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Tinubu’s disappearing act and Agbalowomeri

By Festus Adedayo

Last week, Nigeria was faced with what Yoruba call Egbinrin ote. When afflictions come in multiple, they become a plague. A plague is almost synonymous with Yoruba’s “Egbinrin ote.” Literally, Egbinrin Ote is leaves of conspiracy. When you pluck a single leaf out of the branch of a tree of conspiracy, another leaf sprouts immediately to replace it. Any attempt at striking one down, multiple leaves grow from it.

On Tuesday, the country literally went into a feverish frenzy. Nigeria’s Central Bank had shot up the whole nation’s adrenaline by a considerable measure. In a circular, the bank directed all banks to begin the implementation of an amended 2015 Cybersecurity Act which levied 0.05% on all electronic transactions payable to the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA). Same week, the back-and-forth between the abducted editor of FirstNews, Segun Olatunji and Femi Gbajabiamila, Chief of Staff to the president, got to its denouement. That same week, temper boiled at high Fahrenheit over the detention and release after ten days of Nigerian investigative journalist, Daniel Ojukwu, who spent 10 days in police cell. As the week wound to a close, President Bola Tinubu, who we were praying hadn’t sunk into the Bermuda Triangle, as his whereabouts were unknown for about seven days, suddenly emerged from nowhere. No questions were asked; no apology was given. And everybody lived happily ever thereafter. In the same week, the swollen wound on the Rivers State leg suddenly burst open. The reeking smell that oozed out of it caused the world to hold a handkerchief to its nose.

Nigeria was that Egbinrin ote. Last week, as citizens contended with one bad shoot, another tree node opened, and before we knew it, multiple sprouts of afflictions shot out. As we contended with what was almost becoming a pestilential plague of Nigerian presidents suddenly disappearing from the radar, another plague sprouted. And on, and on. It was almost a plague per day. One after the other, afflictions rose a second, third, fourth and multiple times.

Since President Muhammadu Buhari, the opera of Nigerian presidents suddenly disappearing without trace seemed to have become a staple on the national menu. In March, 2021, Buhari had disappeared from the radar “for routine medical checkup.” In March 2017, the then 74-year-old president suddenly reappeared on the radar, after unceremoniously disappearing for seven weeks. He had jetted to the UK to treat an ailment which, till he left office, remained undisclosed. The rumour that followed this non-disclosure was intriguing. Some cynics wickedly alleged that the character that was flown back to Nigeria after weeks of treatment in a UK hospice was a Buhari doppelganger from Sudan. They maintained that the original had passed on. Buhari too didn’t help matters. Anytime his minders failed to put on the latch and he spoke ex-tempore, the president inflicted a public relations migraine on them. He veered off course into irrelevances like a wandering evil spirit.

As a result of his disappearing acts, in an earlier piece I did entitled, The President Is A Sick Man: Buharis’ secret surgeries inside Oneida yacht, (April 4, 2021) I traced the history of presidents who went AWOL, dwelling particularly on Africa. Permit me to reproduce it here. The President Is A Sick Man is the title of a book written by Philadelphia-born award-winning American journalist, Matthew Algeo. It is a chronology of the medical travails of President Grover Cleveland, lawyer, statesman and one of the most famous public speakers of his time. Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president of the United States of America, from 1885 to 1889 and 1893 to 1897. The book chronicles how the health of a president and the health of the nation are inexorably linked.

Cleveland was America’s first and only two non-consecutive-terms president in history. He was also the first democrat to become the American president in 28 years. Famously renowned for always speaking the truth, he was regarded as a very virtuous man, so much that his most memorable quotation, ramped up into a cliché, was “Tell the Truth.” America was later to find out that, wrapped up inside that Cleveland shawl of “telling the truth” was the most untruthful cover-up in American history, far more scandalous than Watergate. What revealed Cleveland’s real persona was his battle with mouth cancer and an extraordinary, even if political cover-up of this infirmity that lasted almost a century, garnished with a successful attempt to keep it from the American people.

On May 5, 1893, two weeks shy of his 56th birthday, the second day of his swearing in for a second term, Cleveland noticed a rough spot on the roof of his mouth which, by the prodding of his wife, Frances, prompted the invitation of the president’s friend, New York surgeon and Cleveland family physician, Dr. Joseph Decatur Bryant, to look it up. Bryant diagnosed oral tumour, malignant in nature, “an ulcerated surface with an oval outline about the size of a quarter of a dollar.” He called it a “bad looking tenant” that should be evicted post-haste.

