Men favoured enough to dine with elders won’t talk death to big men and kings. Big men are not just big for nothing. Sometimes they die to live. Snakes retreat to shed their skins, live anew and strike better. Eagles in old age retreat to the mountains. There, they break weak beaks, pluck ageing feathers. They wait ignoring rumours of their death until new parts are grown for them to eat and soar as eagles do. That is what kings do with withdrawals and retreats.
In the part of the world where I come from, it is risky to talk carelessly about the death of a king. You don’t join idle gossips to even say the king is ill. When you do that, you are preparing yourself for the undertakers. There was an Oba not very far from my hometown in Osun State. He ascended to the throne as an octogenarian within death’s earshot. “He won’t live long, he will soon go,” his enemies said and grudgingly accepted him after repeated contests for the throne. When a sick king dies and you enthrone an old man, mourners will soon again visit the palace. That was the general thought. He became Oba and his enemies and friends started counting the days, watching the clock. “A young woman with an old husband is a wife by day and a widow by night.” They reasoned that was their lot with this aged Oba. But they were wrong. He reigned like a thirty-something-year-old king, day and night. To every “Long may you reign” this old man replied “It is a must.” And it turned out he was right. He was around long enough to eat the funeral cakes of all who said he was too old to be long in the palace. He “died” and “resurrected” many times and there were talks that on every occasion, the ones who broke the news predeceased him. He reigned for another 70 years.
We had a president who died several times before he finally died. He died while contesting for the post but was revived by his godfather’s magic wand of a phone call. Months after he became president, Umaru Yar’Adua was again pronounced dead by a mob of online undertakers. He was abroad. He was on leave but would also see his doctors. In the dead-or-alive confusion of that period, he came back and wondered why anyone was bothered about his living or dying. His life was in the hands of Allah. He could live many more years or could die tomorrow, he said. But you remember the story didn’t end there. While his lion was abroad taking care of his infirmity, friends and lovers at home were fighting over his throne. He came back and acted. Like the king who would not die before his time, he made sure there were casualties before the final hour.
Killing people in the media didn’t start with the social media. There is the unconfirmed story of a reporter-prince with the defunct Daily Times. He had problems with his uncle at home (in present Osun State) and threatened Kabiyesi that he would die! “Iku boo?” the palace exclaimed but he left, fuming and threatening. His threats were dismissed as those of a drunk, chain smoker. The reporter got to Lagos and wrote on the “demise” of his uncle… Zik lived to read a long list of members of his burial committee.
Again, the current buzz on the state of President Muhammadu Buhari’s situation won’t come to some governors and ex-governors by surprise. They have had their own versions of overseas tragedies. Many of them had been arrested in London when they were in fact in their offices in Osogbo or Ado Ekiti or Enugu or Kano. The fate these men of power suffer “abroad” depends on what their opponents dream for them. A former governor told me his son called him one sunny afternoon: “Daddy, where are you? I just read online that you were arrested at Heathrow, London.” He told me he laughed and informed his son that he was in his office in Ado Ekiti, working. It is the reality of the new age when truth and lie have become one beautiful commodity in the tray of purveyors of anything goes. Truth has been rebranded and redefined. It is no longer exclusive. It has competing versions. There are truths in alternate forms. They become very potent and destructive when those in custody of the real truth sit on it in arrogance or ignorance.
It is very true that every god has a twilight, every life has a last chapter. Presidents are mortals who must go. And it does not matter whether they are in the palace, in London or in the other room or at the war front. Death catches all, including the clever who evades deadly scenes of honour. If you think like me, you will remember these lines in Poems of the Elder Edda (Patricia Terry):
The foolish man thinks he’ll live forever/if he stays away from war, /but old age shows him no mercy /though the spears spare him… /Cattle die, kinsmen die,/one day you die yourself; /I know one thing that never dies — /the dead man’s reputation.
But until that twilight comes for man, king and god, we cannot be in a hurry to shout goodnight and inter the living.
Can we continue to throw stones at the king because he is old and feeble? And apple at his traducers because they are strong and mobile and smooth? A king that is not talking cannot be a living king, you argue? If you insist on your belief that a king is ill or that a king will die, remember there once lived an old tired lion in the forest. As age weighed heavily on him, he could no longer hunt. He was hungry and distressed. He was helpless too. Then he realized he must find a way out of the age-imposed recession eating through his credibility. The king of the jungle must not die of hunger. He is king because he is capable of all sorts of designs. That is the way of kings. They always have plans, noble and devious out of situations. They set traps and catch preys they fancy.
This lion hatched a plan. He declared himself ill and withdrew into the inner chambers of his cave. For days, he took a leave from the affairs of the forest. Kings have many lovers when they are around and strong. A sick king loses loyalists. There cannot be diehard backers for a strongman slipping away. This forest was in a frenzy. Throne contenders in hiding came out to show their muscles. Many trooped into the cave to see the unprecedented spectacle of a sick lord. Were they there to wish him well or to mock the weak bones of the strong? They went there, hare and deer, horse and ox. From the big to the small, they all streamed into the cave to see the king in his hours of helplessness. It took wily fox to discern that all who went into that cave never came back. The king’s sickness was just a measure to beat recession. Long live the king.