Inside NigeriaTaiwo Farotimi

REPORTER’S DIARY: The Tortuous Journey to the Hilltop, By Taiwo Farotimi

It was a rescheduled high profile appointment, after many trials. The kind of appointment no reporter wants to miss. But the journey appears longer than usual, no thanks to the parlous state of the road and the rain that have impaired visibility. The trip to Minna, capital of Niger State, from Abuja that day surely taxed the nerves.

There was the fear of losing the golden opportunity of getting the special interview with the man who is anybody’s delight for an interview any day. No, we were not going to meet the governor, Mohammed Bello, the gentleman for who we have a lot of respect and believing that we may get to interview someday too.

But he is host to many statesmen, two of them former heads of state of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. One of them, in fact the more popular (some will say controversial) was the big catch that we were headed for Minna to speak with. He is General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, former military president-and the only Nigerian leader to have won that title like an epithet. Now his aide had been calling, as he said “to check out on you guys” and also let us know that the General was waiting. Oh my God! Were we not apprehensive? Keeping the General waiting? The man who once wielded a lot of power in the nation and undoubtedly still wields a great deal of influence.

One of us said, “God, please don’t let us miss this appointment.” He could have been addressing a congregation of expectant believers, as we all chorused “amen”. Before now, we would politely caution the driver who was never tired of telling us that if we were to meet the time we gave him, his speed must be above average. Average? That is a mild description of the speed we were on. But he was persuasive he bought. According to him, he wanted to utilize the time on the good portion of the road to make up for the time we will definitely lose when we get to the bad parts.

And truly by the time we got to the area where the Sukuk fund tired out, the experience was something else.

This is the ‘power state’ of Nigeria. The state that has produced two powerful military leaders at the centre. And that in a country where development is attached to the number of representatives of a community in government and how much influence they wield in that government. Is it that the road was not properly built? Even that would have been a surprise, because it is expected that the contractor would want to impress the powers that be.

IBB during the interview with The Crest team

Whatever the cause of this state of the road, the fact is that the road leading to the town or the capital of a state where two past heads of state reside (along with some other powerful men of power) is in a terrible state. Maybe men of power and influence get so busy they cannot attend to their immediate environment while in office or they are so detribalised they prefer to do projects in other places. Do you remember Lagos-Sango-Abeokuta road and the fact that a two-time head of federal government has houses and businesses at two critical locations fed by the road? Oh! Perhaps you recollect the drama between a governor and a federal legislator on the same road that has now become a death trap? So, Minna is not an isolated case. Back to the present; our hearts beat as the clock engaged us in a relay race, and so we permitted, without expressing our approval, the driver to tax the speed limit.

The rain came really hard, affecting visibility and making it almost impossible for the driver not to run into ditches here and there. Some of the time he brazenly contested the road head on with articulated vehicles. At such a time our hearts will be in our mouths. Our driver, consistently daring and, pardon me, permissibly reckless, worked hard so we could meet our appointment. From the calls by the general’s aide he knew we had an important appointment to keep.

Yet, as hard as he tried, we wished we had got into Minna ahead of the time we did. Now after what seemed like a circular manoeuvrings around the town, we took a curve with beautiful trees along the path to a sprawling estate on the hill.

Were we not delighted with the warmth with which we were received?

This is the popular Hilltop mansion, the abode of Nigeria’s powerful general, one who has a history of having participated in all coup d’états in Nigeria, except of course the one that rattled him as head of state and those thereafter. Here is the nest of that man who Nigerians cannot forget in a hurry. He it was who impressed it on all that cared to listen then that he was not just in government, but also in power!

The intimidating edifice appears to have taken a break from those busy days when the owner was a functional man of power, the military president in the most populous black nation. The screening security gadgets, the fountain, even the driveway must be wondering where the crowd has gone. Oh no, there is still a motley crowd of friends in town who join the General for lunch each day. There has to be such company, because for a dining room (I almost said hall) with two tables of about 20 chairs, sitting there alone to dine will be an invitation to depression. The military President loves company, so he is not one to allow such a thing to happen to him.

As a matter of fact, we noticed that the former head of state remains his bubbling self with those toothy smiles and the jokes, even using his health condition. For instance, when asked about his health, Babangida said, “I have some limitations. I have told my friends that my problem is structural (movement), as a result of the operations I had over the years. I haven’t gone mad yet, my brain is working!”

The brain does work perfectly well. Babangida or IBB, as he is fondly called by admirers, is still the perceptive, analytical soldier-politician with depth. The interview (parts of which have already published on this platform) was a frank intervention on issues in the polity as well as matters personal: his early life, marriage and the family.

At the end of the exercise, we all-Shola Oshunkeye, who led The Crest team, Mike Ojoobanikan and I- were satisfied that the risk on the road to Minna was much compensated for. The interview will probably convince you too.


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