On Sunday, an unwell Muhammadu Buhari roused himself from his sickbed to make a rare public appearance. The Nigerian President has been in ill-health for most of this year, and has drastically cut back his official schedule, but this was one event he could not afford to miss.
The Chibok girls were coming home.
Not all of them, mind. Nearly 300 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April 2014, but just 82 were on the helicopters that flew into Abuja, where Buhari waited to greet them. Of the rest, 21 were released last year; some have already escaped their captors; some are presumed to have died; and an estimated 113 are still being held by Boko Haram.
The deal to secure the freedom of these 82 came from months of delicate, complex negotiations with a faction of Boko Haram. A concerted military offensive, launched during the final months of President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure and continued by Buhari, has forced the Islamist militants into hiding and exacerbated divisions within the group. These divisions were exploited in negotiations by an unlikely alliance of government officials, diplomats, and local and international NGOs. Hefty incentives were also offered before the girls were allowed on the helicopters, including the release of five senior Boko Haram commanders and a cash payment (amount undisclosed).
For Buhari, the return of the Chibok girls and the triumphant media circus that surrounded it is a much-needed shot-in-the-arm for his administration, which is looking about as healthy as the ailing president.
The economy has been hit hard by declining oil prices; the president’s much-heralded ‘War on Graft’ is stalling; Boko Haram have intensified their devastating suicide bombing campaign on civilian targets; political unrest is rearing its head again in the Niger Delta province; and, in the south-east, the movement to repeat the Biafra secession experiment is gathering momentum.
But looming larger than all of these is the issue of the president’s health. Earlier this year, a ten day holiday to London turned into 49-days of medical leave, with no one confirming exactly what is wrong with the president. In the absence of any real information on his condition, the protestations of senior officials that the president is still firmly in charge of government ring hollow.
Nigerians are right to be concerned, having lived through the death in office in 2010 of President Umaru Yar’Adua, whose illness was continuously downplayed and disguised by public officials. So just how sick is Buhari? And what might happen if he dies in office too?
These questions have been dominating Nigeria’s national conversation. Until Sunday, that is, when the Chibok girls became a welcome, positive distraction.
It was a distraction that Buhari had seen coming, and used to maximum effect. Shortly after the ceremony on Sunday, Buhari jetted off to London for yet more medical leave, with no word on how long he will be away. Local media reported that the president had, in fact, delayed his departure by several weeks to ensure that he was on hand to personally welcome the girls home – and feature prominently in all the celebratory headlines.
This is good news for Buhari, just when he needs it most. He’ll be hoping the news from his doctors in London is similarly positive.