Tunji Ajibade is a consultant writer and a public affairs analyst based in Abuja, Nigeria. He’s been writing actively for over two decades. He once worked as a reporter with The Guardian newspaper, Lagos, Nigeria. He has written several news commentaries on public affairs that were broadcast on the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), largest radio network in Africa. His writing portfolio contains over 100 newspaper articles, literary reports, literary personality interviews and short stories. His work has been published by Untamed Ink and Cavalcade.
You ought to ask questions about the birds and the animals you left behind at the State House Zoo, Your Excellency. You have to, because barely four weeks after you left, some strange things began to happen around the State House and in the country. You know I was their closest companion, the birds and the animals. While I often sat close to the barbed wire fence of the Zoo to watch the animals, the birds visited me each morning and said ‘night, night’ each evening before they returned to their cages, especially the ostrich who was my closest friend. She was ever at the head of the group. Once the Zoo Attendants let them out of their cages, she led others to the steps of my son’s apartment. Then she would walk ahead of them as they undertook their daily journey in the State House premises after they had visited me.
Her work was more obvious when I gave the birds what I had preserved for them each day - the left-over rice, beans or corn whenever my son’s houseboy remembered to buy it from the market. She supervised her followers as they ate their meal. Wonderful organizer, the ostrich. Her effort was most beneficial to the younger ones in the group. She ensured the chicks had their fair share. Do you know, Your Excellency, that all the birds began to have younger ones as soon as you left? They did. It was as if your going opened doors for them to become fruitful. The ostrich did not produce chicks. You know she was the only one you brought to the zoo without a male companion. But the mother hen, peahen, pigeons, guinea fowls and turkeys produced younger ones in dozens.
For the younger ones to have a share of the meals, the ostrich would shoo the adults aside, and they all watched their chicks feed. They moved in on what was left after the younger ones had their fill. The ostrich kept an eye on the rest as she ate. I watched the other day as she dealt a blow to the back of the cockerel’s head. He was greedy, the cockerel. Were it not for the Ostrich, he would have arrogated the leadership of the group to himself. It was good he wasn’t the leader or his rule would have proved too oppressive for the weaker ones. I watched him the other time as he spread his wings to have both the rice and the corn to himself. Of course, you know how he behaves, Your Excellency. You remember that day when you strolled over to my son’s apartment after you saw the Chinese Premier back to his car.
Even while you were still in from of the State House, some the two hundred metres away, you saw what the cockerel was doing. You said, “he should choose one; either he feeds on the corn or he does his courtship dance. He should do one, and leave the other.” I had laughed and said that the cockerel was never able to decide whether he wanted to concentrate on eating or courting one of the hens in the group. He always wanted to do everything at the same time or have everything to himself. And he would if he had his way. Some birds could be selfish. I recollect the smile on your face as you came close to my son’s apartment and stood watching the birds. We stood together and watched the cockerel in particular - you, younger man, standing erect in your babanriga, flowing gown, and I, bent slightly, leaning on my walking stick. The two of us talked of how foolish the cockerel was. And he was jealous too. He was the only cockerel around, meaning he had access to all the young and mother hens in the group, yet he guarded the females like they would be taken from him, just as he did the grains I spread on the ground. Then he went too far when he moved his wings, spread out to guard the hens, into the ostrich’s path.
Both of us were shocked at first to see the ostrich raise her head and deliver a blow to the cockerel’s head. The cockerel, of course, was ready to defend his dignity and had turned around, raising his head in preparation for a fight. He soon fled when he saw who the opposition was. Your Excellency laughed. You laughed so much water came out of your eyes. It was the first time I saw more than a quaint smile on your face, the first time since my son brought me here to stay with him four months ago to recuperate from a minor surgery.
Honestly, Your Excellency, I wished you laughed more often. You were sad, always sad. It was all over you. Maybe millions of your fellow citizens didn’t see it on TV on the few occasions your wife allowed you to appear before cameras. But I saw it close up. And your wife. She was some woman. Calm, unobtrusive, she always seemed, far off or close up. It was as if she couldn’t swallow a pinch of salt. Your citizens also saw her that way, my son told me. Reports that arrived at his table as your Chief Security Officer or CSO, as you called him, confirmed it. He said most people thought she was the best thing to happen as a president’s wife. Maybe. But I am a woman and I have passed through her age. Now that I am in my mid-seventies and I have seen it all. I have seen it in all shades – in my six daughters who were toddlers, teenagers and now mothers and grandmothers themselves. I saw it in them at an age when they sought to be admired and loved. I saw it when they were newly married, trying to find their feet in their husbands’ homes. Then I saw it in them as wives and mothers who had found their feet and were firmly grounded in their husband’s homes. They had manifested what I saw your wife manifest.
