TRAVELOGUE: Day Obasanjo was immortalized in Congo

Some members of the Nigerian business community who came to the event taking out time to visit the Mountain Forest gorilla zoo in Bukavu
Some members of the Nigerian business community who came to the event taking out time to visit the Mountain Forest gorilla zoo in Bukavu

The Belgian colonizers had literally plundered Congo, leaving the Central African country in a state of ruins. At its attainment of independence in 1960, the ruins bequeathed by the Belgians had been so huge that the unpleasant experience manifested in hatred for any white man inside the heart of an average Congolese. Its first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, who had retained Belgian officers in Congo’s armed forces, called Force Publique in Congo’s adopted French language, courted the anger of the soldiers and they mutinied.

Moishe Tshombe, one of the Congolese leaders at the time, cashing in on this chaos, declared secession of his former Shaba Province that he named Katanga Republic.

Unsettled by the lawlessness that came upon Congo, Lumumba cried to the United Nations Force which also pleaded with the Nigerian Armed Forces to help a fellow African state.

The Nigerian military in turn deployed its Fifth Battalion as peacekeepers in Congo. In the battalion, commandeered by Lt. Col. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, were Lt. Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, Lt. Olusegun Obasanjo, Lts. Henry Igboba, David Okafor, Foluso Sotomi, Ray Mathew Damuje and David Ogunewe; Captains Hillary Njoku, Yakubu Pam and Abogo Largema, and Major Galloway, the British Second-in-Command to Ironsi.

For seven months, October 17, 1960, to May, 1961, Obasanjo and the Fifth Battalion troops were in Congo. The troops patrolled the Kivu Province that had, among others, Bukavu, Kalambo, Kasongo and others under it.

Its Provincial Governor was Monsieur Mirinhu. It was at this time that they were patrolling the trenches of Congo that Obasanjo’s friendship with Nzeogwu was concretized as the duo discovered that they both shared a lot in common: both loathed cigarettes and alcohol, as well as had implicit hope in the Nigerian greatness. So while cigarettes and strong drinks were ferried to the Nigerian troops, Obasanjo and his friends were said to have heaped their own consignments to the Congolese soldiers who instantly became friends of Lt. Oba, as he was called and Nzeogwu. The Congolese soldiers were said to be very friendly with members of the peacekeeping force but the moment they saw an infiltration of a white man anywhere near them, their moods swung and they could be lethal at this moment, to the point of irrationality. They saw it as sabotage for an African to keep company of an owner of a skin pigmentation that ruined their nation so badly.

Thus, one day in March, 1961, Lieutenant Obasanjo received a call to go on a special mission. The mission was to evacuate some white nuns and priests from a Catholic complex in a place that was about 40 kilometres from Bukavu, where the troops were based.

Lieutenant Obasanjo decided to reconnoiter with a driver, an interpreter of French to English and a pistol to alert the nuns in readiness for the mission to evacuate them. When he met the missionaries, he discussed his plans with them and they both agreed that they should be evacuated from this dangerous zone in the middle of the night. They gave the Lieutenant some of their property in readiness for the evacuation.

As the young officer made to leave the nuns in his Land Rover, two Congolese soldiers arrived. They arrested him and took him to their superior officers who ordered that he be stuffed inside the boot of their patrol van. Obasanjo was driven to the place where he was to be executed for his “African treachery” of cavorting with and being found in the midst of enemies of the Congo.

Fate was to come to the rescue of Lt. Obasanjo moments before his execution. His Congolese abductors just put a call through to their own superior bosses, intimating them of their readiness to execute a traitor. Asked what his name was and upon its being mentioned, those ones shouted that he was the Nigerian young officer who, with his colleague, Nzeogwu, had been supplying their alcohol and cigarette needs. They ordered his release immediately.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian troops in Bukavu had been in disarray on the whereabouts of Obasanjo. They radioed home and it became subject of news that a soldier in Congo was missing. Radio Nigeria carried the story, getting Obasanjo’s young wife, Remi seriously worried.

Even though the Nigerian troop left Bukavu, Congo in March, 1961, Congo went into deeper turbulence, with the assassination of Lumumba and the killing of UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold. It is doubtful if Obasanjo visited Congo thereafter, until October 8, 2019.

