President Muhammadu Buhari surprised those who had written him off with his arrival back in Nigeria on Friday March 10, 2017. The announcement by his media adviser the previous day had been taken with several pinches of salt by many people, especially after the pictures of his meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, which didn’t look like those of someone coming back anytime soon. Well Buhari indeed returned, and even though he looked a bit haggard and had lost quite some weight, he was fit enough to endure a five hour flight from London, United Kingdom. And even though he appeared to have been swayed by the winds as he alighted from the aircraft, his countenance looked significantly better by Monday when pictures showed him at his desk.
All the spokesmen and advisers in the presidency who had claimed that Buhari was “hale and hearty” ended up with eggs on their faces as the president spoke candidly and categorically about his illness and acknowledged the intellect and energy of Vice President YemiOsinbajo who, in his boss’ absence, had acquitted himself very well. My sense is that given his age and illness, Buhari will still need a significant period of recuperation and it might not be in his interest if he pushes himself too much as to risk a quick relapse. On the other hand, we will recognize that some in the president’s entourage, who may have considered themselves in danger of losing their immense powers and privileges while he was away, might be in no small hurry to re-assert their control of the presidency.
As I wrote in “Implications of President Buhari’s Absence”, we must commend Buhari for following constitutional provisions in informing the National Assembly of his (medical) vacation and designating the Vice President as Acting President. We would have also wished he went a step further and demonstrated more transparency and accountability, to the citizens and voters by providing information and updates on the nature of his illness, but the fact that he obeyed the constitution ensured there was no vacuum or confusion in governance and minimized or at least reduced associated political risk. Everyone has pointed out that as Acting President, Osinbajo recorded significant achievements-furthering tangible dialogue in the Niger-Delta that lowered the resentment and anger in the region; prompt signing of 7 bills passed by the National Assembly and (correctly and quickly) returning four others on which he had valid reservations; intervening through the National Economic Council in the foreign exchange management policy and prompting much-needed adjustment of FX policy by the CBN; declaration of a 60-day action plan for enabling environment and doing business reforms as well as involving the leadership of parliament in that effort; and the release of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP).
I have urged on a CNBC Africa interview on the same day Buhari returned, that there is no reason why Buhari should not sustain the momentum in these critical areas of policy! Like a football manager who brought a substitute into the team because of an injury to a first team player, when the substitute goes ahead to be a match-winner week after week, a good manager will keep the erstwhile substitute in the team-you don’t change a winning team! It is clear that the rational imperative is to allow Vice President YemiOsinbajo to continue to lead policy and implementation on the economy in general, and in particular fiscal and economic policy, investment and implementation of the ERGP. It is also evident that the Vice President is best-positioned to continue the dialogue with the Niger-Delta.
The interesting thing is that many of those who supported Buhari in 2015 did so precisely in the expectation that as president, he would delegate significant aspects of policy and administration to his deputy, in line with his antecedents. Indeed political historians will record that it was this particular trait in Buhari’s past that made him attractive to the political class-Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, Senator Bukola Saraki, Rotimi Amaechi, Professor Osinbajo and others who imagined with some naivety, that they would be the powers behind the throne with an aged and policy-challenged Buhari at the helm. At the time, everyone simplistically mouthed the assumption that because Buhari’s past suggested his deputies- Idiagbon as Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters and Tayo Akpata and Salihijo at the then Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) (and even the control of Buhari’s political party CPC by his henchmen), he would cede power to a Southern and Christian Vice President.
Whatever the politics of the time however, I think the president and vice president have established sufficient trust between themselves for Buhari to entrust Osinbajo with more responsibility. That is what the national interest dictates! Buhari and Osinbajo have different and complementary competences. The President is an ex-soldier with little appetite and capabilities in the intricacies of policy, economics and administration. And he is quite elderly. The Vice President is younger, and very intelligent and versatile in policy and administration. The logical imperative is a defacto “prime ministership” in which while Buhari retains his presidential prerogatives and powers, he delegates most aspects of administration to his deputy and focuses on military and security issues. If as the evidence of the last two months suggests, such a model might bring better results in the economy and polity, it will be to the president’s credit. On the other hand, if things grind to a halt again, the conclusion will be inescapable that Buhari himself is the problem.