By Femi Adesina
What a helluva week for a man who turns 74 today. In one day, in his birthday week, he flew from Abuja to Monrovia, from there to Freetown, and then to Banjul, in The Gambia. He held meetings lasting many hours, then flew to Freetown, again to Monrovia, and then returned to Abuja by 3.20 a.m. In the afternoon of that same day, when most of those who travelled with him would have given anything to be in slumberland, he presented the 2017 budget proposals to the National Assembly. If I am lucky to live to that age, I don’t wish to run such punishing schedule.
But for that reason was Muhammadu Buhari born on December 17, 1942, in Daura, present day Katsina State. For that reason he came to the world. To serve humanity, serve his country, and make a huge difference. He was sent here to show that it is possible to be squeaky clean, play according to the rules, and live for others, not for primitive accumulation.
The word came out on Monday, a public holiday. We were headed for Gambia the next morning, and we must set forth at dawn. For we were returning to Abuja the same day. By 6 a.m, we were on the way to the airport. A few minutes past 7 a.m, the great bird lifted into the sky. The peace shuttle had begun.
What took President Buhari out at short notice was the developing situation in The Gambia. President, Professor, Dr., Alhaji Yahya Jammeh, who had taken power from Sir Dawda Jawara 22 years earlier in a military coup, and who had transmuted to a civilian ruler along the way, had suddenly recanted on an election he lost, and over which he had congratulated the winner. Jammeh said the scales had fallen from his eyes, he had seen the light, and the defeat he had conceded was no longer so. The election was flawed, and there must be a new exercise under a “God-fearing electoral commission.”
This was deja vu. Another Gbagbo scenario, as we had seen in Cote D’Ivoire? A playback of 1998 Sierra Leone, in which ECOMOG troops, led by Nigeria under Sani Abacha, had flushed out the military junta led by Johnny Paul Koroma, which had ousted President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah from power? Will the President, Professor, Dr., and Alhaji be given the Gbagbo and Koroma treatment? It seemed inevitable. But blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Buhari of Nigeria, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, and John Mahama of Ghana, decided to wave the olive branch. It was time to try and talk some sense into Jammeh’s head. The presence of Mahama in the team was significant, as he had also conceded defeat in the presidential election held in Ghana only a few days earlier.
After a flight of two hours and forty minutes, we landed in Monrovia. We took aboard Johnson-Sirleaf, and some of her aides. A few days earlier, in her capacity as chair of ECOWAS, she had headed for The Gambia. Jammeh did not give her plane permission to land. She had to return home.
Liberia. Land of blood, caused by greed for power. Samuel Doe. Yormie Johnson. Charles Taylor. Many others. They wanted power, and did not mind turning their country into a killing field. Very sad.
After 47 minutes, we landed in Freetown. Some years back, the town had not been free. The same lust for power. Foday Sankoh led what he called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and his type of revolution was to chop off the hands of innocent people. If he cut it at the wrist, he called it long sleeve. If he butchered at the elbow, he called it short sleeve. Sierra Leone was filled with thousands and thousands of amputees. Sheer madness!
But the day of reckoning came, as it always does. Sankoh was arrested, and put on trial. He fell ill, was wheelchair bound, and eventually died. He escaped the justice of man, but not of God. I was editor of Daily Sun when he died. I remember my headline: ‘Foday Sankoh goes to hell.’ The Mirror of London went the same way. NEXT STOP: HELL. That was the paper’s headline. You can accuse us of being judgmental, playing God. But as far as human beings knew, Foday Sankoh had no other destination. Only hell, to keep a date with his master, Satan.
But I digress too much. We are talking of a peace shuttle in a birthday week.
Yes, we took on board President Bai Koroma and his aides, and we were on the way. An hour later, we were overflying Banjul. Would we be permitted to land, or given the Johnson-Sirleaf treatment? Happily, the big bird swooped down, and we landed. I was back in Banjul, 12 years after my last visit. Everything seemed the way I had left it. Only Jammeh had changed. From conceding defeat, to calling for another election.
The three presidents joined John Mahama of Ghana at the Coco Ocean Hotel, a lovely resort by the sea. Would the waters be turned crimson red soon? God forbid. That was why the peacemakers were around. For the next seven hours, they met with Adama Barrow, the victor in the election, the leadership of the electoral commission, a delegation of the coalition that gave Barrow victory, security chiefs, and many others. Twice, they met with Jammeh at the State House. Before proceedings began, and after. What were they asking for? Simple. Respect the Constitution of your country. Honour your word, and uphold the results of the election. Vacate power next January, as decency requires.
There was no positive commitment from Jammeh, and the parley continues, as ECOWAS meets in Abuja today. On his 74th birthday, President Buhari, instead of wining and dining, would be hosting leaders of the West African sub-region. For that reason was he born. For that purpose was he sent to Nigeria. To serve the country, serve humanity, and show that things could be done differently.
By 10 p.m Nigerian time (9 p.m Gambian time) we boarded the presidential jet. I remembered a primary school song:”Oh Nigeria, oh my native land, Never again may I roam. I’ve been to Ghana, I’ve been to Sierra Leone, I’ve been to Gambia, I’m going back to my native land, never again may I roam.”
It was a day of roaming, but for a good cause. We dropped off the Sierra Leonean contingent first. Freetown, the land of my father. In 1955, my father had sailed from Nigeria to Sierra Leone, in search of the Golden Fleece. He had gone to study at Fourah Bay College, from where he took a degree in Economics, and returned home in 1959. He took to teaching, and retired as a school principal in 1971. He had good stories to tell us about Sierra Leone. That was before the country lost its innocence, erupting in an orgy of killings.
We dropped off the Liberian contingent, and headed for Abuja. If we had gone straight, we needed only two hours and forty minutes. We spent five hours and five minutes. Double that, and we had spent more than 10 hours in the air, all in West Africa. Blessed are the peacemakers…
Yesterday, President Buhari gave out one of his daughters, Zahra, in marriage. Today, he would be with ECOWAS leaders for most of the day. How do you remind him it’s his birthday? On Wednesday morning, we had got back to Aso Villa at 4 a.m. By 2 p.m, the President was presenting Budget 2017 to a joint session of the National Assembly. On Thursday, he was in Lagos to commission a ship at the Naval Dockyard. What a helluva birthday week! I repeat. If I am lucky to live till 74, I don’t want to run such punishing schedule.
Some people say they used to give them some injections in the military that make them go on and on. True? False? I don’t know. We saw the same of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, also a retired General, who worked endless hours. Could the injection theory be true? Somebody, please confirm.
The man the people call Mai Gaskiya (honest man) turns 74 today. I wish him longer life, in good health. The sailing may be rough and tempestuous on the economy front now, and some people are shouting; carest thou not that we perish? We are hungry and dying. But Nigeria will get to halcyon shores. This land will prosper again. Our captain is at the helm. He is tested and trusted. We can then sleep through the storm.
Femi Adesina is Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Muhammadu Buhari.