THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu
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As staff of the late MKO Abiola’s defunct ‘Concord Press of Nigeria, CPN, I was one of 13 State House Correspondents on the advance team of General Ibrahim Babangida’s State Visit to Germany in 1992. And that was barely two years after the historic fall of the ‘Berlin Wall’ and the reunification of the two Germanys: ‘West’, with its glowing capitalist, free-market trappings and ‘East’, just smarting from the languor and hangover of communist Russia’s lifelessness. These two mutually repulsive ideological pages in the history of a post-World War Two Germany would conspire under a re-united bundesrepublik to birth a new phase of xenophobia after the Holocaust, manifesting first in occasional ‘black muggings’ and much later what the world would come to know as the phenomenon of the ‘German Skin heads’, involving young, clean-shaven xenophobes who spared neither black nor white foreigners.
But just before Babangida’s visit, back home in Nigeria, some quiet debate had just recently raged over some unsubstantiated ‘debt claims’ running into a couple of billions that Germany said –in a redemption-demand notice- that Nigeria owed her. And so on the face of it, Babangida’s visit was communicated to Nigerians as the usual diplomatic call of one bilateral friend to another in a bid to consolidate friendship and maybe even open new frontiers. But I was one of few journalists who were privileged to unearth and to break the news that there was more to that visit than met the eye. It was to resolve the said ‘debt claim’ away from the prying eyes of a nosey Nigerian press, and especially at a time that a German construction giant, Julius Berger was putting finishing touches on a brand new Federal Capital, Abuja, it had almost singlehandedly built for us.
And so rather than initiating ‘shuttle diplomacy’ to resolve, General Babangida had opted for a direct troubleshooting with the Germans, taking with him the princely Finance Minister, famed for the alliteration of his name, Tripple ‘A’: Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, and his Foreign Affairs Minister General Ike Nwachukwu, to resolve the debt issue -as the Germans would say- ‘one bundesrat to another’. And so, for four grueling days in Germany Babangida would shuttle between the ornate Villa Hammerschmidt in Bonn, (seat of the Head of State and ceremonial President of the German Republic), then occupied by Richard von Weizsacker; and the palatial Chancellery in Berlin, (housing the offices of the Chancellor and Head of Government), then Helmut kohl, to bring closure to the debt issue.
But as the then sitting Chairman of the Organization of African Unity, OAU (now African Union, AU), General Babangida, in addition to the usual duty of having to meet with the Nigerian community in Germany, had also the extra duty to meet with the African community. And so owing to obvious constraint of schedule in just the space of a four-day visit, the Berlin State Library event where he was to address the German Society for Foreign Policy, doubled as venue also to meet, hear and answer questions from Africans. And it was here during the question and answer session that Babangida and a certain bitter Gambian immigrant had a hot exchange which would inform the writing of an interesting piece in one of my earliest columns ‘On The Beat’, which I had titled ‘Men, Go Home!’ (Concord, March 17, 1992).
The Gambian had started in the most solemn of tones, informing the OAU Chair about a recent xenophobic phenomenon in Germany, directed solely at black Africans and the fact that as at then not less than twenty-two, all black Africans, had been killed by xenophobes suspected mostly to be communist-oriented East Germans, many of whom –since after the re-unification- had been unable to keep pace with capitalism’s competitive free market system whereby every dog was left to its own devices. Most of these newly integrated East Germans into the cruel world of capitalism, saw African blacks maintaining menial jobs as the reason for their own joblessness. And so whenever they cornered them especially in dark alleys, backstreets and other secluded areas, they mugged them.
And this probably explained to me why just the previous day, at the Grand Esplanade Hotel, while I struggled to fax my stories to Lagos, a pretty half Nigerian, half German lady, Onome Osamo Giesse had approached me hoping I could help her meet “any of the President’s men” as she was resolved, she said, to return home to Nigeria even though she was neither born there nor had she ever visited. For such a one, working at one of the most prestigious financial services companies, Merrill Lynch, to want to call it quits and return home to her maternal country, I thought there was more to it than had struck my senses. And it was the reason I was cautious not to introduce her to anybody –even though, naively, I had taken the greatest risk that night, of going with her in a taxi to the heart of Berlin some two kilometers away from our Hotel, so I could use, she said, her office’s more efficient fax machine to send my stories. None of my colleagues knew I had strayed so deep in the woods playing Adam with a German Eve.
And by a cross of fate, I would sight Onome again the next day at the Berlin State Library event where Babangida was, about now, still waiting for the Gambian to land his question. And as we exchanged visual courtesies across two rows, the Gambian was just switching to accentuated American tone monotonously interspersed with ‘men!’, ‘men!’, as he reproached African leaders for abandoning their citizens in Germany to be mugged: “Men! None of you have sent your foreign ministers to come talk to these guys, men! I have written a letter to you men! And I copied your foreign minister here” (pointing quizzically at Ike Nwachukwu), “but he had done nothing men!” And each time Babangida interjected to calm this speaker down, the Gambian only got all the more exasperated: “you are the OAU Chairman men! If you can dialogue for the Arabs and the PLO why can’t you dialogue for us men!? Democracy means standing for the interest of your people men! But you guys aren’t doing nothing men! I wrote to my President Dauda Jawara and he didn’t reply me men…!”
By now some German officials had risen to stop the irate Gambian, but a calmly smiling Babangida signaled them to allow him continue: “carry on” he said. And the Gambian went on and on until at a very long last, he had to give Babangida a chance to respond: “You believe in the rule of law right?” IBB asked him; and he replied “yes men!”; “And you believe everyone is innocent until proven guilty?”; again he answered “yes men!” And just as Babangida was saying “And you know that crimes of this nature must be thoroughly investigated before……” the Gambian could no longer hold it: “But men! How long? How long men!…?” And Babangida cut in: “Depending on the complications”. And the Gambian pitched even higher “What do you mean, men!” And IBB scaled to match his pitch; “If these cases are complicated they can take a long time….”. And the Gambian went “yes, but how long men! They are killing the blacks everyday men!, and you people are sitting down, you can’t do nothing about it men!” And it was here that Babangida’s restraining voice was finally drowned in the Gambian’s litany of “Men! How long!?’ and ‘How long, men!”; “Men! How long!?…How long, men!”
Then all of a sudden a visibly angry Babangida cut in at the top of his voice: “M-e-n, G-o H-o-m-e!!!” And he added almost immediately: “Gooo Hooome, Meeen!!!” And just then there was a moment’s silence; followed by a long-drawn thunderous applause. And the Gambian, like a rain-drenched canine, quietly returned to his seat, as the hall continued to murmur over Babangida’s end-game upper cut. And at this point I looked across the hall again to catch a glimpse of my home-hungry Nigerian-German mulatto friend, Onome Osamo Giesse. She looked to me even more pitifully determined –to return home.
But don’t ask me if she ever did –‘cause I dunno! M-E-N!!!