TRAVELOGUE: Savouring amazing Germany and its election for eight memorable days

The eight Africans that participated in the Visitors Programme
The eight Africans that participated in the Visitors Programme (Photo taken by Festus Owete)

Premium Times’ General Editor, Festus Owete, was one of the eight Africans that recently participated in the 2017 Visitors Programme of the Federal Republic of Germany. He narrates his experience during the programme.

I was filled with excitement that Monday morning. It was in August and my Editor-in-Chief/Chief Operations Officer, Musikilu Mojeed, had just informed me of my nomination for the Visitors Programme of the Federal Republic of Germany.

I knew it was a programme that would not only boost my journalism career, it would also open other doors of opportunities. Aside being my first to the European country, the trip offered me the opportunity to see some interesting places I had read so much about, like the famous Berlin Wall, or what remains of it since the Germans reunified their partitioned country at the end of the Cold War.

Preparation for the trip began two days later when I got a mail signed by the German Ambassador to Nigeria, Benhard Schlagheck, formally informing me of my selection to participate in the programme and cover “Germany’s General Election 2017.”

The envoy explained that participants drawn from different countries would observe the election and also get first-hand impression of Germany and its people. He also said the programme would be implemented on behalf of the government by Berlin-based Goethe Institute (the German Cultural Institute).

Some weeks later, assisted by Ludwig Jung, Head of the Press Section, and Angelika Engel, Head of the Consular and Visa Section, at the Embassy of Germany in Abuja, I and other Nigerian nominees were issued visas, signalling the beginning of the eight-day trip to the European country.

The other nominees were Ishaka Adegboye, who strings for Deutsche Welle, BBC and RFI, and Damilola Oyedele, a political correspondent of ThisDay newspaper.

We left Nigeria shortly before midnight on Monday, September 18 and arrived Berlin in the afternoon of Tuesday, after a four-hour stopover at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey.

We were warmly received by Gerrit Book, a nice young German, who was to be our guide for the next seven days. Mr. Book took us to Holiday Inn, Berlin, which became our home for those memorable days in the German capital. There, we met five other journalists from South Africa who had arrived about the time we did and had checked in.

The South African journalists were Emsie Ferreira, a senior reporter with African News Agency, Cape Town; Sophie Letsaba, foreign editor of South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC); Navaranjeni Munusasamy, associate editor, The Times and Sunday Times, Parktown; Setumo Stone, political reporter with City Press daily newspaper/News24 online portal, Auckland Park; and Laura Wener, executive producer, Talk Radio 702, Sandton.

The programme commenced after we had rested for a few hours. That evening, the eight of us, tagged “Delegation of African Journalists”, were taken by Mr. Book, who was joined by one of his colleagues, Hella Prokoph, to the Foreign Affairs Office Wederscher Markt 1, where we were hosted by its press spokesperson, Martin Schafer.

After the normal pleasantries, Mr. Schafer, who had just been named German Ambassador to South Africa, took time to enlighten on us on German politics, especially the coalition government as well as press freedom in the country. He also gave us the opportunity to ask him a few questions, especially those relevant to Nigerian and South African politics.

Although our discussion with Schafer, who was billed to join the German delegation to the UN General Assembly the following day, was not for publication, one of the takeaways was his submission that the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) could lose the coming election if Chancellor Angela Merkel were not standing for election.

To be sure, the interaction exposed us a great deal to the complex nature of German politics, on which I had read extensively before embarking on the trip.

The following morning, we visited Freie Universitat (Free University) Berlin, where we were hosted by erudite scholar, Oskar Niedermayer, a professor of political science. We were to be joined by delegations from the U.S. and other parts of Europe.

Mr. Niedermayer, whose address to us in German was translated to English, took us through the political and electoral systems of Germany.

Dwelling on the coming election, the political scientist said the poll would not be as interesting as the grand coalition government that would be formed after it. While noting that none of the parties would secure outright majority in the election, Mr. Niedermayer predicted that some small parties might join the coalition government afterwards.

After the session with the scholar, we attended a Federal Press Conference (Bundezpresseconferenz) addressed by some government officials at the Pressehaus.

The Federal Press Conference (BPR) is organised by the German Journalists Association. It was founded by parliamentary journalists in 1948. According to the programme given to us, the venue regularly hosts conferences with leading representatives of politics, business and culture.

