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The day Nigerians in Gabon caused a stir over Jonathan

By Daniel Idonor, just back from Gabon

President Goodluck Jonathan’s visit to     Libreville, the Gabonese capital, to attend the  country’s 50th  independence anniversary, last Monday, brought socio-economic activities in Gabon to a halt as Nigerians  resident in the central African nation took over the Presidential Wing of the Leon Mba International Airport in the city to receive their president.

Nigeria has over 150, 000 of its citizens, which is about one-tenth of Gabonese 1.7m population, living in that country. They are mostly Igbo, Urhobo, Ilaje and Ijaw traders who dominate Gabonese commerce, and its fishing industry.  According to Samuel Aiyedona, Nigeria’s envoy to Gabon, the entrepreneurship of Urhobo, Ijaw and Ilaje fishermen alone contributes over 600,000 tons of fish to Gabon’s fishing industry annually.

The reception accorded Jonathan  by the Nigerian community in Gabon is despite the sharp division created by leadership tussle among Nigerians in the  country in the last three years, no thanks to the inability of the Nigerian embassy to resolve the political impasse; the Gabonese security was overwhelmed by the  large crowd of Nigerians, who, upon sensing the landing of the ‘Nigerian Air Force One’ aircraft conveying  the president, jostled for every available space at the airport to show their love for Jonathan and Nigeria.

*Nigerians in their traditional attires during Jonathan's visit

The various groups  drummed and danced to the admiration of  the nationals of other countries who were also at the airport  to receive their presidents.

The groups include the south-south people,  the Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo (Enugu State), the Nigeria Youth Forum and women. The Nigeria Youth Forum arrived  as early as 12 noon and positioned at the entrance of  the Presidential Lodge.

As more African leaders arrived, more Nigerian groups were also arriving, displaying  their respective cultural dances  to welcome  their leader who, according to them, is “Africa’s Barrack Obama”. But none of them attracted  much attention like the south-south group whose members showed up in large number and showcased their rich cultural displays.  They carried with them  two large banners bearing  the inscriptions, “South-South People Demand Jonathan for 2011” and “South-South People: We are behind you Jonathan”.

However, the mood at the venue changed when the Igbo group, the largest in the gathering, arrived with the  popular Ohafia war dance steps.

Jonathan was not the last president to arrive Libreville but when  his aircraft  landed at about 6:32 pm, the Gabonese  security  became over-stretched as the Nigerians groups pushed forward, almost to the tarmac. The presidential  motorcade made up of 18 cars, provided by the Gabonese government for Jonathan, was led by the Ohafia dancers who took over the role of pilot from the motor bike  riders in the presidential convoy.

The situation became uncontrollable when the president, who was visibly overwhelmed by the large crowd, alighted  to enter a Mercedes Benz E-series car. Jonathan could barely come out of the car to wave at the crowd as the two attempts he made were almost stopped by the surging  Nigerians. He was slowly driven  to the presidential  palace, christened “City of Democracy”, and located in a hill-top area overseeing the rest of Libreville. The presidential palace was built by the Gabonese government for the purpose of the independence anniversary celebrations, where a tastefully furnished four-bedroom bungalow with underground exit facility was set aside for each of the visiting heads of state.

Jonathan  was housed in flat 54 of the palace, which the Gabonese government said would remain an accommodation facility for such visitors anytime; following that country’s decision not to house any visiting leader in  hotel anymore. At a pre-visit briefing, the Nigerian Ambassador to Gabon, Mr Samuel Aiyedona, disclosed
that there are 160 Nigerians languishing in  prisons in  the central Africa nation, serving different jail terms, saying that,  of this figure, 129 of them are in Libreville prison while the rest are  in other parts of the country.

Aiyedona listed the crimes committed by the prisoners to include  419, drug trafficking and illegal residency. He  stressed, however, that the Nigerian community contributes  a great deal to the economy of Gabon, especially in the  ICT and  maritime sectors.  Jonathan, who participated in the events marking the 50th Independence anniversary celebrations of Gabon, was in the country on the invitation of President Ali Bongo Ondimba. And by 8:00pm that Monday, he  joined other African heads of state  at a gala dinner hosted by Bongo at the Presidential Villa in Libreville, as part of the  activities lined up for the celebrations.

The following morning, Tuesday, Jonathan attended the 50th  independence anniversary ceremony held at the Parade Grounds  in Libreville. It was characterized mainly by military parades, award presentations and callisthenic displays. Thereafter, the president addressed the Nigerian community in Gabon  at the residence of the Nigerian Ambassador in the Gabonese capital.

Jonathan said during the    ensuing interactive session that the Federal Government would  put the machinery in motion to ensure that Nigerians in diaspora can vote during the polls after the 2011 general elections. The president  also assured that more distinguished Nigerians in the diaspora will henceforth  be considered  for inclusion in the national honours list.

Jonathan noted that while it may not be feasible for Nigerians in the diaspora to vote at the 2011 polls, modern technology like the electronic voting system has simplified the voting process and stated  that government would  ensure they exercise their franchise in subsequent elections. On the quest for the inclusion of Nigerians in diaspora in the national awards, he  said the Justice Belgore-led National Awards Committee will henceforth consider more Nigerians in diaspora in the honours list, through nominations from the  missions of the country abroad. The president also disclosed that he will accord special recognition to 50 Nigerians from various walks of life as part of Nigeria’s 50th independence anniversary celebrations  in October.

The president  particularly praised Nigerians in Gabon for their contributions to the economy of that country and assured that government would  look into all consular issues affecting them, especially in the areas of the complaints of high cost of resident permits and visa fees, difficulties in acquiring the ECOWAS e-passport and illegal immigration by other nationals to Gabon from the coast of Nigeria. He promised to discuss the issues with Bongo when they meet at the UN in September, including a possible one-day state visit to Gabon.

On technical aid, Jonathan said Nigeria would  do more to assist other African countries in need of assistance. He also promised to send technical aid corps members to Gabon. He noted the mammoth crowd of Nigerians in Gabon that came to welcome him at the airport when he arrived, saying he was overwhelmed by their show of solidarity. He said the Gabonese  president  spoke well of them and their invaluable contributions to the country  while he urged them to continue to be good ambassadors of Nigeria.

Minister of  foreign affairs, Odein Ajumogobia, also speaking there, said Nigeria is back on the world stage in a record time since Jonathan’s assumption of office as  her relations hip  with African countries and the world has  become more robust. He noted that the president  has been active at the global stage, engaging the world through participation at the G-8 summit, Africa-European Summit, visits to several African countries, and so on. “In a record time, Nigeria is back on the world stage. President Jonathan is well known across the world. The world has great respect for him and for Nigeria,” he stressed.

In his own remarks, the Nigerian Ambassador to Gabon  said  Jonathan’s visit marked  the beginning of reinforced relations between Nigeria and Gabon. “President Jonathan’s visit has ushered in for Nigerians here a new era of hope as they are confident that government is with them. It has provided a new impetus for them to work harder to rebrand the image of Nigeria here”, Aiyedona stated.


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