The Poetics of Bola Tinubu’s Palm Kernel, by Lasisi Olagunju
Listen to Senator Bola Tinubu Wednesday last week in Abeokuta: “If you want to eat palm kernel, put a stone on the ground; put a palm nut on it, take another stone and smash it on the palm nut. The nut will be cracked and the kernel will come out. You can see that it is not easy to get palm kernel to eat.” The Yoruba who watched how he strung his words together and the histrionics while saying what I translated above would say I have not done enough justice to how he said it. They should just forgive me. Tinubu, super-rich city boy, must one day tell us who taught him how to crack nuts and eat palm kernels. It is intriguing that that was the imagery he used in describing his aspiration to be president of Nigeria. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the poetics, the rhetoric and the metaphysics of that Abeokuta outing.
Our fathers have several other ways of saying what Tinubu said with that imagery of force and devotion. They say also that a palm seed that would become palm oil must have a taste of fire. They foreclose shortcuts for the axe to the honeycomb. Every axe that must have a taste of honey must lose more than a tooth. Tinubu remembered to add that too on Wednesday. He was a delight to watch.
At the very beginning of time, someone had a dream that he was cracking a heap of palm nuts. Where every dream is a warning, every question seen at night must be answered in the morning. The dreamer went to an elder for insights into what he saw. He was reminded of the strength of his character but was told that he talked too much and needed to bridle his mouth. He was told that he was in a tough situation that needed tact and strategy garnished with loads of patience and composure. He was told that he might be pursuing a goal that might not be entirely profitable – like picking and cracking nuts with diseased seeds. Senator Bola Tinubu’s latest Abeokuta declaration interests me. He was loquacious but I don’t think he was tactless. He believes he is working hard at getting the presidency of Nigeria because it is his turn. But, he thinks his friends in his party’s government are sabotaging his efforts with the power he gave them. The man I watched in Abeokuta looked increasingly frustrated but defiant. He employed the imagery of palm nuts and two stones to describe his engagement with next month’s election. Elections are truly a palm nut-cracking process. Cracking palm nuts is a very deep Yoruba way of coding wars and snatching victory from the jaws of hard labour. Ojú bòrò kó ni a fi ngba omo l’ówó èkùró (You don’t snatch the seed from a palm nut by being gentlemanly). That was Tinubu’s description of the “superior revolution” he said he is staging with his candidature in the February 25 election. Tinubu understands perfectly what he is into. I am not sure his supporters do.
Still on the rhetoric and the poetics of Tinubu’s politics. His words impale; his dance steps taunt the enemy. Whenever Senator Tinubu speaks in his distinctive Oyo-Yoruba, I hear poetry in his (in)eloquence; I see verses in his allusions even as he drags his words. He is always at his best speaking in the language of his fathers. He may be awful in singing, but he is a devastating user and connoisseur of Yoruba war lines. Where he is from, every General has a drummer, singer and chanter of words of adulation and provocation. Tinubu, in Abeokuta, ordered his war bard, Wasiu Ayinde, to sing against his enemies: “K1, bèrè ìlù; ìlù òtè (start to beat drums, drums of war/intrigue/rebellion); pèlú àyájó nlá; àyájó nlá ni kóo gbé lé won l’órí (Seal it with a big, strong spell, place it on their heads).” My people say song goes before a war; sometimes it incites the enemy to rash defeat. What Tinubu asked of his bard is invocatory; he asked for an invocation, a summoning of the elemental principalities to come and fight his foes. It is getting clearer that what we are watching (or about to watch) is not a ‘small thing.’ But who were/are the ‘them’ so deserving of the spell and imprecations of the warlord? And why ‘Ayajo’? Why not ‘iwure’ (blessing) for the sea of bald heads at that rally? Why imprecations and not prayers for his enemies to have a change of heart?
Tinubu’s imagery of one stone down, one stone up and a stubborn palm nut between them reminds me of a ‘war’ over rocks between two towns in present Osun State. In cracking hard nuts, stones are for man as rocks are for the gods. When a rock is stacked on another rock, my dictionary says I should call it a cairn. But a cairn is man-made; this one in contention was made before man was made. Here, the people had two huge rocks, one on top of the other, standing on top of a hill. Like the current north-south fight over the presidency of Nigeria, these two coterminous communities fought over the ownership of that hill and a war was imminent. Some elders, with sense, thought there was a more sensible place to resolve disputes other than at the war front. The feuding peoples should meet at the foot of the hill, the place of friction, and do it as their fathers did.
Every appointed day must arrive and so was it with that day. The day broke, with plenty of orin òtè and ìlù òtè, the feuding feet met at the base of their object of discord. The kind of spell Tinubu asked Wasiu Ayinde to haul at his enemies last week in Abeokuta emitted from the mouth of one of the sides. “May the top rock ‘ré lu’lè’ (fall down) within seven days if this land belongs to me,” the king of one of the feuding towns invoked those words. The other side nodded and the warring parties went home. At the dawn of the seventh day, the top rock was down the hill. The spell-casting town is Iragbiji, a community ten-minute drive from my own in Osun State. The fall of that rock was the end of the ownership dispute but the victorious town, from that day, added a valiant cognomen to its name: “Iragbiji Olókè méjì,/t’ako t’abo l’órí aagba/Òkan yí lu’lè ó kù’kan (Iragbiji, owner of two hilly rocks,/ Male and female, one on top of the other/ One rolled down, leaving the other).” Read that ‘oríkì’ again. A rock must fall for a side to win. The first time Tinubu climbed Abeokuta’s Olumo Rock and sensationally reminded us of how someone from the north lu’lè one, two, three times like a mágùn victim, my mind went straight to that cognomen and the “ó lu’lè” refrain in it. When Tinubu, last week, called for àyájó (spell) on his enemies, I remembered it was one ‘ayajo’ that felled a hill in that part of Yorubaland.
