As soon as he opened his eyes, he felt it. A strange peace, a calm clarity. He stretched. Even his limbs were stronger and surer. He looked at his phone. Thirty-seven new text messages – and all while he was asleep. With one click, he deleted them. The empty screen buoyed him. Then he got up to bathe, determined to fold the day into the exact shape that he wanted.
Those Levick people had to go. No more foreign PR firms. They should have made that article in the American newspaper sound like him, they should have known better. They had to go. And he would not pay their balance; they had not fulfilled the purpose of the contract after all.
He pressed the intercom. Man Friday came in, face set in a placidly praise-singing smile.
“Good morning, Your Excellency!”
“Good morning,” Oga Jona said. “I had a revelation from God.”
Man Friday stared at him with bulging eyes.
“I said I had a revelation from God,” he repeated. “Find me new Public Relations people. Here in Nigeria. Is this country not full of mass communication departments and graduates?”
“Yes, Your Excellency.” Man Friday’s eyes narrowed; he was already thinking of whom he would bring, of how he would benefit.
“I want a shortlist on my table on Wednesday,” Oga Jona said. “I don’t want any of the usual suspects. I want fresh blood. Like that student who asked that frank question during the economic summit.”
“Your Excellency… the procurement rules…we need somebody who is licensed by the agency licensed by the agency that licenses PR consultants…”
Oga Jona snorted. Man Friday used civil service restrictions as a weapon to fight off competition. Anybody who might push him out of his privileged position was suddenly not licensed, not approved, not registered. “I don’t want you to bring your own candidates, do you hear me? I said I want fresh blood, I’m not joking.”
“Yes, Your Excellency,” Man Friday said, voice now high-pitched with alarmed confusion.
“Put that DVD for me before you go,” Oga Jona said.
He watched the recording on the widescreen television, unhappy with his appearance in the footage. His trousers seemed too big and why had nobody adjusted his hat? Next to The Girl from Pakistan, he looked timid, scrunched into his seat. She was inspiring, that young girl, and he wished her well. But he saw now how bad this made him appear: he had ignored all the Nigerians asking him to go to Chibok, and now The Girl From Pakistan was telling the world that he promised her he would go. He promised me, she said. As if the abducted Nigerian girls did not truly matter until this girl said they did. As if what mattered to him was a photo-op with this girl made famous by surviving a gunshot wound. It made him look small. It made him look unpresidential. It made him look like a leader without a rudder. Why had they advised him to do this? He pressed a button on his desk and waited.
Violence was unfamiliar to Oga Jona. Yet when Man Monday came in, his belly rounded and his shirt a size too tight as usual, Oga Jona fought the urge to hit and punch and slap. Instead, he settled for less: he threw a teacup at Man Monday.
“Why have you people been advising me not to go to Chibok? Why have you people been telling me that my enemies will exploit it?”
“Sah?” Man Monday had dodged the teacup and now stood flustered.
“I am going to Chibok tomorrow. I should have gone a long time ago. Now it will look as if I am going only because a foreigner, a small girl at that, told me to go. But I will still go. Nigerians have to see that this thing is troubling me too.”
“But Sah, you know…”
“Don’t ‘Sah you know’ me!” This was how his people always started. “Sah, you know…” Then they would bring up conspiracies, plots, enemies, evil spirits. No wonder giant snakes were always chasing him in his dreams: he had listened to too much of their nonsense. He remembered a quote from a teacher in his secondary school: ‘The best answer to give your enemies is continued excellence.’ What he needed, he saw now, was an adviser like that teacher.
“Sah, the security situation…”
“Have you not seen Obama appear in Afghanistan or Iraq in the middle of the night to greet American troops? Is Chibok more dangerous than the war the Americans are always fighting up and down? Arrange it immediately. Keep it quiet. I want to meet the parents of the girls. Make gifts and provisions available to the families, as a small token of goodwill from the federal government.” He knew how much people liked such things. A tin of vegetable oil would soften some bitter hearts.
“From Borno we go to Yobe. I want to meet the families of the boys who were killed. I want to visit the school. Fifty-nine boys! They shot those innocent boys and burnt them to ashes! Chai! There is evil in the world o!”
“These people are evil. That man Yusuf was evil. The policemen who killed him, we have to arrest them and parade them before the press. Make sure the world knows we are handling the case. But it is even more important that we tell the true story about Yusuf himself. Yes, the police should not have killed him. But does that mean his followers should now start shedding blood all over this country? Is there any Nigerian who does not have a bad story about the police? Was it not last year that my own cousin was nearly killed in police detention? Let us tell people why the Army caught him in the first place. He was evil. Remember that pastor in Maiduguri that he beheaded. Find that pastor’s wife. Let her tell her story. Let the world hear it. Show pictures of the pastor. Why have we not been telling the full story? Why didn’t we fight back when The Man From Borno was running around abroad, blaming me for everything when he too failed in his own responsibilities?” Oga Jona was getting angrier as he spoke, angry with his people, angry with himself. How could he have remained, for so long, in that darkness, that demon possession of ineptitude?
