When Muhammadu Buhari, a septuagenarian former military leader, was running for president in 2015, his team mounted a carefully crafted PR campaign to repackage him as modern, even youthful.
Mr Buhari has many qualities, including honesty and an apparent humility, traits in short supply in the self-serving, self-enriching world of Nigerian politics. But modern and youthful he is not. Mr Buhari’s presidency so far has been a triumph of reality over spin.
That has been brutally underlined in the past two months as the Nigerian president has languished in London receiving treatment for a mystery illness. Finally, after seven weeks and one day out of action, on Friday Mr Buhari stepped gingerly down the steps of his aircraft and back on to Nigerian soil.
He had the good humour to joke that he had arrived that day so he could continue to rest over the weekend before restarting his presidential duties on Monday. Yet such are the complexities of Nigerian politics — not to mention the seeming, if undisclosed, gravity of Mr Buhari’s condition — that it is not clear how much governing he will be able to do.
Only hours before he arrived back from his lengthy absence, the electoral commission fired the starting gun on the next election by announcing the date of the 2019 presidential poll, already less than two years away.
After a ponderous period in office and with the as-yet-unacknowledged reality that Mr Buhari is unlikely to run for a second term, the danger is that the next weeks and months will be consumed by political intrigue rather than the business of running the country.
And Nigeria is in desperate need of being run. It faces its worst economic crisis in 25 years as weak oil prices expose the reality of politicians’ utter dependence on oil revenue — both to govern and to line their own pockets. In the north, Boko Haram has been humbled and corralled, but not defeated.
In the southern Delta region, militants are riding legitimate discontent to get their cut of oil revenue, whatever the cost in lives or infrastructure. Mr Buhari has made some inroads militarily.
But he has struggled to make sense of the economy, partly because his ideas were formed in a different era when the enemy was the International Monetary Fund and partly because he lacks coherent proposals. The irony is that the president’s extended London sojourn has revealed what can be done. In his absence, the self-effacing vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, has injected real energy into policymaking.
During his time in charge, some progress was made towards a coherent foreign exchange policy, without which nothing much else can get started. Under him, too, the government issued a promising — if necessarily wish-list-heavy — economic recovery document. Mr Osinbajo has held lengthy cabinet meetings, something to which Mr Buhari has displayed scant interest, as well as showing his face around the country, including in the troubled Delta region. If Mr Osinbajo has revealed himself as a dynamic presidential candidate for 2019, like Mr Buhari he may fall foul of reality.
That reality comes in the form of so-called “zoning”, the guiding principle of Nigerian politics since the return of civilian rule in 1999. This is the idea that power should be rotated between the Christian south and the Muslim north. But so far, the Christians have held sway. The death in office of one Muslim president means that — even if you count Mr Buhari’s health-interrupted two years as president — Christians have run the country for 13 of the past 18 years.
As a southern Christian, that mathematical logic is likely to count badly against Mr Osinbajo. Clever publicists were able magically to transform Mr Buhari into a sprightly and forward-thinking leader. But repackaging Mr Osinbajo as a Muslim northerner may be a feat beyond even the most gifted of spin-doctors.