Inside the Fortress of Aso Rock, By Dele Agekameh

Leadership in Africa is often seen as a means to an end. What this means is that people believe that the closer you are to the seat of power, the more opportunities you have to make a living. That is why people run rings around their leaders in Africa.

The Presidential Villa or Aso Rock, as it is popularly known in Abuja, is the seat of the Nigerian government. It is a place where the country’s “honey pot,” is domiciled. Naturally, people troop there in large numbers on daily basis to have a piece of the action.

However, gaining access to the fortress is not an easy task. And since it is very difficult to penetrate the place, going in there requires weeks and months of preparation – how to go about it, your psychological frame of mind, the clothes to wear, which contact(s) to explore, what amount of money to stuff in your pocket to enable you maneuver your way through the labyrinth of “toll gates” inside the place and all that.

At any rate, visiting the Villa is no tea party. It is herculean. As your vehicle gets to the Three-Arms Zone, right from the back of the Federal Secretariat Complex overlooking the Eagle Square, you will notice the serenity of the environment. Then, as you descend towards the first roadblock manned by a surfeit of security agents – police, army, DSS and others – nobody will tell you that you are approaching a lion’s den.

At the roadblock, you are frisked to the pants and your car is thoroughly searched. Perhaps, if you are heading towards the National Assembly, you may find it a little less cumbersome to explain your mission to the security agents. But if you are going towards the Villa itself, you may be in for the greatest interrogation you have ever been subjected to.

If you are on appointment, you need to prove it. That is, you need to convince the security men that you have business to transact there. In that case, your name must have been supplied to the unit earlier and included in the itinerary of the day. But trust Nigerians, they have various ingenious ways of beating the so-called eagle-eyed security agents at this first gate. Some visitors simply tell them they are heading to the Officers’ Mess located close to the last gate to the Villa.

At the Mess, there is a big car park that can take very many cars. Sometimes, officials from the villa cross over to the place to attend to their visitors. There is food, drinks and all that. But if there is a need to still thrust further into the bowels of the Villa, your car can drop you at the last gate to the Villa proper, while the driver turns back to the Mess area to park. At this last gate, your particulars are collected and a visitor’s badge is assigned to you.

Once you are inside the Villa, you are confronted with hordes of presidential aides dashing all over the place, pretending to be busy even though some of them go about gossiping all day. As you move along, the Nigerian factor of rubbing people’s back before anything at all is ever present. Even if you are not subjected to it as a pre-condition to gaining access, you must certainly play ball as you exit the place. It takes the form of your host or guide who must have pre-bargained with you for his own take, to whisper to your ears how much you need to part with for the people milling around the reception areas. And mind you, no peanuts are allowed. It must be something substantial or tangible.

In this era of ‘change begins with me’, perhaps, the real change should start from the Villa itself, where all forms of extortion, bribery and rip-off, hold sway. Let us sanitise the place of all the creeping scorpions, before we start chasing the cockroaches (apology to late Dr. Tunji Braithwaite) elsewhere.

One important thing to note is that, not even the new era of change has eliminated the dirty habit of collecting gratification from those visiting the Villa. The practice seems to be firmly entrenched in the system. Although, in recent times, some officials and presidential aides in the villa have been indicted and subsequently sent out of the place or redeployed to other less sensitive government offices outside the Villa, the practice seems to be an old and recurrent ailment which paradoxically torments everyone visiting the seat of power.

Though, with the coming of President Muhammadu Buhari, the tempo of recklessness has subsided, there are still many people in babanriga peddling influence around the corridors of power. They are noticeable in the Villa, where they act as fronts for desperate civil servants who prefer to conceal their dirty habits from public glare. These top government officials expect something to fall on their tables when you approach them to carry out any official function for you. Here any currency goes – dollar, pounds, euro and naira – as the case may be. But naira is generally used for artisans and other junior staff, while the big guns prefer other currencies that are less bulky and easy to hide away in their pockets or drawers.

If you are the type who wants to keep a straight face, those guys in there have a way of squeezing out water from Aso Rock. You could stylishly be accosted with stories about how bad the Villa had become since Buhari took over and how only a privileged few within the confinement are favoured, while the majority of people are left to roast away like roasted corn or fish. If you are not moved by this, then the pains of the nation’s bad economy could come in handy and all that. So, if all the singing and gesticulating go on unabated, at a point you will be forced to lose your guard and do the “needful.” The bottom-line is: Nigerians, or do I say Africans, surely know how to worship their leaders or people from whom they expect to get something. Whether the leader is good or he provides good or bad leadership, chances are that he will still find his supporters. The reason is this: Leadership in Africa is often seen as a means to an end. What this means is that people believe that the closer you are to the seat of power, the more opportunities you have to make a living. That is why people run rings around their leaders in Africa.

A minister in former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s cabinet once told me that many of the ministers then acted like palace jesters to impress the president and secure his attention any time they wanted. He told me about how some ministers were always dancing around the president in public places to show those present that they, indeed, had the ears of the president.

According to him, anytime the former president had an outing, the following day this set of ministers will be the first persons the president will see milling around his office. And all they will do is to come and glorify the president by telling him how beautiful his outing the previous day had been and how a lot of people went home impressed by his speech or some other actions involving the president at the occasion. And it doesn’t matter if the president was even booed at any occasion. They had a way of turning adversity to something else.

The fact of the matter is that it is not that such practices have changed, even with the change mantra of the incumbent president. I am sure that under Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari’s predecessor, the whole thing became a state art as people cringed and break-danced before Jonathan and Patience, his almighty empress, in order to have a piece of the action. That was a time Ijaw boys flooded Abuja with their ubiquitous bowler hats and almost colonised the federal capital territory.

In this era of ‘change begins with me’, perhaps, the real change should start from the Villa itself, where all forms of extortion, bribery and rip-off, hold sway. Let us sanitise the place of all the creeping scorpions, before we start chasing the cockroaches (apology to late Dr. Tunji Braithwaite) elsewhere.

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