Simon Ateba: Covering Nigerian President’s UN outing in New York

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You may want to read this if you’re a Nigerian. It’s New York City. It’s late at night. I am with other Nigerian journalists in front of the Millennium hotel right opposite the headquarter of the United Nations. President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria is about to arrive.

The secret service is aware and takes position. At the hotel’s reception are senior Nigerian officials waiting for the President, including Abike Dabiri who is in charge of defending Nigerians in the diaspora when they come under attack.

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Simon Ateba listening to President Buhari speak at the United Nations in September 2019

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I talk to her and request for her email address as the publisher of todaynewsafrica.com but she hesitates, the unexplained arrogance is everywhere, she ends up giving me a fake email address. My thought was it would be nice to get her reactions from time to time and include them to our reports.

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The last time I saw her was in 2012 when I was completing my postgraduate diploma at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism. There, she spoke glowingly about the profession of journalism. In New York, she had become very arrogant and perhaps disrespectful of the friendly presidential press corp always asking patronizing questions.

I leave her on that small crowded seat at the hotel and return outside. It’s now down to the wire. President Buhari is arriving. The entrance of the hotel is cleared, but as a journalist, I do not go anywhere, and a few minutes later, I shoot a short video of him arriving the hotel. Mr Buhari, a former military dictator does not stop to greet any government official. He does not even wave at the small crowd of supporters outside.

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The word minister means service, but in Africa, ministers and presidents see themselves not as servants but as people to be served and worshiped.

And so, President Buhari does not smile or shake hands with his top officials, he’s taken to an elevator and up there he goes to the 29th floor.

A few minutes after, Femi Adesina, the president’s spokesman arrives with his team. He recognizes friendly faces, the same old faces that make him feel good. He comes to them, to us for an interview.

Often, these are not really sincere interviews. It’s a bunch of people he’s flown from Nigeria with government money and are there to do propaganda for him and the President.

To remain in his good book and continue to receive favor from him and other senior government officials, you need to toe the line by asking friendly questions and writing favorable articles and forwarding them to him.

If you ask critical questions, the next time you won’t make the trip and on this trip, you won’t receive the ‘favors’.

But I came from Washington D.C. and I paid for my almost two week-hotel room accommodation. I also made provisions for my stay in New York and my return to Washington D.C. and I am not afraid to ‘go astray’.

The interview is about to take place at a time Mr. Buhari’s government has arrested political activists and thrown them into detention.

One of them, a journalist activist and publisher of New York based Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, has even been charged with treason for organizing a protest.

The question and answer session begins. Everything is going well until I bring up the political prisoners’ question, including the detention of Sowore. Adesina is upset.

“I won’t answer that question. Next. Next,” he says. No journalist backs me up. One quickly follows up with a different question. I follow up with another controversial question.

The interview ends abruptly. The others don’t like it.

The next day, I begin to face opposition. I would even be attacked and and verbally assaulted by a media aide to Simon Lalong, the governor of Plateau state and prevented from entering the Nigerian House by an aide who would take me out and ask me if I work with Sahara Reporters.

This is part one of this write up. There are four parts. In subsequent parts, I would share the videos to illustrate my point and attacks on me.

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Simon Ateba
Simon Ateba
Simon Ateba covers the White House, the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Simon can be reached on simonateba@todaynewsafrica.com

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