Art imitates life in 4th Republic, the twisty political thriller directed by Ishaya Bako and truth is, no fiction is stranger than fact.
It has been barely a month that Nigerians went to the polls to run through the motions of electing leaders. As has been the case since Nigeria’s 4th republic commenced, the lengthy, fractured process- still ongoing in many ways- was more divisive than it was healing, with incidences of violence, voter intimidation, ballot box snatching and hate rhetoric further testing already existing political, religious and ethnic fault lines.
Ishaya Bako’s 4th Republic attempts a cross sectional study of the Nigerian condition, resulting in an over-boiled examination of factors that are usually at play whenever citizens go to the polls to elect their leaders.
The backdrop, naturally, is grand- gubernatorial elections in a thinly veiled fictional state. The polls have come down the wire to a fierce contest between the non-performing incumbent, Idris Sanni (Sani Mu’azu) and a fresh-faced philanthropist and former corporate player, Mabel King (a stilted Kate Henshaw).
Election night violence in a singular local government claims the life of about nineteen people including that of Mabel King’s campaign manager. The electoral body goes ahead to declare Sanni winner. King, a figure of moral uprightness decides to fight to claim the mandate she is convinced is rightfully hers at the tribunal. There is some resistance.
Actually, there is plenty of resistance, both from within and outside as King is considered an outsider, inflexible and capable of dismantling the status quo, one that works very fine for those entrenched in its corruption.
4th Republic plots the graph from the political class at the very top of the chain to the underprivileged citizens at the bottom of the pile, pointing out along the way how each one is affected by the broken system. Among the group of players that 4th Republic assembles, are the good, bad and ugly, each one acting according to dictates of their own agenda. The most interesting characters however- and 4TH Republic serves up some of them- are those who exist in the grey areas between black and white and who respond to situations as they present themselves.
Speaking of, 4th Republic has some kind of deception going on. It is being marketed as a Kate Henshaw vehicle but while her character, Mabel King’s ambition is the common factor that instigates conflict among all of the other players, King herself is almost a bystander, alienated from viewers by her inelasticity and the paucity of depth written into the character.
Because of its very busy nature and understandable need to put bums on seats, 4th Republic isn’t overly concerned with being the persuasive document of a Nigerian woman in politics, opting instead for basic thrills even as it struggles to balance a multiplicity of characters.
Funded via grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as well as the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), organizations known to do encourage in-country programmes that promote inclusivity and thriving societies, the screenplay’s bleak outlook is somehow tempered by some form of cautious optimism. The righteous politician may be a myth and sometimes even honorable people might descend to despicable lows for what they have convinced themselves, amounts to the greater good.
4th Republic then asks audiences to make a choice between decent people doing ugly things in order to compete, or selfish people doing the same. It is an uncomfortable ask, but one that simply reflects the real world that politicians and citizens alike dwell in.
The screenplay credited to Zainab Omaki, Emil B. Garuba and Ishaya Bako, awash with false leads, makes quite clear that politics is especially hostile to women as gleaned from a scene where King- a powerful woman in her own right- has to endure the indignity of party leaders talking down to her. And also in another, where her opponent regards her with casual misogyny. King’s story isn’t the raison d’etre though. Other broader factors are at play.
Because of this, Ms Henshaw has little to do beyond serving as the film’s self-righteous pillar. She cedes most of the spotlight to her personal assistant, Ike (Enyinna Nwigwe) who emerges late in the game as 4TH Republic’s moral center, and to newcomer Sifon Okoi whose character, Lucky represents an all too depressing portrait, the citizen at the bottom of the chain who suffers the most when big shot politicians fight dirty. Yakubu Mohammed, best known for playing Genevieve Nnaji’s love interest in last year’s Lionheart has a strong outing as an operative caught between both sides of the divide.
Bako has tackled romantic comedy (The Royal Hibiscus Hotel) and high drama (Road to Yesterday) and in 4th Republic, he proves his proficiency in an altogether different terrain, one that is closer to the charged environment of his 2012 documentary, Fuelling Poverty, banned by the censors board for potentially inciting content. The pacing is racy and plotting though initially jumbled- a result of balancing so many interests and motivations- finally settles by the second half as the focus becomes clearer.
There is something rough and indelicate about the cinematography that lends itself to a comparison with high octane television but Bako’s work in 4th Republic is never less than competent. He has an eye for visuals as well as for dialogue and tries to balance both with as many set pieces as perhaps, his budget can accommodate.
As a dramatic thriller, 4th Republic ticks all the right boxes and no one will accuse Bako or his film of failing to tickle the senses. Bako’s willingness to try out new vistas is admirable but the fallout of this adventurous nature is that his films- from Road to Yesterday to Royal Hibiscus– while effective as products of their genres, never quite ascend beyond genre comfort zones.
At the end of the day, 4TH Republic is merely competent, lacking the rigor and composition of true excellence. But truth be told, this is still somewhat of a win, for Bako and for Nollywood, considering basic competence in itself has been elevated into some kind of rarefied zone.
Such are the times we live in.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.