(Vanguard of Sunday, April 1, 2007)
I asked a lawyer in my office what April Fool is. She told me it is a day that jokes are pulled on people. I asked her what is the origin of April Fool? She said she did not know, which would have been a satisfactory answer, but she spoilt it by saying she knows the origin of Valentine’s Day! I laughed because I knew what I wanted and she was giving me information on what I did not ask for, on what I did not need. For some five hours I had been surfing the internet and was armed with loads of material on April Fool’s Day. I should share some of the information with you before we come to whether we are not extending one day in the year to a whole month, or a way of life, because of how we are going about performing a simple chore of conducting an election.
Please stop reading here for a minute. I have just received the news of the passing on of Pa Adefarati who was the Alliance for Democracy (AD) presidential flag bearer. President Olusegun Obasanjo announced it as the PDP rounded off its campaign at Eagle Square, Abuja on Thursday, March 29. I watched it live on NTA, as I have done with other campaigns carried live on television where you can afford to pay N3million per hour. There was a minute silence in honour of the one who has created history in Nigeria by dying while contesting the presidential election, which means that the election must be postponed, unless someone wants to disobey the Electoral Act of 2006. We should come to this later.
But let us move on to this April Fool’s Day story. It was Mark Twain who is credited with saying, “The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year”. On this first day of April, you are permitted to tell lies, deceive people, do things that are diversionary, things that may even hurt. One thing common to April Fool’s Day is that what is being said, being told is not true. It is living a lie. Mark Twain is telling us that that day is the day we do with our eyes open those things we have done in the other 364 days with our eyes closed, very tightly closed to the truth.
As I contemplated what I would be telling us this day, this April 1 which is a Sunday, I remembered that this is the day we used to celebrate the successes of our lies, our fibs. This lying, this authorized moment of deceit, had a time limit. It had to end at 12 noon! But now, this distant now from then, I can see a moral to it. Those who marked this day, who still mark this day, had grown to certain irreducible levels of behaviour. They recognize certain values, ethos, and it would be demeaning to do things that would deviate from the ways of those occupying a certain rung on the ladder of life.
Take the man in the cave. He hunted with the club, wore leaves to cover his nakedness. He grew out of the cave, moved out into the fields and learned to farm, keep livestock, build huts in which he lived. What he ate graduated from raw leaves and fruits to cooked food because he had come in contact with fire, had tamed it, and knew its good use as well as its deadly effect on wrong use. He grew into living in groups and societies evolved, multiplying in number and sophistication, from millions of years ago to now.
I wanted to know where April 1 started its journey to now, how man would have advanced so far as to take discipline and good manners and behaviour as so routine that he has a day in the year when he entertains himself with reliving those times when you felt no qualms deceiving people, lying your way through life. Alex Boese satisfied my curiosity. Among the many bits and pieces I collected, his Origin of April Fool’s Day made my day. The piece was contributed in 2002.
Let us report what he says. He discusses the origin of the day and says it is clouded in obscurity. So, no one knows exactly where, when, or why the celebration began. “What we do know is that references to ‘All Fool’s Day’ (what April Fool’s Day was first called) began to appear in Europe during the late Middle Ages.” But All Fool’s Day was not a celebration of the elite, which should be why it was lost in history because it is the elite that documents its actions for posterity, from its favourable perspective. Boese is, however, in no doubt that the tradition of a day devoted to foolery has ancient roots. He then closely analyses the many ancient predecessors of April Fool’s Day.
Of immense interest to me in the ancient origin of the day of foolery and trickery is the Saturnalia, a Roman winter festival which involved dancing, drinking, and general merrymaking. People exchanged gifts, and slaves were allowed to pretend that they ruled their masters, and a mock king, the Saturnalicius princeps (or Lord of Misrule), reigned for the day. I hope you see clearly what I see in the celebration of that festival. Because of so much entrenched order and discipline in rulership, the people set aside a day when they acted indiscipline, when those not qualified to rule don the toga of the king. Something close to it was what the Lagos State government did when they put a child on the seat of governor for a day! Yes, it is a good illustration of the fool’s day outside April. But those ancient rituals of setting one day aside to divert attention from order and discipline showed the level the different peoples reached in the way they manifested life in their environment.
Boese discusses the celebrations in the middle ages which served as direct predecessors to April Fool’s Day. He also traces the mythological explanations for the rise of April Fool’s Day. Because we were a colonial territory of Britain, I was interested in how April Fool’s Day grew there. I was fascinated by what happened in Gotham, the legendary town of fools located in Nottinghamshire because the 13th century event reminds me of what happens today in some traditions in our country. According to the legend, it was traditional in the 13th century for any road that the King placed his foot upon to become public property.
In our tradition, any woman the king placed his foot upon became his wife, even if she was married! But we are not talking about us, we are being told of what happened in the 13th century. As we were being told, when the citizens of Gotham heard that King John planned to travel through their town, they refused him entry, not wishing to lose their main road. The King heard this and sent soldiers to the town. But when the soldiers arrived in Gotham, they found the town full of lunatics engaged in foolish activities such as drowning fish or attempting to cage birds in roofless fences. Their foolery was all an act, but the King fell for the ruse and declared the town too foolish to warrant punishment. And ever since then, April Fool’s Day has supposedly commemorated their trickery.
There are many other references to the origin of April Fool’s Day, including the calendar-change theory, that is the Gregorian calendar reform of the late sixteenth century. Although we have no time for this theory or any other, having established enough background to the Day of Fools, we must accept the lesson behind the day. It is a day set aside for relaxation from the demands made on you to “arise o compatriots” and obey the call of Nigeria, as demanded by our national anthem and section 24 of our Constitution which defines the work of the citizen. It is a day, a few hours of the day, to let go of your responsibility to be part of a group where laws are made and the laws are known and imbibed for obedience, not studied for the purpose only of avoiding observance if not deliberately evading it.
But here, like Mark Twain described it, every day of our life is a day of deceit, a day we celebrate how many of our neighbours we have hurt. We make laws to achieve certain short-sighted ends, but we forget that laws are made to attend to situations, not to undermine people. Now, in the month of April, when like in every other month we are presented to the world as fools who do not know what law means, what discipline is all about, we are all on edge. We are on edge because we do not trust ourselves. INEC is not trusted. Professor Maurice Iwu, so sweet in telling how ready he is to conduct elections, must, because of mistrust of his ways, go down in history as one of the most unpopular electoral commission chairmen Nigeria ever had. Armed with strict interpretation of the Electoral Act of 2006, he has no choice but to put off the presidential election of April 21.
The schemers may have thought that tenure elongation could be achieved with postponing election at the presidential level in the event of the death of a candidate at that level. Yes, one has died, but if the present administration wants to be associated with conducting the election, and not act the fools of April, then Iwu should read section 37 of the Electoral Act and announce the postponement of the Presidential Election by one day or a week, to satisfy the provision of the law that the election must be put off.
But this serious chore should not be done today, this Sunday, April 1, 2007. But what if it is done? How honest, disciplined have we been in performing the duties so clearly settled in the laws of our land?
(Published in Vol. 2 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 302 – 306; Lagos, 2008).