By Ulf Laessing and Alexis Akwagyiram
LAGOS (Reuters) - A row between the Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and his wife has brought cracks in the ruling party right into the open, as frustration grows over government inertia in trying to drag the country out of its first recession in 25 years.
Aisha Buhari publicly criticized her husband's record in office, saying she might not support him if he seeks re-election in 2019 unless he shakes up his administration, which she said had been hijacked by a "few people".
The president tried to laugh off the rebuke from his wife of 27 years, saying "she belongs in the kitchen" - but without addressing the substance of her remarks, made last week in an interview with the BBC.
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The 73-year-old won last year's election promising a new era in the West African nation, where graft has enriched an elite while most of the 180 million Nigerians live in poverty despite the OPEC member's oil wealth.
Buhari came to power backed by his All Progressives Congress (APC) party, a broad coalition of politicians who united to remove his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, without having a joint plan on how to run the country.
Now, 17 months into office, there are few signs of Buhari's promised reforms to diversify the economy away from exporting crude, prices of which have halved since 2014.
Already the naira is down 35 percent this year, making it one of the worst performing currencies in the world, and the National Bureau of Statistics forecasts the economy will shrink by 1.3 percent in 2016.
But criticism of the government goes beyond an apparent lack of urgency in tackling the economic crisis. A belief is growing that power is concentrated among Buhari's chief of staff and an inner circle at the presidential villa, making it difficult for ministers to get the attention of the president.
The First Lady is not alone in her views. Senate President Bukola Saraki, the third most senior politician in Nigeria, took to Twitter to express his concerns. "It has become clear that there is govt within govt of @MBuhari who've seized apparatus of Executive powers to pursue their nefarious agenda," he tweeted in June.
Buhari's spokesmen declined to comment while the president himself has defended his economic record in general terms. "I believe that this recession will not last," he said this month. "We have identified the country's salient problems and we are working hard at lasting solutions."
Annual inflation accelerated in September to 17.9 percent, a more than 11-year high, and last week about 100 young people demonstrated near the central bank over the naira's fall.
But, generally, the discontent has yet to turn into mass protest. "Let me commend Nigerians for your patience, steadfastness and perseverance. You know that I am trying to do the right things for our country," said Buhari.
Nevertheless, Buhari has not answered questions about how Nigeria is governed under his presidency.
"People feel that the country is being run by a small clique of people who have taken over and are acting in the name of the president," said Clement Nwankwo, director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, a think-tank in Abuja.
Buhari has put Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, a commercial lawyer, in charge of economic politics. But Osinbajo, who favors a more flexible currency policy to attract badly-needed foreign investment, has struggled to get his ideas heard.
"There is great worry that the input of the vice president does not seem to be taken into account in implementing policies, especially on the economic front," Nwankwo said.
Buhari has said that as an ex-general he is no expert in economics, and yet he long rejected a devaluation of the naira - just as he did as military ruler in the 1980s when Nigeria was also in recession.
When the central bank finally dropped the naira's peg to the dollar in June, the currency slumped 30 percent and many equity and bond investors had in any case long since gone.
Even now, Nigeria is operating a "managed float" which is keeping the official naira rate at around 305 to the dollar, far stronger than Monday's black market rate of 455.
As ever in Nigerian politics, the division of powers between the mainly Muslim north, where Buhari is from, and the Christian south is playing a role.
Diplomats say members of northern circles known to Buhari for decades have resisted some ministers such as Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun, a southerner in her 40s who was not his first choice.
A source close to the presidency described the accusations of inertia as grumbling by some in the APC who had hoped for jobs or contracts under a system of patronage which Buhari stopped under his anti-graft drive.
Buhari needed to pick a cabinet from the APC but this was complicated because he was constitutionally bound to pick a minister from each of Nigeria's 36 states.
To insert his influence he then brought in people he has known for decades. Members of his "kitchen cabinet" include his chief of staff Abba Kyari, whom Buhari has also put on the board of state oil firm NNPC, his uncle Mamman Daura and Babachir Lawal, the secretary to the government of the federation.
"Buhari is deeply suspicious of politicians because of Nigeria's history of graft," said one Western diplomat. "There are few people he trusts or regularly talks to seek their advice."
The preeminence of the inner circle has, say political insiders, created a rift between the president and Bola Tinubu, a former Lagos state governor who rallied southern Christian elites to help win power.
Tinubu has issued statements attacking APC chairman John Oyegun and oil minister Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, deepening divisions in the party.
Buhari has won plaudits from ordinary Nigerians by saying he will target a hyper-rich elite accused of massive corruption.
He has also managed to retake most territory lost to the Islamist militants of Boko Haram and negotiated the release of 21 of more than 200 girls kidnapped in 2014, although suicide bombings remain part of life in northeastern Nigeria.
But much of his first year in office was beset by slow progress. A five-month wait for his cabinet to be formed was followed by wrangling with parliament over the 2016 budget, which was only signed off by Buhari in May.
Efforts to make Nigeria more business-friendly have stalled. Trade Minister Okechukwu Enelamah wants to ease visa rules, acknowledging complaints from foreign executives about obstructive embassy officials, but has given no timeframe.
Nigeria could have earned as much as $8 billion in travel receipts this year, instead of the $500 million booked in 2014, had it adopted visitor-friendly visa rules like Ghana, Renaissance Capital said in a report.
Some investors have expressed frustration over hard currency curbs. "You can't even discuss a rational foreign exchange policy," David Lapido, director at Amaya Capital invested in Nigeria's power industry, told a panel debate.
Leading economists recently met Buhari, stressing it was high time for action as there were just 18 months left before the next election would paralyze politics.
"We were very frank," said Bismarck Rewane, CEO of Financial Derivatives consultancy who attended the meeting. "The president is paying serious attention to the economy. I am now more optimistic."
(Reporting by Ulf Laessing and Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by David Stamp)