Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Week President Goodluck Jonathan Came to Town

Our trip to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth was a wonderful experience and an 'eye opener'. I was able to see 'first hand' the sheer incompetence and profligacy of the Nigerian govt. When stories of government profligacy are published on internet blogs, you sometimes think that the likes of SaharaReporters are just being mischievous.

I recall when SR reported during one of Pres. Jonathan’s visit to the US, that he travelled with 140-man delegation. On face value, one would ask, how can this be possible? If you are one of the 'doubting Thomases', then I have a bad news for you. I was reliably informed by a source in the foreign Affairs Ministry, who is also part of the delegation to Australia, that about 400 people were on the Nigerian delegation to Perth, Australia for the 2011 CHOGM.

The truth is, not every time does a citizen have the opportunity to meet and interact with the president, especially if you live in a place like Australia. In a place like Nigeria where meeting political leaders can be likened to a camel trying to pass through a needle, the opportunity to meet public servants during their overseas visit presents a more relaxed atmosphere. In most cases, one will find such atmosphere less intimidating, as it is usually devoid of over-zealous personal aides and security officials who swarm around public servants. It is for this reason that myself and a group of friends embarked on a 4,500km journey from our base in Brisbane, with the anticipation of meeting Mr President.

Prior to leaving Brisbane, we received a correspondence from the Nigerian High Commission that Pres. GEJ will be meeting with members of the Nigerian community on Saturday 29 October at 4pm in Perth. Having confirmed the date, we booked our flights and accommodation. Our plan was to arrive in Perth on Friday 28 and leave on Monday 31. We deliberately scheduled our departure from Perth for Monday 31, to allow us some flexibility just in case the proposed time of the meeting changes, because you can never trust Nigerian officials to keep to time.

And just when we thought all was 'hunky dory', we received another correspondence from the High Commission advising that the meeting has been rescheduled for Tuesday 25 October. At this stage, we asked ourselves if we should change our travel plans. After considering the cost implication, we decided not to. My thoughts were, we should travel to Perth on Friday 28 October as planned, and just see how things pane out.

Come Tuesday 25 October, we contacted some friends in Perth to enquire if the meeting took place. Lo and behold, we were told that the meeting has been postponed once again(!). Meaning if we had changed our travel plans, it would have been a total waste of time.

At this time, we were still in Brisbane and no one could confirm the new date of the meeting. Our contacts in Perth could not provide any further updates. Getting information out of the High Commission also became impossible. The officers seem to have closed shop in Canberra and have all flown to Perth in order not to miss out on the presidential jamboree. President Jonathan had since arrived in Perth on Monday 24 October.

So we arrived in Perth at about 12 midnight on Friday 28 without any idea of the time and location of the proposed meeting. In search of information, we decided take a stroll to the venue of the CHOGM, the Perth Convention Centre. We were convinced that we would at least come in contact with a Nigerian delegate who might be able provide us with further information. As expected, we came across a few Nigerian delegates who advised us that the meeting will now be held on Sunday 30 October at 3pm at the Perth City Hall.

Apparently the Nigerian Community in Western Australia were the organisers of the event. The plan of the organisers was to ‘kill two birds with one stone’, by using their annual Nigeria Independence celebration as a reception for Mr President. I learnt that the celebration was postponed to coincide with the arrival of Pres. Jonathan in Australia.

It was while I was in the Perth City Centre on Saturday that I began to see the massive profligacy of the Nigerian government on display. You could smell naira notes everywhere you turn in the shopping mall.

Everyone and anyone you can think of, was in Perth for the CHOGM. From Ministers to businessmen, state governors, Special Advisers, Commissioners, Personal Assistants, Security Guards, houseboys, housegirls, girlfriends, shopping buddies, political jobbers you name it!

I even learnt that one of the state governors travelled with four of his commissioners! You can also be sure that each of these commissioners will travel with at least a personal assistant. To put this in perspective, there were five governors on the presidential delegation.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also wasn't left behind. In attendance was the Minister, Permanent-Secretary, Special Adviser to the Minister, a handful of Directors and other junior officers

Some of the Nigerian guys I came across on the streets of Perth were no different from urchins that you see regularly on the streets of Lagos. The only difference was that their pockets were fully loaded with stash of dollars. From my observation, 90% Nigerians who travelled to Perth for the CHOGM had no business been in Australia. For crying out loud, how can anyone justify a 400-man delegation to a Heads of Government meeting. Mind you, this is not a United Nations General Assembly or conference. This is a meeting of only 54 heads of state.

The shop owners in the city must have been praying that the CHOGM shouldn't come to an end. Everywhere you turned, there is a Nigerian either shopping and changing money at the bureau de change. You need not to be Professor of Human Geography to recognise the Nigerian delegates. Their trademark was the 'Louis Vuitton' carrier bag. Whilst Pres. Jonathan was busy in the CHOGM, his personal aides and public servants unleashed their arsenal of dollar notes on the Perth shopping mall.

By the evening of Saturday 29, news started to filter round that Pres. Jonathan wouldn’t be attending the much anticipated reception organised by the Nigerian Association. Different reasons were peddled around. We heard that he had to fly out of Australia by 1pm, because he needed to make a stop over in Mauritius. So the question was how come all of a sudden, the Mauritius trip became so important bearing in mind that it wasn’t on his planned schedule?

There were rumours that, following the grounding of Qantas Airline, Pres. Jonathan decided to offer the President of Mauritius a ‘lift’ back home in his presidential jet. Meaning that Mauritius President is more important that the average Nigerian who have taken their time and spent their money to travel to Perth in the hope of meeting the President.

Some also claimed that the presidential jet needed to arrive in Mauritius at a particular time so that it can be refuelled. You then begin wonder, is Mauritius the only country on the flight path where the presidential jet can be refuelled.

As expected, come Sunday 31 October, the long awaited august visitor did not show up at Perth City Hall. Instead, he was represented by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Gbenga Ashiru. Also present at the event were bureaucrats from Foreign Affairs Ministry.

You could see the disgust on the faces of the guests. I heard a 7yr-old girl asking her Dad at the event, “Daddy, where is the Nigerian President?” Mr President disappointed hundreds of Nigerian men and women, who sacrificed their time and money to put together a fantastic reception. One couldn’t have asked for more. The venue was beautiful and the food was tasty. Even Oga Jonah and Madam Peshe would have been impressed. But anyway they decided to do a ‘no show’. I was reliably informed that the organisers spent over $8,000 in hosting the event.

With this sort of attitude, you can only wonder how much respect Nigerian leaders have for the masses. I still cannot comprehend the fact that Pres. Jonathan travelled over 50,000km across the world to Australia, for almost a week and he couldn’t spare 1 hour in his supposed tight schedule to meet with his fellow nationals. Even if he was that busy, what about the First Lady, Dame Patience? I am sure many wouldn’t have been so disappointed if Mrs Jonathan turned up at the event.

The body language of Foreign Affairs Minister was also not very helpful to say the least. It was like he was doing us a favour by been present at the event. He barely stayed for an hour before he left for the airport.

Anyway, in the absence of Mr President, yours truly and his friends decided to treat themselves to plate of pounded yam and ‘efo egusi’ and spent time interacting with the beautiful people of Perth.

On Monday, we took a drive to the harbour town of Freemantle before heading for the airport to board the flight back to Brisbane. We were fortunate that the grounding of Qantas airline fleet was resolved before our scheduled departure date.

Overall, we had a fantastic time in Perth, and I would like to express my gratitude to everyone who made our weekend in Perth memorable.

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