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Nigerian President's Long Absence Comes Amid Major Economic Crisis

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari, shown here in 2015 arriving for his inauguration in Abuja, Nigeria, left for London Jan. 19 and hasn't been back since. The government insists he's fine, but speculation is rife that he may be suffering from serious health issues.
Sunday Alamba
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari, shown here in 2015 arriving for his inauguration in Abuja, Nigeria, left for London Jan. 19 and hasn't been back since. The government insists he's fine, but speculation is rife that he may be suffering from serious health issues.

It's been more than a month since Nigeria's president, Muhammadu Buhari, traveled to London on what was billed as two weeks' vacation — with routine medical check-ups. He hasn't been back home since.

His government says the 74-year-old is in good health. But many Nigerians are not convinced and wonder whether their president is gravely ill — or worse.

Buhari's long absence comes amid Nigeria's worst economic crisis in years and other pressing national problems, including a famine in the northeast, the region badly hit by extremist Boko Haram violence.

So reports this week that Buhari called the governor of northern Kano State, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, during a Muslim prayer meeting, and that their conversation was shared on speaker phone with worshipers, caused a stir.

It's hard to identify Buhari's voice during the brief conversation in Hausa, the northern Nigerian lingua franca, that was posted online. No matter, say his supporters and subordinates. The president is alive and well, they insist.

There was applause at the prayer session when the Kano governor reportedly told the president everyone was praying for him. Buhari expressed his gratitude.

Yet concerns remain.

All that's been officially said about Buhari's health is that he has had a persistent ear infection, for which he sought treatment in Britain last year — and was away for a while.

Speculation is rife that Buhari may be suffering from prostate cancer, memory loss, kidney illness or a plethora of other possible ailments.

"Hale and hearty" is the very British expression Nigerian officials have been repeating about the president's health. Information Minister Lai Mohammed was on message when he told NPR this week, "In his own words, there's no cause for alarm, he's well. He's hale and hearty. He just has to do more tests."

But Nigerians just want Buhari back home – to govern. For now, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is serving as acting president in Africa's biggest economy, a major crude oil exporter and the continent's most populous nation.

Buhari had what Nigeria's officials described as a cordial telephone conversation with President Donald Trump earlier this month, so he must be able to work, Nigerians say. If not, some social media posts say, the president must declare whether he is still fit to govern the country — and resign if he's incapacitated.

Meanwhile, Nigerian officials have been posting photographs of Buhari looking gaunt as he receives visitors in London.

Questioned about the president's current health status, and his Feb. 5 request from London to Nigeria's parliament for extended medical leave, presidential spokesman Femi Adesina told a news conference this week: "The president wants Nigerians to know that he appreciates their prayers, he appreciates their concerns, he appreciates their goodwill. And he has added that there is really no cause to worry."

Buhari wrote to lawmakers that he would remain in Britain "until doctors are satisfied that certain factors are ruled out." Adesina added that Buhari said his doctors had prescribed additional rest.

Nigerians needs to trust the president, Adesina said. "Let us learn to believe our leaders," he said. "This was a man we elected into office and he says no cause to worry. Let's believe him."

Prominent Nigerian lawyer and scholar Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is among those voicing doubts. He says it's the government who should trust the people enough to tell them what's going on with their president.

"Subterfuge has been used to manage this situation," Odinkalu says. "The inability to trust the people who, by the way, trusted you enough to give you a vote to rule over them, is beyond squalid."

Odinkalu says Buhari's absence alarms Nigerians because the country is in economic stasis, the naira currency in free-fall and Nigeria is grappling with a famine. The famine threatens the lives of hundreds of children in the northeast, the home of the deadly, seven-year Boko Haram insurgency. There are also militant rumblings in the restive, oil-producing Niger Delta.

Influential global newspapers have published critical editorials about Buhari's prolonged absence.

Nigeria's leader is "missing in action,"wrote a commentator in Britain's Financial Times. "The tragedy of Nigeria is that policy-making has been so ponderous ... since Mr. Buhari took office that, dead or alive, it is not always easy to tell the difference."

Odinkalu, the lawyer, says it seems as if Buhari is abandoning Nigeria, but "Would a president who is responsible take off from his country and go and live in another country just to take a break?"

So why, chides Odinkalu, is Buhari's team not being frank with Nigerians about the state of his health? "It is either you're suggesting that Nigerians are terribly stupid or that President Buhari is irresponsible," he says. "I don't think President Buhari is irresponsible and I don't think Nigerians are stupid. So the people around him should simply square with Nigerians and say our president is unwell and needs time to manage his health. Now why is that so difficult?"

Nigerians have been here before. Ailing former President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua stayed abroad on sick leave for months before returning home to die in office in 2010. Nigerians ask whether this is déjà vu or if there might be a timeline for Buhari's return to Nigeria.

"When it is time for him to come," responds presidential spokesman Femi Adesina, "he will communicate the date and the time."

Many Nigerians — who have to make do with their country's dilapidated health service while wealthy compatriots seek medical care overseas — are not satisfied with that answer.

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Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.