Sitting on the pavement outside the Lagos state government secretariat, Empero flicks through newspapers, looking for jobs. "We are smiling and we are dying," said the 36-year-old, a town planner by trade.

Nigerians are known for their dramatic turn of phrase. But recent events may justify such rhetoric.

The economy shrank by 1.5 percent in 2016. Inflation has more than doubled to 18.7 percent in 12 months. Meanwhile, the president, Muhammadu Buhari, has been out of the country since Jan. 19, receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness.

There could hardly be a worse time for the 74-year-old former military dictator to be incapacitated. But much of the blame for Nigeria's current economic troubles can be laid at his door.

Buhari was elected in March 2015 promising to defeat Boko Haram, the jihadist group terrorizing the country's northeast, and to tackle endemic corruption. He had on his side a wave of hope; he was the first Nigerian opposition leader to oust an incumbent peacefully at the ballot box, despite his authoritarian past.

On national security he has made progress: Boko Haram, now splintered, no longer controls any big towns. But it is far from defeated, as the government has claimed in the past couple of years.

With many farmers still unable to return safely to their fields, hunger stalks the region: 450,000 children are severely malnourished. Elsewhere, clashes between Muslim Fulani herdsmen and largely Christian farmers in southern Kaduna have killed at least 200 people since December.

Oil production has not fully recovered after militants attacked pipelines and rigs in the Niger Delta last year. When it comes to corruption, a number of bigwigs have been arrested and bags of seized money paraded before the media. Yet there have been no high-profile convictions yet. The state may be led by a former strongman, but it is still fundamentally weak.

It is the troubled economy, though, that looms largest now in Africa's most populous country. Buhari was inaugurated soon after the collapse of global oil prices. But instead of accepting reality (exports and government revenue are dominated by oil), he reverted to policies he implemented when last in power in the 1980s, namely propping up the currency.

This has led to shortages of foreign exchange, squeezing imports. The central bank released the naira from its peg of 197-199 to the dollar in June 2016, but panicked when it plunged, pinning it again at around 305. Exchange controls are still draconian. Consequently, many foreign investors have left.

By Feb. 20, the naira had sunk to 520 on the black market. It has since recovered by around 13 percent after the central bank released dollars and allowed posh Nigerians to buy them cheaply to pay for school fees abroad. The reprieve is likely to be temporary, though. Most analysts agree that the naira should float freely.

However, Nigerian officials worry that the inevitable inflationary spike could lead to unrest. It is also anathema to Buhari, who is thought to blame an IMF-advised devaluation for the coup that ejected him from power in 1985. "They all know what needs to happen," said a Western official. "But somehow they don't dare to [do it]."

The IMF predicts Nigeria's economy will expand by 0.8 percent this year. That would lag far behind population growth of around 2.6 percent. But the government will tout any recovery as a victory. "That's the real danger, that they will take that as validation their policies are working," said Nonso Obikili, an economist.

Meanwhile, Nigeria continues to take out expensive domestic and foreign loans. While debt remains relatively low as a proportion of GDP, at around 15 percent, servicing it is eating up a third of government revenue. After a $1 billion Eurobond issue was almost eight times oversubscribed last month, it plans to issue another $500 million one this year. Officials have also said that they want to borrow at least $1 billion from the World Bank.

If Buhari remains in London much longer, his absence could provide a window for Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to push through a proper devaluation. Osinbajo has proved an energetic antidote to his boss, visiting the delta for peace talks and announcing measures intended to boost Nigeria's position in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business rankings, in which it ranks 169 out of 190.

The state of Buhari's health is still unclear. Osinbajo's appointment as acting president has followed constitutional protocol. In 2010, by contrast, it took three months for Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, to be cleared to rule while Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, the northern president, lay dying in Saudi Arabia.

There are ghosts of that power struggle in rumors that Buhari's closest allies are maneuvering to try to keep the presidency with a northerner should their boss die or be forced by ill health to step down. That could split the ruling All Progressives Congress into three or four factions, destabilizing policymaking. Nigeria's best chance of reform in the short run, then, is probably for the president to rest up in London a while longer.