ONE DAY WITH DAVID MARK

By NBF News
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This is a different back page. On June I, 2010, I spent an entire day with the Senate President, David Mark. I watched him eat, pray, play and work. It was fun. It was hard. It left me limping. See if you like it.

May 31, 2010|
7.05pm.
Yours sincerely is ushered into the main living room of Mark's official residence in Apo legislative quarters, Abuja. A few minutes later, he saunters in, in white shorts, stripped short-sleeved shirt, no cap.

7.30pm, dinner time.
His gateman is playing the GM at his duty post and has denied a politician access to his boss. The big man calls Mark on his cell phone to protest and Mark asks his guest to give the phone to the GM. Apparently feeling cool on the other end, the gateman asks who he is speaking with and Mark obediently answers his gateman:

'My name is David Mark…'
End of conversation, of course.
'That was my gateman. He wanted to know who he was speaking with and I have to introduce myself properly,' Mark explains.

We all burst into laughter. Everybody is a big man at his desk in Nigeria.

'Don't mind him. I guess that was to show that he's doing his job well, as if I don't know that they alert certain people as soon as I get home. Sometimes I return from a trip and there is nobody waiting for me, then within five minutes, people start arriving. I know they call up the people they like to tell them I'm at home and grill others before they allow them in' he adds, smiling.

Senator Tunde Ogbeha, Hon Ibrahim Isa Bio, the Minister of Sports, and Kola Ologbondiyan, Special Adviser (Media) to Mark and Blessing, one of the SP's(Senate President) daughters are also at the table. Patrick Ekeji enters. Ogheha squints, scratches his forehead and says, 'Patrick, you are still owing me estacode since 2002 World Cup. You must pay me my money.'

'Oga, did you actually make it to Korea sir?' Ekeji asks.

'Not really. I turned back because Nigeria was out of the game by the time I got to London,' Ogbeha explains.

'In other words, you didn't go to Korea..?' Mark asks.

'What would I have gone to do, the Nigerian team was out,' Ogbeha retorts.

'Tunde, you have no case. Your case is hereby struck out, with costs.' Though there is no gavel on hand, Mark still rules. End of Ogbeha's demand for the unpaid estacode. Ekeji is discharged and acquitted. Ogbeha grumbles but the 'ayes' have it. Gbam.

While the rest of us have full plates of 'orisirisi' (variety), a piece of snail is all Mark ate. Is that the secret of the Senate President's trim look? I intend to find out.

7.00 am
It's time for morning mass with the Senate President in the chapel at the other end of the residence. No African time. I am five minutes late. I dash into a seat on the second-to-the-last pew, stretching my neck, scanning for Mark in the front row of the chapel. He's not there. You can't miss his clean-shaved head. So, where is he, missing mass? The officiating reverend father's voice 'un-stretches' my neck.

'Let us rise as we sing hymn 64.' There he is, singing right behind me, on the last pew. Aren't front rows reserved for big men? Mark agrees but says he's not yet a big man. I agree too, especially since I'm still a virgin. Mass lasts all of 35 minutes.

7.40am
Tea time with the brethren. There's mass movement from Mass to Mark's living room. SP sits in his white cassock-like outfit, like a reverend father to attend to his guests. While everybody grabs a cup of tea, Mark listens to complaints, requests and receives special invitation cards personally. At this time of the day, the Senate President's house is free and 'ordinary' people get to see him before the politicians wake up and colonize him.

8.05 am
He leaves to get ready for the day. Yours sincerely spends the time rubbing minds with Tunde, one of David Mark's sons.

9.00 am
White cassock has been replaced with a native attire plus cap.

'Funke, let's go for breakfast,' he calls out.
Good, I am starving. Over a light meal (does Mark eat anything heavy? I'll watch out.), we talk about Deji of Akure beating his wife in public, newspapers' banner headlines and small hidden retractions and why libel should be a criminal offence. He looks through all the major daily newspapers.

9.50 am
We leave the house in a convoy. I settle in my seat as we zoomed towards the Three Arms zone.

10.15 am
The Principal Officers' meeting starts. This ought to have held the previous night but was shifted because of the Democracy Day public holiday. Senator Mamora does a double take on seeing me. We hug . I am careful not to stain his sparkling white agbada with my make-up. Kola introduces me to the DSP, Ike Ekweremadu as Funke Egbemode, Editor, Sunday Sun and I add, 'non-voting Senator' for one day. We shake on that. Non-voting Senator, hmm? Sounds good too!