Though he has harvested innumerable laurels, medals and recognitions inside his pouch in his over-80 years of existence, this day would remain indelible in the heart of the soldier who rose to become a two-time Nigerian Head of State. This is for two reasons. One was that, this year marked the 59th anniversary of that unpalatable Bukavu experience where he would have been executed, but for the intervention of providence. Second was that, in that same Congo, in the Kivu Region, in Kalambo, a few kilometres from Bukavu where he and his UN peacekeeping troops sojourned, Obasanjo was not only recognized for his contributions to humanity, he was immortalized for unborn children of Africa to behold.

On this day, the International Institute of Agriculture (IITA) commissioned a monumental project in his honour which has now been named The President Olusegun Obasanjo Research Campus. The centre today represents a main hub for IITA’s main International Agricultural Research Centre in Congo, as well as the Great Lakes Region in general.

A tripod of three massive structures hidden on the mountain of the new campus of the Catholic University of Bukavu, the foundation stone of which is now in memory of Obasanjo, was originally laid in 2008 by the Director General of the IITA, Dr. Nterenya Sanginga. By the laying of the foundation, the monument now became the headquarters of the CIALCA Development International, with the aim of creating capacity development for youth in agribusiness. After its foundation-laying ceremony, its initial infrastructure was launched on June 5, 2014 by former President Joseph Kabila’s Minister of Agriculture.

As the D-day approached, IITA set machinery in progress for this all-important day and event. Guests from Nigeria, the headquarters of the institute, as well as across Africa, were invited to grace the occasion.

Basking in the euphoria of the mileages it had made under its current leadership in partnering virtually all major African countries in the areas of researching their agricultural challenges and finding ways out of the stumbling blocks on the way of their food sufficiency, IITA sought to make the day one to showcase its achievements across Africa. What else can succinctly say this other than the institute’s first major effort at fighting hunger and poverty in Central African Republic and boosting agricultural productivity in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the region?

The Obasanjo Centre is the IITA Board of Trustees’ decision in 2011 to elevate the IITA station in DR Congo that operated in a project mode for many years. The idea was to have it become the focal point of the institute’s regional hub for natural resource management in the Great Lakes. The region had witnessed agricultural problems which included the sustainability of its natural management resources. This requires a critical mass of scientists to address. Soil nutrient mining is said to constitute a major source of nutrients for crops in DR Congo and other countries in the Great Lakes Region.

The result is that there are degraded soils and advanced erosion. Biotic constraints in the region include Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD) which is said to have recently developed into “a major biological threat causing yield reductions of up to 100% with the disease expanding westward; so also the Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) disease, first detected in Ethiopia,(which) is devastating banana production in the Great Lakes region.” Thus, the Obasanjo research center will go a long way to rescue the paucity of research in the Great Lakes on challenges faced in agriculture.

The day before the event, the ancient city of Bukavu, with an estimated population of 806,940, was literally locked down. Virtually all hotels in the small but historical town were fully booked. Invitees from all over Africa and beyond converged on the town to honour Obasanjo, a man whose name sounded like a legend on the continent. Bukavu was literally finding it difficult to breathe as it used to.

Excited to know more about this part of Congo that was celebrating ex-President Obasanjo, the reporter decided to do an exploration of Bukavu. And an exploration of this ancient town of the Democratic Republic of Congo began. Formerly known by the official names of Costermansville under the French colonialists and Costermansstad while being lorded by the Dutch colonizers, Bukavu is a city located on the eastern bloc of DRC and geographically lying at the extreme edge of south-western part of Lake Kivu, west of Cyangugu which is in Rwanda. It is separated from Kamembe, Rwanda by an outlet of the Ruzizi River and is the capital of the South Kivu province.

Though many people spoken to claimed that Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, equally possessed aesthetic beauty, almost of the category of Kigali, renowned to be one of the cleanest and fast-growing cities in Africa, Bukavu was the very opposite of Kigali. If you leave Kigali, fly to Kamembe, the border town of Rwanda, as you leave Kamembe for the border of DRC, you would begin to see the African story in its rawest form. A logjam of humanity confronts you. As you drove from the Kamembe airport, down towards the land border, Africa confronts you, probably telling you that the Rwandan story was a ruse, a fluke. You would see bicycle riders coming back from their farms looking haggard and harassed, a road strewn with potholes, physically-challenged persons self-pedaling their bicycles, the ones unlucky not to own bicycles tottering helplessly by; women hunch-backing sacks of grains, local chickens and other wares, apparently from one market in Rwanda across their homes in DRC.

