By FEMI ADESINA
Not a few tongues had wagged over the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari was outside the country on medical vacation for weeks on end, and no member of his media team was with him. Many times, we had been confronted by journalists on why we were sitting pretty in Nigeria, while our principal was confronted by severe health challenges in London.
How did I feel about the situation? I had always told the media, and others who cared to listen, that whoever is on a presidential entourage at any time is the prerogative of the President. In the first 20 months of this administration, the President had made scores of trips, both locally and internationally. There was none, and I repeat, none, in which the media team was excluded. We were always there to keep the world abreast with what the President was doing.
When President Buhari first needed to travel for holiday and medical attention in January this year, it was deemed a private trip, in which the media was not needed. On such journey, you naturally would need security details, your personal physician, protocol and domestic aides, and those were the ones that went. Media? It depended on the principal. What was essential was that the channels of communication be kept open.
When the fuss came that the media handlers of the President were transmitting at best third hand information to the public, it did not bother me as much as it did some people, particularly, journalists. The discretion to have anyone with him at a given time was that of the President, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. I was in direct contact with those who were around him, and that was the best in the circumstances.
When the rumour mill went into overdrive sometime in January that the President had passed on, the first person I called was his personal physician. He laughed, saying nothing of such happened. I was thus confident enough to debunk the malicious information.
Before he returned on March 10, in what turned out to be the first leg of his medical treatment, President Buhari had spoken with me personally on phone, the details of which I made available to the public. It was sufficient for me.
The President left again on May 7. I was with him at home till he left for the airport. Information dissemination followed the same pattern as on the first trip. The aides on hand told me whatever was necessary, and I communicated same, never for once making it appear that the information was firsthand. It was the best and the honest thing to do. You work for a straightforward man, it would be a disservice to him for you to begin to spin and bend information. Never!
Not once did I agitate to visit London to see the President. I was trusting enough to receive whatever information was passed to me, knowing the kind of man we serve. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.
A lot of people were using paracetamol for what they considered my headache. They continued to fret that I was not in London, but it didn’t bother me a bit. Ask my wife and children, they would tell you that I am never in unnecessary hurry. I don’t push things, but the lines always fall for me in pleasant places. I have learnt to take all things in my strides, and let the divine powers work out the rest. Some people will erroneously call it a laid back approach, but those who are discerning would see that I had always excelled in whatever I did, physical, professional, spiritual, domestic etc. No need to sing my own praises. Not unto us, but unto Him, be all the glory and praises.
And then, on Wednesday last week, ‘come came to become’ (apologies K.O Mbadiwe). I received a communication to proceed to London to see the President, along with other members of the presidential media team. To lead the delegation was Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture, while others included myself, Mallam Garba Shehu, Lauretta Onochie, Bayo Omoboriowo, and the Nigerian Television Authority team of Adamu Sambo and Emmanuel Arinhi. Senior Special Assistant on International and Diaspora Matters, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who was in London on another official matter, eventually joined us to see the President on Saturday.
Leaving the country through the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport on Friday morning, one was as conspicuous as a tiger in a teashop. All that knew me, and saw that I was headed for London, naturally said: “Please give our greetings to Baba o.” They just took it for granted that I was going to London to see the King, and not the Queen this time, as made popular by the pussycat in the nursery rhyme.
The trip aboard the British Airways Boeing 777-200/300 was pleasant and pleasurable. It was like a whole city in the sky. The Nigerians who saw me and my colleague, Mallam Garba Shehu, onboard, also jumped to the same right conclusion as those at the airport: “Please greet Baba for us o.”
On Saturday afternoon, we were ferried from our hotels at the appointed time. At Zero Hour, we were at the Abuja House, Nigerian High Commission, London.
As we strode into the living room, I saw with infinite pleasure, the great object of my mission. Standing tall and ramrod straight was President Muhammadu Buhari, with that ubiquitous smile in place. He was looking a lot better than he had ever looked in the past eight months. My heart leapt for joy, and sang praises to God. Was this not the man they said was on life support machine? Didn’t they say he could neither walk nor talk? But he was welcoming Alhaji Lai Muhammed, and calling him by name. I was next. I shook the hands of the man I had admired since his days as a military head of state, a man I am not ashamed to call my leader and President today, and any day.
Seated, the President had words for each member of the team, which showed that he had been following events back home very keenly. He commended the Minister of Information and Culture, saying, “Lai, you are all over the place. I see you virtually everyday. You have been working very hard.” Pointing to Abike Dabiri-Erewa, he said, “She is here in her constituency. But me, I am here reluctantly.” We all laughed, and Dabiri-Erewa jocularly issued what you could call a quit notice, saying she didn’t want the President in her constituency again.
How are you, Mr President?
“I am okay now. I feel I could go home, but doctors are in charge here, and I’ve learnt to obey my doctors. I’ve learnt to obey orders, rather than be the one giving the orders.”
If you have met the President personally, he is usually full of wisecracks, and this day was not different. He told us he had enough time to watch television, and commended the NTA particularly, and Nigerian media generally, for bringing him up to speed with what was happening back home.
He said he had been watching the protests by people who wanted him to return home post-haste, or resign. He mentioned one of the leaders of the protest by name, and laughed. I did not discern any malice in the laughter.
President Buhari told us he seldom got sick, something he had told Nigerians on March 10, at his first return. When we told him millions of people were praying for him at home, in Africa, and even beyond, I saw the glow in his eyes, and he said :”May God reward them,” after noting that what Nigeria did in The Gambia in January, which forced a sit-tight Yahya Jammeh to quit office, “fetched us a lot of goodwill and latitude.”
We talked about many issues, some of which are not due for public consumption yet. The President was obviously enjoying our company. Then the State Chief of Protocol, Ambassador Lawal Kazaure, popped up (as he always does) and indicated that the allotted time was over.
“Oh dear,” the President exclaimed, reluctant to see us go.
It was time for photographs, and we walked into the garden. The President was spry, as he joined us. Bayo Omoboriowo clicked away, and those were the pictures you have seen. The President even almost sprinted, while going back inside. Omoboriowo captured that rare moment.
And to the dining room we proceeded. We sat at that famous table, laden with different kinds of fruits; banana, apple, pear, water melon, and many others. It was a setting which a man blinded by bile, and suffused with hatred, had described as a previous fast breaking session at Aso Villa during a Ramadan season. Father, forgive him, for he knows not what he says.
We ate, heartily. Our appetites had been stimulated by the state in which we met our principal. Wife of the President, Mrs Aisha Buhari, was at hand to attend to us, urging us to eat as much as we wanted. Halima, daughter of the President, as well as Yusuf, his son, were also there.
It was a pleasure meeting all the presidential aides once again, and we greeted one another warmly: Yau and Lawal (trusted security details), Sunday (the personal cook of many decades), the ADC, SCOP, CSO, CPSO, the personal physician, Tunde Sabiu, Sarki Abbah, and many others. It was grand re-union.
Lunch over, the President bade each person goodbye, with a handshake. We said to him, “See you soon, sir.” But when Dabiri-Erewa uttered the same, the President laughed, and declared: “No, we will leave you here, as this is your constituency.”
The health status of our President, as earlier attested to by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, during his visit, was a testimony to the healing powers of God. This was a man gravely ill, but restored miraculously. It can only be God. In spite of what haters, wailers, and filthy dreamers imagine, and which they spew out, God remains merciful and immutable. He has the final say. If I were a hater, I would repent now, in sackcloth and ashes.
Yes, I’ve been to London to see the King. The Lion King. But unlike the pussycat in the nursery rhyme, I didn’t frighten any mouse under the chair.
•Adesina is Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity