An Encounter Inside Aso Rock
“For me, there is need to help people to get out of poverty. We should take advantage of every opportunity to help them”
By Jide Ajani
Aisha Buhari uses her manifest humility to drown the power and majesty of her office. Simple. Verdant. Unassuming. Always smiling as she responded to issues raised by a team of Vanguard Editors, the woman simply comes across as a mother, a wife, a friend and a bundle of beauty, wrapped in a gentility which, in any case, can be misread. Beneath that veneer comes discipline and compassion – discipline as a mother; compassion for the poor and the less privileged.
In fact, it was for the latter that her choice enjoyed the benefit of consensual acceptability among Vanguard Editors. For a First Lady who scored a number of firsts, the nomination of Aisha Muhammadu Buhari as Vanguard’s PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR 2017 couldn’t have come at a better time. She’s the first female to be honoured with the prestigious star personality of the year award across newspaper houses. She’s also the first First Lady whose office is not being funded by the Federal Government of Nigeria, but, yet, she throws herself into the fight to better the lot of poor and deprived Nigerians of different hue. From the provision of free medical screening, to addressing challenges in the areas of reproductive, maternal, new-born, child and adolescent health, to supporting with funds to help the needy, Aisha Buhari has signposted herself as a true African mother and a woman worthy of emulation. Yes, the public was thrown into a frenzy when she openly spoke about poverty in Nigeria and how government can re-strategise in handling the issue. But rather than focus on the suffering of the poor in the land, a tunnel vision set in, focusing on the optics of a First Lady openly speaking out. The core of Aisha’s message to Nigerians at that time was that there was a compelling and urgent need to get people out of the poverty trap. Even during this encounter inside Aso Rock, you could see and feel the genuineness of her compassion and empathy for the poor. Sampler: The N55million raised from the launch of her book, ESSENTIALS OF BEAUTY THERAPY, was turned over for the rehabilitation and sustenance of victims of terror in Buni Yadi and Chibok.
Aso Rock! The name of the place and the place itself evoke a feel-good emotion that is at once soothing and reassuring. That is Nigeria’s seat of power.
Monday, March 26, 2018. Time was 1:05pm. A team of Vanguard Editors was at the protocol gate of Aso Rock Presidential Villa, Abuja, to honour an invitation – at our request – from the First Lady, Aisha Muhammadu Buhari. The team, comprising of Eze Anaba, Editor; Jide Ajani, Editor, Sunday; Emmanuel Ujah, Abuja Bureau Chief; and Johnbosco Agbakwuru, Aso Rock Correspondent, had come to make an official presentation of the letter of award to Dame Buhari as Vanguard’s PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR 2017.
The presentation could have happened much earlier.
But, the incident involving Yusuf Buhari rightly put the presentation on hold. So, when the call came in the afternoon of Sunday, March 25, 2017, that the First Lady would be ready to host the Vanguard team the next day, arrangements were quickly made and the invitation honoured.
All security protocols over, we drove straight to the First Lady’s wing of Aso Rock Villa, where another security team at the entrance was waiting. Protocols concluded, we were ushered into the First lady’s Office Complex. Another security check done, our phones were collected.
The team was welcomed by the Director of Press to the First Lady, Mr. Suleiman Haruna.
The appointment was for 2pm. Protocol ate up about 35minutes.
While we waited for the First Lady to come in from the residential wing, the team engaged Haruna on some of the programmes of his principal, the most pronounced of which is Future Assured. Coincidentally, most of the discussion centred on the predictors that swayed debates and arguments in favour of the First Lady.
Unlike a beauty contest, where the eventual winner is chosen from among a few contestants, choosing Vanguard’s PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR goes beyond just a contest of beauty and/or brains alone. It is an award given based on but not limited to some criteria. And talking about predictors that correlate strongly with competence at the top, Harvard Business Review (Nov/Dec, 2017), gives us five – motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement and determination. These, while not captured in the same manner, represent the fulcrum of what Vanguard editors look out for when debating and making arguments for or against nominees. What motivates an individual to do good and great things?
Well, Aisha Buhari’s compassion for the poor and her continued commitment to carry as many people as possible out of the poverty trap deserves commendation.
Our appointment that was for 2pm was moved to 3pm. But the wait was useful and we kept being introduced to one official after the other.
The first was S. A. Protocol to the Wife of the President, Mr. Layo Akinfala – very smart and stout individual. Just some minutes before we met the First Lady, the National Coordinator, Future Assured, Dr. Kamal Muhammad, walked in. Lanky and cute, Dr. Muhammad is a strategic aide to the First Family.
At just some five minutes to 3pm, S. A. to the Wife of the President, Dr. Hajo Sani, a very pleasant looking and calm woman, walked into the ante-office to greet the team. From what the eyes could see and what could be observed, Dr. Hajo has her work cut out, as virtually everyone we saw and met spoke of her as a wonderful, organised and committed aide to the President’s wife.
Having been briefed about the protocol earlier, just as we were about to be ushered into the First Lady’s main Office, my boss and friend, the Editor, asked jokingly if he would need to, or if it would be appropriate to shake hands with the First Lady, to which I simply told him, ”Well, if she extends her hand to you, you will have to shake her hand; but don’t make the mistake of stretching your hand first”. A raucous laughter from Ujah, Agbakwuru, Haruna and a few people present, greeted that light exchange. Seconds later, we were ushered into the presence of the First Lady.
At the head of the room was a lone two-seater on which Madam Aisha Buhari sat. To her left were Dr. Hajo Sani; S. A. Admin to the Wife of the President, Mr. Hadi Uba; and Dr. Kamal Muhammad.
To the First Lady’s right were the Editor, Vanguard, Mr. Anaba; and yours truly, Ajani. Sitting directly opposite Mrs Buhari, some five or so metres away, were the trio of Ujah, Agbakwuru and Yomi Adeshida, Vanguard’s State House Photographer of two decades.
Haruna introduced the First Lady’s team and, thereafter, introduced the Vanguard team. Immediately after the initial photograph session – which focused largely on the First Lady – the latter instructed every other person to excuse us, apart from her aides.
The Editor, resplendent in his lilac jacket and trousers, rose to make his presentation thus:
“Your Excellency, I cannot start this presentation without thanking God Almighty for helping, and showing His mercy, by sparing the life of Yusuf.
“In fact, when the incident happened, the Vanguard family became so devastated, because most of us, being parents, too, could not but feel your pain.
“But today we thank God Almighty.
“It is my pleasure to announce to you, that Vanguard Board of Editors, after six weeks of heated debates and argument, chose you as Vanguard’s PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR 2017.
“The set of criteria for choosing our personality of the year is compelling and comes with very rigorous engagement in our conference room”.
He then laid out some of the compelling criteria (read details in THE BACKGROUND), the most important of which is her commitment to uplift those in the poverty trap, service to humanity and pride to the nation. Also, her sterling qualities, when compared to women that had occupied office of the First Lady, stood her out, and her perspective on issues and her Future Assured project, where many lives have been touched positively, distinguished her from others.
Besides, Mr. Anaba said that the President’s wife’s interventions on social issues and how she was tackling poverty and people’s welfare, as well as freeing the less privileged from the shackles of poverty, were other considerations that qualified her for the award.
He explained the importance of the award and the honour of its presentation after which he thanked the First Lady for availing the team the opportunity to make the presentation.
Responding, the First Lady stunned the Vanguard team, in a very pleasant manner, with her infectious smile and laughter.
“Let me also thank you for this award and honour of choosing me as your Personality of the Year.
“Thank you very much for considering me worthy of this award.
“When I was informed that I was voted the Personality of the Year of your newspaper, I was wondering what informed your decision.
“Maybe there were other considerations apart from the ones you have mentioned, maybe like the interview”, she enthused; and this caused a stir, as everyone in the room burst into a laughter. The First Lady also joined in the laughter session but the Editor had to interject by saying, “Your Excellency, let’s not deceive one another. As Africans and going by the African tradition, we are not home-breakers. Far from that (another session of laughter). Yes, the interview!”
Continuing, Mr. Anaba said, “The point you were trying to make and which we grabbed was about the poor in the country, and that this government came to power to address the issue. I’m glad that you raised the issue of the interview but your Future Assured programme is focused on the need to help the poor. It is a good thing to talk about the poor but it is even better to put in place a programme that can address their plight. These were the points that actually gave it to you, beyond the other sentimental issue of interview”.
I had to, with permission from the Editor, chip in the fact that whereas other First Ladies’ programmes had been funded either directly from the President’s office or by the government of the day, a development that itself became a conduit for corruption and aggrandisement, ”your programme, Madam First Lady, is neither funded by the President’s office, nor is it funded by government. That in itself is a demonstration of your commitment to the fight against poverty, beyond the optics of a First Lady being seen everywhere doing nothing but engaged in cheap publicity. Most Nigerians are not even aware of what you are doing and we believe it is our responsibility to bridge the information gap by honouring your efforts. In fact, it would be a reward for your handwork and efforts on the award night for you to personally come showcase what you’ve been doing so far. Nigerians need to appreciate your good works and understand the narrative you’re trying to change – that it is about the poor and the need to lift them out of poverty.”
At this point, the First Lady, all smiles and feeling more relaxed, especially when members of the Vanguard team reeled out her achievements in tackling the poverty problem, concluded by saying, ”As a good wife and mother, I believe one must always be objective in whatever comments one makes, not just with respect to the family but also in matters of national development. That is the only way to achieve development.
“For me, there is need to help people to get out of poverty. Poverty is something that we see and that is why we (this government) have come to improve the lot of the common people. There are many women and children who are very poor, especially in the rural areas. We should take advantage of every opportunity to help them. We should take people out of the poverty trap. It is something we should all be involved in any time we have the opportunity. We should take advantage of every opportunity to help them get out of poverty. That was my message and that is what Future Assured is doing.
“Again I thank you all for coming”.
Earlier, the First Lady had informed us that she’d canceled all her engagements for the week but chose to make time for the Vanguard team. We thanked her.
That was the end of the meeting and everyone felt satisfied and happy.
