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Baking the National Cake

David sits silently, staring at the reports in front of him. Words wobble on the page. He pulls one file closer and fingers the papers one by one. He twists his mouth. His cheeks follow the twist of the lips. His face contorts. He has to be ready for the cabinet meeting at 11 AM. His accountability report is one of the major items on the agenda. The other is the Succession to Presidency Bill.

David absentmindedly taps his Parker pen on the page. He reads from one line to the next and back to the beginning. He looks at the papers and the words form a strange pattern against the white background. He wants to command his mind not to stray but he does not have the will to do so. The contentious issue of succession to the presidency occupies the bigger part of his mind. As Minister for Presidency, he feels like an altar boy watching the priest swig the wine while he waits to receive and clean the empty glass. Now is the time.

The accountability report he is working on could cost the country billions if he does not handle it well. In fact, donors have already warned of an economic war if the government does not provide proper accountability. But who cares? For twenty-five years David has faithfully worked for the Republic of Kabira. For twenty-five years he has cared about nothing but the image of Kabira, first as a member of Parliament, then Minister for Public Service, and now Minister for Presidency. But what do the president and his vice-president do? Trot the globe, while he, David, does his work and also takes care of covering their tracks. They leave for two-day conferences and stay away for weeks. It is David that ensures that the accounts are balanced to include the nonofficial days.

Part of this accountability included one of the VP’s recent trips on government business. The VP took his mistress on a shopping spree in London. When it was discovered that all her expenses were paid for by taxpayers' money, David was asked to quickly dispel the rumor by creating a ghost minister who supposedly traveled with the VP. David told them it was not easy, but they thought it was all a joke. Now everything was back on his desk. Even when The Eye reported that the president's maternal aunt had used the presidential jet to attend her daughter’s wedding in France, it was David that accounted for that trip. They seemed to think he was a magician.

David was tired of covering up for them. When Mistress No. 5 threatened to kill the president and locked him up in her room for over an hour, it was David he called to help sort it out.

“These women will kill you, boss,” David told him.

“It was a small issue.”

“I know. But stop going to their homes.”

“And then?”

“And then what?”

“Exactly. And then what?”

“Boss, you can see what to do.”

“Good. Then see what to do and let me know.” David wanted to tell him that was not part of his job description, but kept quiet. In a few days, a house was ready. Sometimes David saw the acute hunger that lingered in these women’s eyes, but it was not his duty to offer solutions or even to ask questions.

David pushes the files aside. He pushes back his chair and stands up. He walks to the water dispenser to the left of his desk. He fills a paper cup with lukewarm water and downs it in one gulp. He does not like the taste.

He walks back toward his desk, crushes the paper cup in his left hand, and smiles wryly at the crumpled paper. It is the VP in his hands. He throws him in the trashcan. His mind briefly turns to his administrative assistant. He has repeatedly told him to requisition  another trashcan to place near the water cooler so that he can throw away his empty cups right there. It bothers him to throw them in the trash basket near his desk. And he prefers the little brown basket for used cups in the VP’s office. But his assistant keeps forgetting. The man is very forgetful. Like David, he forgets most things, even those he is supposed to ensure that David should not forget. He makes a mental note in preparation for the assistant’s next performance review.

David stares at the Accountability Report again, but he does not sit down to continue with it. Instead, he opens the door and walks into the corridor toward the VP’s office. “Maybe he can advise on the trip to London,” he hisses as he heads to the office.  He lingers in front of the door. He can hear muffled voices inside. David suspects that he might be on the phone to the president backbiting other ministers, or soliciting support from colleagues, as he always does with David. He listens, but cannot make out anything.

He feels like opening the door and stuffing the VP into one of the old closets, where he would be discovered a week or so later. A tingling sensation creeps inside his nose. His lips tighten over his teeth. Before he is overtaken by emotion, he hears movement in the room. The visitor or whoever it is is getting up. David hurries off toward the end of the corridor, stretching his long arms and legs in an exaggerated manner. He then turns and heads back to his office.

“That’s some good exercise,” Badru, a colleague from another office, calls.

“Stretching my legs,” David flashes him a smile.

“You wanted the VP?”

“No. Why?”

“I just thought.”

“Ah. OK. No. I was just stretching my legs.”

“I hear you have a cabinet meeting this morning? Have you been informed?"

