers in Buhari's absence. Although Osinbajo makes diplomatic efforts to consult with Buhari and his closest advisors – his nephew Mamman Daura and Chief of Staff Abba Kyari – the relationship isn't particularly warm.

From the beginning of the year, and during Buhari's seven-week medical leave, Osinbajo's political position has been strengthening (AC Vol 58 No 8, Ambition and ethics). Last year, many senior government members referred to him in private as 'Commissioner'. He was Commissioner for Finance in the Lagos State government but many ministers in Buhari's government outranked him: they were previously state governors or held top military posts.

Since then, Osinbajo's management of government business and policy initiatives has won him new supporters, some of whom suggest that he should shed his technocratic image and become a more wholehearted politician. For now, his modest image, however out of keeping with traditional Lagosian politics, seems popular. Equally, it has alienated others, particularly the top politicians planning to run for the presidency in 2019.

These include Osinbajo's old patron, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former Governor of Lagos State; Atiku Abubakar, ex-Vice-President; Bukola Saraki, Senate President; Nasir el-Rufai, Kaduna State Governor; and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, ex-Governor of Kano. None of these have any interest in Buhari standing aside for medical reasons and allowing his deputy to take the helm for the remaining two years of the presidential term. On that point, they are likely to be in full agreement with Kyari and Daura. Some make the argument that activists in the north simply would not accept the resignation or early retirement of their hero Buhari. The information vacuum fuels such sensitivities.

Public pressure for clarification of Buhari's position, voiced by writer Wole Soyinka, civic activists and sundry politicians, is set to grow over the next few weeks. It could hardly come at a more difficult time.  Two major economic bills are stuck in the National Assembly and there is a roster of urgent security problems to address at a time when disagreements are multiplying between senior police and military officers, and their counterparts in the intelligence agencies.

Negotiations between the State Security Service and representatives of the Boko Haram Islamist militants have resulted in the release of more Chibok schoolgirls. Some Boko Haram fighters were freed from detention in return but it's unclear how many and what the wider plan is. Off the record, officials say it could lay the groundwork for another deal, which might include a ceasefire, more hostage exchanges and eventually, a limited amnesty.

That looks surreal for now, given the brutality of Boko Haram's suicide attacks, its regional presence and its links to Da'ish (the 'Islamic State' group) and the wider Islamist movement. At best, further dialogue could be a way to peel off some of the more biddable elements fighting under the flag of Boko Haram. Any deal with such an extremist outfit would have implications for security across the north, where criminality, communal violence and cattle rustling are all growing.

The second major security matter to resolve is the uneasy dialogue between the government and militant groups in the Niger Delta. The new budget envisages a threefold increase in the allocation for amnesty payments to retired fighters and Osinbajo's team has made some progress with talks on a broader strategy to deal with environmental despoliation and chronic poverty in the Delta.

With the money for such projects being held up in a political log jam, more criminal gangs are moving on to the Delta stage (see Pointer, An avenger unmasked). A new wave of violence pits one militant group against another, as well as stoking confrontations with the government and the oil companies.


An economy trapped in a political vice

The Senate is due to debate and approve the government's 2017 budget on 11 May, says its President, Abubakar Bukola Saraki. Nigerians are not holding their breath. The plans for the country's largest ever budget at 7.3 trillion naira (US$23.2 billion) first emerged last November and have been batted around the political system ever since.

Similar scepticism surrounds the even more delayed plan to reform Nigeria's oil business. The Petroleum Industry Governance Bill is due to be voted on by the Senate on 27 May. Lack of progress on both these measures is holding up billions of dollars of investment, together with several major public and private sector projects.

These delays can be partly explained by the running battles between the Senate President and the government. An accomplished diplomat, Bukola Saraki has been able to dispel some of the personal animus between himself and President Muhammadu Buhari but he has plenty of other enemies, notably Ibrahim Magu, Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Magu has built up a substantial dossier on the Societe Generale Bank Nigeria, a key part of the Saraki family empire. This is quite apart from the EFCC's case against Saraki for making a false declaration of his assets after moving from his position as Governor of Kwara State to the Senate.

In turn, Saraki has led the charge against Magu in the Senate, which has three times rejected his appointment as EFCC chief by President Buhari. The probability is that he will stay in the post as acting chairman. The legislative and personal battles holding up economic policy go much further than that, though. A police raid last month on the house of Mohammed Danjuma Goje, Chairman of the Senate's Appropriation Committee, compounded the four months of delays in the budget hearings. 

For some reason, police took away reams of documents about the 2017 budget which Goje had been reviewing at home. This time, the Senate won the tussle: threatening to delay consideration of the budget indefinitely, it demanded the immediate return of the documents.

Such trials of strength have a practical effect on security and social welfare. Tensions are rising in the Niger Delta, partly because of mounting arrears in amnesty stipends and other social payments. Similarly, state governments are unable to finance the promised basic welfare programmes in the north-east, ripped apart by the Boko Haram militants, let alone organise the restoration of housing, schools and security for the millions of displaced people.

Likewise on grand strategy, the effective launching of the government's Economic Recovery & Growth Plan depends critically on the passing of the 2017 budget. Political shenanigans between the government and the National Assembly are also holding back the real economy, which still takes much of its funding and spending cues from the state's oil revenue (AC Vol 58 No 8, Ambition and ethics).

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