Tinubu was angry in Abeokuta because of petrol and the naira. We are angry too because of those two items but the reasons for our anger are not the same as the politician’s. Tinubu says fuel and money have become as rare as masquerade’s excreta because of him. He thinks his creations in government are setting him up for a crushing defeat in the February election. But he is one of the stones cracking our palm nut. Whether he is the up stone or the down stone, he is no friend of the people’s palm nut. He cannot be allowed to extricate himself from the consequences of the government he foisted on Nigerians. Because of politics, the earth is scorched and they say we must endure the pains of their vain feud. As I write this, the streets are in hunger and existential angst. There is no money, there is no fuel, there is no electricity, no water. Yet we must live through these times because an election must be won and lost next month.
“In Osogbo, husband went out to queue for fuel; wife went out to queue at the ATM. Both returned in the evening. No money, no fuel.” I saw this post at the weekend on the Facebook wall of a former commissioner. The lot of the couple in that post has been the lot of millions across the country in the last one week. There has been power failure for several hours; you need fuel for your generator; petrol stations won’t take old notes; their POS terminals aren’t working; you can’t get new notes at the ATM; you go inside the banking hall and get paid with old notes which get rejected in the market. Things are bad and are likely to get worse even with the two-week extension of the deadline for old naira notes to die. But why would our husbands insist that after February 17, 2023, old naira notes outside the bank vaults remain unredeemable forever? The law says the CBN can “issue, reissue and exchange currency notes from time to time” – that is what Section 18(b) of the CBN Act says. It also says the CBN can, at any time, “call in any of its notes or coins on payment of the face value thereof” – after giving reasonable notice. But the same law (Section 20(3)), says that even on the “expiration of the notice”, and after it has ceased to be a legal tender, an old note or coin “shall be redeemed by the bank (CBN) upon demand” – except it is “mutilated or imperfect” (Section 22). The law sets no time-limit for the redemption. But our CBN yesterday set February 17 as the limit to satisfy the demands of this provision. I think the February 17 limit is unlawful. You can also read the CBN Act; it is available online. The makers of that law are not stupid. They followed what the civilised world does when in similar situations. In England, the £20 and £50 paper notes ceased to be legal tender on September 30, 2022 but the system continues to allow those still in their possession to exchange them for the new polymer notes. Check the Bank of England’s website, it is there: “30 September 2022 was the last day to use our paper £20 and £50 notes for retail purposes. However, there is no need to worry as withdrawn notes can always be exchanged at the Bank of England for new notes at any time after this date.”
Whatever elite mischief the government wants to cure with the naira redesign should not be to the sorrow of the ordinary Nigerian. Tinubu alleged in Abeokuta on Wednesday that the currency redesign was an act of sabotage against his aspiration. He spoke with so much courage and, watching him, I was so pleased that someone from my place was staking his all for what he wanted. But, the fuel-and-naira speech was all about him; he had no word for the stranded and the grounded; the high and dry and the down and out. And, like Julius Caesar, he is more than one person; he is not an ‘I’ but a ‘we’ with an intelligence superior to his enemies’. Listen to him: “We are too smart. We are brilliant. We are courageous. We are sharp….This is a superior revolution and when I tell you, you know what I mean. You know me. We are going there to win.” And he wrapped up everything with the defiant refrain: “A maa d’ìbò, a maa wo’lé (we will vote, we will win).” If a proverb sounds like it is meant for you and you keep quiet, it means you are afraid of a fight. President Buhari countered the narrative at the weekend that he would not leave “the poorest of the society” to their own fate as they suffered the pangs of a measure which he said in November last year was designed to stop politicians from mobilizing “resources and thugs to intimidate people in any constituency” in this year’s elections. And, on Sunday, he hosted the CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele, in Daura and made adjustments that extended the life of the old naira notes by 10 more days. Will Tinubu thank Buhari for this gesture? The presidential election is February 25; the naira note deadline is February 10. Tinubu and Buhari are warriors in the mould of Shaka, the Zulu – they do not take prisoners. But the people are groaning and dying.
Shakespeare in King Lear describes those who suffer the violence we suffer from our husbands as flies in the hands of “wanton boys.” Elechi Amadi in his The Concubine says we are grasshoppers in the hands of these same “wanton boys” who “kill us for their sport.” The warring APC elephants are no different from Shakespeare’s and Amadi’s ‘wanton boys’; they crush us just for their politics. But, can I ask Tinubu and Buhari to read the epic of Mazizi Kunene’s Emperor Shaka the Great? Shaka was the young prince for whom “the shadows of the past dissolved in the new sun” and he “grew proud and generous and full of confidence” and became king. He was the king who believed that in every war “victory must be final” and the “enemy must be chased and trapped in his own home” and destroyed; it is only then “he shall not raise his head again.” Shaka was powerful and popular; then he overdid things and lost the ground that gave him strength. Because the Zulu king lost his mother, life and living were decreed halted with a screech. “There shall be no ploughing and no reaping,/ No cows shall be milked throughout the land;/ No man shall sleep with his wife in the year of mourning;/ No woman shall be pregnant in the year of mourning.” That decree took Shaka’s plane into a turbulence he never quite recovered from.