For two weeks, Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s septuagenarian president, has been out of action, receiving medical treatment in London for an undisclosed illness. His absence has sent the rumour mill of Africa’s most populous nation spinning, with frequent erroneous reports that the president is dead. The tragedy for Nigeria is that policymaking has been so ponderous during the 20 months since Mr Buhari took office that, dead or alive, it is not always easy to tell the difference.
Under Mr Buhari’s slow-blinking leadership, Africa’s largest economy has drifted into crisis. Brought low by the weak oil price, on which government revenues are woefully dependent, the system has been starved of dollars. That has driven businesses into the ground, people on to the margins and the economy into its worst recession in 25 years. What had been a growing middle class is being daily eviscerated. High inflation, especially for food, is damaging the poor in whose name Mr Buhari ran for office.
There are signs that Nigerians — among the most resilient and adaptive people on the continent — are losing patience. This week, there were small, but rowdy, protests in Lagos and Abuja, at which demonstrators complained about their “missing president”.
There is an irony that Mr Buhari, a retired major general, is missing in action. He ran the country as a military ruler in the mid-1980s after seizing power in a coup. In civilian guise, his leadership style has verged on the invisible. After winning power in 2015 on the fourth attempt at the ballot box, he set out at a pace that has marked his presidency: it took him six months to name a cabinet. Hopes that he had surrounded himself with a lean team of capable technocrats empowered to get policy cranking have come to naught. Policymaking — such that it is — has been crafted instead by a tiny cabal of loyal, less qualified, stalwarts. Mr Buhari has failed to articulate anything approaching a vision.
During his campaign, Nigeria’s soldier-turned-politician promised to train his sight on three main objectives: to improve security, crack down on corruption and diversify the oil-dependent economy. Progress on the first two has been patchy, and on the third dismal.
On security, Mr Buhari has managed to galvanise a demoralised army and make gains against Boko Haram, a terrorist organisation that had been metastasising beyond its northern base. Boko Haram has been pushed back into a north-eastern redoubt and across the border into Cameroon and Chad. But that displacement has been offset by security flare-ups elsewhere, most seriously in the Niger Delta where militants have been sabotaging oil production.
Mr Buhari’s anti-corruption drive can be boiled down to a few symbolic gestures and a few high-profile cases against members of the previous administration. Yet, systemically, little has changed. The confused exchange rate policy — in which the central bank doles out scarce dollars at an advantageous rate — is a recipe for opacity. The dollar shortage is killing off industry rather than nurturing it.
Seventy per cent of Nigeria’s 170m people were not born when Mr Buhari was last running the show, so they might not notice that his policies are stuck in the same 1980s groove. Statist and redistributionist by inclination, he finds himself in charge of a dysfunctional state and an economy with few revenues to recirculate.
To be fair, Mr Buhari inherited a dire situation courtesy of his hapless predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. He did the country a service simply by beating Mr Jonathan in an election and sparing the country of further wilful misrule. Yet Dele Olojede, a Pulitzer prizewinning journalist, says Mr Buhari’s government has been “spinning around in circles”.
As well as the president’s flawed policies, he blames a bloated political system in which most of the 36 states (far too many) spend their time grovelling for federal funds. The mosaic of Nigerian politics is complicated by the need to balance power between north and south and between the plethora of regions and linguistic groups represented in the cabinet. That makes for a parasitic state, not one that can solve problems. “This is a system designed to fail even if you have capable people in charge,” says Mr Olojede, who does not put Mr Buhari in that category.
Nigeria has drifted before, though rarely at a time of such pressing crisis. In 2010, President Umaru Yar’Adua died in office after months in which his illness had been covered up. The man supposedly in charge of the country had been literally sleeping on the job. Mr Buhari may not be as ill as the rumours suggest. Politically, though, rigor mortis set in quite some time ago.
By David Pilling. This article first appeared in the Financial Times.