Nigerian President's Long Absence Comes Amid Major Economic Crisis : Parallels President Muhammadu Buhari left for London Jan. 19. His government insists he's "hale and hearty," but speculation is rife that he may be suffering from prostate cancer, memory loss or other ailments.

Nigerian President's Long Absence Comes Amid Major Economic Crisis

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Nigeria's president traveled to London last month on what was billed as two weeks' vacation with routine medical checkups. He hasn't been home since. The government says the 74-year-old leader is in good health. As NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, many Nigerians are not convinced.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Reports this week that President Muhammadu Buhari called up the governor of Kano State during a Muslim prayer meeting and that their conversation was shared on speaker phone with fellow worshipers is still causing a buzz in Nigeria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT MUHAMMADU BUHARI: (Speaking in Hausa).

QUIST-ARCTON: Speaking in Hausa, the northern lingua franca, it's hard to identify president Buhari's voice during the brief conversation posted online. No matter, say his supporters and subordinates. The president is alive and well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Allahu akbar.

QUIST-ARCTON: There was applause when the governor reportedly told the president everyone here is praying for you. Yet there's concern. All that's been officially said about Buhari's health is that he had a persistent ear infection for which he sought treatment in Britain last year and was away for a while.

Questioned about the president's current health status and his request to Parliament from London for extended medical leave, Presidential Spokesman Femi Adesina told a news conference this week...

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

FEMI ADESINA: The president wants Nigerians to know that he appreciates their prayers. He appreciates their concerns. He appreciates their goodwill. And he has added that there is really no cause to worry.

QUIST-ARCTON: Adesina added that President Buhari says after more tests, his doctors have prescribed additional rest, so he's staying in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ADESINA: Let us learn to believe our leaders. This was a man we elected into office, and he says no cause to worry. Let us believe it.

QUIST-ARCTON: Prominent Nigerian lawyer Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is one person voicing doubts. He says the government should trust the people enough to tell them what's going on with 74-year-old Buhari.

CHIDI ANSELM ODINKALU: Subterfuge has been used to manage this situation. The inability to trust the people who, by the way, trusted you enough to give you a vote to rule over them is beyond squalid.

QUIST-ARCTON: Odinkalu says Buhari's absence since January 19 alarms Nigerians because the country is in economic freefall and grappling with a famine and extremist violence in the northeast. So why, Chidi Odinkalu, is Buhari's team not being frank with Nigerians?

ODINKALU: It is either you're suggesting that Nigerians are terribly stupid or that President Buhari is irresponsible. I don't think President Buhari is irresponsible, and I don't think Nigerians are stupid. So the people around him should simply square with Nigerians and say, our president is unwell and needs time to manage his health. Now, why is that so difficult?

QUIST-ARCTON: Ailing former Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua was abroad on sick leave for months before returning home to die in office in 2010. So many Nigerians are asking whether this is deja vu, or is there a timeline for the president's return to Nigeria? Again, Presidential Spokesman Femi Adesina...

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ADESINA: When it is time for him to come, he will also communicate the date and the time he will come.

QUIST-ARCTON: Many Nigerians who make do with their dilapidated health service back home while wealthy compatriots seek medical care overseas are simply not satisfied with that response. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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