The Editor had presented the letter of award. There was a photo session for that. Meanwhile, seated next to the Editor, I was not part of the photography so I had to make a plea.
With my right index finger pointed to the sky and my left hand tapping my Editor on his lap, I asked the First Lady if I could make a request.
I said, ”Sorry Madam First Lady, when I got the call from my boss, yesterday, that we would be here today, it was sudden and I had to hurriedly make arrangements for my flight and other things. Now I am here. Photographs have been taken. The office and some people in my family are expecting me to appear in the paper with the First Lady, and here I am, not in any of the pictures taken, it would not be fair to…”
Everyone in the room burst into laughter – including, of course, the First Lady.
She said, between smiling and laughing, at the request, ”Don’t worry (still laughing), there is going to be a photo session in front of the building when we go outside. We will take photographs and the people will see that truly, you were in Aso Rock”. (Another round of laughter, at least the infusion of comic relief eased things).
And so, we went out for the photo session.
The Editor was to remark on our way back to the hotel: ”I looked at her from head to toe and you could see the naturalness of the First Lady. She’s so simple and natural; even the way she spoke, she spoke like a true mother and an African woman”.
For me, the First Lady can be described as majestic in her simplicity.
The visit had been long in planning. After over six weeks of deliberations and heated arguments for and against, Vanguard Board of Editors finally elected the First Lady as it’s Personality of The Year 2017. The choice did not come easy. As it was in 1927, when the Editors of TIME Magazine were confronted with a dearth of news, which made the gloomy spectre of choice of cover subject for that December holiday period more real, ”an inspired idea was needed”, and someone came up with the” tag of a MAN OF THE YEAR, an idea to locate that ‘sufficiently prominent individual’ who would have touched the lives of people, whether for good or for ill, in ways that were so profound as to be voted PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR.
Therefore, from last November, the challenge that confronted Vanguard Editors was about nominating, debating and making a case for that individual who would emerge as the PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR. The clear and usual challenge had always been “whether sufficiently prominent people could be found in subsequent years to warrant the designation, MAN OF THE YEAR” – this was also the concern of TIME Magazine Editors in 1927.
It was not an easy call.
2017 was so bad that the Editors had to, for six consecutive weeks, keep adjourning the nominations and debates about the choice of PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR. The moderator of the sessions, the General Manager/Editor-in-Chief, Mr Gbenga Adefaye, and the anchor, the Editor, relinquished, as usual, their voting rights except in the event that there was a need to break a tie. They did not have to break any tie. But the despotism of their tie-breaking votes could not trump the popularity of the majority vote. The eventual choice as Vanguard’s Personality of the Year, the First Lady, Aisha Muhammadu Buhari, won by a landslide – after all of 20hours, spanning six weeks, over seven meetings. And because concepts become forces when they resist one another, as proclaimed by the psychologist Johann Freidrich Herbart, arguments and counter-arguments, as they forcefully resisted one another during those meetings, became contending forces on the platform of the debate to choose Vanguard’s PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR.
The sessions of the debate to choose the primus, the PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR, is always enervating and comes with tantalising nominations, just as it also tolerates some names of personalities that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered awe-inspiring.
The Editors have always been guided by a set of values that signposts predictors that engender success.
And, like I pointed out earlier, talking about predictors that correlate strongly with competence at the top, Harvard Business Review (Nov/Dec, 2017), gives us five – motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement and determination. These, while not captured in the same manner, represent the fulcrum of what Vanguard Editors look out for when debating and making arguments for or against nominees. What motivates an individual to do good and great things? What’s the level of curiosity and insight available to ensure a determined engagement?
In the polity, business, religion and sciences, many things happen and steal the limelight. However, a deeper interrogation of the thinking behind and the forces propelling such actions sometimes reveal motives that are at once plebeian and devoid of altruistic intentions. Therefore, how do you begin to nominate individuals with a profundity of immense relevance to the objective of meeting the set criteria for the PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR? Even when you nominate such personalities, how do you get the buy-in of colleagues around the table, some, with their interests? Indeed, the interest of some Editors was just to shoot down nominees made by others. Such is the nature of mere mortals. For a few others, a tunnel vision was all that motivated their support for or antagonism against a nominee. Yet, for some, the mere mention of some names evoked a nostalgic feeling.
However, because there was a job to be done – and done well – names were put forward, names were dropped, names were added; more names were again dropped and a few other names were re-added. This exercise, which commenced on Monday, October 30, 2017, did not conclude until Monday, December 11, 2017 – all of six weeks. Such is the rigour that went into the debate.
For one, members of the Vanguard Board of Editors are always conscious of the need to elect nominees and vote accordingly with some things in mind: Would the eventual winner pass the integrity test? Would members of the public, while not in total agreement, be substantially convinced about the choice made? Can any member of the Board go into the open and be able to convince fellow countrymen about the personality that has been so chosen to be honoured? Does the name of the winner come with the dangerous effluvium of public opprobrium? Once these issues are settled, then the voting.
And so, after over six weeks, First Lady, Aisha Muhammadu Buhari, emerged as Vanguard’s PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR 2017.