President Cleveland was thoroughly afraid. His fear, articulated by Bryant, was that, if the cancer had gone into metastasis, the lower part of his left eye socket would be removed during surgery and thus permanently impairing his vision. Thus, on July 1, 1893, Cleveland got lost inside the Oneida, his friend, Commodore Elias Benedict’s yacht. For five good days, he was declared missing. William Williams Keen, America’s most famous and celebrated surgeon of the time and a team of other surgeons, performed the surgery to remove the cancerous tumor that had grown dangerously and embarrassingly on the president’s upper jaw and palate. The most shocking aspect of it was that, one very enterprising newspaper reporter, E. J. Edwards, later got the information and reported the secret surgery. Cleveland’s own Bayo Onanugas descended on the journalist with the highest acerbity ever. They even labeled him “a disgrace to journalism.” It was not until decades later that one of Cleveland’s surgeons exposed the startling disappearance.

I told this long story so as to bring to the fore the Nigerian and African experience of the Cleveland disease. It is not to focus on the disappearance acts of presidents per se but the stunt of keeping their ailments out of the people’s knowledge. While some may argue that the Cleveland covert surgery legitimizes many similar equations in Africa, the fact that this happened in America, in the “dark age” of the 19th century, delegitimizes such argument.

Drawing shawls on the health status of African leaders today while they suddenly disappear to undertake their own surgeries inside Cleveland’s type Oneida yacht has a history behind it. It is the mentality of continuation of the great empires and monarchies of Africa where kings were perceived to be infallible, super-human and incapable of falling prey to the afflictions of plebeians and common people. African leaders, seeing themselves in same mould of kings and emperors, believe that they must not be heard having failing health, nor their health status made public. In what other way can it be said to them that, no matter one’s status in life, no one is immune to death and health failings? This trend that I call the Kabiyesi mentality, has bred a pandemic of leaders of Africa who, almost like Cleveland, “abdicate their thrones” covertly to seek remedies abroad, without the knowledge of their people.

In October, 2016, President Peter Mutharika of Malawi also disappeared from the radar. He was 76 years old. Like Tinubu, he had gone to attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting mid-September and didn’t come back until October 16. This provoked speculations in Malawi that he had died, with his cagey aides failing to divulge his whereabouts. There were later disclosures through the grapevine that he had vamoosed to some parts of Europe to attend to his health. Same was the story of Gabonese President, Ali Bongo, son of Omar Bongo. At a time in November, 2018, Ali was said to have been “seriously ill,” with speculations rife that he had died after suffering from stroke. He was just 59 years then. Findings however later revealed that he had not died but that was holed up in a Saudi Arabia hospice.

Oil-rich Angola’s Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, who ruled the country from 1979, also eloped to Spain. He had sought medical remedy to an undisclosed ailment in May, 2017. It was after about three weeks of his noticeable absence from the public that his foreign minister, after pressure from the opposition, confirmed his unceremonious absence. In the same vein, until his death at age 95, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was always dashing in and out of Singapore hospitals. Benin Republic’s Patrice Talon was like our own military leader, Ibrahim Babangida, who disclosed to the whole world that he was afflicted by a disease called radiculopathy. After the 59-year old president, who took over from Thomas Yayi-Boni, disappeared from the radar for about three weeks, his minders, on June 19, 2017, released information that he had undergone two successful surgical operations in Paris. They said doctors had found a lesion in his prostate. This further necessitated another surgery in his digestive system.

As straightforward as President Umaru Yar’Adua was, his major blight was non-disclosure of his health status. It is obvious that President Tinubu is not medically alright. It will be foolhardy of us as a people to expect a man who, by his own claim, is 72 years old, to have the agility and health of a youth. But Nigerians deserve to know what ails their president. We will pray for him. Like the man next door, he is human, capable of taking ill and dying. It will be inhuman to scoff at his health.

Apart from Tinubu’s appearance and disappearing acts, the second Egbinrin ote that afflicted Nigeria last week was the CBN levy. Yes, the hues and cries over this levy are petering out, but we need to know what lies in the orifice of the minds of current Nigerian leaders. Some have labeled the Tinubu administration an Agbalowomeri government. Literally, an Agbalowomeri is one who squeezes the blood of the needy for their own existence. This sobriquet was made famous by J. F. Odunjo’s 1958 iconic book, Agbalomeri Baale Jontolo. In it, a wealthy village head named Agbalowomeri greedily forced his subjects to patronize him, in spite of their poverty. He gladly enjoyed the pain the people went through. He met his waterloo thereafter. A clearer insight of the persona of an Agbalowomeri was provided by D. Olu Olagoke in his famous The Incorruptible Judge play. Ajala, a young job-seeker, was forced to offer bribe for employment as Clerk in the Government Development Department. A demand of “kola” of £5 was made from an indigent Ajala by a top civil servant, Mr. Agbalowomeri who, unbeknown to, was collecting marked money in what was a sting operation by the police. The police then swooped on him.

