Viewpoint

June 12, 2024

Tinubu isn’t the only president to stumble, it’s human

Tinubu

By John Mayaki

Today, President Bola Tinubu was seen struggling with his flowing agbada, causing a misstep as he climbed into the back of a parade vehicle at Eagles Square, during the commemoration of the June 12 Democracy Day. However, he is far from the only world leader to have taken a visible fall. Here are other memorable political falls or trips.

In 2016, a media frenzy ensued when Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic presidential nominee, buckled and stumbled after becoming sick during a 9/11 memorial service in New York. Diagnosed with pneumonia, Clinton’s doctor said she became overheated and dehydrated at the event. The incident became a hot button in a highly charged campaign, with her rival Donald Trump repeatedly questioning her stamina for office.

In 2020, Donal Trump as President, looked unsteady on his feet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His slow, unsteady walk while descending a ramp led critics to use the hashtag #TrumpIsNotWell. Trump tweeted that the ramp was “very long & steep, had no handrail and, most importantly, was very slippery,” insisting the “last thing I was going to do is ‘fall’ for the Fake News to have fun with.”

He also made headlines in 2017 when he clutched the hand of Prime Minister Theresa May during her visit to the White House, an incident that came as a “surprise” to May, her advisers later said.

Exactly 48 years to the day of Biden’s June 1 tumble, President Gerald Ford fell while disembarking Air Force One in Salzburg, Austria. Ford, 61, lost his balance on the wet steps, skidding down and ending up in a heap on the tarmac. He later quipped, “Thank you for your gracious welcome to Salzburg, and I am sorry I tumbled in.” The incident was widely broadcast and used in late-night comedy shows, portraying the president as bumbling and clumsy.

In 2019, China’s leader Xi Jinping nearly slipped off a stage in Russia during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Surrounded by other world leaders, Xi appeared to lose his footing but quickly regained his composure. Commentators labeled it the “great fall of China,” musing about its implications for his carefully curated strongman image.

That’s not all, Zimbabwe’s late leader Robert Mugabe fell down red-carpeted steps in Harare in 2015. The government immediately denied the fall, with Information Minister Jonathan Moyo blaming poor carpeting and suggesting that “even Jesus” would have tripped. Critics pointed to Mugabe’s age, 90, as another reason for him to step down after more than three decades in power.

Even the war-monger fell – in 2019, Vladimir Putin known for curating a strongman image, Russia’s President fell while playing ice hockey at Sochi’s Bolshoy Ice Dome in 2019. After winning the game, Putin took a victory lap before slamming into the floor. He was quickly helped up and skated off, maintaining his composure.

Our colonial masters were not left out – Boris Johnson fell in 2015 when he was the then-mayor of London, he slipped during a charity tug-of-war game along the River Thames. Known for his disheveled appearance, Johnson’s fall, where he exclaimed “oh bugger” before falling on the muddy grass, made tabloid headlines.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher fell after politically fraught meetings in Beijing in 1982. As she left the Great Hall of the People, she stumbled down the steps, a moment captured on camera and perceived by many in Hong Kong as a sign of Britain’s waning power amid negotiations with China.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt fell down steps in Paris in 2015. Wearing high heels, she wobbled and fell outside France’s Elysee Palace, landing on her hands and knees. She quickly dusted herself off and continued to take questions from reporters.

In today’s era of social media and 24-hour news cycles, public appearances by politicians are heavily scrutinized, and stumbles are often framed within narratives about their fitness for office.

And so, President Tinubu’s misstep today is a reminder that even the most powerful leaders are not immune to such incidents. As enumerated above, a momentary lapse in balance can become a lasting image in the public’s mind, often used to challenge a leader’s fitness for office or underscore their human vulnerabilities. Tinubu’s fall, like those of his counterparts, reminds us of the frailties of man – It’s human to fall, and sometimes, it’s how leaders rise afterward that truly defines them. Tinubu tripped but rose and performed all the functions necessary at the parade ground. May President Tinubu succeed, and may Nigeria continue to rise.

Mayaki is the Country Director, Coalition for Good Governance and Economic Justice in Africa