“Yes, of course. Why?”

I just asked.”

“Ah, OK. Yes.” David interrupts him and walks away back into his office. He knows Badru very well. He knows that he is not just asking but he does not pursue the subject. He does not want to. A green snake in green grass. But David likes him. At least he rustles in the grass and you notice his presence. Other snakes just spring before you notice them. Badru is not part of the cabinet but he knows more about what goes on in cabinet circles than the ministers themselves do. And it is rumored that he is the president’s ear. But other people say that the president does not trust him entirely. David does not, either. Not that it matters.

David reaches for the inner door that leads into his restroom. He does not have any urge to use it but he likes the idea of just being there for a little while. In there, he is able to think uninterrupted, or not think at all. In there, he does not have to try to please anyone, not even the president. In there, he does not have to hide his true feelings toward the VP. He unzips his navy blue trousers. As a little urine trickles into the bowl, an image of the VP forms in his mind. The VP's face is the bowl. As David shakes the last drops off his member, he wonders how the president came to consider Jacob for vice-president. Jacob is an imbecile. Almost senile. Maybe that is the reason he was chosen.

He hears a knock on the door and hurries out.

“Come in.”

No one enters. Perhaps the knock was on another door in the corridor. He dismisses the thought David turns to the Donors’ Graft and Assessment Paper and his Accountability Report on his desk. As he turns the pages, he remembers the president’s directive. “Read the report and analyze it, then prepare a defense report which will be discussed in cabinet before it is presented to the donor group. Do not give any information to the press,” the president had said. “If they call, tell them you have not seen the donors’ paper yet. You know them. They will call and press for information. That is certain. Do not tell them anything.” ”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“Just tell them that we shall hold a press conference as soon as the report gets into your hands. OK?”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“The rest, you know what to do and not to do.”

“I do.”

David picks up his pen and starts to scan the paper. His lips twist as he underlines more statements.

David has keenly followed the speculation in the press and the rumors among cabinet ministers about the likely successor to the president. He taps his foot violently as he ponders the number of times that the VP came out at the top of the list of the likely successors. Only once was David’s name mentioned among the potential candidates. By that time he had not thought about it much and had not even told anyone about it. He was just being a good man. Then there was that press survey in which he was voted the most honest cabinet minister of Kabira. Whereas many ministers were named in several scandals, David’s name remained clean. He was happy with himself. He felt good that his fellow countrymen thought warmly about him. That was then. Now, it is different. He wants the presidency more than any other resident of Kabira. And he had done a lot for the country already as Minister for the Presidency.  

David stretches his legs and shakes them. The Succession Bill sits in his stomach like a hundred-ton stone. The bill is to determine many things: whether the president should name a successor, whether the electorate should vote for potential candidates, whether potential candidates can freely declare their interest, whether the country should remain a one-party state, and a lot more. But even without the succession bill, the rumbles of rumor and speculation are already shaking up things. It is not easy to predict a country that has not held elections since the president took over power after bloody guerrilla warfare.

What is clear to David, and the rest of the people, is that the president will not run for election. He has said it himself. “Now that I have built a peaceful state and successful economy, I would like to retire and give others the chance to prove themselves,” he says at almost every meeting and gathering. David hopes that the president is aware of his potential. “If he names me as his possible successor, all his supporters will rally behind me. But the imbecile VP has asked me for support.” David remembers the day the VP called him to his office promising to discuss something very important for both of them. David’s blood pressure had shot up that week, but he canceled his appointment with the physician to be in the VP’s office on time. 

“Something important for both of us?” he had asked him.

“Yes. For both of us,” the VP had confirmed.

When David entered the office, the VP secured the door behind him.

“You see, son, our President is retiring soon,” the VP, belching, told him.

“Yes, His Excellency has said so.”

“What do you think?”

“What were you thinking?”

“You see, he is Muslim while you and I are Christians.”

“I hear you.”

“Twenty-five years of Islamic rule!”

“I hear you, Sir. I hear you. What were you thinking? You are giving me ideas.”

“Exactly. That is why I called you.”

“I am listening, Sir.”

“As I said, you and I are Christians. We have to do something.”

“Hmm . . . hmm . . . hmm.”

“Yes. And so, who do you think is the best candidate to replace him other than the man that has deputized him all these years? We have to share the National Cake too.”

