The lion at bay Would-be successors to the ailing Nigerian president are circling
Muhammadu Buhari has been absent in a London clinic for months
POLITICS is the survival of the fittest, and Nigeria is no exception. “The Hyenas and the Jackals will soon be sent out of the kingdom,” the first lady, Aisha Buhari, wrote on Facebook on July 10th, in response to a senator who had described her husband as “the absent Lion King”. Muhammadu Buhari has been in London being treated for a mysterious illness since May 7th, after spending a seven-week stint there earlier this year. His only recent communication has been a few written statements mourning deceased politicians.
Despite many rumours, Mr Buhari is probably not dead himself. The vice-president (and acting president), Yemi Osinbajo, rushed to London for a few hours last week. On his return he said his boss was recovering fast and would be back “very shortly”. But the beasts are circling, in the expectation that it will be one of them who gets to contest the next presidential election, due in February 2019.
Mr Osinbajo, who was previously Lagos state’s attorney-general, will automatically take over if the president resigns or is declared incapacitated. His “godfather”, Bola Tinubu, is probably the most powerful politician in Nigeria’s south-west (Mr Tinubu, a Muslim, had to forgo the vice-presidency before the 2015 election as it was deemed politically toxic for both names on a ticket to be of the same religion). Mr Osinbajo, a Christian pastor who has said he is on loan from his church, has also been cultivating his own brand. When on tour he makes sure to be photographed chatting with market traders, hugging children and flying in for the funerals of departed politicians. “The fact that he is perceived as someone who is very loyal to Buhari definitely helps him,” says Chris Ngwodo, an analyst.
However, northern politicians will want one of their own to step in to any vacancy. There is an unwritten rule that the presidency rotates between north and south, and the northerner Mr Buhari has only served two out of his potential eight years (assuming he were to be re-elected).
The reform-minded governor of Kaduna state, Nasir El-Rufai, was once seen as Mr Buhari’s heir. But his intolerance of dissent, including the banning of a Shia organisation after at least 347 of its members were massacred by the army in December 2015, has seen him fall from favour. Christians, meanwhile, accuse Mr El-Rufai of siding with Muslim herders over lethal clashes with farmers in southern Kaduna.
Atiku Abubakar, a wealthy former vice-president, is likely to contest any primary of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party. However, he is dogged by corruption allegations and has already run unsuccessfully for president four times.
Another possible candidate is the Senate president, Bukola Saraki. The former governor of Kwara, a state in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt”, was not the APC’s choice to lead parliament. He was nonetheless elected with the backing of opposition party senators in June 2015. “He’s about as savvy as they come,” says a ruling party source.
But the northern elites reportedly do not see Mr Saraki as one of them. And though a tribunal recently threw out a case accusing the politician, who owns a multimillion-pound house in London, of not properly declaring all his assets, the government is appealing.
If Mr Buhari is too ill to rule but refuses (or is unable) to resign, government ministers and a medical panel set up by Mr Saraki would have to agree to remove him. The president of the Senate could strike a deal to become Mr Osinbajo’s deputy, says Matthew Page, a former American diplomat. Or he could wait for the presidential primaries in 2019, and run himself. The hyenas are not short of options.
Credit: The Economics