The conferences are held three times a week – Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The spokespersons of the federal government and the ministries are invited to attend as a matter of routine to respond to journalists’ spontaneous questions. That day, it was attended by about 11 government officials who fielded questions on a wide range of domestic and foreign issues. The event was significant because it was the last briefing on the cabinet meetings before the election. We attended the event as observers, since we were visitors.

After the briefing, we were taken on a guided tour of the Reichstag (the German Parliament building) by our guides. Although built in the late 19thcentury, the Reichstag building has been the seat of the federal parliament (Bundestag) since 1999, some years after the reunification of East and West Germany.

As our programme of events explained, “It looks back on an eventful history, the Weimar Republic, the Reichstag fire of 1933, heavy destruction during the World War 11, reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as a complete modernization during the 1990s.”

One striking thing about the Reichstag is that Germans flock the building, which has become a major tourism centre and a symbol of Berlin, largely because of its glass dome.

The dome is an architectural masterpiece, designed by Norman Foster, to replace the old dome destroyed in 1933. It was built to emphasise the October 1990 unification of East and West Germany.

It is a large glass house with 360 degree view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape. The cone in the centre directs sunlight into the building. From the dome, looking down, one could see the debating chamber of German lawmakers. It is symbolic because it does not only indicate that the people are above the government but also a shift from the past to the reunification.

When we arrived the building, where over 600 representatives of the people sit to make law for their people, we noticed young and aged Germans queuing up awaiting security screening before going in.

Of course we were not spared the security check, though it was made easy because our names had been submitted to the authorities informing them of our visit. Just like many other places we visited, we presented our international passports which were scrutinized before we were allowed in.

The parliament has a department in charge of guiding tourists. For the next one hour or thereabout, a German who speaks fluent English took us round the building before handing us over to another guide who guided us to the dome. We finally got to the dome by climbing two steel, spiralling ramps where our tour of the building ended.

One major thing that struck me about the plenary auditorium (chamber) is its simplicity, at least compared to those of Nigeria.

The Chancellery (Bundeskanzleramt), which is the office of the Chancellor, is located close to the Bundestag. In fact, we arrived the Bundestag by passing right in front of the Bundeskanzleramt. Although it is reputed to be the largest government house in the world and about 10 times the size of the US White House, it is not as fortified as those I have seen in Africa.

We soon retired to our hotel after the visit. That night, we were taken to Olympischer Platz (Berlin Olympic Stadium) where we watched a Bundesliga match between Hertha BSC and Bayer Leverkusen, which ended 2-0 in favour of the former. Although not a sport enthusiast, the vibrancy of the game stirred my interest in the round leather game.

It was a media affair on Thursday. In the morning, we were driven to Cosmo Hotel, Berlin, where alongside the European and American delegations we had talks with Markus Beckedahl, founder and chief editor of netpolitik.orgon “Social Media and Election Influencing.”

One interesting revelation from the discussion with Mr. Beckedahl is on the funding of the blog site, which he explained is majorly done by citizens who believe in its work. I was curious and I raised questions as regards the platform’s objectivity if it is funded by people who he said are anonymous.

He also spoke extensively on fake news, which he said is largely shared on the social media. Fake news is not a big problem in the country, Mr. Beckedahl said, because more than 85 per cent of Germans believe what the newspapers report.

Done with that engagement, we had audience with Eva Werner, the deputy press officer of the Deutscher Journalisten Verband, DJV, (German Journalist Association) in the conference room of the Goethe Institut. She took us on the subject “The German media landscape and the upcoming General Elections.”

Ms. Werner explained how German journalists cover elections, the issue of biased reporting during elections and other media-related issues. We also took time to discuss media support for political parties during elections and the relationship between mainstream media and online media in Germany.

We left that event for the South African Embassy in Berlin where we were hosted by the ambassador, Phumelele Stone Sizani.

Mr. Sizani, accompanied by some of his officials, briefed us on the relations between his country and Germany as well as other issues. He also spoke on African development.

We were billed to participate in two other events that Thursday but they could not hold. The events were talks with Christian Graft, a member of CDU in the House of Representatives of Berlin and the party’s spokesperson, Andreas Horst. They were to brief us on “Political issues in Berlin and in the upcoming elections from the point of view of the CDU.”

Remnants of Collapsed Berlin Wall
Remnants of Collapsed Berlin Wall (Photo taken by Festus Owete)

Similarly, talks with Dominic Johnson, Editor (Africa) and Co-Director of Foreign Affairs on the subject “Journalism and Reporting on Foreign Affairs) could not hold.

