These are really interesting times in Nigeria. The entire nation is already inundated with reactions over a published conversation between Gbenga Obasanjo and I. This reaction would not dwell on individual, official and legal reactions to what is obviously a revealing story.
The interested public should note, however that negative and threatening reactions to published stories that exhibit unbearable slant towards the power elite has become the hallmark of the Nigerian leadership. Whenever it suits them, they make journalists the scapegoat, sometimes going to the extent of assassinating them in their line of duty when other ways of intimidation fails.
Precisely, on December 15th 2005 as I was engaging on the last leg of my trip to Nigeria. (This was so because of my ‘adopted’ mode of travel, which requires that I travel a certain route when visiting or leaving Nigeria). As I was leaving my hotel in Cotonou, I noticed there was a fellow dressed in Kaftan (popularly known as “Senegalese”) also leaving the same time as me. This was a bulky fellow, who obviously was Nigerian. I disregarded the person and hired a vehicle to take me to the Nigerian border, in tow with two of my friends who came down from Lagos to help with my travel.
Shortly after we left the car park at the NOVOTEL Hotel in Cotonou, I saw there was a car following behind us, also apparently headed in the same direction, though I was bit curious, it didn’t bother me too much. As we made to cross the border to the Nigerian side, a tout who pointed to an empty desk across from us stopped us. There, I saw a person in mufti with his legs conveniently crossed on the wooden table. He beckoned on us to come over. Since it is a regular occurrence with Nigerian officials to harass travelers for money at the border, I decided I was going to confront him and try to report my encounter with the Seme border officials. I went over to the desk and the officer asked where we were coming from, he started ranting about how he was upset that we didn’t pay attention to his “man”- the tout.
He said this problem would have been solved if you had talked to his ‘man’. I protested to him that I did not know how to relate to touts at the border. And since the he too wasn’t in uniform, I could not tell the difference. He got upset and said I should surrender my passport, I complied and he looked at it and said I should talk with him; otherwise he was going to delay me for a while. Just as I continued protesting his attitude, the bulky fellow who was in the car that followed me from NOVOTEL Hotel showed up and started castigating my colleagues and me. I was upset because he did care to listen to us. He looked at the officer and asks him to let us go. The officers were all standing and paying him serious attention at this time. He then signed an exercise book at the border and handed his passport to the customs. They didn’t look at it. They just gave him back his passport and also returned ours and let us go!
In curiosity, I looked at the book he signed and saw his last name: “Obasanjo”, I greeted him as he made to turn away; I introduced myself to him and explained that I would love to speak with him. As soon as knew who I was, he went off on me and complained to me about how he felt about our reports regarding his father’s government and public officials in Nigeria.
Since I was always interested in reporting the truth, I asked if he would like to speak with me about his views about our reports and Nigeria as a whole, he declined and walked away from us, saying he wished me luck and admonished us not to be emotional in our reports.
I left the scene and started on a journey into Lagos Nigeria by foot in search of a vehicle to take us to Lagos. His car drove a past us, it was a dark colored SUV with his driver, a police escort in mufti and another fellow on his left side (whom he later introduced to me as his cousin).
Suddenly he stopped, wound down his windows and asked if I would want a ride to Lagos. At first, I rejected the offer because I was unhappy with his paternalistic behavior at the border. Also I was a little concerned about my personal safety. On a second thought and due to his persistence I accepted the offer simply because it would present an opportunity for me to ask him nagging questions some of which he already started talking about at the border post. So, I asked if we could talk on the way to Lagos and he said “sure”.
In all fairness to him and what appears to me to be an act of kindness, he personally came down from his car and help load my bags into the trunk of his car. But then the car could not take all of us three- at which time he requested that he would only take me. I rejected that request and insisted that he at least let one of my friends be in the car with me or else, I would gladly reject his offer for a ride. He looked into the back of the car and he found a spot for one of my friend. I quickly turned to the third fellow gave him some money, told him to copy the license plates of the car, and instructed him to call a number in case he doesn’t hear from me in two days!
Let me restate here that my involvement in news reporting revolve around the principle of freedom of information both for the media and the human person. If the interest Nigerians were at stake, I take the route of siding with the people. I did not expect that these volume of information will become accepted to the government or be celebrated by the political elite affected, but it has become my self-imposed duty to help reveal hidden information that will strengthen and re-awaken public consciousness about the state of Nigeria’s democracy and governance which all our people have accepted is currently in bad shape.
Going on with Gbenga to Lagos I did not mince words about my intentions; sat sandwiched between him and his cousin. He was on my right side. I immediately started the conversation from where we stopped at the border. To my chagrin, Gbenga was very frank and candid, and in a way that “evinced some patriotism” as stated by his lawyer. He spoke fluently and eloquently about sundry issues as I put questions to him one after the other; I have reported the conversations in the most accurate, matured and professional manner. I could not include so many unprintable things he said because I didn’t find it necessary. It was a conversation solely undertaken between him and I, there was never a time when anyone else present in the car intervened, except when he turned to his cousin to buttress his point about his impending divorce.
He knew that I am not a ‘wannabe’ reporter; I introduced my trade to him and he could identify my style from our published reports. For those reasons, we didn’t have any ‘private’ discussions, it was not necessary. It was a conversation that had far reaching political connotations and ramifications hence the weight of the output on the entire Nigerian society today!
We all know that the current regime brings their families and baggage into office in ruling Nigeria. The argument about the family’s privacy is a convenient fallacy that is untenable, they should be reminded that they have consistently used the apparatus of government to defend their families as at when it suites them.
Anyone who knows Lagos traffic and the condition of Nigerian roads could tell that if you drove from Seme border to the car park of Sheraton Hotels in Ikeja, Lagos you would have quite a distance covered and a lot of time on your hands. Within this period, we never stopped conversing. His cousin, his police orderly, driver and my friend who sat at the back of his car would attest to this, if they haven’t been intimidated already!
I could understand that Gbenga Obasanjo became lily-livered due to untold pressure brought to bear on him by his father’s office and the decadent Nigeria political establishment since this story broke.
On my part, since I started news/report writing I do not miss an opportunity to bring truthful and undiluted information to Nigerians or the rest of the world even under the most inconvenient circumstances. Also, there are times when one has to choose between being frightened by professional hounds and scarecrows and the interest of a battered and helpless people, such as Nigerians of today.
I understand too well, that when public service of this proportion is offered one’s nation state it is bound to have repercussions, there is always a scapegoat sought by the ruling class as evidenced by the frenzy of denials and pressure that since followed the release of this particular story. I urge Nigerians to look at the story from the substance contained in it and ignore the antics of lawyers; spin-doctors and paid public hirelings whose job is to scare the rest of us with their well-known semantics.
These reactions reveal to us, once again, that the current regime operates both a dysfunctional presidency as well as a dysfunctional family.
For the sake of history, truth, sacrifice and the love for my country, I stand by this story!