The bad roads of Bukavu are explained as an offshoot of the war Congo had fought interminably since the day of Lumumba. For instance, as a very important hub of transportation and gateway to eastern DRC, the wars have succeeded in dealing heavy blows on the highways to Goma, Kisangani, as well as other towns. Till today, they have not witnessed normalcy since the shelling of mortals subsided. While Goma witnesses better road networks due to its proximity to the very well paved road networks of East Africa, Bukavu has not been that lucky, road network-wise. However, its proximity to Lake Tanganyinka ports of Bujumbura has given it its renown.

One other noticeable feature of Bukavu is the huge crowd that is almost always on its main streets. A guide explained it as the influx of victims of the Hutu/Tutsi wars that simultaneously erupted in the Congo as a result of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Hutu refugees, also comprising many of them in the government of President Felix Antonio Tshisekedi were said to have fled Rwanda as a result of the Great Lakes refugee crisis. The refugee camps in Bukavu and Goma became a hub of insurgency launched against the new Rwandan Watutsi government of Rwanda. It was one of the historical issues that ensured the emergence of Laurent Kabila as President of Congo. His son, Joseph, immediate president of the DRC, is said to live in Bukavu.

On landing in Bukavu, the reporter’s quest for a historical explanation of Bukavu took him to the Panzi Hospital, Ibanda Province of South Kivu. It was founded in 1921 by the Swedish Pentecostal Mission. It is 8 kilometre to the city centre. While going to the hospital, one could not but notice the Ruzizi River separating the two countries of Rwanda and Congo. The reporter had read of the recent exploits of Panzi Director, Denis Mukwege, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. Posters in the town, in French, celebrated the achievement of Mukwege. On entering the hospital, the road of which is in a terrible state of disrepair, everyone is first asked to go to the Gate House where a bucket of disinfected water to curb the spread of Ebola, is placed. The reporter was to learn that Congo, smarting from a huge devastation and fatalities from the Ebola scourge, places this type of bucket of disinfected water in every public place, mandating everyone coming into contact with the institution to take precaution by disinfecting themselves. When I sought interview with Mukwege, the hospital staff said he was out of the country.

In one of the journals made available to me by the hospital management, Mukwege, nicknamed The Man Who Mends Women, said his vision was to train “physicians from other provinces of DRC and neighbouring countries for the treatment of fistula and other gyneacological pathologies” while thanking a Prof Cadiere and his team for “new surgical techniques known as endoscopic surgery” which he said was now implemented in the hospital. Mukwege was so nicknamed in a documentary on the hospital’s activities anchored by a Belgian film maker, Thiery Michel and a journalist, Colette Braeckman.

Panzi Hospital, a teaching hospital of the Evangelical University in Africa, Bukavu, specializes in treating women, especially women who were survivors of sexual violence. It performs reconstructive surgeries on such women and Mukwege is one of only two doctors in the eastern Congo entrusted with such surgical effort. Women sat staring forlorn on chairs. I was told it was totally free for such traumatized women. It was on account of such effort that Mukwege got his Nobel. Bukavu is also home to German pharmaceutical factory called Pharmakina, which manufactures Quinine, an antimalarial drug and Afri-vir, the generic AIDS drug. The man I met at the Administrative Department of the hospital, though we couldn’t communicate due to the divide of the French he spoke and the English of the reporter, was glad that I came to see the Panzi hospital all the way from Nigeria. The bulk of the literature on Panzi given by the man was in French.

Thereafter, the reporter visited the Mbake area housing the Cathedral of St. Peters in Bukavu which sits the mausoleum of the martyrs, Reverend Fathers who were killed in the Congolese war. Typical Africa: On this Monday morning, worshippers had lined the entrance of the church. A ‘sacred” area inside the compound of the church had many men and women gathering in ones and twos, sitting and facing an effigy placed before them. They sat pensive as if communicating with God. At a time when they should be busy at work trying to eke a living. Oh, Africa!

