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WATERLOO

PHOTO: L-R: FORMER NIGERIAN LEADERS; CHIEF ERNEST SHONEKAN AND GENERAL YAKUBU GOWON.
PHOTO: L-R: FORMER NIGERIAN LEADERS; CHIEF ERNEST SHONEKAN AND GENERAL YAKUBU GOWON.


"What’s the situation on our streets at the moment, General?" the Prime Minister asked.

"Much better, Your Excellency. Much better. Sanity is restored in major parts of the city as you can see," the retired General and Minister of Defence said, pointing to a large TV screen tacked to the wall in the Executive Council Chamber.

The Prime Minister and his fourteen cabinet ministers looked in the direction indicated. Footages on the TV screen showed streets across the city. Many of them had been scenes of violence in the city for the past two days. There was vehicular flow unlike the time the streets were totally taken over by mobs. Shops remained locked up. They were the ones that had not been set on fire by rioters who had protested what they called the huge expenses incurred by the government in preparation for the Independence Day anniversary celebration. Once in a while, people walked along on the street in twos and threes. It’s obvious many still preferred to remain indoors until the situation became clearer. The few people that dared to come out had to step across burnt tyres and dying flames of fire set by protesters hours earlier. In the general area of the President’s Villa, left-over of the violent protests littered streets after streets as the footages on the screen showed.

"Everything’s taken care of around and in the President’s Villa, I believe," the Prime Minister said, taking his attention away from the TV screen and turning to the General again.

"Yes, Your Excellency. We have cleared the area up to six kilometers in every direction. My officers are still working. We will cover the city and have it back under our control in a couple of hours, Your Excellency."

"I assume Waterloo is yet to be taken from the rioters, am I right?"

The General was silent, intentionally turning his face to the TV screen. He didn’t want to answer the question. He had his fears. Waterloo might be his waterloo. If he didn’t handle the situation carefully, the horrific number of death in that most notorious section of the capital city might send him out of office. Seventeen of the soldiers brought in to quell the riots in other parts of the city had so far been killed by protesters. In turn, seventy protesters had been mauled by the soldiers’ bullets. In the end, lives that would have to go in Waterloo alone, before the slum would be taken back by the army, would make those figures appear insignificant. The General was not ready to let the Prime Minister have the number of casualty yet. But news hunters had been sniffing around. The General had purposely made himself unavailable to some stubborn foreign journalists in particular. All the phone calls from them in the last 48 hour had gone unanswered. As for journalists that came to the Public Relations Unit of the Ministry of Defence, the spokesperson had largely kept his peace, refusing to answer questions. That was the General’s instruction.

"Your Excellency," a minister spoke up. He had just helped the General to stop the Prime from repeating his question. "Some foreign journalists called to confirm figures of the dead. I wonder, Your Excellency, if the General could bring us up-to-date on the necessary figures."

He had made the matter worse, the General thought to himself, his eyes still fixed on the TV screen, pretending he heard nothing.

The Prime Minister turned to the General. A phone rang. It’s the Prime Minister’s. It’s only his phone that’s permitted to be active during cabinet meetings.

"Yes, Mr President. Yes, we are all right. No problem at all. Yes, I have just been informed by the General. Yes. That’s right. I thought… Hello. Hello."

The Prime Minister took the phone away from his ear and studied it curiously. He dialed again but eventually dropped it on the table.

"General."

"Yes, Your Excellency."

"Is there any of your men within the walls of the President’s Villa?"

"Yes, there is, Your Excellency. My Minister of State, is there, keeping the President abreast of events at the moment as the Head of State and Commander-In-Chief."

"The president was speaking to me when the phone went dead. He sounded somewhat agitated. I couldn’t get him when I redialed. Could you speak with the Minister of State. He may be able to give us situation report from the President’s end."

"Please, a minute, sir," the General said, rose to his feet and walked out the room. His phone was with his Personal Assistant in the Waiting Room. He wanted to get it and call the Minister of State.