On Friday morning, we flew to Bonn. Bonn was the capital of West Germany before the 1990 reunification of West and East Germany. We were met by another guide.

In Bonn, we visited the gigantic and expansive office of Deutsche Welle (Germany’s International Broadcaster), where we spent several hours taking briefs from its officials.

First, the Head of the Visitor Service, Catherin Beckmann, took us to the live radio show of the French Service for Africa, after which we were taken to a conference room where officials of the organisation took turns to brief us.

Among the officials were Fabian Planka (International Relations), who briefed us on DW’s structure, history and mandate; Claus Stracker (Head of African Department) who took us on the overview of DW-African language services and media offerings and coverage of Germany’s Parliamentary Elections;  Natascha Schwanke, DW Akademic, Head of Africa, who spoke on innovative tools for transparency in election reporting;

There were also Sevan Ibrahim-Saner, Head of Distribution Africa, who spoke on Introduction of Distribution Activities in Sub-Saharan Africa; and Krsitin Zeter, News and Current Affairs and Head of Social Media News, who spoke on Social Media Desk: Overview of election coverage.

Ms. Beckmann thereafter took us on a short guided tour though DW broadcasting facilities and live radio show of Kiswahili Service after which we were treated to a sumptuous lunch before flying back to Berlin.

That evening, we attended the public election campaign of Martin Schulz, the Chancellor candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) at Gendarmenmarkt where we watched the politician address his last campaign rally.

As it were, Mr. Schulz, a former President of European Parliament, held his supporters astounded with his eloquence for about one hour, promising to restore equality and justice to Germany. His party was to lose the election though, polling only 20.8 percent of the votes against 32.9 percent of the CDU.

On Saturday, we were taken on a guided tour of some interesting places in Berlin District of Neukolin. Neukolin is one of the districts of Berlin with a very long immigration history and with the highest number of emigrants. It is regarded as the social flashpoint of Berlin and a trendy area.

The visit was aimed at giving us an impression of the diversity of the country, its inhabitants, their living conditions and their lifestyles. It was also aimed at giving us the opportunity to talk to representatives of the local party groups at the election campaign stands.

Although accompanied by Mr. Book and Ms. Prokoph, two immigrants guided us to these interesting places, including Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple, Refugee camp, a Mosque on Flughafenstrafze which was initially a church but sold to Muslims, as well as the last Jewish Synagogue which Jews used in 1938 just before the Holocaust during Adolf Hitler’s regime in 1939.

We later had free time to explore the Berlin city that day. We visited the Central Memorial site constructed in 2005 to commemorate the killing of six million European Jews. It is another great historical site which Mr. Book explained was not where the Jews were murdered as erroneously held by some people. There are about 2000 make-up graves constructed to remember the dead Jews.

Sunday September 24 was the Election Day. That day, about 60 million German 18 years and above elected the over 600 members of the Bundestag (the federal parliament).

Election into the Bundestag is the most important event in Germany’s politics. It is from the Bundestag that the Chancellor, the equivalent of British Prime Minister, is elected. The incumbent, Angela Merkel, was seeking her fourth term in office in the election.

Although about 30 parties were cleared to participate in the election, less than 10 of them would compete in all the 16 states of Germany. A party is supposed to have five percent of the votes or win three constituencies outright before qualifying to be represented in the Bundestag.

At about noon, we were driven to Bezirksamt Pankow von Berlin (Pankow Berlin District Electoral Office) where we were hosted by three of its officials who briefed us on “Carrying out the Bundestag elections.”

The officials entertained questions after briefing us, exposing us the more to the practical aspects of Germany’s electoral process.

From them, we learnt that Germans are not registered (and accredited) to vote. Rather they use their national identity cards. They also told us about postal voting. Germans abroad or those who would be engaged on the day of election could vote by posting. That system was introduced in 1957. Postal voting also enables the old, sick and disabled to vote. Ballot papers are usually distributed to this category of voters and they returned the papers by post. This is instead of voting in person at polling stations.

When we wondered about possible election manipulations, the officials who appeared surprised at our question, conferred among themselves before answering that it is not a common feature of Germany’s electoral process. However, they admitted that like some other parts of the world, not every polling station makes voting by the physically-challenged easy.

