Tinubu’s dance of the elephants

The last sallah celebrations produced a viral online video clip of former Lagos State Governor, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu dancing with gusto to drumbeats of a group of young men. Although the drums really talked to the initiate, still those guys seemed determined to ram in their message so that aliens to the depth of proverbs could hear and run or stay. And so as they beat the drums, they also sang out what the drums said: Ope ni won o, won o mo nkankan/ Ajanaku yo lokere, won lo mo’re dani/ Erin koja eran a nf’opa lu…(They are novices, they don’t know anything/ Ajanaku emerges from a distance, they went for canes/ The Elephant is more than an animal you beat with sticks…). The song and the drumbeats were unmistakable battle cries. They were of the sounds that ushered Yoruba war generals into battle in the blood-soaked canvas of Yoruba-Fulani wars of the 18th century.  Tinubu danced, stopped, danced, smiled and danced even more vigorously as the drummers stressed their message. Who are the ordinary mortals fighting the strongman?  I watched the interesting video clip over and over again and smiled. These bards are invoking the spirit of the elephant in the presence of a potentate who relishes the sobriquet of the Lion of Boudillon!

There is a sense in which such songs and beats cast the joke on the dancer. Who is the elephant and who is fighting it with sticks, Abuja or Lagos? Or has the lion also become an elephant in this forest of big bones? There was no doubting Tinubu’s deep satisfaction with the message. Every line in that short song has a meaning for the King of the jungle. You do not do what he does in politics and not enjoy the kind of proverb in that song. Every warrior does because he knows he steps on toes with relish. He knows there will always be novices aiming their catapult at the elephant. It does not matter whether they hit their target or not. The elephant’s skin is thick enough to get the stones ricochet — back to the sender. It is like the elephant passes by in the forest and the upstart farmer snaps his fingers. Whose ancestor ever killed an elephant with a hoe? And that is why the elephant rarely acknowledges the hunter, his presence and power. It is a granite mountain, immovable.

I was about asking who the novices, the apprentice hunters were when the elephant himself solved the riddle last week with a letter longer than Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter. I know the media described the message as a press statement. I call it a letter, a spittle straight into the eyes of whoever he was fighting and who was fighting him. Politicians are never short of enemies. There must always be one, two, three or even hundreds to fight and defeat. It is the singular test of leadership to fight wars and win. The one who runs away from battles is not a general. And so, Tinubu’s angry message over the Ondo APC primary at a time no one was ready to confront power showed how perceptive those drummers were. Or were they the messengers of Esu who provoked Sango to come out firing from all cylinders?

The message was long and furious. In content and form, it was a stream of anger, disappointments and frustrations. “The feeling of pain is the tragedy of great men,” so said a thinker. Pain was in that statement, anger was there too just as threats and promises of pains. You read and read and wonder who really wrote this? Gaps here, gaffes there. Truth and threats laced with undisguised declaration of war.  Sometimes, the voice you heard in the statement was that of Tinubu speaking with the personal pronoun “I”. At other times, you heard the distant voice of a third person named ‘Tinubu.’ Yet, there were puffing portions where Tinubu became a ‘we’ reminding the “ungrateful” how they were bettered by the don and his unseen powers.

Tinubu’s message did not mention names, although it spoke very loud of enemies and powerful hands using Chief John Oyegun against “democracy.” The message did not operationalise the senator’s understanding of “democracy” and “democrats.” What does he mean when he romanticises democracy and its ideals? He is called Lion of Boudillon and he likes it. Elephants everywhere are worshipped, respected and revered. It is not the same with the lion. Lion, like other cats, eats anything flesh. Sometimes it turns its claws homeward, making delicacies of its own cubs. When a cat does that, everyone keeps a safe distance. It has crossed the line of trust. That is why the elephant in the drummer’s songs and beats deserve examination. Oyegun was the only name mentioned by Tinubu in his statement. Why didn’t he mention others? Was he afraid of them and the powers they wield? Why would the king of the jungle be afraid of upstarts empowered with its femur? In the animal world, when cubs grow to become big and strong, they move against their fathers. They fight, defeat and displace them in the battle for space and mate. The wise ones among the old quietly yield space to the new order. When they do so, they enjoy their retirement in peace and in one piece. It is the natural order of life in the jungle of politics. Tinubu knows this is true from Lagos, through Abuja to Sokoto. It is what defines our democracy from 1999 up till this moment.

Yorubas say the elephant inherits attention of all whenever it strolls into the market square. But they are an endangered species.  The elephant is ever confounding in its ways and visage. The poet, Wayne Visser, aptly captures its essence. He calls it “survivor of frozen time” and “memory of our faded past” whose “trail of destruction is the path of creation.” Because the elephant never forgets to repay good for good, evil for evil, it gets marked by the hunter. It gets too big for the forest to contain. It soon, whether out of its own indiscretion and vainglorious self-exhibition or pure envy, invites eyes of the earth to itself. It self-destructs. Whether elephant or hippopotamus, the hunter proves his superior mettle by subduing the strong. When that happens, the elephant becomes an object of commerce or of history, artifacts in the museum of power and its consequences. It is tragic. Ask M.K.O. Abiola. Ask Kurunmi. Ask Afonja.  “Where will your tusks go?,” Oria Douglas Hamilton asks elephant, the mountainous animal, rhetorically. He answers his own question: “They will leave Africa, hidden in dirty sacks, in boxes, trucks, and stores, changing hands from man to man. No one will know who you were, where you lived. You will be like thousands of others, unknown, abused, and used. One day, a piece of you will be cut into myriad items.”

That is the story of  kingmakers. They almost always lose to kings baying for the blood of their friends.

That is the tragedy of power, of strong men whose unbending raw strength turns chinks in their armour.