In a classic illustration of how rumours and hearsay work, Mark Twain described in his autobiography how news that a cousin was dying quickly metamorphosed into the “scoop” that Twain himself was dead. His response became instantly famous: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Were he alive today, Twain would probably be amused to observe how, in this Internet age, celebrities and well-known figures are confronted by “news” of their own demise on a regular basis.
A premature obituary is an obituary published whose subject is not actually deceased. Such situations have various causes, such as hoaxes or mix-ups over names, and usually produce great embarrassment or sometimes more dramatic consequences. Examples range from arms manufacturer Alfred Nobel, whose premature obituary condemning him as a ‘merchant of death’ may have caused him to create the Nobel Prize, to Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, whose actual death was apparently caused by reading his own obituary.
In Nigeria, we have had quite a few high –profile cases of false death rumours: Nnamdi Azikiwe, the First President of Nigeria was declared dead by Nigerian newspapers years before he actually died.
For many years now, the Nollywood actress, Sola Sobowale, popularly called Toyin Tomato has been rumoured as dead. It was said that she was arrested and beheaded in Saudi Arabia for committing drug related offences. Contrary to the rumours however, Toyin Tomato is still alive safe and sound. In fact I see her at Emukay Restaurant in London almost every weekend, the last being just last Friday. We are also constantly on the phone. She has never even been to Saudi Arabia, not to talk of being beheaded. For the past 3 years, everytime I visit Nigeria, people who know that I know Sola always ask me if the rumours were true, and I had to go to great lengths to deny this wicked rumour. Sola Sobowale is alive and well and living it up in London. Sometimes, when visitors from Nigeria visit Uncle Tunji Oyelana and his wife, Kikelomo’s (Sola’s senior sister) restaurant, Emukay in South London, I could see their unbelieving eyes when Sola saunters in and starts dancing.
About two week ago, news reports came that Maryam Babangida, Nigeria’s former First Lady, is dead. The former chairperson of the Better Life for Rural Women during her husband’s years in office had been hospitalised for ovarian cancer at a hospital somewhere in the US.
It was said that her husband, General Babangida, the retired ex-dictator was granted a US visa on compassionate grounds to be at the bedside of his wife, till her death, because her cancer had reached an advanced stage.
The rumour turned out to be just that: rumour. Not true.
Even before Umar Yar ‘Adua became President, due to his well-known kidney problems, there had been rumours about his supposed death. This was of course not helped by his constant disappearance from the public and his many travels for medical check-ups in Saudi Arabian hospitals. During Yar ‘Adua’s campaign in Abeokuta in April 2007, the then President, Olusegun Obasanjo had, in order to douse the rumour that the PDP presidential candidate had passed on, decided to put a call to Yar’Adua in the presence of thousands of PDP faithfuls, and then theatrically proved to Nigerians that “Umaru” was not dead.
Excerpts of the telephone discussion:
Obasanjo: ‘Umaru [Yar’Adua] are you dead?’
Yar’Adua: ‘I am alive’
Obasanjo: ‘What are you doing?’
Yar’Adua: ‘I am laughing.’
The President, looking directly at the crowd: ‘He is laughing ha! ha!! ha!!!'”
It was the stuff of which jokes are made, even though unkindly; especially knowing how crude Obasanjo could be when it comes to politics.
Since he became President in May 2007, rumours about Yar ‘Adua’s health has persisted and surfaced from time to time. In August 2008, another rumour of his death made the rounds until he himself dispelled it, and just this week (November 2009), another such death rumour surfaced, especially when it was announced that he had gone to for yet another medical check up in Saudi Arabia.
In Nigeria, it is usually believed that such rumours were either contrived deliberately by the subjects of the death rumour themselves or their supporters as a kind of spiritual “juju” sacrifice so that the subjects will then live longer. Sometimes, it might just be wicked, malicious rumours spread by the subject’s perceived enemies or political opponents. Whatever the case or cause might be, the subject usually lasts much longer and stronger.
Please don’t get me wrong; all over the world, history is replete with such death rumours or premature obituaries of celebrities, statesmen and women, political figures, scientists, etc. Even the Queen of England and Ronald Reagan were once subjects of such rumours, not to talk of Hollywood actors and actresses too numerous to mention. Even Hitler and Stalin had all been rumoured to be dead long before they actually succumbed to death. So was Alfred Nobel.
You may not agree with me on this, but Nigerians are still basically a very primitive and very superstitious people. Even those of us who claimed to have fully absorbed Western culture and religion ultimately succumb to inherent African very easily. When Lord Lugard described Nigerians in the 1800s in seemingly racist and less flattering terms, he was saying the truth, at least based on his own observation and experience of the African mind. There is nothing we can do about this. In the darkest corners of Nigeria, and even in the open, dark and evil deeds that in this century would seem to have been jettisoned are still going on, on a daily basis. Take the child witchcraft infanticide still being perpetrated by a questionable female “religionista”, Pastor Helen Ukpabio and others of her ilk in Cross River and Akwa Ibom States, as examples, preying on peoples’ poverty and superstition and illiteracy, with her saying “witchcraft is a problem all over Nigeria”, making money from it and destroying lives in the process and still boasting about it. She could not address the major problems of corruption, poverty, bad governance, but to her, witchcraft the most important problem in Nigeria. Damn her.
We are particularly susceptible to rumours and superstition because we are a very gullible people. The rumours are even fuelled by charlatan, irresponsible and compromised news media, who chose what to write in a style to suit their paymasters. There is no respite. Nobody wants to tell or hear the truth. We also like a higher being or God to fight our fights for us, hence when Mayriam Babangida was rumoured to be dead, we were all jubilant that God had fought for us and exacted punishment on the Babangidas for their corruption and the mess they left the country.
Now, again it is being rumoured that Yar ‘Adua is dead, we just thought, all well and good, good riddance, serves him right, etc not thinking about the repercussion of his death on the Nigerian polity, all because we regard his tenure as illegal and un-progressive. We did not think we could wait for him to complete one term and then try to boot him out via the vote. We want him out now, but we want God to do it for us. As Olusegun Adeniyi, Presidential spokesman recently said, “I think the daily pre-occupation of some people is to kill the President in their imagination and if that makes them happy so be it… I am tired of responding to what has become a common pastime of some idle politicians… maybe when the President comes back I will ask him how he keeps dying and resurrecting everyday”. What we should be praying for, perhaps, is for the sickly Mr President to have the wisdom, the sense and the courage to resign or retire before he dies on the presidential seat.
But should we want Yar ‘Adua (and many of our leaders) dead? Should we wish death on fellow human being,
for whatever reason? No! While these people had been short-changing and oppressing us for decades, I would rather have them behind bars serving long prison sentences with very hard labour and all their assets seized.
I often laugh when I read or hear the curses rained down on our leaders. Yes, they do deserve to be cursed and superstitious people that we are, we believe the curses will work, and that is why, for example, Maryam Babangida had ovarian cancer; or it was our curses, or prayers to God, that eventually dispatched Sanni Abacha. Well, what do I know? Maybe, maybe not. But the fact remains that God will not come to the rescue of Nigerians alone to save them from their corrupt, selfish, inconsiderate and oppressive leaders. All people of the world are God’s creation, so why should He give special favours to ungrateful and sinful Nigerians?
Compatriots, things do not work like that. Heaven can only help those who help themselves. You do not wait for manna to fall from heaven. No rumours, curses or superstition will work against our leaders. In fact, they also fuel and exploit their peoples’ superstition and rumour mongering to the fullest for their own selfish ends.
Need I say more?