America was a pitiable sight last Thursday. That great country was crouched on the bare floor. It fell like a huge hippopotamus. President Joe Biden’s legs were wrapped over each other like a malevolent viper that had just had its backbone yanked apart by an irreverent bullet. America looked helpless. The edges of Biden’s blue suit raised their hands up in surrender, leaving the world gaping through his now visible white singlet.
The only thing on him that seemed unfazed by the fall was his blue fez cap. For the first time ever, cameras pierced through the underneath of Biden’s black shoes. Those shoes lay on their sides, even as a Biden security aide was pictured attempting to lift America up. Looking at the faces of the guests on the podium, you could see palpable shock and fright. America fell!
Biden had tripped and fallen immediately after handing out the last diploma at a U.S. Air Force Academy graduation ceremony in Colorado. After he fell, the president caught himself with his hands and immediately got up on a knee. He looked backwards towards a sandbag which supported the teleprompter he used. This confirms the universality of that Yoruba proverb which says, when a child falls, he looks forward to a remedy but when elders do, they look backwards to the roots of the fall. Three of Biden’s aides then sprightly sprang up to his rescue, helped him up as he walked back to his seat. He then sat down as if nothing had happened. Back at the White House, the president joked, “I got sandbagged.”
Olusegun Obasanjo didn’t have such joke as riposte. He had a sound rebuke. In 1995 circa, he had attended a political event at the Gateway Hotel, Sango-Ota, Ogun State. He was ostensibly under the weather but reluctantly elected to come and honour organisers of the event, in spite of his failing health. As he sat on the high table, with the event afoot, human nature took its toll. Vomit daringly coursed through his esophagus, irreverently unmindful that this was once a Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. This was an office that imbues its occupant with power of life and death. Like the Yoruba Anikulapo, he had death imprisoned inside his pouch.
Obasanjo momentarily grabbed one of the cups in his front on the high table, inside of which was hemmed a serviette paper. By then, the goddamn vomit had burst the door of his mouth open and was ready to spill the content of its cistern. Obasanjo merely offered the glass cup as sacrifice to this rude guest. Then, the vomit forcefully gushed out of his guts.
Ace photographer of the then Third Eye and later, Tribune newspapers, Tomi Adegbite, just like those photographers in Colorado who clicked on as America fell, sprang up his feet and unto the scene. He immediately drew out his camera. Click-click-click, this audacious professional thumbed the button of his camera, photographing Nigeria’s ex-Head of State at his most vulnerable moment.
Obasanjo couldn’t care. He soberly attended to the unseen hand that ruled him at that moment. After his Lord and Master, the vomit, had finished its assignment and the cup was filled up, the ex- Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces looked up to behold the photographer. “Ta lo ran e ni’se? Foto lo de nya loju ara e yen o?” – Who sent you? You must think you are taking a shot? he demanded. It was indecipherable. Was it a question, threat or a remark? The photographer didn’t wait to give a reply. As the Yoruba would say, he “na papa bo ra” – literally, disappeared into void. Like Biden’s photo, this too was later published in the Third Eye.
The Biden fall became a piece of narrative to justify Nigeria’s tottering last week. It was spearheaded by those who believe in the Messiahnism of the current landlord of Aso Rock. A few days before Biden’s, Nigeria almost fell too. It was on May 29, 2023 at the Eagle Square. A clandestine video recording said to be of President Bola Tinubu, at his swearing-in, went viral. As celebration enveloped Nigeria and the atmosphere of conviviality wrapped the Eagle Square, the president allegedly made for the podium to address the world. From the video, we saw a president who shook tremulously like a storm-propelled chandelier. His ADC briskly fled after him as he tottered like one in the dark, seeming to want to fall. Or, could the president have been drunk that early morning? This reminded the audience of the biblical apostles accused by their Jew brethren of being drunk early in the morning. The charge was later disputed by Peter the apostle who reminded them that Jews seldom drank alcohol before nine in the morning. So, was Nigeria’s president drunk on the day of his joy?