I hadn’t spent more than two weeks, sitting in the front steps of your CSO’s apartment, watching the goings-on in front of the State House, two hundred metres away, before I understood her. You always strolled over to say ‘hello’ to me. You would ask after my health. You would ask if I needed anything. You would put hands in the pocket of your babanriga and give me money. You travelled abroad and brought back things for me. You walked over and spoke to me, asking for counsel as a child would a mother. You did all of this. She never did. But it wasn’t just for these that I knew her. I knew her from what your domestic staff who strolled by here discussed. I knew from what the Zoo Attendants said among themselves. You know it is hard for anything to miss the attention of such people. But I also knew her from what I saw as she went and came back from official and unofficial functions, as she received visitors and saw them to their cars. That woman, Your Excellency, was some woman.
The closest I saw of her was from a distance each time she stood on the front yard of the State House, as I sat on the steps of your CSO’s apartment. But I saw all that I needed to see because I have her type. Behind the calm, almost featureless face, I saw something. It wasn’t a suspicion. At my age, I can snap my fingers in confirmation of anything, anything about my kind. I wasn’t surprised at what we heard she began to do when you left this last time for Southern Adolphia. You mentioned your first and second trips to me but you didn’t, this last one. I had felt for you on those first two occasions like I would my own son. You stood there with me in front of your CSO’s apartment and we watched the birds feed as usual. You fed the ostrich by yourself, I remember now. You wanted to play with her. You placed corns in her open beak and she gleefully took them. She liked you, the ostrich. You said you raised her from a chick back in your state. You were feeding her that day as we talked and suddenly you became silent. I thought you were pondering on one of those weighty state matters you once discussed with me. You sought my opinion on the matter of saboteurs who had decided never to let the national electricity commission work. You had been depressed for days after you read the report on those saboteurs.
The mighty in the land, a clique, a cabal, you called them, had frustrated every effort you made to ensure regular power supply for your citizens. You expressed shock at the caliber of people involved. You never imagined they could be, not with their position in the society - traditional rulers, top party chieftains, men high up in various faiths. Many within the presidency were not left out. You said the same applied to the oil sector, education and the rest. I had thought those were the things you wanted to talk about when you became silent as you dropped all the corn in your hands on the ground for the birds to fight over.
“I am ill,” you had muttered.
“What did you say?” I had asked, casting a sideward glance at one of your aides who approached our position. Your goons stood manning the gate down the far side of the State House premises. There was that one who was always in dark goggles, bowler hat and coat that reached beyond his knees. He cut the picture of an undercover agent. I think he fancied himself a James Bond or something. But my son told me he was one of the most efficient security operatives around. He was probably the most ruthless too. I never asked my son about that though.
“Your Excellency, it’s time to go to the airport. Your flight is for 4 pm,” the aide said after he had greeted me.
“Where am I going?” you had asked.
“Bwori State, Your Excellency. It’s for the commencement of the amnesty programme. I hope Your Excellency has not forgotten. There is the commissioning ceremony of the duty free zone too. But that’s for tomorrow in the morning.”
“Cancel everything. I will not go,” you said.
The aide had opened his month, closed and opened it again.
“Your Excellency, the ceremony is…”
“I am not going.”
The aide had left, glancing over his shoulder as he walked back to the office part of the State House.
“Mama,” you called me.
“I am ill. I have to leave the country,” you said.
“For how long?”
“I don’t know. But it shouldn’t be very long.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Today. Now. I must be in the hospital in about twenty-four hours from now.”
“Is it that serious?”
You didn’t say a word. You nodded your head. You looked like my son when he was five years old. I felt like a mother who should take his son and reassure him that everything would be all right at that moment. I knew your mind was less on your journey than it was about something else you told me weeks back - about hawks around you, forces who were using your presidency for their own benefits. You said you had wanted to give it all up and go back to the village. But no, they had said. You mentioned the foremost person among them. Both of us still remember, I am sure.
We didn’t see much after you returned from that first trip and then went the second time. On this occasion, the third, you didn’t mention it at all. My son told me it was not your fault. You were secretly packed and sent out to South Adolphia. And that, by the only person who could do it - your wife. There had been drama since you left. My son told me you were aware of how complicated your health condition was so you took the necessary steps before you left as was required of you by law.
There was this day when I sat behind the rock close to the zoo’s gate. You know the rock I am referring to. I was there watching the animals. I mean the five of them that you added to the pool of animals before you left - the chimpanzee, monkey, lion cub, zebra and tortoise. The five regularly amused me. They were the liveliest things closest to me after what I watched on television during working hours when my son’s wife and children were away. They all moved together like a family, the five animals. I think they had formed a bond from the time they lived together in the premises of your official residence when you were governor in your state. They didn’t break the bond in the zoo. They would come to the side of the barbed wire closest to my son’s apartment and watch me where I sat on the steps, eating or moving my chewing stick around in my mouth.
