Buhari Absence and the Fear of a Yar’Adua Repeat: Nigeria on the Brink

In November 2009 Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua left his country to receive treatment at a Saudi Arabian clinic for pericarditis. He would not return until May 2010 and within three days was dead. In the interim period, Nigeria had fallen into a political crisis that threatened to unravel into violence.

Yar’Adua’s ability to appease his testy regional governors through oil-fuelled patronage politics had preserved an uneasy peace and averted a potential Nigerian civil war. His long illness and exile left a void that his inexperienced and virtually unknown Deputy President, Goodluck Jonathan, struggled to fill.

Umaru Yar'Adua and Goodluck Jonathan
Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan

Various governors and regional warlords began to form cabals and jostle for position in the line of succession, their eternal hope being control of the petro-state, Nigeria’s economy of course being heavily dependent on the export of oil. 

Jonathan eventually assumed the presidency, in the process ending an unwritten agreement to rotate the highest office in the land between natives of the South and North of the country, a major issue for an ethnically and religiously-divided nation.

Nigeria is broadly divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north
Nigeria is broadly divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north

The only way Jonathan could be assured of retaining power was ‘to put the looting machine into overdrive and distribute the proceeds widely to compensate for his lack of authority’. (Burgis, p.78)

Jonathan’s presidency would be characterised by a level of corruption unprecedented even in Nigeria’s nefarious history. He bought off regional agitators by granting them oil concessions, stifling the equal distribution of wealth to entrench a self-serving elite reliant on his continued patronage. This in turn led to a disenchanted and economically disenfranchised populace, many of whom began to turn to other groups who promised to represent their interests, most significantly the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.

Abubakar Shekau is the leader of the IS-affiliated Boko Haram
Abubakar Shekau is the leader of the IS-affiliated Boko Haram

Knowing that control over the granting of oil exploration and exploitation rights was more important than popular support in a so-called ‘resource state’, President Jonathan neglected the needs of his countrymen. Infrastructure remained primitive, educational standards stagnated and the healthcare system was left destitute.

It is perhaps for this latter reason that many of Nigeria’s top – and by extension wealthiest – politicians seek any medical treatment they require abroad. It was the case for President Yar’Adua and is now also so for incumbent President Muhmmadu Buhari.

Despite railing against the ‘medical tourism’ of the Nigerian elite, President Buhari has spent the last couple of weeks undergoing unspecified ‘tests’ at a UK clinic, amidst speculation that his health is rapidly deteriorating.

Buhari's absence has drawn civilians to the streets of the capital Abuja to protest against poverty and corruption
Buhari’s absence has drawn civilians to the streets of the capital Abuja to protest against poverty and corruption

With the Nigerian economy suffering as a result of the drop in global oil prices, and the Boko Haram insurgency continuing apace despite some setbacks, this latest uncertainty has conjured up memories of 2010 when the country appeared on the brink of disaster.

Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, another relative unknown, has the difficult task of managing the inherent instability of his ethnically and regionally-divided country at a time when global economic conditions are unfavourable to him.

Multinational corporations must shoulder some of the responsibility for the vicious cycle within which the Nigerian people are trapped; namely the resource curse, or ‘Dutch Disease’. Shell has been pumping oil in the Niger Delta since the days of British colonial rule. Ever since, successive governments – whether civilian or military led – have courted the investment of these energy giants and split the proceeds between a narrow clique at the very summit of society.

In 1983, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wrote:

The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership. (Burgis, p.207).

Nigeria has suffered equally from colonial rule, corrupt post-independence leaders, exploitation by multinational corporations and the scourge of ethnic and religious division. If President Buhari fails to return then the final opportunity for true leadership will have arrived for Africa’s largest economy.

Who has the ability, or inclination, to exercise it, very much remains to be seen.


Burgis, T. The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth (2015)

Buhari Deposes Jonathan the Legal Way: hard work begins now for former dictator

Fears of political bloodshed in Nigeria appear to have been averted for now, after incumbent Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat in the presidential election against Muhammadu Buhari. The election is likely to usher in the beginning of a crucial new era in Nigerian society, one plagued by corruption and Islamic extremism.

Buhari (r) has seemingly seen off the challenge of Jonathan
Buhari (r) has seemingly seen off the challenge of Jonathan

A former Major General in the Nigerian Army, Buhari led a military coup against the civilian government on the 31st December 1983 and ruled as dictator until behind deposed by another coup in August 1985. During his short period of rule, Buhari became known for his fierce stance against corruption, his promotion of an ultra-disciplined society, his economic failings and his disregard for human rights.

His victory is a testament to the weak rule of Jonathan, who failed to stem government corruption or halt the brutal onslaught of Boko Haram in the north of the country. Buhari, unlike Jonathan, is a Muslim and hails from the north where he remains extremely popular. This relates not just to his religious affiliation but also results from his reversal of a Chadian occupation of disputed islands in Borno State back in 1983.

Boko Haram has waged a campaign of terror against Nigeria's population
Boko Haram has waged a campaign of terror against Nigeria’s population

This latter point is important, for Chad has been a vital partner of Nigeria in its attempts to halt Boko Haram. With the Nigerian Army widely perceived as corrupt, underperforming and lacking in morale, the continued support of the Chadians, who have proved themselves highly competent in the field, is crucial.

Another challenge, given Buhari’s record as a military ruler, will be the preservation of democracy. Yes, Nigeria’s political system remains deeply flawed yet its democratic institutions are still in their infancy. It may be argued that a retrenchment of democracy may be necessary to ensure the security of Nigeria – something Buhari used to justify his 1983 coup – potentially encouraging an unacceptable restriction on the political and social freedoms of civilians. This cannot be allowed to happen, even if Buhari understandably advocates tougher punishments against criminals and terrorists.

Whilst Jonathan has conceded defeat for now, there is still the possibility that he will not go quietly, with allegations of electoral fraud and vote rigging already circulating. Even if Jonathan stays clear of the fray, his Christian supporters within the military and society as a whole may take a dim view of a new president who has supported the enforcement of sharia law in Nigeria’s northern states.

The north-south, Muslim-Christian divide in Nigeria is stark. Buhari must manage this without invoking sectarian emotion
The north-south, Muslim-Christian divide in Nigeria is stark. Buhari must manage this without invoking sectarian emotion


Sectarian violence, intensified by the ruthless extremists of Boko Haram, is a worst case scenario for Nigeria but one that is inherently possible. Buhari will need to demonstrate his renowned steadfastness and incorruptibility if this wonderfully rich and diverse state is truly to reach its potential as an independent and unified nation.