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Nigeria’s vice-president fills the void left by Buhari’s absence

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Yemi Osinbajo praised for stand-in performance as country battles economic crisis

Maggie Fick in Abuja

As concerns mount over the month-long absence of President Muhammadu Buhari at a time when Nigeria is grappling with the country’s worst economic crisis in years, one senior government official is trying fill the void.

While Mr Buhari, 74, has been in London receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness Yemi Osinbajo, his vice-president, has met with protesters in Abuja, the capital, convened the cabinet and visited the troubled oil producing Delta region.

The trip to the Delta this month was widely welcomed as a conciliatory move after militants sabotaged a pipeline that hit oil production last year, contributing to the country’s first full-year recession since 1991. It was an indication, some say, that Mr Osinbajo, a 59-year-old lawyer and Christian pastor, has stepped into the breach, displaying the personal qualities that his boss, an austere former general elected on a groundswell of optimism in 2015, has struggled to convey as the economic crisis has intensified.

“We don’t know what exactly is happening with our president, but we are happy that at least the VP is taking steps in the right direction, like going to the Niger Delta,” said Daniel, a civil servant who gave only his first name. “He is being very proactive.”

With no official word on Mr Buhari’s return date, the country’s rumour mill is cranking frantically. Even photos of the leader at his London residence this week were not enough to reassure the public that he is, in the words of his spokesmen, “hale and hearty”. “We are in the dark about the president’s condition,” said Junaidu, a young man selling yoghurt at a kiosk in Abuja. “But we know he is not strong like in ’84,” he said, referring to the year when the former military ruler took power by coup. Mr Buhari has not addressed the public from London, but he did speak by phone with Donald Trump, the US leader.

The call sparked a torrent of social media commentary from Nigeria, including faux jealousy from satirical writer and novelist Elnathan John, who tweeted: “Dear @realDonaldTrump, So, we haven’t heard from our darling president for a month. We heard you spoke today. Does he still love us?” Officially, Mr Osinbajo is performing the functions of the president, according to a constitutional provision activated by Mr Buhari before he left.

The Buhari administration is striving to avoid the sort of power vacuum that gripped Nigeria in 2009 when Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, then president, left the country and did not delegate authority. He eventually died in office, his illness and final months shrouded in secrecy. The vice-president’s strong stand-in performance is lending more credence to criticism of Mr Buhari and his fitness for office, say some insiders.

After meeting protesters who marched to the presidential villa this month, accusing the government of a failing response to the fiscal crisis sparked by the collapse in oil prices, Mr Osinbajo attempted to reach out to frustrated Nigerians.

“To those who are on the streets protesting the economic the economic situation & those who are not, but feel the pain of economic hardship, we hear you” he wrote in a tweet after the meeting. Merely visiting the oil producing region is unlikely to put an end to the attacks for good, but it is a start, said a senior Nigerian banker in Lagos.

“The vice-president is running around a bit and it is an improvement. He’s actually reaching out, communicating, going places where the president hasn’t,” he said, adding: “It’s a low bar to clear.” The uncertainty over the president’s health is also fuelling interest and speculation over who will contest the 2019 elections on the ruling All Progressive Congress party’s ticket. “Mr Osinbajo is a top quality professional and a man of tremendous integrity,” said a party chieftain.

“That is shining through now.” “There may be people who will seize this opportunity to make comparisons — to contrast the work ethic of the vice-president and the president,” said a government minister who did not want to be named.

“You can’t stop people from playing politics with this.” Mr Osinbajo “is not a real politician, he had never held [elected] political office before, but he seems to have the guts to be a good acting president,” said a western diplomat. “And who knows, maybe president.” Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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