Amidst the many thoughts and emotions that crowded my mind when it became apparent that Maj-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari was well on his way to defeating President Goodluck Jonathan, the word “character” kept asserting itself. Puzzling this little conundrum, I soon discovered why. Character had been the organising concept for my endorsement and advocacy for Buhari. I had said as much without elaboration in three columns: “Buhari: Beyond Tribal, Religious and Ideological Fallacies” (14 January); “A FeBuhari Wind of Change in March” (11 February); and “For a Second War Against Indiscipline—After Voting for Change on the 28th” (25 March). In private conversations, however, I had articulated this framing idea, which, I must add, goes beyond the fact of my membership, and futile bid to be a Representative under the platform, of the All Progressives Congress.
Sometime in late February, I visited a friend of mine in Abuja who heads a major federal department in the power sector. There were about three others in his commodious office and before long, the conversation turned to the rescheduled presidential election. My friend’s sympathies, naturally, were with his boss. He was surprised that despite Jonathan’s many achievements — the power sector he was appointed to oversee as a case in point — and Buhari’s heavy baggage lugged from his stint as a military dictator, the odds seemed to be against him. Just when he was about to blame poor communication for Jonathan’s seemingly dismal prospects, I interjected. Anyone seeking to understand the dynamics of this election, I opined, would be making a mistake by looking to the conventional indices of achievement by a president, though even there the Transformation Ambassadors’ claims far exceeded any objective assessment. The soul of the nation has been mortally wounded by the cumulative assault on it by despicable leadership, military or civilian, especially in the last 16 years of impunity, institutionalised corruption and lack of a clear vision to lead the country out of its ethico-political predicament, I said.
My argument was that whenever a society was faced by a serious threat to its core values, meaning those first order principles that distinguish us as human beings, whenever the social fabric was rent and frayed and total anomie seemed imminent, such abstract ideals as freedom, liberty, equality, dignity, democracy or self-determination, etc., trump mundane matters of bread and butter (or roads and bridges, for that matter) as the inspiration for struggle and change. Nigeria, I said, is yearning for a person of character and integrity to take charge of its affairs and restore a modicum of decency. And Buhari was perceived as a man of character, exemplified by his quasi-ascetic lifestyle. In a country being eaten alive by corruption, you looked at him and were impressed that despite having been at the most lucrative posts for self-enrichment — military governor, federal commissioner of petroleum resources, chairman of the Petroleum Trust and Development Fund, not to mention head of state — he is not a billionaire, and apparently not a multi-millionaire either.
Consequently, even the very trait used to paint him as an incorrigible dictator becomes the shining colour of his character: his stern, no-nonsense demeanour that would lead him to launch his infamous war against indiscipline, his unmitigated aversion to official graft to the extreme of trying to smuggle home from the United Kingdom to face trial for embezzlement a scion of the Northern oligarchy, Umaru Dikko. It was proof that he would chase corruption and the corrupt to the ends of the world. He would be a trusted custodian of the nation’s purse which has been passing from the hands of one band of robbers to another up to the point where the naira has been all but abolished as legal tender in favour the hard currencies, chief of them the American dollar. He presented a clear contrast to a president whose only show of mettle is the shocking defiance “I don’t give a damn” when urged to publicly declare his assets so he might earn the moral authority to fight corruption, and even surpassing himself with the gratuitous sophistry of distinguishing between stealing and corruption.
I had also touched on an implicit aspect of character by adding that one of Jonathan’s greatest undoings is that he lost the “intellectual class.” “Character is destiny,” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. A variant translation from the original Greek has it as “One’s bearing shapes one’s fate.” Any intellectual not in the pay of the government or who did not harbour the expectation of being called to “come and chop” couldn’t fail to be profoundly disappointment by the bearing of a purported member of the fold. Whether reading from a script or speaking ex tempore, what hit you was a palpable lack of rigour, the absence of a mind attuned to the range, depth and complexity of the problems confronting his beleaguered nation. Always, you would feel a lack of gravitas, a measure equal to the power and prestige of the office he occupied as president, reminding you too often of how he got there in the first place: by blind, and perhaps comedic, luck. It led to the unflattering perception of the leader of the most strategically important black nation on earth as a man of dour, uninspiring personality with hardly enough wattage to light a candle.
Mild-mannered was the euphemism often employed by the foreign media to describe him. Ironically enough, it is this insipid attribute that accounts for the unanticipated yet unsurprising glory of Jonathan in defeat. What better illustration of the notion of character as destiny can there be than that in being true to his mild-mannered nature, Jonathan should promptly concede victory, thereby denying his kinsmen who threatened war if he was not elected any opportunity for calamitous mischief? I join in praising him. By one single act of statesmanship, Jonathan has managed to include a brilliant footnote in an otherwise lacklustre six-year record as president. Saved his best for the last, you might say, yet for that the nation owes him a debt of gratitude. The great German playwright and moral philosopher, Bertolt Brecht, was right after all: in the contradiction lies the hope — or, as my teacher and older comrade, Professor Biodun Jeyifo prefers it, Contradictions are our only hope! This, at any rate, applies equally to Jonathan’s victorious rival, President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, whose tenacity of purpose in pursuing power through the ballot box, serial failure notwithstanding, promises to erase the record of his dictatorial past and mark his metamorphosis into the father of a truly free and democratic Nigeria.
It is, needles to say, more than a thousand miles to the fulfilment of that promise but Buhari has taken the proverbial first step by making history as the only opposition candidate in our country to defeat a sitting president. For the sake of the nation, we must all lend him a hand so that his personal Road-to-Abuja conversion can also be the story of Nigeria’s transformation from an almost-great nation to a self-fulfilled one at long last.