Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, was last seen by people other than his own staff in early May. According to his staff, he handed over ‘co-ordinating power’ to his Vice President and headed to London for medical treatment. Shortly beforehand, he had returned from around two months in London, also apparently receiving medical treatment there. His staff now say that he will soon return to Nigeria, but he may then return shortly thereafter to London for more medical treatment.
For three weeks, the presidency has failed to prove any evidence that Mr Buhari is still with us. There has been no detail at all about Mr Buhari’s condition. Photographs, obviously historical ones, depicting Mr Buhari apparently in rude health have been provided to media outlets in Nigeria. Some Nigerian outlets have provided largely nonsensical quotes from ‘inside’ the London High Commission where they claim Mr Buhari is recuperating.
Nigeria is a vibrant, growing and increasingly powerful democracy; the transition of power between Mr Buhari and his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan was exemplary – indeed it was of historical importance for the whole of Africa. There is only one course of action for a democracy when a president becomes ill or dies; officials must brief the public on the medical condition of the president and if it does not seem that he is likely to be able to continue in the role then power must pass formally to the Vice President. The present state of play is having the effect of suggesting that nothing has changed in Nigeria and actually this is not correct. Things have changed and Nigerian democracy is all the better for it. There is a contested politics now – but that cuts both ways and the APC must not now resort to the ‘old ways’ that party was created to consign to the past.
There are only a small number of alternatives in respect of the present scenario. First, Mr Buhari is recuperating and will resume his role. If this is the case, then why is not presenting himself on camera to his people? Second, Mr Buhari has passed on. However, no death certificate appears to have been issued. Third, Mr Buhari’s officials are allowing the impression to be created that he may have passed on in order to produce him frail but alive, as they did a month or so ago. This in turn may provide more time to manage the succession when and if he does pass on by making reports of his death then less credible. Finally, Mr Buhari may be so incapacitated as to be unable to resume his role. Actual death in these circumstances is – in respect of a president’s role – academic. Machines can give the appearance of a life preserved even though there is no real living – and certainly no governing – going on.
At present, a murky combination of the last two possibilities above seem most likely. In other words, officials and those in the know are working behind the scenes to organise a succession. This may seem to make sense from an administrative point of view, but it is profoundly undemocratic. The point of Nigeria’s complex system of electing a president and administration is to ensure that the Nigerian people openly choose a workable and representative government. This is the opposite from what appears to be going on at present. Of course, it is unfortunate that for the second time in succession a northern muslim seems certain to be replaced as president by his southern Christian deputy. But that is democracy.
Perhaps Nigerian democracy is not able to navigate this new crisis. It is certainly true that foreign countries are much more interested in the stability of the north and the continuation of Nigeria as a single polity than the existence of a Nigerian democracy of itself. In the end, though, it is for Nigerians to choose if they wish to remain a democracy. One clear criterion for the latter is that you have a right to know if your president is still alive; and if he is, that he is still able to govern.