Buhari: Ailing and failing?
Nigeria is battling a bloody Islamic insurgency in its northern region, a secessionist movement in the east, a wave of kidnappings in the west and oil-well attacks in the south. But in the last few months it is President Muhammadu Buhari’s ill health that has been a constant concern in the country’s popular press and rumour mills.
The Nigerian government has refused to disclose the exact nature of Buhari’s ailment, though it is widely known that the president has travelled abroad for medical treatment four times in the past two years. His last-but-one trip took place in January, lasted for 50 days and saw him dividing his time between a British hospital and a private home in London.
In April, Nigeria’s lone Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka appealed to Buhari to speak on the nature of his ailment. “Why is the president hiding his state of health? He’s supposed to understand he’s public property,” Soyinka told journalists in Lagos. “Let him address the nation and stop all these speculations, which create unnecessary political manipulations, among other things.”
When Buhari came into power in 2015, there was no indication that his health would later dominate the public discourse. His work appeared cut out for him after his decisive electoral victory over incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. Besides insecurity, Nigeria’s economy was on the edge of collapse and its global reputation was sullied by pervasive corruption. Critics say that Jonathan, a former university lecturer, ran a bloated government that thrived on corruption.
In 2013, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the Nigerian Central Bank chief appointed by Jonathan, told US public broadcaster PBS that some $1 billion in oil proceeds was being stolen monthly. Buhari would come under considerable pressure to put Jonathan and his ministers on trial, wrote John Paden, an American academic and author of Muhammadu Buhari: Challenges of Leadership in Nigeria (2016), after his election.
“Buhari had letters in his possession showing Jonathan’s requests for off-budget funds. But Buhari’s larger purpose was not to put former high-level officials in jail. Rather, it was to retrieve stolen funds and to change the political culture of the country,” Paden wrote.
Buhari has a fanatical following among Nigeria’s teeming working class. He is seen as a rare, incorruptible leader within the country’s notoriously corrupt power establishment. Shortly after he won election, he fulfilled a major campaign promise to make his assets public, declaring the equivalent of $150,000 as his cash savings.
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