Or, was he drunk on something? Or, ill? After his fall last June in America, Biden’s doctors came out to tell the world that he does not drink alcohol nor use tobacco and exercises “at least” five times a week. The fall came as Biden dismounted his bicycle and snared a foot in a toe clip of the cycle. He had taken a weekend trip to the Gordons Pond area of the Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Just as he did in Colorado, Biden stood up immediately, waved and said, “I’m good. I got my foot caught up.”
Immediately, his doctors declared him healthy and fit for duty after they conducted physical examination on him. The White House thereafter issued a release saying the president did not require any medical attention. Nigerians were not that lucky. After Nigeria tottered at the Eagle Square last Monday, mum was the word. There was even no official reaction to the viral video. We expected to be told, as usual, that the video was photo-shopped; and that some shaky and tremulous character, not our president, was imported into that viral video. Neither did we get a medical reaction similar to the one from Biden’s physicians telling us that “President Tinubu does not drink alcohol nor use tobacco or any other harmful substance and exercises on the treadmill ‘at least’ five times a week.”
Tinubu wasn’t the first leader of a people to totter that pitiably. Indeed, he has no reason to worry about falling. Falls have almost become an imprimatur of the world presidency. One world leader, who once fell or nearly fell, was Boris Johnson. Curated by the British press as having a nonchalant approach to governance with his hair uncombed and shirts flown out, untucked, in 2015, Boris hit tabloid headlines as he slipped at a charity tug-of-war game organised for a World War I commemoration event holding at the Thames River. Clenching his teeth and grimacing, Johnson pulled hard in the game as he fell, losing his footing on the muddy grass. He exclaimed, “oh bugger!”
Then another photograph emerged. It was of President Tinubu at a meeting with CBN and NNPCL heads. He was cosseted by his wife, Remi. Though they claimed it was not an official meeting, what was Mrs. Tinubu doing at an official meeting presided over by her husband? Was Nigeria about to witness an imperial presidency where the queen and king reigned? This question accompanied the viral photograph of the event. It reminded me of one verse of the Ifa corpus that inveighed leaders who import their women into the theatre of power.
The narrative went thus: The Olufimo, who was a king, got pestered by his newly wedded wife to take her to the Oro cult, a ritual that forbade the presence of women in traditional Yoruba society. When the pestering became almost like a pestilence, Olufimo, in the bid to wave off a far more pestilential matrimonial crisis, had no choice than smuggle the woman into the Oro groove. He did this by hiding her inside the apere – the traditional seat of the king. As the initiates gathered for the ceremony, the babalawo struck the chord of the Ifa deity thrice on the pouch but the deity refused to communicate with the initiates as it used to do. Then, the Ifa priest sought the face of the god in a different way and commanded that the Olufimo’s apere be ransacked for the cause of the blockage of communication by the Oro cult from the living. The Ifa narrative expressed this thus in Yoruba – Ohun lo di’fa fun Olufimo Akoko ni’jo ti o f’aya e j’oye; ape’fa, ifa o je o, a p’oro, oro o mi titi o, e je a ye’nu apere oba wo. The Olufimo and his wife were then beheaded for the sacrilege they brought upon the land.
On the social media, Nigerians did their own “beheading” via commentaries dragging the First Family. Questions were asked on the nature of this unfolding government. Would the First Lady be attending Executive Council meetings too? Was this part of the un-communicated handover note that Mrs. Aisha Buhari left for the pastor? “Learn lessons from my isolation in the Villa. Take charge, from the word go!” Was that what she said? Or was that Nigerian Christians’ own way of achieving a Muslim/Christian presidential parity?
Some very naughty persons however reasoned that the First Lady was cosseting her husband all over the place not necessarily to flaunt her feminine power but to physically monitor his fragile health. Didn’t Yoruba say that the plate is not displaying arrogance when it diffidently insists that it must have its own soup poured right on its face? – oju awo l’awo fi ngb’obe. No one, not even a doctor, can decipher when the indicators are going wrong like the woman who had witnessed the indicators slide dangerously in the past.