10.45 am
Mr P-r-e-s-i-d-e-n-t
The mace-bearing sergeant-at-arms announces in a sing-song manner. God, I hope he's not considering a singing career. Nobody will buy his album. Anyway, Mark's on the move. Time for plenary. We walk briskly into the Red Chamber, he to his seat, me to the gallery. Yeah that's where non-voting members sit. Mark greets his people downstairs. I greet distinguished members of my constituency too. I was particularly happy to see Uche Awom my colleague when we were both non-voting members of the House of Reps. Mark says something and everywhere goes quiet, Chamber and gallery. What? Senator Kanti Bello calls the house to order.

Mark welcomes Councillors from Agenebode, students of University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Glory and Praise Nursery and Primary School, Abuja. Then comes a list of birthday boys and girls. Senator Justina Nkechi Nwogu is the only Democracy Day baby, born on May 29, 19…..Mark says the year is not important. Well, I intend to fill in the gap. Birthday boys , Chimaroke Nnamani (May 30), Ude and Uzamere (both June 1) are all congratulated. However, only Senator Ude qualified for newspaper congratulatory adverts. Not even Uzamere, inspite of his size (SP's words, not mine please), is qualified. Congratulatory adverts are placed only for those who have attained the age of 60 and above.

Main business of the day is the consideration of the report from the Committee on Water Resources. The Committee Chairman is not in Chambers. Mark asks if the missing-in-action chairman transmitted a letter to his deputy before he travelled and everybody bursts into laughter. Tension is doused. Mark wears his humour like a second skin, I noticed; in the Red Chamber, at the dinner table, on the corridor, on the golf course. It works for him as a leader of the 109-man senate.

To consider the Committee report, the house dissolves into Committee of the Whole, still with Mark presiding. Maybe because I'm a journalist not used to long winding talk, the consideration soon starts to bore me. I am yawning. The Senators keep pointing out all kinds of minute details, arguing over the definition of deployment and when and who can deploy. Geez! Soon, some of the members join me in the bored club. Some go to the tea room. Some move around. But Mark stays alert, taking the Bill clause by clause, correcting raised points, situating them, guiding the voice votes so the members don't vote 'aye' when they should say 'nay'. He throws in humour ever so often, till the very end.

Nice session until a certain female Senator comes in to distract everybody. As soon as she enters, one of my non-voting senator colleagues whispers,

'Watch her. She will not sit in her seat for more than a minute. She will drop her bag and start moving from row to row. That's her definition of plenary. She comes in late, towards the end and distracts those who are trying to do their job. '

Madam Senator does not disappoint us. True to prediction, she drops her bag and starts moving from seat to seat, whispering, pumping hands and generally distracting everybody. When the motion to adjourn till another legislative day is moved, she returns to her seat, picks her bag and leaves with those who have earned their pay for the day.

My sister, I'll say this in the language you and I speak: Ohun to ti ni l'ójú ju ole lo wa o.

Plenary Over.
We go to the Senate President's old office to have lunch. Everything is timed here. Three sips of Fanta and half a wrap of moinmoin and I'm back on my feet. Mark has some file work to do in the new office. He walks briskly but I have to run to keep up. It's been like that all day, come to think of it. He's 61 and this young girl has to run. I'm panting for Christsake! Thank God for elevators. They hold him for me.

1.05pm
We arrive his red office and I collapse into a red sofa. I'm almost gasping for breath. Oh Lord, I'm unfit. I've put on some weight too. Who am I kidding? I'm fat, that's why I'm sweating in an air-conditioned office. If nothing else comes out of this day, I know I'll burn some calories. I pretend as if all is well. Mark removes his red cap and digs into a pile of files. Does he slow down, since 7.00am?

I try to catch my breath. On the wall are the photographs of all the Senate Presidents we have had since 1959. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe (1959-1966)

Mark's photo is still in the works because he's still at work.

Time to go again. More brisk walk. More panting. We finally reach Hearing Room 1 for the one-day public hearing on the proposed 2010 Electoral Act (Internal Democracy in political parties). Many senators are here but I must mention specifically that Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima is also here though I can't report the dark thoughts on my mind. If he knows the thoughts on my mind he would not have chosen to sit on the same row with me. Well, am a senator today and so I can't say anything undistinguished in a distinguished gathering. Pity.

At exactly 1.30 pm, the Senate President declares the hearing open. You guessed right. This old man is leading me on another jogging session, back to his red office. What have I gotten myself into? I mutter under my breath.

Ah, a little respite at least. I leave for my hotel to change from my distinguished skirt suit into something fit for sports. Yeah, we are going golfing.

