It was supposed to be just a Presidential Media Chat and nothing more. But immediately after the cameras stopped rolling and the recording lights were turned off, Mr. President stood up and shook hands with Adesuwa Onyenekwe, Deji Badmus, Ibrahim Sheme and me. He thanked us for finding time to come talk with him.
“Please join me for dinner in my official residence,” he said as he walked down the stage.
As he stepped away, Vice President Namadi Sambo appeared, shook his hand and congratulated him. “Mr. President, that was a great outing,” the vice president said.
Walking right down towards the door, a retinue of aides and guests waylaid him. Some shook his hand and others cheered him for standing up to our “incisive questions. Others just smiled approvingly and wished they had something to say.
While the President led the way to his residence along a long covered walkway, I began to imagine how it feels to lead one of the most populous and highly diverse countries on earth. I imagined how many hours of sleep any Nigerian president could have in a day and the number of people they meet on a single day. I shuddered.
Once we got to Mr. President’s official quarters, we were ushered into a well-lighted lounge with modest furnishing. There was nothing extraordinary about that room if you ask me. It was clean and fitted with handcrafted furniture which were well arranged to give ample leg space. As we walked in, we met a few guests who were already waiting. Mr. Jonathan took his seat and we were ushered into some of the empty couches as he engaged his guests.
In less than five minutes, he was done and again led the way to the dining room.
It was a rectangular room with a long dining table surrounded with about 20 chairs. The table cover was a flowery satin material. The plates and cutleries on the table were just the normal things used in any average family. Two drinking glasses were set for each guest, a white table napkin and a set of cutleries including a desert spoon and dinner spoon, a desert knife and dinner knife. At the centre of the table were toothpick cases and beautifully carved cases filled with serviettes. Apart from these, one bread roll and a butter portion was kept for each of the guest.
The President sat at the head of the table while Mr. Sambo sat on the first seat to his right. On the first seat to the left sat Adesuwa followed by Ibrahim, Deji and I. The Director General of the National Orientation Agency, Mike Omeri, sat to my left while the Minister of Power, Chinedu Nebo, sat opposite me. The Chairman of the Silverbird Group, Ben Bruce; the Director-General of the Nigeria Television Authority, Sola Omole; the Director General of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, Ladan Salihu; the Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Reuben Abati, and a few others were also seated for the meal.
As we sat down, two waiters appeared with two big bottles of Eva water on their hands. Mr. President’s glass was half filled first. “Do you care for room temperature or cold water, Sir,” the waiters inquired as they moved round. I went for room temperature. I was determined to eat anything served Mr. Jonathan. As water was being served, I observed that the waiters did not fill any of the glasses including that of Mr. President. I have been wondering why.
For the appetizer, the waiters brought croaker fish pepper soup. Mr. Jonathan got a portion of the fish and two servings of pepper soup. Many on the table took more than two servings of the fish and pepper soup. I refused to exceed the ration of my host.
I watched the President munch his bread slowly and calculatedly before taking a scoop from the pepper soup dish. While on the appetizer, the conversation was neither here nor there.
I had hoped to see a long table filled with the choicest foods and some of the best collection of wines. But there was nothing of the sort. There was not even a single bottle of wine in sight. Is this how they eat there? I wondered.
Done with the appetizer, the two smart waiters withdrew the used plates and immediately started serving the main dish. Again, they came with “ogbono” soup cooked with goat meat and dried fish.
Instead of serving the usual “eba, the waiters came up with a yellow-coloured paste. “This is a local meal eaten in some parts of Rivers and Bayelsa states,” said Mr. President. “It is made with riped plantain and yam.”
I don’t remember what Mr. President called it but it sounded like “Onunu”. Mr. President was served the yellow-coloured paste but I decided not to eat it.
Long ago, my parents had taught me never to try a new meal outside of home. I know people who ate strange foods at buffets and ended up in hospital. I have also encountered folks who ate what they never understood and their stomachs broke into rumbling rumba gyration. I wasn’t prepared for any surprises and so I went for white rice and stew. I don’t know what Adesuwa and Ibrahim ate but Deji was served white rice and goat meat stew just like I. The stew tasted like it was made from bleached palm oil.
I was watching closely as the waiters served Mr. President. I found that he got a thin slice of the paste that could barely satiate an eight-year old. To me, the food was too small for a man of his age and responsibility. I would have expected him to eat more but… I kept wondering, “is this the way this man eats every day?”
While eating, Mr. President narrated how he was served a similar food in Burkina Faso. “I was so surprised to find that it is also eaten in Burkina Faso,” he said.
“I was in the country when I was vice president. When we got to the dining table, I saw it among other foods served to us. When I asked, they told me it is made with riped plantain and yam and that’s the same way we do it back home. It is eaten by Ijaw speaking people in Bayelsa and Rivers states.”
As we ate, the president asked Mr. Nebo what the power situation in the country is and what the minister said wasn’t consoling at all.
“Mr. President, we were generating over 4,500 megawatts last week and the supplies across the country improved significantly,” Mr. Nebo said.
“But a few days ago, vandals again struck the gas pipeline in Bayelsa State and another in Delta State and that brought us back to 2,500 megawatts.”
The president shook his head in frustration and momentarily stopped eating as Mr. Nebo continued lamenting the havoc he said vandals were wreaking on power infrastructure in many parts of the country.
“We have jailed more than five persons in the last few months but the vandals won’t give up. Even those who are arrested would never speak. They would rather go to jail than name their sponsors. The youths we arrested cannot afford the kind of equipment used in destroying the pipelines. Hardly a week passes without one or two sabotage recorded,” Mr. Nebo said.
After Mr. Nebo delivered the bad news about the power situation in the country, Mr. Jonathan directed the minister to ensure that adequate measures are put in place to check vandalism across the country.
“We cannot allow these people to continue to sabotage our efforts. Nigerians do not understand that part of the problem we have in fixing the power sector is sabotage from unpatriotic people who do not want the country to move forward,” he said.
A homemade orange drink was served, but again the waiters would not fill the glasses. The quantity they pour out to the president did not get anywhere close to the rim of his glass. From its somewhat harsh taste, it was apparent the juice was extracted with the skin of the orange intact.
As each guest finished his meal, the waiters immediately removed the plates and served dessert which consisted of pineapple, pawpaw and watermelon. Mr. Jonathan’s wife, Patience was conspicuously absent at dinner.
The dinner ended with another round of handshake from Mr. Jonathan before he disappeared through one of the doors and we were ushered out of the president’s official quarters.
It was dark at the time we stepped outside the dining room but with the help of floodlights located strategically around, I saw wild animals roaming freely and playing with their little ones across the wired fence separating the living area of the presidential villa from the thick forest that encircles it. It was a really beautiful sight to behold.
When I got to the car park and checked my mobile telephones, I found I had missed over 20 calls. The phones were beeping intermittently as text messages and Facebook posts kept pouring in from many of those who had watched the programme.
I left the Villa that night thinking hard. I thought about a lot of things. Does Mr. Jonathan live that modest lifestyle or was it just staged? Do they not serve good wines on his table? Is he that simple and calm? So many questions…