“You can go.”
He picked up the iphone and spoke slowly. “I want to expand that Terror Victims Support Committee. Add one woman. Add two people personally affected by terrorism. How can you have a committee on terrorism victims with no diversity?”
On the other end of the phone, the voice was stilled by surprise. “Yes Sah!” Finally emerged, in a croak.
He put down the phone. There would be no more committees. At least until he was re-elected. And no more unending consultations. He picked up the Galaxy, scrolled through the list of contacts. He called two Big Men in the Armed Forces, the ones stealing most of the money meant for the soldiers.
“I want your resignation by Friday,” He said simply.
Their shock blistered down the phone.
“But Your Excellency…”
“Or you want me to announce that I am sacking you? At least resignation will save you embarrassment.”
If those left knew he was now serious as commander-in-chief, serious about punishing misdeed and demanding performance, they would sit up. He ate some roasted groundnuts before making the next call. To another Big Man in the Armed Forces. They had to stop arresting Northerners just like that. He remembered his former gateman in Port Harcourt. Mohammed, pleasant Mohammed with his buck teeth and his radio pressed to his ear. Mohammed would not even have the liver to support any terrorist. He told the Big Man in the Armed Forces, “You need to carry people along. Win hearts and minds. Make Nigerians feel that you are fighting for them, not against them… And when you talk to the press and say that Nigerians should do their part to fight terrorism, stop sounding as if you are accusing them. After all, let us tell the truth, what can an ordinary person do? Nothing! Even those people who check cars, if they open a boot and see a big bomb, what will they do? Will they try to subdue an armed suicide bomber? Will they pour water on the bomb to defuse it? Will they not turn and run as fast as their legs can carry them? Let’s start a mass education campaign. Get proposals on how best to do it without scaring people. When we tell Nigerians to report suspicious behavior, let’s give them examples. Suspicious behavior does not mean anybody wearing a jellabiya. After all, was the one in Lagos not done by a woman?” He paused.
“Yes, Your Excellency!”
“As for the girls, we have to go back to negotiation. Move in immediately.”
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
“I should not have listened to what they told me in that Paris summit. Why did I even agree to follow them and go to Paris, all of us looking like colonised goats?”
From the other end, came a complete and lip-sealed silence. The Big Man in the Armed Forces dared not make a sound, lest it be mistaken as agreement on the word ‘goat.’ Besides, he had been part of the entourage for that trip and had collected even more than the normal fat juicy estacode.
“I don’t want to hear about any other mutiny,” Oga Jona continued. “You will get the funds. But I want real results! Improve the conditions of your boys. I want to see results!”
The Big Man in the Armed Forces started saying something about the Americans.
Oga Jona cut him short. “Shut up! If somebody shits inside your father’s house, is it a foreigner that will come and clean the house for you? Is Sambisa on Google Maps? How much local intelligence have you gathered? Before you ask for help, you first do your best!”
“Yes Your Excellency.”
“And why is it that nobody interviewed the girls who escaped?”
There was a pause.
“By tomorrow night I want a report on the local intelligence gathered so far!”
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
Oga Jona turned on the television and briefly watched a local channel. Who even designed those ugly studio backgrounds? There was a knock on the door. It had to be Man Thursday. Nobody else could come in anyhow.
“Good afternoon, My President,” Man Thursday said.
Short and stocky, Man Thursday was the soother who always came cradling bottles of liquid peace.
This time, Oga Jona pushed away the bottle. “Not now!’
“My President, I hope you’re feeling fine.”
“I received a revelation from God. From now on, I will stop giving interviews to foreign journalists while ignoring our own journalists.”
“But My President, you know how useless our journalists are…”
“Will Obama give an interview to AIT and ignore CBS?”
“No, Your Excellency.”
“I know some of our journalists support Bourdillon, but we also have others on our side. I will beat them at their game! I want to do interviews with two journalists that support us and one journalist that supports Bourdillon. Find one that will be easy to intimidate.”
“I want names in the next hour.”
“Yes, Your Excellency.” Man Thursday now stood still, lips parted in the slack expression of a person no longer sure what day it was.
“Tell the Supporters Club to change their television advertisements. They should stop mentioning ‘those who are against me.’ I will no longer give power to my enemies. They should mention only the things that I am doing. I like that one with the almajiri boy. It shows Nigerians that I have helped with education in the North. They should make more advertisements like that.”
In response, Man Thursday could only nod vigorously but mutely.
Later, after eating vegetable soup with periwinkle and a plate of sliced fruits – he was determined to keep himself from looking like Man Monday – he asked Sharp Woman to meet him in the residence. Not in the main living room, but in the smaller relaxing white parlor. Sharp Woman was the only one he fully trusted. He had sometimes allowed himself to sideline her, when he had felt blown this way and that way by the small-minded pettiness of other people. She was the only one who had not allowed him to dwell too much on his own victimhood. Once, she had told him quietly, “You have real enemies. There are people in this country who do not think you should be president simply because of where you come from. Did they not say they would make the country ungovernable for you? But not everything is the fault of your enemies. If we keep on blaming the enemies then we are making them powerful. The Bourdillon people are disorganized. They don’t have a real platform. Their platform is just anti-you. They don’t even have a credible person they can field, the only major candidate they have is the one they will not select. So stop mentioning them. Face your work.”