We subsequently visited one of the polling stations accompanied by one of the officials. At the station, there was order. Voting commenced at 8 a.m. Voters filed quietly to cast their votes. There was no security presence at the station as obtained in Nigeria.

Indeed, there were so many striking things about that election compared to what obtains here in Nigeria.

First, there was no restriction of movement on the day of the election. In fact, that morning, the Berlin Marathon held.

The Berlin Marathon, according to our programme of events, takes place every year on the last Sunday of September. About 40,000 runners, drawn from all parts of the world, participate in the race, which we were billed to watch from the sidelines.

Apart from the marathon, Berliners went about their business as if nothing was happening. Some shop owners and restaurant operators opened for business.

There was no trace of violence anywhere, particularly at the polling stations and campaign rallies. There were no reports of campaign violence which usually characterise elections in Africa, including Nigeria. At the polling station we visited, we did not notice anybody inducing voters.

In the days preceding the election, I did not hear politicians abusing themselves. I didn’t hear beating of drums neither did I see supporters dancing on the street. They largely conducted their campaigns based on issues.

I noticed that two parties – SDP and Green Party – erected their umbrellas side by side in a particular place, distributing fliers to people passing by without hurting each other. There were no large billboards competing for space with human beings. However, given the practice back home, we considered the election boring.

That night, we attended the public “election party” of one of the political parties, FDI, at vollgutlager Rollbergstrabe where the public television broadcast the exit poll based on forecast of election research institutes.

On Monday, we attended the discussion of the election results at the invitation of the Federal Government Press and Information Office (BPA). At this forum, representatives of leading public institutes analysed and discussed the Bundestag election results.

Those on the panel moderated by Anke Plattner were Matthias Jung of Forschungspruppe Wahlen; Renate Kicher of the Institute fur Demoskopie Alenshach; Peter Matuschek (forsa) and Nico Siegel of Infratest dimap).

The panellists suggested reasons for the performance of each party and the coming, for the first time of AfD, a fringe party, to parliament. They also hinted on the small parties that may likely form coalition government with CDU.

After the event, we moved to Hotel de Rome where we had lunch with officials of the Federal Foreign Office led by Mr. Schafer. Here, we discussed South African and Nigerian political landscape over lunch, after which we proceeded to the famous Berlin Wall, a great historical site. It was our last outing before we retired for our last dinner.

On September 26, it was time to bid the beautiful 800-year old Berlin and Germany’s largest city of about 3.7 million people, farewell. By about 8.30 a.m. local time, we were on our way home via Istanbul where we stopped over another three hours and arrived Nigeria shortly before midnight.

Germans, indeed, are open-minded people. Wherever we went they received us warmly. We got maximum cooperation from the people. I did not notice any expression of racism.

In Berlin, there is order and I believe it is so in other parts of the country. The city is neat with skyscrapers dotting every district. The roads are smooth and not once did we notice any accident even though some of them are shared by motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians with each having their exclusive tracks.

Berliners obey traffic lights, religiously. I noticed that motorists are patient.

Train services are equally efficient.  Apart from the underground rail services, there are rail tracks built besides some roads. We accessed some of the places we visited by train.

Although, it was not my first trip abroad, I must not fail to mention that for the eight days the trip lasted, I missed Nigerian foods. We visited restaurants owned by German or Chinese and other nationals. Our sponsors and guides encouraged us to eat anything we wanted at the restaurants but that, however, did not satisfy my desire for African food.

Another thing that I found curious is that any restaurants we visited, big or small, we spotted Germans drinking beer, not from the bottle but from big and tall tumblers. This is a way of life of the people who seem not to be as religious as Nigerians.

Indeed Germany is famous for beer. Study shows that “the variety of German beer with its more than 5000 different beers, brewed in about 1200 breweries is unique and unmatched in the world….Germany does export about 1.5 million barrels of beer yearly to the United States.”

My attempt to distribute Christian tracts to some Germans met with resistance, thus forcing me to take the literatures to restaurants, hotels and airplane. Also, I did not see many “Pentescostal” churches but only a few orthodox churches, particularly Lutheran and Catholic churches.

I also noticed that there is high level of literacy among Germans and they enjoy high standard of living.

In sum, the eight-day trip was not only exciting but educating and enlightening, thanks to the German government and the Goethe Institut. I look forward to visiting this country of about 82 million with beautiful cities and amazing people again and again.


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