The VP’s use of the word “we,” as if they were husband and wife, irritated David. He desperately wants to tell the VP to be equally as enthusiastic about baking the National Cake as he is about sharing it, but he joins the VP in loud laughter, the kind shared by people who are not sure how to laugh together.

“But you see, Sir, it might not be as easy as you think. There might be many people interested in this cake, as you call it,” David had responded in between spasms of forced laughter. “It might not be about religion, region, or even age.” The word “age” came out of his pursed lips with precision. To end the conversation, he added, “Sir, I will support you, not because we share a religion but because I believe in your abilities.”

David cannot forgive himself for that statement. The imbecile took him for his every word. The VP’s assumptions make David sick to the ends of his toes. To the tips of his hair.

Another time, they were in a meeting to form a committee to coordinate the Kabira Rapid Response Initiative (URRI). David was riding waves of uncertainty, waiting for someone to nominate him, when he received a note from the VP. It was on such committees David saw people prove their worth. The press too sought out such people. David smiled as he opened the note. He was grateful to the VP for thinking about him at least this once. When he read the note, he took a very deep breath and emptied his face of all expression before he looked up at the VP. He took another deep breath and another. He then lowered his eyes and read the note again. It was brief and to the point. “David, please nominate me. I would like to serve on this committee. Thank you.” David had never felt his arm so heavy and his tongue so thick as he nominated Jacob. As soon as he volunteered the name, he closed his eyes and prayed that no one seconded his motion. Not only was the VP seconded to the committee, he became the chairman as well. At the end of the meeting, the VP came to David and said, “Son, I saw you praying for me after you nominated me. I am so proud of you.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you too.” They shook hands.  

David looks at his BlackBerry. The time flashes. An hour and a half have shot past since he got into office. He has done nothing substantial. He pulls the Accountability Report closer and remembers the words of Dr. Joseph Murphy, in his Power of the Subconscious Mind: People have the power to change their thought patterns. He takes another deep breath and invites his mind to refocus. The meeting is crucial.

At eleven o’clock, David sits in the committee room ready for his presentation. His immaculate white shirt and blue bow tie belie his anxiety. In the committee room, the president and a few members of the committee are already seated.

Today the whole cabinet is here. When they talk, their words do not come from their depths. They come from their lips. Something else—the Donors’ Graft and Assessment Paper or the Succession Bill—sits deeper.

David watches the president as he stands up to address the House. As usual, he starts with comments on the growing economy and how important it is for leaders to work together and to support one another in order for the nation to progress. David listens as the president talks about the unstable global political and economic climate and adds that Kabira needs leaders who will guide the nation through this instability.

“For that matter, I have made several consultations with very reliable political analysts and they have advised that at the moment it is unwise to table the succession bill. It is better that the situation stabilizes before we subject the nation to any big changes.”

David watches members of the house nod their heads in slow motion. He is not sure whether it is in agreement or in confusion.  

“Our plate is already full.” The president clears his throat and continues, “It is therefore important that I let you know that today we shall not discuss the Succession to Presidency Bill. Again, I have consulted and we have agreed that when the time comes, whoever among you wants to run for office, you will battle it out with your opponents. It is only your works that will make you President of this great nation.” David feels an urge to ask the President when the time will come, but he does not. Certain statements are safer left unspoken.

“In addition, I would like you to know that people have asked me to run again. But, of course, I have not said yes yet. I am not sure I want to run again. I feel tired already. But we shall see when the time comes.” 

David places his right hand on the files in front of him while his left hand plays with his pen. He looks around the room but the faces show no emotion. Even the VP’s face is blank, save for the little beads of sweat claiming his forehead and his nose despite the cool morning.

David shifts his eyes from the VP and looks through the window at a flock of white birds moving in one direction. The eaglets flip their wings in unison and glide through the air. He wonders how the lead bird got to the front and whether the birds following are aware of where the lead bird is taking them.

“For now, we shall look at the Donors’ Graft and Assessment Paper and see what the Honorable David Okello has for us. David, you have the floor.” David is still looking at the white birds.

“David, the floor is yours,” the President repeats. When David turns, he wants to scream, “Imbecile!” He smiles and says,

“Thank you, Mr. President.” 

“Okuteeka Keeki Y’eihanga” © Hilda Twongyeirwe. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Juliet Kushaba. All rights reserved.