He should have listened then, despite the many choruses that drowned her voice.
It was she who, a few days later, and after the four rubbish candidates stage-managed by Man Friday, brought the new PR people, Kikelola Obi, Bola Usman and Chinwe Adeniyi – when he first saw their names, he thought: and some crazy people are saying we should divide Nigeria. They were in their early thirties, with rough faces and no make up; they looked too serious, as if they attended Deeper Life church and disapproved of laughter. They started their presentation, all three taking turns to speak. They stood straight and fearless. Their directness and confidence unnerved him.
“Sir, we voted for you the first time. We felt that you would do well if you had the mandate of the people instead of just an inherited throne. We liked you because you had no shoes. We really liked you. We had hope in you. You seemed humble and different. But with all due respect sir, we will not vote for you again unless something changes.”
He nearly jumped up from his seat. Small girls of nowadays! They had no respect! As if to make it worse, one of them added that if the election were held today, the only person she could vote for was The Man From Lagos. Oga Jona bristled. That annoying man. Even if a mosquito bit him in his state, he would find a way to blame the president for it. Still, Oga Jona could see why these foolish small girls were saying they would vote for him. The man had tried in Lagos. But their mentioning The Man From Lagos was now a challenge. He would rise to the challenge.
“Sir, the good news is that Nigerians forgive easily and Nigerians forget even more easily. You have to change strategy. Be more visible. Stop politicizing everything. Stop blaming your enemies for everything. You have to be, and seem to be, a strong, uniting leader. Make sure to keep repeating that this is not a Muslim vs. Christian thing.”
Oga Jona cut in, pleased to be able to challenge these over-sabi girls. “You think Nigerians don’t know that it is mostly Christian areas that they are targeting in Borno? And what about all those church bombings?”
The three shook their heads, uniformly, like robots. They were sipping water; they had declined everything else.
“With all due respect sir, if you look at the names of bombing victims, they are Muslims and Christians. If God forbid another terror attack occurs, you have to come out yourself and talk to Nigerians. Stop releasing wooden statements saying you condemn the attacks. We will prep you before each public appearance. You have a tendency to ramble. That’s the most important thing to watch out for. Be alert when you answer each question. Keep your answers short. You don’t have to elaborate if there is nothing to elaborate. Stick to the point. If they ask you something negative, be willing to admit past mistakes but always give the answer a positive spin. Something like ‘yes, I could have handled it better and I regret that but I am now doing better, and am determined to do even more because Nigerians want and deserve results.’ You have to start reaching out beyond your comfort zone. Nigeria has talent. Look for the best Nigerians on any subject at hand, wherever they may be, and persuade them to come and contribute on their area of expertise. Especially the ones who have no interest in government work. Even one or two who don’t completely agree with you. Think of Lincoln’s Team of Rivals.”
“Don’t worry, sir. The important thing is to reach out beyond your circle. Oga Segi was not a calm person like you. He even used to threaten to flog people. But he had a good network. Jimmy Carter is his friend. If he needed expertise from a university in Zaria or Edinburgh or Boston, he would pick up his phone and know somebody who knew or somebody who knew somebody who knew. But with all due respect, sir, you don’t have that. Bayelsa is a small place.”
These girls really had no respect o! He glared at Sharp Woman, who shrugged and muttered, “You said you wanted people who would tell you the truth.”
But he listened.
In his first interview, the words rolled off his tongue. Those girls had made him repeat himself so many times. “I want to apologize to the Nigerian people for some actions of my government. We could have done better. No country fighting terrorism can let everything be open. But we owe our country men and women honest, clear assurance that we are taking decisive action, with enough details to be convincing. I ask for your prayers and support. I have directed the security services to set up a website that will give Nigerians accurate and up-to-date information about our war against terrorism. I have also hired specialists to manage the flow and presentation of the information.”
And the words came easily when he shook hands with the parents in Chibok, simple polite people who clutched his hand with both of theirs. He should have done this much earlier; it was so touching. “Sorry,” he said, over and over again. “Sorry. Please keep strong. We will rescue them.”
The words were more reluctant when he wore a red shirt and asked to be taken to the gathering of The People in Red at the park. But he cleared his throat and urged himself to speak, particularly because, as he emerged from within his circle of security men, the People in Red all stopped and stared. Silence reigned.
“I came to salute you,” Oga Jona started. “We are on the same side. My government has made mistakes. We are learning from them and correcting them. Please work with us. Together, we will defeat this evil.”
They were still silent and still staring; they were disarmed. He thanked them and, before they could marshal their old distrust, he turned and left. That night, as he sank to his knees in prayer, he heard the muted singing of angels.
– Chimamanda Adichie is an award winning writer and author of bestsellers including Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck and Americanah