The chimpanzee made me laugh the other day when he broke a twig and started to do as I did – chewing and rubbing the twig on her teeth. Chimps. I wonder why they didn’t come as humans. She was my best friend among the animals, the chimp. But I liked to watch the lion cub play with the tortoise. I think the tortoise’ old and wise brain told her that the cub might be a cub but it was still a lion. I suspected the cub was only curious to know the tortoise, an unusual animal if any is. The cub would often leave watching me to kick out at the tortoise. Not that the cunning thing ever waited. She withdrew into her shell immediately the cub turned in her direction. This invariably made the cub to turn the tortoise into a ball, rolling her about with its legs, trying to find what was inside the shell or trying to find the bald head and tiny eyes it saw seconds earlier. There was a day the cub rolled the tortoise about for hours, kicking the rough shell with its legs and grabbing the edges of the shell with its mouth. That tortoise must be fifty to sixty years old from its size but it was a toy for a two month old lion cub.
I was concerned about the cub. I had wondered if it would ever grow to be a real lion. The zoo staff gave it milk and portions of beef. But I had seen it fighting with the chimp and the monkey for bananas that I threw to them on occasions. It wrestled with the chimp one day until that one abandoned a piece of yam I put in her hand. Lion and yam! And how would it learn to be a hunter when it followed the other animals that ate leaves, root and the bark of stems. The cub was especially close to the monkey which it followed to climb a tree the other day. It fell flat on its back in the process, of course. Two people that approached their position were the reason the monkey ran and climbed a tree on that occasion. I didn’t know who they were when they arrived the gate of the zoo. The rock close to the gate, you know it, behind which I sat, had shielded them from my view.
“This situation is getting too difficult to handle and I think we can’t continue to hold it off any longer. Any chance of His Excellency returning to the country this week?” one of the men had asked.
“How do you suggest we respond to the latest situation? The lawmakers are getting agitated. They want me to show up in the chambers tomorrow to answer questions. Feelers have it that they will want to know about the letter?”
“They don’t know for certain it exists. I discussed with one of my boys in legal practice and he came up with an ingenious idea.”
“I will have to claim that His Excellency did not give me any letter on this last occasion when he traveled. Where my claim becomes credible is when I inform the lawmakers that His Excellency wrote a letter eight months ago but I didn’t submit it because he didn’t undertake that journey again. I will go along with the letter he wrote then and show it to the lawmakers.”
“Can you pull it off?”
“I think I will. In any case, it’s our only option if all of us will not go down in the inferno. An admission that His Excellency wrote a letter before he left the country on this last trip will make all of us in the kitchen cabinet liable to prosecution.”
“How will His Excellency react to it when he gets to hear that we claim the letter was not written?”
“He would not hear. He won’t with his present condition. In any case, we are all in this together. No husband admits to a crime when his wife is at the centre of it.”
“So what do we do after speaking with the lawmakers?”
“We may bring the letter and claim His Excellency has just written it from his hospital bed.”
“How do we get them to stop the attempt to install the Vice President as the Acting President?”
“Maybe we can delay that for about two weeks, not more. We will say His Excellency is returning home shortly.’
“Do you think His Excellency would be able to return shortly?”
“His wife must see to that if the move by the Senate to make VP the AP must be stalled.”
“What’s the worst case scenario?”
“The VP will become the AP and he will have to finish the last one year left of the term of this administration.”
“And how will His Excellency’s wife take all of that?”
“We didn’t know her husband would be away till this time. We don’t have to get the blame for everything. If things become too hot we will let the lawmakers to do the dirty job. We have played our part as agreed.”
Some in the Executive Council will want to block the VP from acting because he may turn the heat on them. Have you seen the latest report from the anti-graft agency? More than half the Executive Council members had transferred huge amounts of money to foreign accounts since His Excellency left.”
“I am aware. But that’s not our headache. Let them stop the VP from taking over in acting capacity if they can. Your job is to ensure that the Executive Council as well as the government machinery functions. Mine is to liase with the lawmakers for the President.”
Later that same day and in subsequent days, Your Excellency, I followed it in the news how journalists made two of your cabinet ministers exchange words.
‘The Minister of Information and Communication has said that members of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) should expedite action to return the nation to the path of constitutionality,’ a news report said.
‘The Minister of Justice and Attorney General has said the Minister of Information and Communication is unlearned about constitutional maters,’ another report stated.
‘The Minister of Information and Communication through his Special Adviser on Public Affairs has restated her position that the President and Commander in Chief must hand over power to the VP so that the nation does not continue to drift.’
