Although an American classic, Frank Capra’s 1939 “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” offers eternal truths that resonate in all geopolitical landscape. It is a forceful telling of the limit of idealism and the toll of ambition. And as Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari took over this past month the rudder of Africa’s largest democracy and its biggest economy, it is plentifully clear that he by no means shares the greenness of Jefferson Smith, the movie’s protagonist. But what Mr. Buhari does share with Mr. Smith is an enviable almost-too-good-to-be-true sense of social goodness and honesty.
In the run-up to this past election, strong opposition to Mr. Buhari’s candidacy by some of my fellow citizens was not based on a shaky and dubious character, despite a legacy of brutality as a former military head-of-state, but more so along the ethno-religious lines that have come to define this oil-rich nation. For instance, Yorubas in the southwest, the tribe to which I belong, are instinctively distrustful of Hausas in the north to hold the high office (Mr. Buhari is a northerner and his region has ruled Nigeria for a majority of its existence). Given the northern tribal identity of Boko Haram and its deafening religious overtones, southern Judeo-Christian sensibilities, as well as the popularity of Sharia law in the Muslim north, the South is unabashedly leery of any white knight arising from the North no matter how legitimate his claims may be.
To Mr. Buhari’s credit, he did much to pacify these fears; including promising to declare his assets within his first 100 days in office and pushing his cabinet to do the same, as well as vowing never to lead Nigeria into a theocracy. In a land where indifference, opulence, and decadence by a small elite class are the norm, Mr. Buhari has shown himself different from similar persons of his pedigree.
But what is also true is that the election marked the fourth time he has consecutively contested his present office. A self-proclaimed anti-corruption crusader, Mr. Buhari could be seen weeping in 2011 at a postelection news conference after yet another harrowing loss. And while he deserves praise for his creed and persistence to again hold the nation’s highest office, at what cost has this been to the new president?
In the course of fine-tuning his electability after mounting losses and realigning political affiliations thusly, in a gone-to-the-dogs climate as Nigeria’s, political expediency would necessitate Mr. Buhari shake hands and plead ignorance to the many men whose acts and devices he has promised to eradicate. Of the four cycles in which he contested, he thrice changed parties. Today, Mr. Buhari’s governing party is littered with remnants from previous wanton administrations; plutocrats and serial politicians whose virulence have sucked Nigeria of sustenance and continue a merciless tear at a dilapidated social fabric. Ambition, even when pushed by sincere and righteous dogma, has a way of lulling the staunchest men into false hope and compromises.
A vivid example of the new president’s realignment is that which was forged with Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos state in southwestern Nigeria whose wife also happens to be a senator. For the 2015 election, Mr. Buhari led his CPC party to join forces with Mr. Tinubu, who also disbanded his ACN party. Together they formed the APC party. It is widely understood that winning all but one state in the southwest was key to Mr. Buhari’s victory. He was a shoo-in for the northern states, which he handedly won, but southeastern states were less favorable given former president Goodluck Jonathan’s ties to the region.
Mr. Tinubu, as ordinary Nigerians would tell you, is a shrewd and resourceful politician who has mastered the lawless state of Nigeria and maneuvered himself to immensely profit from its disorder. A friend, who recently campaigned in the primaries in southwestern Ogun state for a seat at the National House of Assembly, once emphatically told me: “With all due respect to God, after God, Tinubu is god!” It was this Nigerian demigod who through all his machinations and clout coordinated the heavy financial and political resources needed to go against the well-oiled apparatus of the sitting president, and delivered the southwest to Mr. Buhari. The southwest which stood in the road to Nigeria’s presidency.
At an event organized by Mr. Tinubu’s wife a few weeks before the election, Aisha Buhari, the president’s wife, would have this to say: “My husband, General Muhammadu Buhari has been contesting presidential elections for over a decade now, but this particular election is unique because our leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, jettisoned his personal interest for the sake of Nigeria.” A loaded statement indeed.
In the 1939 movie, a young Mr. Smith found out good intentions and ideals often suffocate at the large hands of powerful interests. In ultimately winning an election even some of his supporters suspected would be rigged against him, Mr. Buhari dreamily comes off as a “champion of lost causes.” But how far will the new president and his idealism go? What shall he do when he must scourge the nation of the same persons who helped him to power and whose livelihoods depend on the status quo? Who, though he might not have assented to any underdealing, know where the bodies are buried that could mute his presidency? These debts are already coming due and the retired soldier must be prepared on what to do.