"Your Excellency," the Minister of Social Welfare said, "considering the fact that the on-going mayhem was caused by the public protest against the shopping trip of the Queens to Dubai, I don’t think the time is appropriate for them to return home. Maybe they should stay in Dubai for a little while until the tension in the capital city calms somewhat." The Queens, as the Prime Minister himself liked to refer to them, were the wife of the Prime Minister and the wives of his cabinet ministers.

"If I may come in here, Your Excellency. The fact is that the Queens have left Dubai," the Minister of External Affairs said. "Their aircraft landed to refuel in Mogadishu and the situation there has become worse in the last few hours. The Prime Minister’s son who is our Ambassador in Mogadishu says the fighting in that city may spread to the airport before long. He says the aircraft will leave the airport any minute from now. I am afraid there’s nothing we can do to stop the Queens from returning home, Your Excellency."

The phone rang. The Prime Minister picked it and began to talk.

"…Ah good to hear from you. Thank you so much. I understand your concern, with the negative news about us. No, that report is wrong. It’s the figment of the imagination of these bloody foreign journalists. The situation is under control now. Just a couple of miscreants took to the streets, nothing more than that. We will have the Independence Day celebration as scheduled. Please say ‘hello’ to your First Lady for me. Yes, I may come during your country’s independence day celebration. No, I won’t bring my wife with me which means I expect three star treatment plus one. Of course, you know what I mean since I will not come with my wife. Your neighbour…I think he should handle the rebels in his country with iron hands. He’s the president after all? I mean if he allows those rebels to get too close to his capital city, he would be swept out of power sooner than later. He must deal with the rebels ruthlessly. We can’t solve his problems for him. We have ours? Alright. See you shortly. Thanks for calling. Bye."

"That’s the President of the Republic of Benda," the Prime Minister said, placing his phone on the table.

"Your Excellency, my ministry has just prepared a news item for the media accusing opposition parties of instigating the mob against this administration." That came from the Minister of Information and Communication.

"That’s a good one," the Prime Minister said. "I will tell the General to call the Inspector General of police and tell him to arrest some key leaders in the opposition. He will detain them for a few days before he thinks of charging them to court. The court can sort out their culpability a day after the independence day clebration. Some of them could be slammed with treason, even. Yes, release the news item you prepared to the press immediately. Add that some of the leaders of the opposition have been engaged in treasonable activities. That will prepare the ground for the police IG to round them up and detain them for as long as possible before the court sorts them out."

"Alright, Your Excellency," the Information Minister said and immediately punched the keyboard of the laptop computer in front of him. He wanted to chat with his ministry officials using the Yahoo Messenger platform to execute the president’s latest request.

"I drew up a series of economic measures to alleviate poverty that the administration can announce immediately as a response to the current crisis, Your Excellency. Maybe you should see it first," the Minister of Economic Planning said.

"I hope it will not require that I source for fund for its implementation."

"Of course not, Your Excellency. You know the way this is handled. We get the media to feed it to the public, get key figures in the country to praise it as a worthy measure from an administration that’s sensitive to peoples’ yearning and then dump the papers on which the measures are written in the waste paper basket."

"Good. You can go ahead and announce the measures. Give the credit to the Office of the Prime Minister rather than the Ministry of Economic Planning for maximum effects."

"As you wish, Your Excellency."

"Your Excellency… Em… some of the properties of cabinet members were burnt in the course of the…," a Minister was saying.

"There’s no problem about that," the Prime Minister interrupted. "Finance Minister, release five million dollars to each Cabinet Minister to rebuild their houses that were burnt in the mayhem and another one and a half million dollars as Inconvenience Allowance for the two day period that the violence took. As usual, send my double portion of those amounts to my Bank account in Zurich."

All the other ministers clapped their hands as the Finance Minister scribbled the instructions on a paper pad in front of him.

"By the way," the Prime Minister was still talking to the Finance Minister, "I shall be leaving for Paris for my quarterly health check as soon as the situation returns to normal. Release the necessary funds for the trip immediately."