It was now time to go visit the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. While some of the Nigerians who came for the Obasanjo event went, this reporter couldn’t. He however found out that the park is a protected area that is situated by the western bank of Lake Kivu, as well as the Rwandan border. It was founded in 1970 by a Belgian photographer and conservationist by the name Adrien Deschrvver. It is also named after two dormant volcanoes called Mounts Kahuzi and Biega, which are within its limits. Kahuzi-Biega Park is reputed to be about the biggest park in DRC and in fact, in 1980, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is home to the eastern lowland gorillas, as well as being home to a rich pot-pourri of flora and fauna diversity, providing for, within its space, according to the park, an estimated “1,178 plant species in its mountainous region, as well as 136 species of mammals, 349 species of birds” in a 2003 census.

The journey through Bukavu and indeed the whole of DRC, like Rwanda, was a journey on mountains, with a cascade of houses on mountains. This was also witnessed on the day of the reporter’s departure from Bukavu when he chose to endure a 5-hour drive from Kamembe to Kigali. It was a serpentine world-class road from DRC to Kigali which, but for its snaky nature, could have taken about one and half hours. Tea plantations along the road were a scenic beauty as you drove through a mountainous topography that was frightening and arresting to the eyes, through Kagano, Rock Ndaba, Ngororero District, Nyange Genocide Memorial, Gitarama and others.

So, on the day of the inauguration and naming of the IITA research station after Obasanjo, even the suckling in Bukavu and Kalambo – the latter a distance of about an hour from the former – knew that an unusual event was going to happen in the two towns. While Bukavu was the town guests were quartered, Kalambo was the place of the event. Most of the high-class guests were housed at the hotel beside the Ruzizi Lake, with an instruction for them to be ready to be taken to Kalambo by ferry. By 10am, the ferry was filled to the brim with guests from across Africa and even from America and Europe. One of the guests in the ferry that early was the governor of Oyo State, Engineer Seyi Makinde and the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB) Akinwumi Adesina. The Nigerian business community that came also included the Chairman of Durante Feeds, Ogie Alakija, Segun Fatai Oseni (Obalola), Tosin Atewologun, Tokunbo Abioseh, Akin Omisore, Doyin Adeyela and many others. Words went round that President Tshisekedi was being awaited in the ferry and so, the delay. The President only came on board about four and half hours after. No apologies for this un-bargained-for delay. It was said that Tshisekedi maximized the opportunity of being in the region to campaign for his own candidature in the impending election. When a helicopter flew over the lake, words went round that it carried Obasanjo who was going straight to Kalambo to await the crew.

At the other end of the Ruzizi lake, you are reminded of the typical Nigerian political ensemble. Boat regattas were all over the lakeside. Politicians had almost filled the whole of Kalambo. Those in the boats sang several songs in native Congolese language extolling the virtues of Tshisekedi. It was immediately turned into a campaign podium. They flung the red-white flags of his political party excitedly as they paddled the zeveral canoes across the water. As the ferry, named MV Ashuza Munanira, was moored to a stop, Tshisekedi, Adesina and other dignitaries stepped out to walk the hilly and mountainous path to the venue. But not before they had all been sanitized by a waiting crew which disinfected their hands from the dreaded Ebola virus. A rancorous crowd of politicians and their apparently hired crowd lined the aisles of the road, raising their hands up in salute to Tshisekedi, his team and Sanginga, their son in the diaspora, who had achieved the feat of pulling world leaders to the sleepy town of Kalambo.

President Obasanjo was the first to speak. Clad in his usual agbada dress and a cap to match, Obasanjo first asked who would translate his speech to the French-speaking crowd and was given one. He began by thanking Tshisekedi and members of his cabinet in attendance for honouring him with their presence. He thanked Governor Makinde who he called “the young farmer” who “we are trying to make an agric businessman out of him” and explained to the audience that Makinde had to be at the event because IITA was his state’s tenant in Ibadan. Obasanjo pointed at Adesina and told the story of how “they” found him working in the diaspora and how they had to bring him home.

