U.S. Institute of Peace

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Muhammadu Buhari: Nigeria’s Ailing President

Just over a year ago, the first opposition figure to win Nigeria’s presidency since the country gained independence in 1960 was sworn into office, riding on a wave of public optimism. During his inauguration speech in May 2015, Muhammadu Buhari promised to deliver increased socioeconomic prosperity to Africa’s most populous nation, tackle widespread corruption and wipe out the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram,…all within the first six months.

A year after Buhari’s swearing in, these, along with a number of other pledges, remain unfulfilled. Worse, in many respects the country has backtracked. The country’s economy shrank in the first quarter of 2016, while U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron name-checked Nigeria as one of the most “fantastically corrupt” nations on the planet ahead of his anti-corruption summit in London last month. Buhari has had some success in pushing Boko Haram militants out of some of the areas they controlled when he came to power, but the group is still able to launch devastating attacks on soft targets, and is branching out from its Maiduguri stronghold into neighboring countries, Niger and Cameroon.

Nigeria has been beset by multiple political crises for years, many of which show little sign of abating under Buhari’s rule. As well as the continued presence of Boko Haram in the north of the country, Nigeria is facing a resurgent uprising in its oil-rich south, which is posing a grave threat to its already faltering economy.

In February, a militant group called the Niger Delta Avengers vowed to cripple Nigeria’s economy by targeting its oil pipelines. A promise they promptly fulfilled. By the end of May, the country’s oil output had dropped by around 50% after a string of attacks on production facilities in the Niger Delta region crippled the infrastructure. “Failure to manage issues in the delta has cost Nigeria,” Antony Goldman, head of PM Consulting told Bloomberg this week. “Until a sustained solution is found to deal with the root causes of issues in the delta, we are going to always see crisis after crisis.”

Indeed, the global drop in oil prices and militant attacks on its pipelines are decimating Nigeria’s flagging economy, with some commentators suggesting the country is heading towards its first recession since 2004. Last month John Asbhourne, an Africa economist at London-based Capital Economics, said the government has not helped matters by imposing foreign exchange controls, leading to a shortage of dollars in the country. A sign of just how bad things are came at the end of May, when United Airlines announced it was cutting its non-stop service to Lagos, citing poor financial performance and weakness in the energy sector.

On top of its flailing economy and the continued presence of insurgent groups at either end of the country, underlying inter-ethnic and inter-confessional rifts constantly pose a threat of breaking out into the open and doing further damage to Nigeria’s fragile stability. Marauding militant Fulani herdsmen killed nearly 150 Christians in February alone.

At a time when Buhari would be well advised to focus his energies on making good his many unfulfilled inauguration promises, he is currently busy breaking yet another one. The President has attracted widespread criticism for traveling to London to seek medical treatment for an “ear infection” (later identified as Meniere’s disease) after vowing to end the health tourism that has undermined confidence in Nigeria’s medical system.

“This foreign medical trip flies in the face of the government’s declaration to halt medical tourism, which by the end of 2013 has led to capital flight of about $1 billion,” Dr Osahon Enabulele, a former President of the Nigerian Medical Association, said in an open letter to Buhari ahead of his trip. “I see no reason why, in 2016, Mr. President could not have stayed back in Nigeria to attend to his ear infection.”

However, some fear that Buhari’s sick leave could be about more than just a benign-sounding ear infection. The President had been showing signs of strain in recent weeks. Prior to his visit to the U.K. capital, Buhari pulled out of a number of official engagements, including a visit to Ogoni in the Niger Delta to assess the cleanup of a major oil spill, a two-day working trip to Nigeria’s commercial hub Lagos, and an official visit to Senegal to attend the 49th summit of the Economic Community of West African States. All of this has left many analysts questioning whether he has the will or physical ability to keep the country on an even keel, let alone deliver the ambitious program he outlined over a year ago.

Buhari technically still has plenty of time to belatedly deliver on his inauguration pledges before the first of his possible two four-year terms comes to an end. Unfortunately for the Nigerian people, his apparent ill-health and clear inability to tackle his country’s stalling economy and rampant militant insurgencies simultaneously make this look increasingly unlikely.