"Is your wife going with you so that I can make the necessary preparations for her too, Your Excellency?"

"You should know by now that a trip to Paris is to paint the street of Paris red. My wife will not give me room to carry red paints as you well know."

Laughter went round the room.

"Before I forget, Minister of Foreign Affairs, arrange for my wife to go and deliver a paper at the coming UN conference on Gender Issues, I will make my trip coincide with the conference. Arrange for all the other Queens, I mean the wives of all the cabinet ministers, to accompany my wife to the UN, all expenses paid by the Finance Ministry."

Loud round of cheers and clapping went round the room.

"Fellow Cabinet Ministers," the Minister for Special Duties was saying, "I think we should specially thank His Excellency for his act of kindness. This is coming on the heels of His Excellency’s approval for our wives to accompany his wife to Dubai for shopping ahead of the national Independence Day celebration, all expenses paid. His Excellency has been very kind and I think we should thank him."

Sounds of approval greeted that from all around.

"That reminds me. Finance Minister, all the cars that are to be imported for the use of foreign dignitaries who will come for the occasion of the Independence Day celebration should be given to each of the cabinet ministers at 10 percent of the original cost after the event."

Another round of clapping followed.

"If the ministers are getting new cars," the Prime Minister continued, "I think that I as the head of the house should get a new aircraft."

"That’s right, Your Excellency. That’s right," was the cheerful round of laughter that greeted this observation.

"I do hope those boys in the legislature will not frown at the release of funds for a new aircraft, Your Excellency," the Finance Minister pointed out.

"I don’t see any problem in acquiring a befitting aircraft for His Excellency." The Aviation Minister was the one that took the floor. "There’s a fund we have set aside for servicing the current aircraft in the Prime Minister’s fleet. It’s still available. We can delay sending the aircrafts for service for two more years and use the fund to acquire a new aircraft for His Excellency. We will explain this to the boys in the House. I know they won’t make much noise about it if we don’t ask them for funds."

"I think that’s a solution if His Excellency agrees to it," the Finance Minister said.

"I have no problem with that. Please, go ahead and shop for a good aircraft for me," the Prime Minister said.

"Your Excellency, I am sorry," the Minister of Special Duties said, "I guess this isn’t the right time for me to raise this issue. But the former Governor of Tunga State who was your major financier in the last election needs your help. The court is hearing a case of corrupt enrichment and money laundering leveled against him by the Financial Crime Prevention Authority. I am afraid judgement may not favour him and I think that our party cannot afford to lose his support and political savvy. He’s…"

"Minister of Justice, Financial Crime Prevention Authority is under your Ministry. Let every damning evidence disappear and get the trial judge to dismiss the case for lack of sufficient evidence. I believe that should take care of it, Minister of special duties."

"Yes, Your Excellency, it should."

"Ah, why have we not got something to drink here?," the Prime Minister said. "We are not mourning are we? Now that the situation is coming under control, I believe we can celebrate. Let someone go and bring us drinks," the Prime Minister asked.

Someone stood up from the table. The door of the Council Chamber opened. The door closed. Someone departed. Another entered. It was the General, his mien somber.

"Your Excellency," he said.

‘Yes, General. What did the Minister of State say?"

Before the General could respond, the minister that left to confer with the Chief of Protocol rushed in again, a portable radio in his hand.

"Your Excellency, listen to what’s on BBC news."

"...the crash occurred as the plane tried to land at the country’s international airport. The wife of the Prime Minister and the wives of fourteen cabinet ministers were on the aircraft. As at the time of this report, there has been no official announcement from the government of…"

All eyes turned to the General. ‘Is that true?’ was the in unspoken question.

"Your Excellency, your son, the nation’s ambassador in Mogadishu boarded the aircraft because of the unstable situation in that capital city," the General said.

His Excellency and his cabinet ministers waited to hear more from the General.

"Everyone on the aircraft died in the crash."

There was a blackout in the Executive Council Chamber.

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