An Afternoon with President Buhari By @DeleMomodu
Fellow Nigerians, let me confess that in over 30 years of writing no President has ever reacted directly or positively to my constant admonitions, lamentations or commendations. Rather, most of the time, their aides, cronies and acolytes used to fire darts and barbs at us from every direction. We were called unprintable names that our parents did not give us and by now we are so used to being abused and harassed by those who can never learn useful lessons from the past. You can thus fathom a guess as to how I must have felt when Femi Adesina’s call sneaked in on me like a thief in the night.
I had written an article titled “A Desperate Memo to President Buhari” in which I tried to let the President feel the pulse of the people, especially those who felt he was being too sluggish about running the affairs of state. This memo to the President came on the heels of an earlier intervention titled “In Search of Patience” which unfortunately failed to achieve its objective. My mission had been to persuade my fellow citizens about giving the President some time to settle in before they start complaining about the pace and tempo of governance. I soon realised that rather than the dust settling down matters actually got exacerbated. In the desperate memo, I then attempted to tell the President some home truth about the things he could do urgently and without much ado. I took that chance because of the fact that I knew him to be a voracious reader of news, especially if it pertained to him. The gamble certainly paid off.
The President and his key aides read the “Desperate memo” which had gone viral. A particular online newspaper chose to sensationalise and slant the story in a manner I never intended or envisaged. Their version was garnished with salt and pepper by exhuming an old picture of mine in which I had cried for my mentor, Chief Moshood Abiola, and it was now tilted and titled “Dele Momodu Weeps for President Buhari”. If the idea was to draw a wedge between me and the Presidency, it actually backfired and failed woefully to paint me as someone who has dumped President Buhari within weeks of attaining power. One influential man in the Presidential villa, Nura Rimi, actually saw the post and felt sufficiently alarmed that a key supporter like me should not be allowed to turn his back on the Presidency. He mentioned his fears to Special Adviser Media, Femi Adesina, a childhood friend and brother from our early days at Ife. They decided to intimate the President on the necessity to reach out to me immediately. The President gave his instant approval.
I was away from the country when I received Femi Adesina’s call. My initial reaction before answering was that he was going to complain and grumble like most of his predecessors who only called whenever they felt you had written an unsavoury piece about their principal. At the very best, they would engage you in meaningless rigmarole, or issue veiled threats, by accusing you of being paid by their enemies. But Femi was refreshingly different. After exchanging pleasantries, he said “Bob Dee, the President would want to have a one-on-one meeting with you after reading your latest article.” The message sounded too unusual to be true because I had always seen Nigerian Presidents as the most unreachable human beings on earth. I told Femi I would be more than happy to head back to Nigeria to meet a man who has restored hope and dignity to every Nigerian.
The only problem was how to find a slot to squeeze me into the President’s over-tight schedule. I waited for about a week without an appointment and then suddenly I got a text from State Protocol: “Good morning sir. A window for you to see Mr President on Wednesday 15th July between 14.45 and 15.00hrs in his office has been created. Kindly note accordingly… SCOP” A similar text was also forwarded to me from Femi. I was pleasantly surprised when I received a written notice of audience from Permanent Secretary, State House, Engineer Nebolisa O. Emodi. Subsequent follow-up calls were made to my Lagos office as reminders to me.
The level of professionalism and efficiency displayed was commendable. It was a radical departure from the past when I met a previous Nigerian President in London and was invited to meet him in Abuja. I came for the appointment at the scheduled time but was unable to see him for days. The Chief Security Officer at the time was not so friendly. He took me into his office and lectured me on all the no-go areas of discussion in the Presidential Villa, which rendered my visit totally useless.
The Aso Rock I returned to last Wednesday was virtually transfigured. All the security checks were professionally handled. The guys were strict but friendly about it. Some even joked about following me on social media. In a matter of minutes, I was welcomed into Femi Adesina’s office by Senior Special Assistant, Media and Information, Garba Shehu. It was a happy reunion for the three of us old friends and I felt very much at home. I told Femi I wanted to pay courtesy call on the State House correspondents before meeting the President. I always give priority to my colleagues no matter how junior and went round shaking hands with most of those on duty. I promised to address them after meeting the President.
The day was made extra-special by the presence of the iconic diplomat and former Secretary-General of The Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, whose appointment to see the President was just ahead of mine. A great fan of my column, he came into the waiting lounge and he spoke for a couple of minutes with Femi and I. He inspired me as usual with his oratorical skills. “Dele, I continue to read your column with relish” he said matter-of-factly!
Thereafter, I was soon invited to climb the stairs leading to the President’s office. Since there was no prior agenda sent about the topic of discussion, I had visualised the likely scenario and rehearsed accordingly. I also jotted down some salient points because I was determined to maximise the 15 minutes allotted to me without overstaying my welcome. For me, it was a rare honour and privilege to sit down all by myself with the President of Africa’s greatest nation. It was important to pour out the boisterous content of my soul in a jiffy.