Obasanjo first shared his nostalgic feelings of being in Congo again, 59 years after, for such a memorable event. He thanked Tshisekedi for making it to the Station and extended his appreciation to, among other distinguished guests, the IITA DG, Dr. Sanginga, admitting that he cherished every single moment he spent in such a scenic setting, that is, the research compound and its surroundings. He commended IITA for the tremendous work it is doing and said he was more than honored to be associated with such a successful research initiative in Africa. While urging Tshisekedi and other African leaders to ensure the needful was done to make cassava – as well as other strategic crops such as soybean and cowpea – not only a food crop but also a source for industry boost, he recalled how Nigeria kicked its cassava yield from tens to hundreds of metric tons yearly by steadily sustaining production increase, against all odds. The former President also pointed out that if African countries significantly boosted production of those three crops, Africa could save some 50 billion US Dollars spent yearly to import food items, adding that he hoped Kalambo would be the Centre of Excellence to impulse the development of those three crops (plus banana) in the whole region.

While ending his speech, he urged Tshisekedi and the country’s leaders to recreate what Nigeria did with Dr. Adesina. He said the AfDB President, like Sanginga, was also flourishing in the diaspora and “we looked for him and brought him to Nigeria” and today, he is an export, not only to Africa but the world. He asked Tshisekedi to tap the knowledge that Sanginga used in excelling at IITA, a man who, he said he was sure, would come back home to help build Congo. As an aside, he lauded the friendship between Adesina and Sanginga, stating that the IITA DG had told him that if Adesina was not in Kalambo, he would have treated it as “a hostile action,” to which the crowd followed with laughter.

At the occasion, Adesina was the cynosure of all eyes. In very fluent French which the crowd clapped intermittently at, the AfDB President stated that one of the reasons he came to attend the event was that he personally liked Tshisekedi because of his developmental efforts for his country. He pledged that the AfDB will back DRC’s development projects in many ways/sectors – ranging from energy to transport and Infrastructure, etc., adding that his financial institution is set to help DRC unleash its huge agricultural potential. He also expressed his respect and admiration for Obasanjo, referring to him as currently the most active Former Head of State in Africa, despite being retired and as the “Pride of Africa”, pointing out that Obasanjo had long been an agriculture-minded person, since the 1960s and who went further to being involved in various professional fields and has always been upholding and valuing agricultural activities, saying he is him his great mentor.

Dr. Adesina shared another reason for attending the event. According to him, it was because of his friendship with Dr. Sanginga which he said started long ago when they were both IITA students. He described him as “a bright and selfless fellow whose performance remains outstanding, one of the top scientists worldwide, a DRC hero, the best Director General IITA has ever had.” Amidst his many other promises to bring full support to DRC’s government-led development endeavors, he also thanked Bukavu dwellers for having brought up such an ‘icon’ like Sanginga, and congratulated Obasanjo whom he called the “‘Baba’ (Father) of Africa”. Amid clapping, Adesina went to Obasanjo and prostrated to him.

In his own speech, Tshisekedi said he was excited to have IITA Kalambo Station named after Obasanjo upon being aware of the model used by the latter, that consisted of “using oil income to diversify Nigeria’s economy by promoting agriculture”, as this is golden opportunity to build up sustainable development. He thanked Obasanjo for championing agriculture across Africa and Adesina for his support to IITA.

Dr. Sanginga on his own told the story of the IITA, from its inception to the current state and prospects to grasp with and solve agriculture-linked challenges. He told all gathered about how the institute had been ran aground by his American predecessor and how he had taken it to virtually all countries of Africa. He compared the current agricultural yields for various strategic crops in different areas across DRC – and even in Nigeria –, to point out the huge gap thereto in the South-Kivu, yet the Province had potentials for producing much higher agro-products than all of the stated locations. He said that the former Ethiopian Prime Minister could bear him witness in that he and his partners achieved greatly in Ethiopia in terms of research capacity and ensuing results. He thus emphasized the need to heighten research capacity in Kalambo in a bid to tackle and solve agricultural problems across the country and beyond.

As the reporter, Dr. Debo Akande, who is in charge of the new Kalambo station and Governor Makinde, walked the short distance between the Obasanjo Centre down the sloppy valley, to the ferry waiting to convey President Tishesekedi and other dignitaries back to Bukavu, the governor said he was in Kalambo to show that his government would make agriculture its focus and IITA, being the state’s tenant, Oyo must tap its full potentials. He remarked on how orderly and development-oriented Rwanda, a few kilometers away, was under Paul Kagame. The reporter quickly quipped that Makinde must recreate Kigali in Oyo State. He acknowledged that it was an onerous task but promised to give it a shot by making Oyo a small Kigali by the time he would be leaving office.

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