President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday played host to an august visitor in August. The guest was the United States Secretary of State, Mr. John Kerry. As expected, an elaborate preparation was made to ensure a hitch-free visit. Officials of the US and Nigerian governments met till the last minute on the visit.
To show the seriousness attached to the visit, the Presidency on Monday rolled out what it called media advisory meant to guide the activities of journalists before and during the visit of the American. Kerry was billed to arrive the forecourt of the President’s office by 3pm.
According to the advisory, photo journalists and video cameramen would be allowed to establish the arrival at 2.55pm. Kerry would proceed straight to the President’s office where they would hold a bilateral meeting that would be established by only the official photographers and video cameramen of the two leaders.
What that meant was that there was no role for reporters near the two venues. We were meant to be restricted to the Briefing Room of the Council Chambers which serves as our operational base while the two meetings lasted.
But fate changed the programme slightly, therefore allowing reporters to be present at the forecourt as of the time Kerry arrived. What happened? A former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon (retd.) had arrived the Villa at about 2pm to meet Buhari over some national issues as he later told us.
Immediately Gowon entered the President’s office for the meeting, we laid ambush for him on the forecourt as we always do for former leaders and top government officials who do not pass through the corridor where we always wait but are driven through the Service Chiefs’ Gate.
The meeting between Buhari and Gowon did not end on time, unlike the one held recently between the President and former President Goodluck Jonathan which lasted less than 20 minutes. Gowon stayed so long inside the President’s office to the point that we started wondering if he wanted to join Buhari to receive Kerry.
At last, the former military leader came out at about a few minutes before 3pm. Immediately he saw us, he asked us who we mounted sentry for. As if he would not talk to us, the former military leader started his long speech by telling us how he had stopped talking to journalists lately because he has always been misquoted in the media. He also told us (in case we do not know) how he has not been a regular face in the Villa since Buhari assumed office. He said the last time he came was in October 2015. I agree with him that that was a long time when compared to the number of times former President Olusegun Obasanjo had visited during the same period.
After that long preamble, Gowon proceeded to tell us what he discussed with the President. He said he discussed the fate of the over 200 girls abducted in their school in Chibok, Borno State in 2014, the President’s ongoing anti-corruption war and the violence being unleashed on the Niger Delta by members of the Niger Delta Avengers.
He added that he seized the opportunity of the meeting to pay his respect to the President and inform him of his plan to travel out of the country on holiday as well as for his programme, Nigeria Prays, holding in the United States and the United Kingdom. He did not forget to tell us that now that he had informed the President of his movement, he (Buhari) would have to provide the wherewithal for him to return to the country in case he needs him for an urgent assignment.
While that was going on, it was already 3pm. Security operatives both from US and Nigeria were no longer comfortable. They wanted that space we were occupying with Gowon cleared in preparation for Kerry’s arrival. We got the sign and decoded it properly. When the former military leader paused at a point, we quickly thanked him for granting the interview without asking further questions.
As he was making his way to his car, Gowon jokingly told us that he wanted to lead us to the fortress of the Boko Haram sect, Sambisa Forest. Maybe he thought we would quickly shout “God forbid!” But to his surprise, we asked him to lead us while we followed, after all, he was once a Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and “old soldier never dies!” He smiled and entered his car to leave the Villa.
Since time had gone, reporters who were not scheduled to join photo journalists and television cameramen to receive Kerry on arrival utilised the opportunity offered by Gowon’s visit maximally as they did not bother again to leave the scene.
Kerry arrived the forecourt at about 3.07pm shortly after Gowon had left. He was received on arrival by the State House Chief of Protocol, Ambassador Lawal Kazaure, who later led him to the President’s office where Buhari and some members of his cabinet were already waiting.
The bilateral meeting he had with the President ended at about 4.40pm. After the meeting, Kerry proceeded to the State House Waiting Room where he met with some Northern state governors. He walked pass the corridor of the Council Chambers and the Press Briefing Room on his way to the venue of the meeting with the governors. That was long after the corridor had been taken over by security operatives of the two countries, thereby restricting our movement.
While the meeting between Buhari and Kerry lasted, some of the Northern governors who were to meet with Kerry became restless with some of them coming out of the venue to make telephone calls. Their own meeting with Kerry was short, yet they reeled out a number of decisions reached as if the meeting lasted one week.
They claimed the US government made commitments towards helping the North in the areas of girl child education, health care and renewable energy among others. All eyes are on that part of the country to see the fruits of Kerry’s visit as soon as possible.
- Olalekan Adetayo