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Trek, swim, box and ski

Millions of Nigerians walked to and from Eid prayer grounds on Tuesday last week; many others rode to the prayer grounds in vehicles; thousands of horses, camels and donkeys galloped to Eid grounds while millions of rams were ritually slaughtered on that day. Yet, the event that outshined them all was a walk that President Muhammadu Buhari undertook from the Daura Eid ground to his house, a distance estimated at 800 metres. While the president walked, his aides preceded him, his vehicles followed from behind while security men kept excited and cheering townsfolk at bay.

Now, 800 metres is what the great Kenyan runner Ben Jipho will do in one stride. The great Tanzanian runner Filbert Bayi will think of 800 metres as a warm up while the legendary Ethiopian marathon runners Abebe Bikila, Miruts Yifter and Haile Gebrsellasie will see that distance as a mere leg stretch. In Nigeria however, 800 metres turned out to be a political marathon. In the evening on Sallah Day, the president’s spokesman Malam Garba Shehu appeared on NTA Network News and promptly elevated the president’s short trek into an Olympics-length marathon.

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The president is running for a second term in office and two unspoken issues in the campaign are his age and his health status, especially given his recent two-week holiday in London, which many thought was a medical trip.  While most politicians and the mass media have so far refrained from making those two issues campaign material, Garba Shehu brought them to center stage by saying some aspirants present themselves as younger and more vigorous but Buhari has just proved that he is fit enough to seek a second term in office.

To find an equivalent presidential spectacle, we must go all the way back to July 1966 when the leader of the Peoples Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong, undertook a widely publicized swim in the Yangtse-Kiang River. Mao, who was 72 at the time, was rumoured in Western newspapers to be in poor health and there were claims that an internal revolt was brewing against him. His energetic swim in the Yangtze, one of the world’s most powerful rivers, promptly ended all speculation about his health. The Chinese Communist Party said Mao swam for 15 kilometres within 65 minutes; Western skeptics quickly said if the claim was true, Mao had broken the Olympics record.

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There were other national leaders that were fond of walking. In 1980 or so, TIME magazine did a long story on Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. It said at noon every day, Sadat’s friend Osman Ahmad Osman, owner of the construction firm Arab Contractors, arrived at the presidential palace and the two men went for one hour’s silent walk. They hardly spoke during the walk, TIME said, which made me to wonder why Osman did not use the chance to lobby for juicy contracts. If only Buhari were to do another 800 metre walk, Nigerian contractors will fall over themselves to accompany him, and sure they will not remain silent during the walk.

Not only Anwar Sadat; the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito was also a well-known walker. Hirohito regularly walked on the Tokyo beach early in the morning, even when he was plotting to launch Japan into the Second World War. Hirohito more than walked; being a trained marine biologist, he collected animal samples on the beach and even wrote a book on the mollusks of Tokyo harbor. He also used his daily walk to arrange informal audiences. For example, when Admiral Yamamoto was busy preparing to launch the attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, he received a phone call from the Imperial Palace. The caller said, “Admiral, will you be walking on the beach tomorrow morning? If you will be near the giant oak tree at 7am, that will be good.” Yamamoto understood what it meant; he will have a “chance” meeting with the Emperor.

Some American Presidents did more than walks; they jogged. There were many pictures of President Bill Clinton jogging for several kilometres in the morning. Four or five Secret Service agents also put on their running shoes and jogged alongside him. Clinton’s successor in office, President George Bush Jnr, had a unique exercise regimen of his own, which was to chop huge logs of wood with an axe at his Crawford Ranch. Maybe next year, instead of walking from the Eid ground, we might see President Buhari partaking in the skinning of slaughtered Sallah rams, an activity almost as tasking as chopping wood. George Bush Jnr’s father, President George H.W. Bush mostly went fishing at his Kennebunkport resort for relaxation but to mark his birthdays, this old US Navy pilot often did parachute jumps from a plane. To mark his 90th birthday in 2014, Bush parachuted from the skies over Maine, assisted by veteran US Army paratroopers.

One of the most agile world leaders today is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spent his youthful years as a KGB agent. Only recently I saw a video of Putin standing up from his desk at the end of the day and walking to his car. It was a small marathon; he went through many offices, trod through seven long corridors and went down several flights of stairs before he arrived at a waiting limo. Putin is said to be a judo black belt who deploys the same skill on the international stage. However, Africa once produced a leader who was more athletic than Putin. Former Ugandan President Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada was a giant of a man; in colonial times he was also the Military Boxing Champion of British East Africa comprising Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. No wonder that in 1979, when their two countries were on the brink of war, Idi Amin announced that the problem at hand was not really between Uganda and Tanzania but between himself and Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. He therefore proposed that the two of them should step into a boxing ring and settle their scores. NEWSWEEK magazine said at the time that “not surprisingly, the lightly built Nyerere refused the offer.”

In recent times, I have not read about any world leader who was more physically prepared for his job than Prince Charles Phillips Arthur George Mountbatten Windsor, the British Crown Prince. According to a special 1978 TIME magazine edition on him, Prince Charles has served in the British Army, Navy and Air Force; he is an expert horse rider, a Plus 7 handicap polo player, a Grand Prix motor racer; a trained paratrooper, an expert scuba diver, an expert Alps Mountain skier, a trained helicopter and fighter plane pilot and a very good waltz dancer, in addition to other qualities!

I am not saying all these to raise the physical fitness standard for this country’s 2019 election campaign, which kicked off last week. In response to Garba Shehu’s assertion, presidential aspirant Atiku Abubakar announced that he does regular exercise and often runs for more than a kilometer [that is, 200 metres more than Buhari’s 800 metre walk]. He cleverly added however that he was not making his vigorous exercise regime a campaign issue. Fearing that it had opened a Pandora’s Box, the Presidency retreated last week from the fitness walk claim. President Buhari himself said in Daura that his walk was not meant to prove anything but that he undertook it because people wanted to see him and his official vehicle had tinted glasses. Very good. Let me stray into another issue, Nigerian style. Did the police ever stop that car and ask if it had a permit to use tinted glasses, as they do to the rest of us?

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