President Muhammadu Buhari (left) was elected in 2015 on a ticket with Yemi Osinbajo (right), a leading pastor from Lagos. (Photo: President’s Office).

In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari has not been seen in public for more than two months, raising fears of a power struggle over who might succeed him, which could lead to sectarian violence in Africa’s most populous country.

Because Nigeria is divided between a mostly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south, there has been an unwritten agreement among the political elite since the end of military rule in 1999 that the presidency is rotated every two elections.

As the 2019 election approaches, many among the ruling APC, highly popular in the north, fear that Buhari will not be fit to run a second term and his death will see another Christian, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, taking over for the remaining two years of Buhari’s term.

If this happens, many in the north would probably feel short-changed. They might insist that Osinbajo promise to step aside at the next elections in 2019 and allow his deputy, who would probably be a Muslim from the north, to run instead.

Buhari, 74, left Nigeria on 7 May to seek medical treatment in a hospital in London for the second time this year. (He took 49 days leave from 20 January, too.) So far, no details have emerged about his illness. However, acting President Osinbajo – on a flying visit to Buhari in London on Tuesday (11 July) – said the president is “recuperating fast” and “will return home soon”, without giving further details.

In June, Buhari issued an audio message to mark the end of Ramadan. But this only reinforced speculations over his fitness to continue to run the country. His long absence brings back memories of 2010, when President Musa Yar Adu’a finally died in Saudi Arabia, following a similar long medical leave.

The death of Yar Adu’a, a Muslim from the northern state of Katsina, paved the way for his Vice-President, Goodluck Jonathan, from the predominantly Christian south, to serve the remainder of his term.

President Buhari was elected in 2015 on a ticket with Yemi Osinbajo, a lawyer and leading pastor from Lagos, in Nigeria’s southwest.

In his article, ‘Nigeria Has Succession Jitters, Again’, Bloomberg’s Dulue Mbachu looks at Nigeria’s complex political and religious context surrounding Buhari’s medical leave.