“MR. JOHN Hogan, I am so sorry that I have not been answering your many calls and messages.”
The last thing I expected to occur on the Sunday evening, following my trip to Olumu Rock with Kusimo and Wemi, was a breakthrough in my efforts to tie down some interviews.
However, as I walked across the car park of my hotel, having just bid farewell to my two new Nigerian friends, I was hailed by Damian, one of the President’s aides whom I had briefly met when I first arrived in Abeokuta on Thursday. That first evening, Damian had been very pleasant but was clearly under pressure to ensure that the arrival of the event’s star-studded guest list went smoothly. Now, he seemed far more relaxed, with the opening of the Presidential Library and Obasanjo’s 80th Birthday celebrations having passed successfully. I proposed that we have a drink in the hotel bar and he gladly accepted.
Like many other Nigerians, Damian’s beverage of choice was Guinness. Several Guinness breweries are located in Nigeria and, believe it or not, this country accounts for more pints of the black stuff drank per year than does Ireland.
Despite this fondness for stout, though, the two-part-pour doesn’t seem to be part of the process here in the way it is in Ireland. None of the bars that I saw in my time in Nigeria had taps, so Guinness is served from the bottle. Another difference, that’s important to note before you drink too many, is that the Guinness here has an alcohol rate of 7.5%, almost twice what we are used to at home.
Damian said that President Obasanjo was travelling to Ghana the following morning to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the country’s independence. He would return, however, in the afternoon for a series of meetings at his home that would carry on into the evening. My best hope, he told me, was to secure a window of opportunity that evening as the President was departing for the Congo on Tuesday morning with an uncertain return time.
While the President was away on the Monday morning, he continued, there were a few other interviews that I could carry out. A number of the President’s former advisors were in Abeokuta until the following afternoon, along with other significant figures in international diplomacy with whom he had cooperated on various initiatives.
Damian said that he would help me secure time with as many of these people as possible on Monday morning. With those reassurances provided, I ordered another round and we started watching a premier league football match on the television.
A nephew of Obasanjo’s, who had been raised in Britain and was visiting for the celebrations, joined us at the bar after a while and the three of us passed the rest of the evening away, making jovial conversation and passing comment on the game. My delight at the promising news regarding the interviews had me full of enthusiasm. I may have even fooled my two drinking buddies into believing that I had something of an interest in football.
The next morning, true to his word, Damian facilitated several interviews with individuals that I won’t name here as none of them occupy as prominent a position in the public eye as Obasanjo. These were actually the first proper interviews I had done since starting the research trip, so breakfast was spent trying to suppress the fear of asking a stupid question that would show me up as an imposter, unworthy of such high-level interviewees’ time. Thankfully, though, everyone I spoke with was very pleasant and, to varying degrees, provided me with useful interview material.
In the mid-afternoon, there came a lull in the interviews, during which I went up to my hotel room and started uploading the audio of the morning’s conversations to the cloud. This was made difficult as the electricity, and the internet with it, had started cutting out at regular intervals in the afternoon.
Throughout my trip to Nigeria, and still now, I am deeply paranoid about the possibility of losing audio files, and with them the benefit from not-easily-arranged interviews. I have recorded everything on two devices and when it’s not possible to immediately save files online after interviews, I carry the memory card from my mp3 recorder in my sock, in the hope that a potential mugger wouldn’t be so rigorous in his thievery as to extend his search for valuables to between my toes.
At five o clock on the Monday evening, the call I had been waiting for finally came. Damian rang me to ask if I could be down in the hotel lobby in five minutes, where he would collect me and bring me on the two minute drive to President Obasanjo’s house, which was on a hill, overlooking the Library complex. I packed up all the necessary recording equipment and pages of questions, as well as a book of poems written by President Michael D. Higgins, which I had bought as a gift for my esteemed interviewee, and sprinted downstairs.
Security at President Obasanjo’s house was not as tight as what you might expect for the home of a former major head of state. In fact, the structural features that I had seen in place at most houses in the suburbs of Johannesburg were much more fortress-like.
Three soldiers with guns slung over their shoulders sat in plastic chairs next to a boom gate at the entrance to the front yard of the home. They greeted Damian with a smile and me with a curious look as we drove through and parked next to a line of other vehicles.
Inside the door of the President’s home, the lobby was full of a wide variety of birthday gifts and cards, which had yet to be stored away after the weekend’s celebrations. Also taking up considerable space in the lobby was a selection of enormous birthday cakes, some over six feet high and designed to represent President Obasanjo and his life. For one of the creations, icing had been used very skilfully to create a replica of the newly opened Library. Another had been made to look like a picture frame with a perfectly recreated picture of the President inside.
Damian took me into the living room of the house where a group of eight or so other people sat, waiting for their time with Baba. Several had birthday cards and gifts with them to present to the President, presumably having missed their opportunity over the weekend. All of a sudden, my little book of poems started to seem quite paltry. I hadn’t even brought a card to accompany it, just a consent form from the UL Ethics Committee.
About 30 minutes after we had arrived, a door opened on the other side of the room from where we had walked in and two men walked through. They were followed by President Obasanjo, dressed in the traditional Nigerian clothing that he became well known for wearing throughout his political career, other than when he was in military uniform.
He has gone on record as saying that not only does his local clothing better represent who he is and where is from, but it is far more comfortable than a much more restrictive suit. As someone who has always detested having to wear an office uniform (and therefore aspired to become an academic), I think he makes a strong argument.