3.30 pm
Of course, by the time I finally make it to the golf course, David Mark is on Hole 5 of the 18-hole IBB golf course.

'Let's have a drink before we go on.'
That, at least is a welcome change. He asks for Schweppes. I settle for Coke. He buys about a dozen Titliest balls, discarding the ones that are 'almost smiling' and the ones that 'have seen hard days'. He gets on his feet. I look at my bottle of Coke and I wonder if it is a taboo to finish a bottle of soft drink around Mr Mark.

'Everybody needs exercise but as you get on in years you have to slow down.'

Does this man even know the meaning of 'slow down?' Does he know I hate leaving my Coke unfinished? Obviously not because he's bent on telling me all the blessings golf can bring into my life.

'Golf is mentally more tasking than squash and I play both. With golf, you need to be calculating. You must study the direction of the wind as well as its speed when you hit the ball. I love the challenge of playing to hit the hole, the steady move towards a goal and the determination and fun of it all.'

You need to be calculating to be a successful golfer, ehn? I see a similarity between Mark's game and his politics. Do you? He's the first Senate President since Joseph Wayas to preside over the Senate for a whole tenure and the third Senate President to do so in 50 years.

He breaks into my calculation.
'You can tell a man's character by putting him on a golf course. When you hit the ball and it lands far away, the golfer does not shift it or manipulate. He continues from there. Golf is not a team sport. You pay for your mistakes.'

'How long have you been playing golf?' I asked.
'I started playing in 1982.'
The man has been playing for 28 years! That explains why he walks and I run. It's an unfair competition. Well, one day, I'll make someone pant while I walk, I consoled myself.

Mark loves this game and he can laugh at himself too. Each time he misses the hole, he has something funny to say…

'All right, thank you. Don't clap too hard.'
When his ball veers off course…
'Embarrassment…'
And the game goes on.
By the time we reach Hole 14, I was ready to drop, cool breeze or not.

'I'm done sir'. I announced.
I limp off to the nearest 'joint' and slump in a chair. I think my heart is going to burst out of my chest. It doesn't and I finally get to finish my bottle of Coke. I have earned it too. I did holes 5-14, didn't I? Clap for me and clap hard.

5.46 pm
We leave the Course. On the drive home I ask him the secret to leading 108 men and women in the last three years without a hitch.

'I never forget that I'm just first among equals. As a Senate President, you must treat your colleagues with respect. Don't betray their trust. Always update yourself. You are leading an intelligent house. You saw the way they picked the minutest details this afternoon. You need to be alert at all times.'

Were there times the crown hurt?
'Sometimes. Like if there is an executive bill the Senate is not pleased with. Then I have to lobby and convince them. It is a time consuming job. There is also the problem of your people not understanding that there is a difference between legislative and executive positions. Take the example of late Senator Martins Yellowe. He sponsored the highest number of bills but his people did not return him. They'll tell you, 'is it the number of bills you sponsor in Abuja that we will eat?'

6.00pm
Aching all over and limping like I'd just jumped down from Cocoa House in Ibadan. I escape to my hotel where I promptly dive into a hot bath. I am hungry and tired but the day is not over. There's dinner at 7.30 but my eyes are already blood-shot.

7. 45 pm
Of course I'm late. I limp into the dining room and the SP calls out, 'Lady golfer, hope you are refreshed?'

I tell him the truth.
'No, I'm aching all over sir.'
Full house or is it full table? Senate leader, Teslim Folarin, Senators Ahmed Makarfi, Saminu Turaki, Ayogu Eze. We talk about the FoI Bill which 'they ' promise to pass but not without a clause criminalising libel. Can you imagine the effrontery and temerity of 'these colleagues of mine'? There are other things that are bigger crimes, aren't there? My mind goes back to a certain senator and his Children's Day wife.

Dinner over, we retire to the living room where the 'ordinary' people saw the SP after Morning Mass. Of course, now the politicians' day is just breaking. And they all want to see Mark. Senator Uche Chukwumerije, Kanti Bello (in safari suit o), Iyiola Omisore, and former PDP Chairman, Chief Barnabas Gemade. One thing however strikes me here. At night, there is only one National Assembly. It is only during the day there are Lower and Upper Chambers. Hon Tunde Akogun and Reps are here too and Mark sees them all in different sitting rooms and offices.

11.30pm
This non-voting member of the Senate of the Federal Republic, totally fagged out, finally limps off. It's been one hell of a day but I have learnt a few new things. And I am still limping.