Can you imagine a Nigerian president riding in 28-year-old VW Beetle? Or living in his own house, forgoing the heaven-like Aso Rock? Or giving 90% of his salary to charity? Or — the most difficult one — having to leave office quietly when he could have manipulated state institutions to give him another term in office, given his popularity?
It may never be replicated in Nigeria, but it has happened in Uruguay, where the outgoing president, Jose “Pepe” Mujica, has broken all records in presidential modesty.
A former guerrilla who spent 13 years in jail, Mujica was elected president in 2010 for a five-year term. The Uruguayan constitution forbids an incumbent from seeking re-election, so he had to leave office on March 1, 2015 despite his street popularity. Of course, he made no attempts to change the constitution.
The 79-year-old socialist has handed over to his predecessor and successor — Tabaré Vázquez, who is now on his second term because of Uruguay’s peculiar law.
In an interview with BBC, Mujica recalled the years he spent in detention, two of them lying at the bottom of an old horse trough.
“I was imprisoned in solitary [confinement] so the day they put me on a sofa I felt comfortable!” Mujica joked about his status as president.
“I’ve no doubt that had I not lived through that I would not be who I am today. Prison, solitary confinement had a huge influence on me. I had to find an inner strength. I couldn’t even read a book for seven, eight years – imagine that!”
But you are not likely to say that of any Nigerian politician who had been to jail before coming to power – they seem to be overwhelmed by the flow of cash as soon as they assume office.
Yet, Mujica cannot understand the global fascination with his modest lifestyle.
“This world is crazy, crazy! People are amazed by normal things and that obsession worries me!” he said.
“All I do is live like the majority of my people, not the minority. I’m living a normal life and Italian, Spanish leaders should also live as their people do. They shouldn’t be aspiring to or copying a rich minority.”
He will also be remembered for stabilising the country’s economy and promoting equity and social justice.
Neither will he be forgotten for legalising abortion and marijuana in a country with Catholic majority.
He said: “Marijuana is another plague, another addiction. Some say it’s good but no, that’s rubbish. Not marijuana, tobacco or alcohol – the only good addiction is love!.
“But 150,000 people smoke [marijuana] here and I couldn’t leave them at the mercy of drugs traffickers. It’s easier to control something if it’s legal and that’s why we’ve done this.”
On his retirement plans, he is not going to be typical.
“I have no intention of being an old pensioner, sitting in a corner writing my memoirs – no way!” he said.
Don’t expect him to write “My Watch” in a hurry then.