T he timing of President Muhammadu Buhari’s departure in mid-January flabbergasted most Nigerians. As he left, his country’s air force was flying over Banjul preparing to oust long-time Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh. A few days earlier, hundreds of people had been killed when a refugee camp for displaced people fleeing Boko Haram was accidentally bombed.
What began as a 10-day medical break in London quickly became a seven-week exile. Now, President Buhari has finally returned. Many people in the country’s predominantly Muslim north celebrated as he touched down at Aso Villa, his presidential residence in the capital Abuja. But the mood in the Christian south was, according to Nigerian economist Nonso Obikili, one of “sadness”.
Despite promises from acting President Yemi Osinbajo that his boss was “hale and hearty”, rumours swirled about his Mr. Buhari’s mystery illness. Some even suggested that he had died. There was little to combat the conspiracies until an image appeared of Mr. Buhari, who appeared frail, with the Archbishop of Canterbury in Abuja House, his London residence. Upon his return, Nigerians joked on Twitter that a robot had been sent back in his place.
Protests during Mr. Osinbajo’s seven-week stewardship did not unsettle what critics have largely called a solid tenure. Iro Aghedo, a political scientist at Benin University, told The World Weekly that Mr. Osinbajo had been “excellent”. During Mr. Buhari’s absence, his deputy was active, meeting local representatives in the Niger Delta, an oil-rich but conflict-ridden region, and promising to quell unrest. Mr. Osinbajo also launched a 60-day economic plan, and inflation dropped for the first time in 15 months.
Dr. Obikili is cautious, suggesting that Mr. Buhari’s absence allowed Mr. Osinbajo to “push through policy”. He reckons his “good work” will end now that the president is back at the helm.
Nigeria’s economy, heavily dependent on oil revenues, continues to flounder. The country’s first recession in 20 years is having devastating effects on the poor. This, combined with intermittent violence in the north and ongoing agitation in the Niger Delta, means Mr. Buhari, weakened physically and politically, returns with his work cut out.