As soon as the President entered, everyone in the room, including myself, bolted out of their seats and stood, out of respect. Damian walked across the room and spoke quietly into the ear of Obasanjo, who made periodic expressions of approval in his incredibly gravelly voice. When Damian had finished speaking, the President lifted his head and looked over at me and nodded before pointing at one of the other waiting men and beckoning at him to follow the President into the next room.
When they had left, everyone sat down once more and started watching the TV that was on in the corner, showing a soap opera from South Africa called ‘Rhythm City’. Damian came over to relay to me the content of his conversation with the President.
“Baba has several meetings lined up for this evening and he leaves early for the Congo tomorrow morning (Tuesday). When are you here until Hogan?”
“I’m leaving very early on Wednesday morning. Is there a chance I might not get to speak with him this evening? What time is he back from the Congo tomorrow?”
“We do not know yet what time he will be back. It might not be tomorrow. Hopefully he will be able to see you this evening but he is quite tired and has to eat at some point also.”
My heart started to sink at the prospect of having come all the way to Nigeria and having gotten as far as the President’s living room but not actually getting to speak with him. After seeing how crestfallen I appeared, Damian started to offer reassurances and say that he was fairly confident there would be time this evening for the interview but he sounded uncertain.
For the next three hours, Obasanjo followed a similar routine of entering the room, indicating at someone that it was their turn to come with him. He spent 30 to 40 minutes with each guest in his office.
By 8pm, I was starving and kicking myself for not having grabbed something as I ran out of the hotel three hours earlier. Just as my stomach started to growl audibly, however, the President’s wife came into the room and went around to each person individually (the occupancy had increased to about 12 at this point) and offered them dinner.
I was the last to be offered food and everyone else in the room had politely declined at this point so my intuition told me that it would have been impolite to accept. My intuition didn’t have a chance when pitted against my appetite though.
“I feel really rude when everyone else has said no but I’m actually starving so I’d love some food,” I responded when Mrs. Obasanjo offered me dinner.
“No, no, don’t be ridiculous, please come with me,” she responded kindly.
I was led into a separate dining room, which held an enormous table with places set for 20 people. Mrs. Obasanjo asked me to sit down and she went out a door on the other side of the room.
A minute later, she came back in with a plate loaded with a delicious selection of meats, salad and rice. I thanked her profusely and she laughed at the obvious, hungry sincerity of my gratitude. My host left me to enjoy my dinner alone and I tucked into it while looking around at the local artwork on the walls, wondering if I had ever eaten a meal in more unusual circumstances.
Within minutes of my having finished the dinner and re-entered the living room, President Obasanjo emerged and I got the ‘point and beckon’ I’d been anticipating for four hours.
In order to learn the content of our conversation in detail, you’ll have to wait a little longer (hopefully less than a year) for the much anticipated (by me) release of my PhD dissertation. I will say, though, that it is staggering how alert the man was, considering his age, the fact that he had spent a weekend celebrating his birthday, a morning in Ghana and the entire day conducting meetings.
With almost no prompting from me, he could recall the logic behind foreign policy decisions that he had made as long as 18 years ago. We spoke for a little over 45 minutes and none of it was wasted on him struggling to recall the finer points of his Presidency. On top of his clarity, Obasanjo was quite jovial and even funny at times, but also unafraid to set me straight if he thought I had gotten the wrong impression about something.
Even when Damian suggested that we should wrap up the interview so that the President could rest, as he was starting to look absolutely exhausted, he gently berated his aide for the suggestion.
“I’m an old man,” he said, snorting a chuckle through his nostrils. “I know by now when I need to rest.”
When it was over, we took a quick photo, in which I’m doing a bad job at concealing how deliriously relieved and happy I am.
The living room, when we re-entered, was about ten times brighter and there was a number of Chinese men running around frantically. A television crew, from a news station in China, had travelled to Abeokuta, just like me, to interview the President.
Damian informed me on the way out that Obasanjo would continue with engagements like this for at least two more hours that evening.
“Is this all because of his birthday or is his diary normally like this?” I asked Damian with incredulity.
“No, this is fairly normal,” he responded, while we climbed into the car.
I woke up the next morning in my hotel room with a smile on my face, and checked the recording three times before breakfast to make sure that the interview had truly happened and that it had all been captured by the recorder.
A little after 10am, my phone rang with a call from Damian.
“Hogan, are you in your room? Baba is leaving now for Congo. He is in the hotel lobby and asked if you would like to come down and say goodbye.”
For the second time in 24 hours, I dashed from my room to the lobby. Outside the front door, Obasanjo was chatting with a pair of hotel guests and Damian next to a large SUV, which was sandwiched in between two trucks on either side, each carrying a group of armed soldiers.
“Hogan, I am sorry that I was so tired last night,” he said while shaking my hand with two of his.
“If you need anything more, you must let us know. Damian also has the details for another one of my advisors, who you should speak with. He has been with me for over 30 years, which is too long for anyone, but that is life.”
With that, he turned around and climbed into the SUV. The trucks at either end of the vehicle started up their flashing lights and the convoy moved off towards Murtala Mohammed Airport as the Obasanjo road show headed for the Congo.
Twenty-four hours later, I was at the same airport, sitting on the tarmac, still exhilarated from having achieved my primary goal, and quite a few secondary ones, in Nigeria.
A little after 10am, we were in the air and the hostesses started offering mini-bottles of wine to anyone that was willing to drink at that hour.
“Hey, your people like to drink, right? Will we have some wine?” asked the guy sitting next to me, whom I had struck up a conversation with before take-off.
“You know what?” I responded, “Let’s go for it, I’m celebrating.”