Did President Gerald Ford’s wife, like Remi, dot on him too after he fell? Ford fell exactly the same day, 48 years earlier from the day Biden fell in Colorado. On June 1, 1975, Ford had been captured in a photograph flung on the floor yakata like a castrated puppy. The very embarrassing event had occurred overseas as the president disembarked the Air Force One in Salzburg, the rainy Austrian city. His wife beside him, Ford, who was by then 61 years old, had lost his balance as he walked down the wet steps of the aircraft. He then skidded off down the remaining stairs. The almighty president of America ended up folded in a heap by the tarmac. Flummoxed, officials stampeded round themselves to get America back on its feet. Later while delivering his speech, Ford had said: “Thank you for your gracious welcome to Salzburg, and I am sorry I tumbled in.”
Falls are viewed both literally and metaphorically by people all over the world. They are even symbolic. For political foes of presidents, they narrate a bumbling and clumsy presidency. To paparazzi and the yellow journalism world, when such falls are caught on camera, they become skits for entertainment and late-night comedy shows. Stumbles are also framed as narratives of lack of fitness for the office occupied. For older presidents and leaders, they are pointers that the ones who fell had aged beyond the call of office. The cantankerous Trump had seized on the Biden fall in Colorado. When asked about it at an Iowa rally, he sarcastically remarked, “He actually fell down? Well, I hope he wasn’t hurt,” and added, “You gotta be careful about that,” even if you have to “tiptoe down a ramp.”
These falls and tottering may mean nothing to other world leaders, but they should to President Tinubu. As an African, Tinubu should look back, like Biden did, to his teleprompter. Falls and tottering humanize us as the living. They show that we are mere pencil traces on a paper which can be erased in a twinkle of an eye. They guide us to remember our humble past. In traditional African reading of infirmities and death, Africans came to a conclusion that those are beyond the purview of the living. Anyone who mocks a recipient of any of such unfavourable knuckle of fate is the greatest fool. The aged and worn trees of the forest have been known to confound human understanding to stand erect while the green, luxuriating ones fell.
On Friday in Osogbo, Osun State, on a Rave FM radio sermon, an Islamic cleric, Musbaideen Afolabi Orimadegun, had narrated the story of an ex-slave by the name Ayaz. Ayaz was promoted and became the king’s favourite chief. He had been thoroughly impoverished and wore torn clothes as apparel. He now began to wear expensive clothes and shoes. Then his co-chiefs reported to the king that he usually went inside the king’s treasury, where he kept all his clothes and material property. One day, the king volunteered to go with the chiefs at the dead of the night to witness what they said was Ayaz’ nocturnal pre-occupation. There, they saw him peel himself of all those adornments of wealth, even as he wore those torn clothes and shoes he wore as a poverty-stricken man. Then murmuring, he told himself “Ayaz, don’t forget what you were before now. This is you; this is your foundation! Realize this and be humble.”
As Orimadegun, a highly revered Ustaz due to his depth of understanding of Yoruba and the Quran, said during that sermon, the native concoction that rescues one from perennial bouts with an Abiku child must never be denied its veneration. It must be constantly replenished with water – agbo to ba si’ni lowo abiku, omi ori re o gbodo gbe. In the same way, said Orimadegun, atori ta ba fi le ise wo gbe, a’i ju si’gbo – the cudgel with which poverty is chased into the forest must never be despised or thrown away. The people make and unmake leaders. As I once said, there is no difference between the ordinary cleaner on the street and the president, except that one is privileged over the other. The cleaner’s defecation smells, just as the president’s; they both take ill, trip and fall. The people are the ones who make the leader and deserve to be constantly venerated. Their welfare must be topmost in consideration. Did Tinubu factor the people into the current removal of subsidy? As desirable as the removal is, was it logical to yank it off, as peremptory and off-the-cuff as it was done, with the attendant suffering Nigerians are going through now?
Nigerians expect a presidency of sobriety, and which will preference them. They want an economy that stands on its feet and may care less about a president who totters; they want a presidency that is reconciliatory and not one that wars with any part of the country. Again, Orimadegun’s counsel in that sermon, dredging deep into Yoruba chieftaincy tradition, was that, a chieftaincy attained in the thick of hues and cries deserves sobriety – Oye ti a ba fi ote je, kike laa ke. Is the Nigerian presidency listening?
Festus Adedayo is an Ibadan-based journalist.