Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (C) and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (L) pose as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (2nd R) makes a selfie picture with them, during a visit to the presidential palace in Abuja, on September 2, 2016. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on September 2 praised Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for inspiring young entrepreneurs during his surprise visit to the west African country this week, his office said. Zuckerberg who arrived in Nigeria on Tuesday and has met with young entrepreneurs at information technology and computer centres in the country's commercial hub of Lagos and the capital Abuja. / AFP / SUNDAY AGHAEZE (Photo credit should read SUNDAY AGHAEZE/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (C) and Yemi Osinbajo (L), his vice president, during a visit to the presidential palace in Abuja, in September © AFP

President Muhammadu Buhari’s five-week absence from Nigeria has triggered political jockeying within his ruling party as concerns grow about his health and capacity to lead.

His office tried to reassure Nigerians this week that “there is no cause for worry”, but it also said the 74-year-old, who has been receiving treatment in London, would need a longer period of “rest” than initially planned. And not even his own ministers knew how ill Mr Buhari was, senior officials said.

The uncertainty has fuelled speculation that the former general will not be fit enough to run for a second term in 2019 elections, and the country’s political class is consumed with who would stand on behalf of his All Progressives Congress (APC) party.

At the heart of that issue — and simmering power struggles — is the concept of “zoning”, a defining principle of Nigerian politics since military rule ended in 1999. It holds that the presidency should rotate between the mainly Christian south and the mostly Muslim north after every two terms.

If Mr Buhari, a northerner, leaves office before his first term ends, Yemi Osinbajo, his deputy and a southerner, would take over until elections were held. But whether Mr Osinbajo then became the APC’s nominee in 2019 was “anybody’s guess”, said a senior party member from the south, predicting that the party’s northern elite might argue they needed to finish “their turn”.

“Will the cabal let go?” said a northern Nigerian technocrat, using the term some employ to describe Mr Buhari’s closest aides, who are also Muslim northerners. “A scenario where they maintain northern control over government is what they want.”

The issue has become more sensitive because the last president from the north, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, died in office in 2009, prematurely ending the region’s hold on the all-powerful executive. Goodluck Jonathan, Mr Yar’Adua’s deputy, went on to secure his party’s nomination for the 2011 polls and served another term. In the two-decades since the end of military rule, northern politicians have held the presidency for fewer than five years.

“A lot of politicians are already looking ahead to 2019 and how best to position themselves,” said Antony Goldman, head of London-based PM Consulting, which provides advisory services in Nigeria. “The current speculation, actively fuelled by political interests, is only accelerating the process.”

The manoeuvring comes as Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer, grapples with its worst economic crisis in two decades. One cabinet minister said the political jostling was already becoming a “distraction”, adding that “other considerations should be the focus of the government right now”.

Still, some in government note that Mr Osinbajo has used the president’s absence to push ahead with the sort of action Nigerians have been hoping for since electing Mr Buhari two years ago.

“People are happier with the performance and style of the vice-president — he’s more decisive, active and charismatic,” said a senior government official. Even some elites from Mr Buhari’s stronghold in the north say the country is running better with his deputy at the helm.

Mr Osinbajo has been chairing lengthy cabinet meetings and working with parliament to pass legislation and fill important positions, such as the chair for the Supreme Court’s chief justice. This week, he unveiled a “60-day action plan” to lure investment to Nigeria.

Officials close to talks between the government and the World Bank over a $1bn loan also said there was more optimism about the negotiations succeeding as Abuja finalises a recovery plan needed to secure the debt.

“The country has been in a freezer for the past year,” said the head of a multinational company in Lagos, who said he hoped the economy could turn round on the vice-president’s watch. “He [Osinbajo] listens, understands, and inspires trust.”

This story has been amended to reflect the fact that Antony Goldman does not work for the Buhari administration.

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