‘The Minister of Justice and Attorney General has said that the Minister of Information is an opportunist who is using the unfortunate illness of the President to gain cheap popularity for herself.’
‘The Minister of Information has reacted sharply to accusation of opportunism leveled against her by the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, stressing that her actions were motivated by the interest of the country. She added that given the fact that so many things are being left unattended to as a result of the absence of the President from the country, it is her duty as well as that of the other members of the Executive Council to prevail on the President to follow the path of sanity. We cannot continue to look on and watch things degenerate, the Minister added.’
‘The Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation has said that the Minister of Information and Communication should go back to her previous place of public assignment and address the problems she created rather than engage in opportunistic endeavours over the health of the President.”
‘The Minister of Information and Communication has written a letter to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, demanding that he gives further clarification on the statement he made about her place of last public assignment in seven days or face legal action.’
‘The Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation has said that he did not mean anything negative when he referred to the last place of public assignment with regard to the Minister of Information and Communication in a comment he made days before.’
Your Excellency, I wanted to tell you what happened to your birds and animals at the Zoo. Now let me return to it. I noticed that the Zoo manager disappeared barely a month after you left. Sometime after, I sat behind the rock and I heard the two Zoo Assistants discussing:
“How do you intend to carry a giraffe out of the Three Arm Zone without the security people seeing it? We will take only the animals that can fit into the van.”
“Which van are we going to use?”
“The one that brings supplies here every week. The driver na my guy.”
“Are these the only ones that the buyer want - the crocodile, the chimpanzee, ostrich and peacock?”
“He says he wants the tortoise and the lion cub but he won’t agree to any price until he sees them.”
“Let’s give them to him for whatever amount he wants to pay. Wait o. You sure say Manager no go suspect us?”
“When last did you see him here? The man wey don take the last monthly allocation for the zoo go do burial ceremony for his late mother. What does he expect us to feed the birds and the animals with? I sure say he no go fit pin anything on us.”
“Ol’ boy, me I go pack the chickens and the cockerels o.”
“If you can. But I won’t allow you pack them in the van.”
“No wahala. I know how I go do am.”
Later I asked the two Zoo Attendants for the birds and the animals. They said all of them died as there was no monthly allocation to buy food for them. I asked my son if the Zoo did not get monthly allocation. He said the Zoo did not get allocation because Your Excellency did not properly hand over to your Vice President and so there was no one to sign the monthly allocations for the past two months.
It was on the news last night, Your Excellency, that the state governors had agreed to support the senate to make your Vice President the Acting President. Those governors, they speak from the two sides of their mouths. They appeared silent for two months over the issue of Vice President acting for you. But yesterday, they supervised the senators as they handed your power over to your Vice President. My son told me they had a change of mind because they needed the acting president to sign the papers for monthly allocations from the federal government to their states.
Your Excellency, I had thought you would return before I left my son’s place so that I could talk to you and say all this that I had in mind. But you took so long. Three months and two days, and yet you had not returned. I had some questions that I wanted to ask you, even. Like what your wife told you the day she hurriedly packed you out of the country without informing your Vice President. Did she say you should not write a letter? I mean the letter the law requires that you send to the lawmakers. Did she say you should not write the letter or other members of your kitchen cabinet asked you not to?
The Minister of Justice and Attorney General was a good boy in your absence. He defended you well and he insulted all of us too. He said we didn’t know the law and that the Vice President didn’t need to take over from you. He said Your Excellency could rule from anywhere. Yet everything had grounded to a halt. The Vice President could not discipline a minister who traveled out of the country when he ordered otherwise. He could not swear into office a new Chief Judge of the Supreme Court when the position became vacant. He could not swear into office newly appointed federal permanent secretaries. He could not stop officials at Federal and State levels from looting the treasury. My son said many government officials would end up in jail later if the anti-graft agency chose to search for every penny in government ministries and agencies. Yet the Minister of Justice had said the Vice President could carry out your duties, Your Excellency. It was good that the lawmakers finally voted that the Vice President should act in your absence. Some calm has returned to the country ever since.
Last night, Your Excellency, my son told me it was time I went for my medical check up again. He said the four months that doctors gave that I should return after the last surgical operation on my left eye lapsed this week. You know I had always had problem seeing well with my left eye. I had the last operation here in the country. But my son said since Your Excellency could not trust your heart to the hospitals here, he would not trust them with my eyes. Now he is sending me in the opposite direction of South Adolphia where you went. I am sure I will be in hospital by the time you return. I made one of my grandchildren write this down for me this morning. I will hand the letter over to my son to give to you when you return.
So in advance, I say, “Welcome, Your Excellency,” if you indeed return to read this. And don’t forget to ask the Zoo Manger and the two Attendants for the birds and animals you left behind in the State House Zoo.
They probably thought you wouldn’t ever return to ask questions.