As time ticked away while I waited, I engaged myself in an interior monologue, otherwise known as stream-of-consciousness in Literary Appreciation. Then came the appointed time and I was ushered into the President’s room. I was stunned to see the President already waiting for me by the door. Though we had met on two previous occasions, I didn’t quite know how this particular meeting was going to pan out because on those occasions he was still a co-contestant at first and an aspirant/candidate on the latter visit in London.
I’ve met several Presidents in and out of power but the aura is never the same. The Buhari I met at his holiday apartment in London about four months ago, after his speech at Chatham House, was not the Buhari I met and discussed with last Wednesday. The new Buhari has the power to do and undo. As the aphorism goes, he can turn a certified and certificated pauper into an instant billionaire with a mere stroke of the pen, and vice versa. More importantly, the destiny of nearly 200 million complex beings resides within his palms. Yet here was the powerful man himself welcoming and leading me to a chair very close to him.
President Buhari fired the first shot right from the second I walked through the door: “Let me tell the truth that I was forced to see you by your friends here…” Wow, he would rather give credit to his aides. That was uncommon in our clime. The President was not yet done on the issue because as soon as I sat down, he fired another salvo: “I don’t know if I should tell you this but I suspect Femi is working for you!” and we both exploded raucously. I’m loving this man more and more, I told myself. By then, he had inadvertently relaxed me totally and we were like two old buddies. I had been told endlessly about his supposed taciturnity; that you could sit with him for hours doing all the talking while the President would respond in only a few words. But to my biggest bewilderment and pleasant surprise, the President actually opened up to me and responded to my suggestions. In short we had a dialogue rather than the monologue I had programmed myself to expect in a worst case situation.
I was glad he had allowed two wonderful photographers, Bayo Omoboriowo and Sunday Aghaeze, to join us, as well as a cameraman from NTA. It would have been sad to tell the world the cordial nature of my meeting with the President without solid evidence. This is because he had asked everyone out after the photo-opportunities were comprehensively dealt with. I seized the opportunity to present a copy of my forthcoming book, PENDULUM: A Book of Prophesies, which is a compilation of some of my landmark essays in the last five years or thereabout. Not only did he show some excitement, he actually requested for my autograph: “Please, sign it for me so that people could see I got the original copy from you…” he said with that inimitable tinge of childlike innocence. I couldn’t believe this was the same over-demonised Buhari who had been superfluously described in lurid colours by political opponents. If he was play-acting before me, then he must be a damn-good-actor, I thought to myself coolly.
We went into our discussions proper after the general interlocutions. I told him why I wrote the “Desperate Memo” to him; Nigerians were getting restless and impatient; they expect an instant miracle; the momentum he gained during the election was nose-diving and affecting his super-brand; the opposition was already creeping in and trying to take advantage… and so on. The President said he was aware of people’s expectations but they should exercise some patience as they would realise his vision and mission as events he was directing begin to unfold. He sounded like a man who knows what most of us don’t know. He’s the man in the driver’s seat and only he can see the blind spots.
I told him it is important to us that he succeeds because our opponents don’t believe things can be done better. I reiterated my belief that he cannot hand over Nigeria to typical politicians to run because they will wreck the entire process. I’m certain his Party is going to witness another combustion soon when he begins to assemble his team because political leaders prefer their lackeys to competent professionals. In spite of Party supremacy, he should not allow them to dump some garbage at his doorstep. He must insist on nominations that meet his avowed standards.
I suggested he should involve Nigerian academics in governance like he did as Head of State when he appointed Tam David-West, Ibrahim Gambari and others as Ministers before President Ibrahim Babangida repeated the same style by appointing Wole Soyinka, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, Bolaji Akinyemi, Tai Solarin, Sunday Olagunju, Sam Oyovbaire, and others in various capacities. I theorised that the relative success of INEC is attributable to the fact that Professor Jega brought in many Professors who did not have the propensity for accumulation of wealth.
I told the President that he should do everything possible to carry the youths along. I suggested he could move a few of his important public functions from campus to campus. I mentioned how American Presidential debates and major Presidential interactions are often held in a university community with students in attendance. I observed that this helps to inspire the youths in no small measure. Any government that has the youths behind it will ultimately succeed.
The aspect of my submission that gave the President amusement amidst the seriousness was when I spoke about the importance of searching for bright women to bring on board: “Sir, I think women are better managers of people and resources for several reasons…” I posited that a woman cannot marry two or three men simultaneously but a man can have four wives and ten concubines at a go and this would encourage corruption. I also elaborated further by stating that women are more afraid of going to prison than men. The President was filled with mirth and exploded in laughter whilst acknowledging the sense and sagacity of my words.
The President confided in me that his three biggest worries are insecurity, corruption and power. He spoke a bit about how he planned to address these issues. Finally, as he saw me off to the door, he spoke about his efforts at combating crime and terrorism and had kind words for the Chadians in particular. He felt proud about Chadian interventions on behalf of Nigeria. He would love to see such cooperation from other African countries.
On the whole, I had spent more than my allotted time of 15 minutes but I believe both of us concluded that we had a good and fruitful discourse. Before I departed, I promised the President my support and assured him that I would always alert him of sensitive developments needing his immediate attention through my articles and Column.
May God grant our President favour to do that which he fervently desires for Nigerians and Nigeria! God bless our nation.