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Reporter’s Diary: I Wanted To See Mr. Buhari In London…

Kelechi Onyemaobi

The time was a little before midnight on Friday, May 22, 2015. The place was a small, quiet, almost rural city in the British East Midlands. Apart from a brief stroll to the university library to pay some fines and renew some long over-due school books, and the inevitable cross-over to the nearby Morrisons’ supermarket to buy a few groceries, I had been sitting up in my apartment all day, and all night, battling with a chapter in a long overdue PhD thesis. Adult education is, indeed, a very difficult thing to do.

You can understand why people like me envy people like Professor Pat Utomi – who obtained a PhD at 24. Those who send their children to school bright and early did not make a mistake… When I found that my mind was beginning to wander off the topic of my chapter, “The challenges faced by Nigerian journalists in covering general elections,” I went to the kitchen, unpacked the few groceries I bought at the supermarket and took a couple of bananas – my favourite fruit. I looked around the fully-fitted kitchen in the self-catering apartment. What a waste – I sighed ruefully. Yes, the kitchen was a veritable waste.

In nearly a week now, I had not as much as boiled a kettle of water for tea, much less put a pot on the burner. This is very strange indeed: I am normally a very enthusiastic, home-grown chef who is quick, even in the UK, to cook up a storm of jollof rice, spaghetti bolognaise and improvised “ofe Owerre” for semolina – with chicken drumsticks and spinach purchased at Morrisons. But this time around, because of the Sword of Damocles dangling over my head because of an overdue thesis, I was simply looking at the kitchen – and the kitchen was looking back at me.

I sighed again ruefully, went back to the room and continued battling with my thesis, eating some chocolates, nursing a glass of cheap Spanish red wine – and thinking about the family I left behind in Nigeria. Adult education is not something you would wish on your worst enemy… When I felt I had had enough for the night, I closed the chapter and, before unplugging the laptop, I went to the Internet to read Nigerian newspapers online – a veritable companion when you are out of the country, and out of reach of hard newspaper copies.

Then, as I browsed leisurely through the papers, I saw an indescripteresting piece of news: “Buhari Jets Out on Private Visit to Britain”. The story went on to say that: “The President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, on Friday left for Britain on a private visit, his first such trip outside the country since winning the March 28th presidential election.

“In a statement issued in Abuja on Friday by its head, Mallam Garba Shehu, the Media Team of the President-elect said General Muhammadu Buhari will use the opportunity of the visit to take a muchdeserved rest ahead of his inauguration on May 29th. He is expected back in the country a few days before the inauguration, refreshed and ready to hit the ground running once he is sworn into office,’ he said. Suddenly, my lethargy was gone. The journalist in me kicked in quickly.

As they say, “once a journalist, always a journalist”. As a soldier and a politician, General Muhammadu Buhari was news, any day, any night. And now, as the President-elect of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Mr. Buhari is news, any day, any night – at home or abroad. Would he have any public engagements in the UK? Would he make another appearance at the Chatham House – to make a post election speech? I wanted to be there – to report it. My desire to see the newly-minted President-tobe in London was not for any frivolous purpose like organized visits and courtesy calls.

The Taciturn One does not suffer frivolities gladly. It was for the purpose of journalism work: to see if I could do a couple of reports on the President-elect’s visit for a couple of Nigerian newspapers I sometimes contribute to. Journalism is a stern and jealous god… I hit the internet and started checking if I could find any public engagement listed for the President-elect in the UK. I drew blanks. I started working the phones. It was already Saturday morning.

I called Akintayo Adetokunbo, a popular news anchor with the VOX television in London – and my erstwhile classmate in the PhD programme who has had the courage to complete and submit his thesis. Tayo called back a few moments later. He was also very interested in the news of the President-elect’s visit to the UK and would love to cover it – but he did not yet have any details of the programme. I called the London office of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), listed on a second floor apartment on the famous Grays Inn Road. The line failed to connect repeatedly.

They had probably changed lines. But I hoped they had not closed shop – with the funding   problems NAN is reported to be having. I sent an email to NAN head office in Abuja to Mr. Isaac Ighure, NAN’s Editor-in-Chief and an erstwhile very good friend of mine who I have woefully failed to keep in contact with. My email promptly bounced back as “undeliverable”.

Then I sent an email also to Mr. T.G. Adeniyi, the Minister / Special Assistant to the Nigerian High Commissioner, Dr. Dalhatu Sarki Tafilda – seeking information on any scheduled public engagements of the President-elect in the UK. Then I checked my train cards and bus tickets and settled down to wait – ready for a quick shuttle to London to see Mr. Buhari… And, sooner than later, the news broke on Saturday, May 23: President-elect Buhari had had a meeting in London with Prime Minister David Cameron. In a press statement issued from Downing Street, a government spokesman said Prime Minister Cameron met with President-elect Buhari of Nigeria and the two leaders discussed the challenges facing Nigeria.

The Statement said in full: “The Prime Minister welcomed President-elect Buhari of Nigeria to Downing Street this morning. Both leaders congratulated each other on their recent election victories and discussed the challenges facing Nigeria. The Prime Minister stressed the UK’s wish to work for a stable, prosperous and secure Nigeria. “The leaders discussed security in the region and the fight against terrorism, particularly the threat posed by Boko Haram.

They discussed the need for a regiontion   al approach and agreed to continue working together to build the capacity of the Nigerian army, with the UK continuing to provide military training and intelligence support. “On tackling corruption, they agreed this was a priority to ensure Nigeria’s prosperity and success. The Prime Minister agreed to look at what technical assistance and support the UK could provide to the Nigerian government as it looks to undertake its reforms. They also discussed the need to tackle organised crime and the links between the UK and Nigeria. Finally, they talked about the challenges posed by migration from Africa to Europe and the President-elect said he would do all he could to secure Nigeria’s borders.”

If President-elect Buhari was to have such an important scheduled meeting in Britain with the Right Honourable Prime Minister David Cameron – surely, that is work, not rest, or isn’t it? I have not heard it said that Mr. Buhari was just walking past the doors of No. 10 Downing Street – and then, on a whim, decided to stroll into the Prime Minister’s residence to say hi to Mr. Cameron. When the story broke here in England about Mr. Buhari’s visit “to rest” and to “refresh” himself before his inauguration, it became a major talking point for many Nigerians here. Two Nigerians I met who were having lunch in a small, roadside Asian “chicken and chips” restaurant near the city centre were deeply engrossed in a discussion of Mr. Buhari’s visit. “These our leaders have no shame: from Governors, Senators, Ministers to Presidents. They jet into Western Europe and North America to ‘rest’ or to treat every minor ailment – from common colds to headaches.

But they cannot bring themselves to provide the same facilities in Nigeria.” I finished my modest “meal deal” quickly and left – after exchanging brief banters with the Nigerians. I did not have the time, or the energy, to engage in a tedious discussion of Nigeria’s many ills. But as I walked away from London Road, back towards the University Road, I kept worrying about the import of Mallam Garba Shehu’s strange statement about President-elect Buhari’s visit to the UK “to rest”. The Taciturn One is not also the Soft One.

On the contrary, Mr. Buhari is known as a tough, lean, nononsense general, given to a very austere, spartan lifestyle. His media handlers do him a great disservice, so early in the day, if they create the general impression that he flew into the UK, at public expense, no doubt, just to rest and to refresh – in readiness for his inauguration – while the President-elect came obviously on a national assignment.

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