The Buhari dilemma

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

After Friday Muslim congregational prayers last week, as I was waiting for just the right “danfo” – local parlance in Lagos for often rickety but sturdy german-built public buses – to board home, I did the unusual: I decided to check my phone. Ordinarily, I prefer to take in the surroundings. If you have travelled to a few places like I have, the beauty and sheer humanity of fellow Nigerians can be both thrilling and exasperating. It is my experience that what you feel in the end is sheer relief: there are not many places in an increasingly ‘zombied’ world where people are just themselves. But this day could be epochal was the refrain that broke the rule that day. Should Muhammadu Buhari, our ailing president, not make a public appearance at perhaps the one activity he likely derives some consolation from, it could trigger a series of potentially destabilising events. So it was with some joy that I received the news that not only was he able to attend the weekly Jumat service, he did it with his usual calm and grace. I almost had my two hands in the air out of sheer delirium before it dawned on me where I was. On the often interesting bus trip back home, I couldn’t help wondering how when a supposedly good man finally takes the helm of leadership in Nigeria, it is either he suffers some ailment or he is removed. Or he is killed. Thus far, there has been some consistency to this. Murtala Mohammed, another benevolent dictator, was killed before he could fulfill his promise. With the benefit of hindsight, many Nigerians argue the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua – kinsman to President Buhari, whose successor he defeated – could have changed the fortunes of the country were he not ailing. Thus, when the incumbent, whose draconian military dictatorship also had the unique distinction of being the least corrupt in Nigerian history to date – made his second coming, not a few wise men wondered if his rulership would endure this time. Within the Nigerian context, Mr Buhari is a good man. And he means well. But then the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Take care of yourself
Still, Mr Buhari remains unwell. Even so, there is no place in our laws that says he is not entitled to remain in office. In fact, the law allows him to seek medical attention for as long as it takes. Nonetheless, he has a responsibility to ensure governance does not suffer on the back of his poor health. He should take medical leave and delegate his authority to his deputy. The dilemma for him and his close aides, I suppose, is that another trip to his doctors in England would make him easy prey for the many vultures already circling overhead. (Unfortunately, these odious creatures are the ones that often finish their terms in office.) His aides likely also fear they would lose relevance in the event. But considering Mr Buhari himself announced he needed to return abroad shortly after his last medical holiday, suggestions that he is being held hostage by his inner circle also has some currency. Besides, they most definitely fear should Mr Buhari reveal what is ailing him, there could be sufficient grounds for the Senate to constitute a medical panel to ascertain whether he is fit to remain in office. Those scheming towards this scenario should tread gently, however.

Because even as Mr Buhari is increasingly becoming a figurehead, there is relative value in allowing him to finish his term. This would give another good man, Yemi Osinbajo, who has proved capable of acting in Mr Buhari’s stead, the needed political cover to get some necessary work done for the remainder of their joint mandate. It should not be mistaken that Prof Osinbajo – a southerner – would be able to discharge his duties without the support of the north, where his boss is from. Fortunately, Prof Osinbajo has deftly endeared himself to them. The reason they are comfortable with him is not farfetched: Apart from having the full support of Mr Buhari, he has also proved himself to be principled, unassuming and above all, very competent. And as far as it is humanly possible to gauge ambition, Prof Osinbajo has no desire to contest the presidency in 2019, when another northerner is expected to complete the region’s informally arranged 8-year mandate.

Handle with care
Of course, Mr Buhari could simply resign and a northern vice-president be chosen for Prof Osinbajo. Unbecomingly, the north is at odds on who that should be. Already, potential candidates have recently been bizarrely battling one corruption allegation or the other. One of them, Sule Lamido, a former state governor was only just released on bail by the police. The house of the relative to another, Rabiu Kwankwaso, a senator and former state governor as well, was recently raided by the police. One has to assume the police were simply doing their job. But when their obviously ‘directed’ reversal on a similar raid on another influential northern senator and former state governor, Danjuma Goje – whose support is needed to pass the budget – is countenanced, it is hard not to read political meanings into their recent actions. Bear in mind, the farfetched but still plausible candidate from a part of the country that is northern when it suits it and southern when the winds are favourable, Bukola Saraki (currently president of the Senate), has been sufficiently kept on a short leash with legal troubles over allegations of false assets declaration. The other scenario that is only whispered, which the north is incidentally believed to be somewhat comfortable with, suggests that should Mr Buhari resign, Prof Osinbajo must do likewise. Without restraint by all, it could all be a mess.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/the-buhari-dilemma/

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