Yes, Buhari left a shell, and Tinubu inherited a parlous economy that was heading to kiss the canvass. The fact however remains that this government has been grossly anti-poor people in its policies of close to one year. It seems to take delight in mass pauperization. But for government’s unfeeling desire to inflict pain on the people, the provisions of Section 42(2)(a) of the Cybercrime (Provision, Prevention etc.) (Amended) Act 2024 are unambiguous and clear enough. They were that, “business specified in the Second Schedule of the Act” and not ordinary Nigerians, were meant to pay the CBN levy and not ordinary Nigerians.
Now comes the next plague. Those who voted Tinubu in the light of his testimonial of having fought the military for its repression of free speech are getting aghast at his government’s sagging human rights records. The examples of FirstNews’ Olatunji and FIJ’s Ojukwu cast a dark patch on whatever democratic credentials Tinubu parades. Let us be clear on this: No person in their right senses should encourage yellow journalism where untruth and sensationalism are deified above facts.

Our laws, however, provide for due process of apportioning legal comeuppances on yellow journalism. They, in the same vein, frown at Sani Abacha’s Colonel Frank Omenka’s antediluvian horror prosecutorial method. Omeka thrived in locking victims up in dark cellars and allegedly throwing some inside the lagoon for fishes to devour. Olatunji’s Gestapo-like arrest and his subjection to inhuman detention, as well as Ojukwu’s slam into detention without trial for ten days are crude memories of Abacha. If Gbajabiamila knew the civilized route of seeking retraction and apologies for an offensive story as he later demanded and got from the publishers of FirstNews, why was that route an anathema to him, ab-initio?

Same goes for Adejoke Orelope-Adefulire, a former senior special assistant to the president. She could have gone the legal route of suing FIJ and Ojukwu for their investigative story which alleged that she transferred the sum of N147 million of government funds marked for school construction into a restaurant’s bank account. Why then get Ojukwu locked up like a common criminal for ten days? The way the Tinubu government is going, it is turning the Cybercrime (Provision, Prevention etc.) (Amended) Act 2024 into another Decree 4. That decree was the military’s weapon of inflicting weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth on free press. All men and women of goodwill should disclaim this government’s furtive opening of the exit door for Abacha to enter the democratic hall in Nigeria.

The last Egbinrin ote came in the form of a story that also came to a frightening point last week. It is the unending tango between FCT Minister, Nyesom Wike and Rivers State governor, Siminalayi Fubara. In an earlier piece I did with the title, As Fubara Presses The Nuclear Button, (December 17, 2023) I laid the blame of the protracted crisis squarely where it belonged – Wike and Tinubu. Tinubu, because, in his meeting with the governor and Rivers stakeholders in Aso Rock last December, if he had acted like a statesman and not an APC leader, Rivers will not be a smoking cauldron that it is today. You will recollect what a member of the Rivers Elders’ Forum and former Rivers State Commissioner for Works, Chief David Briggs, had revealed what actually transpired.
On why Tinubu, who knew the grave infraction against the constitution that the 27 lawmakers loyal to Wike had committed by defecting to the APC, Briggs claimed Tinubu said, “I’m the leader of the APC in Nigeria. And you are telling me when babies are born into my family, I should ask them to go.” Tinubu thereafter dictatorially got the parties, including Fubara, to sign a pre-written agreement, apparently under duress. In the words of Briggs, “He (Tinubu) emphasized the fact that he is the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and anybody who tends to say no to what he is saying, it has consequences.” Has Tinubu ever called Wike to his office to tell him the simple truth? I doubt. Who can peer light into the dilating eyes of the lion, the animal which inflicts tribal marks on any animal in the jungle (Ògìdán olólà ijù)? The truth is, Wike’s totalitarian approach to power and his violent disposition are the bane of today’s Rivers politics. The day Wike accepts that no one can hold on to power ad-infinitum is the day the good people of Rivers would be rid of the Wike-inflicted conundrum.

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