By Tolu Ogunlesi
(first published in TELL Magazine, in 2008)
I know. That’s not what Professor Femi Osofisan said. “Birthdays Are Not For Dying” is what the famed playwright titled his play. And of course I agree with him. Birthdays are for wining, for dining, and for miming happy songs. Not for dying, and certainly not for denying!
Why would anyone want to disclaim their birthday, you might want to ask? When news filters out that the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of one of Africa’s richest countries is caught publicly putting out a disclaimer relating to his date of birth, should there be cause for alarm? What does that tell us about the state of his country’s treasury, considering that it is not out of place to regard a Presidential Birthday as a State Event, worthy of being bankrolled by the Federal Treasury. Has the country fallen upon hard times?
On Tuesday the 15th of July 2008, The Daily Punch carried a certain strange-sounding headline: Confusion reigns over Yar’Adua’s birthday. The story’s opening line – Was President Umaru Yar’Adua born on July 9, 1951? – can be chilling or downright comical, depending on how you look at it.
The Big Question is this: for what other reason, if not journalistic mischief, would a newspaper confer on itself the right to question the Presidential Birthday? But of course The Punch is not being mischievous. It is actually asking the question expecting an honest answer; expecting anyone who knows the truth to come out and solve a riddle-that-should-never-have-been-a-riddle in the first place.
This is where it starts. On the 9th of July, 2008, and in the days following, top Government functionaries (the upper echelon of the “Big Men Class of 2007”) tumbled over themselves to put up “Happy Birthday” messages to their Boss, President Umaru Yar’Adua, in the dailies – as is the custom all over the length and breadth of Nigeria. The top shots who successfully got their messages across (according to The Punch) included the President of the Senate, Mr. David Mark, the Minister of Information and Communications, Mr. John Odey, and the following Governors: Mu‘azu Babangida (Niger), Timipre Sylva (Bayelsa), Ikedi Ohakim (Imo), Rotimi Amaechi (Rivers), Jonah Jang (Plateau), Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom), and Aliyu Wamakko (Sokoto).
In the days that followed, it emerged that the “congratulators” were miles off mark (no pun intended!). Not only did they get the date wrong, even the month was wrong. The President they rejoiced with “at 57”, was alas still only 56 years and (approximately) 11 months old. Information gathered from the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Communications (apparently there’s no info on the Presidential Birthday anywhere else, not even on the internet) made it clear that the actual date is August 16, and not July 9.
The big men have since started to “explain”, one by one, how they managed to make President Yar’Adua perhaps the only President in the world with two birthdays. The Minister of Communications, according to The Punch, attributed the gaffe to “an error committed by a staff of the ministry…”
Of course we believe him. The unnamed staff (underpaid; perhaps even chronically under-promoted) must have, in the course of confirming the President’s birthday, mistakenly looked up the O.J Simpson (also born July 9) entry in some dog-eared copy of a “Who is Who” compendium. And that same staff must have then been transferred to the Office of the Senate President, from where he made the same mistake, before going on to repeat the error in various Governor’s Offices around the country.
That seems to be the most likely explanation, especially as we all know that one of the terms of employment in the civil service is the possibility of being transferred to any part of the country, at any point in time, without prior notice.
So much noise has been made, so many people are ranting. What the many “wetin-be-ya-business” social commentators across Nigeria have failed to realize is that, taking former President Obasanjo’s own birth details into consideration, we can actually congratulate ourselves on our “progress” in matters relating to the accuracy of Presidential Date of Birth.
In Obasanjo’s case, even though it was generally acknowledged that March 5, 1937 was his date of birth, the actual year of birth remained (and still remains) in the realms of conjecture. And this was not helped by the admission of Gbenga, his eldest son, who in a now-classic January 2006 interview, declared: “I personally think [my father] is older than 70 years. He just said he is about 70 years because nobody recorded his age when he was born… [h]e is not as young as people think…”
There is therefore cause for rejoicing, seeing that, with the progress of democracy, we have improved by reducing our Presidential Birthday Margin of Error from years – or even decades – in OBJ’s case, to months in the case of Yar’Adua (and only one month, I must add).
Well, mistakes have been admitted, and we can now move on. The newspapers of course have smiled all the way to their banks (pardon the cliché) with birthday advert largesse. The people I pity are the parents and historians and biography-writers of tomorrow, who will have to explain to the youngsters of tomorrow why a once-upon-a-time President of Nigeria had two birthdays.
And, of course, to be pitied the most is the man or woman who will, someday in the future, discover that the one question separating him/her from the grand prize of ten million naira (on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”), is this: “When is President Umaru Yar’Adua’s birthday?”
Even 50-50 might not save the poor guest – not if the options are automatically narrowed down to (1) “July 9” and (2) “August 16”.