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Buhari’s long absence creates a dangerous vacuum as nation falls apart

Nigeria is adrift as President Muhammadu Buhari has been in London for medical treatment for a month as of Wednesday, worrying many that his undisclosed health problems have left Africa’s most populous country without direction.

A Coalition of Northern groups under the aegis of Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, AYCF, on Tuesday issued a three months ultimatum for all Igbos in the 19 northern states to relocate from the region.

The president’s prolonged absence has created “a vacuum,” said Dapo Alaba Sobowale, the head of a small IT company in Lagos’ sprawling Computer Village, where small shops and vendors line the streets selling mobile phones and computer gadgets.

“A lot of people are relying on him,” Sobowale said. 

Buhari, 74, went on medical leave to the United Kingdom on May 7 for unspecified health problems. He had already been in London for nearly seven weeks earlier this year for treatment. He looked thin and frail when he returned to Nigeria, where he later missed three consecutive weekly Cabinet meetings. On his return, he said he’d never been as sick in his life.

The groups, which issued the warning in response to the demand by some Igbo youth for actualisation of Biafra, threatened to forcefully evict the Igbos if they failed to leave the north by October 1.

“With the effective date of this declaration, which is today, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, all Igbo currently residing in any part of northern Nigeria are, hereby, served notice to relocate within three months and all northerners residing in the South-East are advised likewise,” the AYCF officials led by the group’s National President, Yerima Shettima, said at a press conference in Kaduna.

“All northern civil societies and pressure groups are, by this declaration, mandated to mobilize for sustained, coordinated campaigns at their respective state Government Houses, state Houses of Assembly, local government council secretariats and traditional palaces.”

However, Igbo Youths and other organisations have commended the northern groups that issued the ultimatum to Ndigbo to leave the northern states, saying such order was in line with the agitation for the realisation of Biafra Republic.

“This country will collapse and those in government today will bear the blame of the blood of the innocent people that will perish from the collapse. The National Assembly has also failed and they have a duty to save the country from collapse.”

Government officials and Buhari’s family have sought to reassure Nigerians who have expressed their worry about his absence on social media under hashtags like #WhereIsBuhari and #MissingPresident.

On Tuesday, Aisha Buhari, the president’s wife, said her husband is “recuperating fast” after she returned to Nigeria from visiting him in London. “He thanks Nigerians for their constant prayers for his health & steadfastness in the face of challenges,” she tweeted.

Buhari’s long absences this year have raised questions over whether the former military leader from northern Nigeria will be able to complete his four-year term that is up in 2019 and kicked off speculation over who might succeed him.

This is especially important in Nigeria because an unwritten agreement maintains the presidency should alternate between the Muslim-majority north and Christian-dominated south. Nigeria’s 170 million people are almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims.

Buhari was elected in 2015 after defeating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, on campaign promises to battle corruption and crack down on Boko Haram extremists in the nation’s northeast. Buhari’s administration, which marked two years in office on May 29, has a mixed track record of fulfilling those promises, analysts say.

Although the military has dislodged Boko Haram from areas where it had declared a caliphate, Nigeria’s homegrown Islamic extremists continue to carry out suicide bombings and attacks. A rail-thin Buhari welcomed 82 Chibok schoolgirls who were released by Boko Haram in May after three years in captivity and then he flew to London that night.

This is not the first time Nigeria has experienced an ailing, absent president. In 2010 President Umaru Yar’Adua died after being out of the country for medical treatment for several months.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, now acting president, is credited for bringing some momentum back to the government by easing tensions in the insecure, oil-producing Niger Delta and pledging to tackle an economy battered by the fall in global oil prices.

“There was an element of fatigue when it came to Buhari,” said Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst for risk management firm Verisk Maplecroft. “He wasn’t acting on the big macroeconomic issues.”

However, if Osinbajo, who comes from Lagos in the south, were to take over for Buhari and stand for election in 2019, the move could be seen by northerners as threatening the power-sharing balance and potentially prompt unwelcome political unrest, observers say.

Buhari’s absence has highlighted the sense that his government is unable to get this powerful oil-producing nation back on track, critics say.

“It looks like we are rudderless,” said Dr. Jay Osi Samuels of the Alliance for New Nigeria, a group of professionals registering as a new political party. “Right now it seems like (politicians) have lost the idea of how to move the country forward.”

In Computer Village, mobile phone shop owner Williams Akah and a few customers said the majority of people in Lagos are struggling with Nigeria’s recent economic downturn, especially when it comes to finding decent work in this megacity.

Akah doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong with Buhari, but he said he’s keeping track of what happens to him: “I’m worried about him – he’s the Number One citizen.”

A group, the South East/South-South‎ Network, SESSNet, in its reaction to the quit notice to Igbo in northern Nigeria, asked the security agencies to immediately swing to action and arrest leadership of northern groups over statement credited them that all Igbo residents in the north should vacate the region.

The group, in a statement on Wednesday, said that the threat was evidently as a result of the unity displayed by the Igbo in the South-east and the South-south to obey a “sit at home order” to mark 50 years anniversary of the Biafra civil war that caused the death of about 3 million people.

The group called for the arrest of the promoters of the northern coalition.

It added, “We use this medium to ask our people across the 19 northern states to be more vigilant and proactive in being security conscious.

“If the DSS could arrest Nnamdi Kanu for demanding for Igbo rights, I don’t see the reason why the DSS will not arrest the leadership of the group for treason offences because they are inciting one section of the country against another, we will not take excuse from security agencies if anything happens to our people in the North.

“Those youth should be treated like criminals by security agencies and we are watching to see what DSS will do on this matter and if any Igbo are killed in the North, the leadership of the groups should face the consequences.”

These developments followed on the heels of the May 30 sit-at-home order to Ndigbo and Biafrans by the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, and Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB, to mark the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the defunct republic.

It is no longer news that the people complied with the directive and shut-down the South-East geo-political zone and parts of the South-South like Asaba and Port Harcourt, without a whimper from the Federal government on the several issues it raised.

But without an effective president to take charge of the situation, the war drum and rhetoric aggravates the already tense situation and threaten the corporate existence of the country.

“Our country is too precious; our problems are too pressing to be left in a rudderless vacuum”, says SESSNet.

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