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JONATHAN ARRIVES TO TUMULTUOUS WELCOME IN COTONOU, BAGS BENIN'S HIGHES HONOUR

By NBF News
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•President Jonathan during his interaction with Nigerians in Diaspora, Cotonou

We are starting this year's 'Travels' with how President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan ended his international trip in 2010 with a memorable trip to neighbouring Benin Republic. According to Nigeria's envoy to Benin Republic, Ambassador Lawrence Akindele, the visit had further strengthened the existing cordial relationship between Benin and Nigeria; and, for both West African nations, it must have been one of the most heart-warming of any state visits of that year.

A lunch at the Benin State House, a national honour investiture ceremony, sightseeing and an interactive session with members of the local Nigerian community were among activities that engaged Dr. Jonathan during the fleeting tour. However, apart from the formal environment of the State House, the trip took on added significance through a hint of personal affection in the decision of President of Benin Republic, Dr. Boni Yayi, to take the Nigerian president to his Cotonou home.

Despite the ephemeral nature of the sojourn; President Jonathan's chief host, Dr. Yayi; took his guest on sightseeing and in the process pointed out a number of commercial outfits owned by Nigerians in Cotonou. Although his sojourn in Cotonou lasted barely six hours, from landing to take-off, President Jonathan would always remember 31 December 2010; for, it was on that day President Yayi, conferred on the Nigerian leader the 'Grand Croix de l'Ordre du Benin', the highest honour in Benin Republic, which is usually reserved for only heads of state.

Rousing welcome
Dr. Jonathan arrived to a rousing welcome in Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin Republic, last Friday; 31 December, 2010. The NAF 001 that brought President Jonathan and his entourage, which included Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia (SAN); touched down around 10.55am at Aeroport International Cardinal Bernardin Gantin de Cadjehoun.

The Cotonou International airport had in the past been scene of numerous displays of the rich culture of Beninoise people, but last Friday's performances has gone down as one of the more memorable of such events. Aside Dr. Yayi, and Benin Republic's service chiefs; dozens of officials from various agencies of the Benin and Nigerian governments as well as thousands of well-wishers, including masquerades from both nations were on hand to receive the Nigerian head of state. And, the symbolism of the visit at a time like 31 December, when virtually the whole world were with their family, was not lost on members of the Nigerian community in Cotonou, who over and over lauded Dr. Jonathan for the sacrifice he had to make in order to be with them.

Informal trading, naira as convertible currency
Trading worth scores, if not hundreds, of millions of naira take place daily at Seme/Krake; Nigeria's south-western border with Benin Republic. However, since the commercial activities engaged in by nationals of the two neighbouring countries are largely informal; it is difficult to gather reliable statistics, which could help the authorities of both nations keep track with a view to improving on the situation, where necessary.

To worsen matters, experts believe that huge sums of money are lost daily by traders involved in such commercial activities because of lack of formal agreement by relevant central banks to make naira, the Nigerian currency, and the CFA mutually exchangeable. As things stand, Nigerian entrepreneurs and their Francophone ECOWAS counterparts first have to change their currency into one of the so-called convertible ones, before changing it again into the one used in the country, where they intend to pay for goods or services.

This process is not only cumbersome, but practically amount to double taxation because some fraction of the money is lost to each conversion process. These, and more, came to light during an encounter between President Jonathan and the Nigerian community during the president's visit to Cotonou. Although the meeting was between the president and hundreds of Nigerians, who belong to the Nigeria in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO); the banking community put up a strong presence with Mr. Ben Ihekiri, MD and Mrs. Nkechi, both of Diamond Bank; Madam Gwen Abiola-Oloke, Director General of Continental Bank Benin, an affiliate of UBA; and Mr. Bola Badmus, Director General of Banque Internationale du Benin et cetera in attendance.

Many other issues
However, it was not only the banking industry professionals that threw up cogent questions, which elicited lucid explanations from Mr. President. For example, in his address, the President of the Cotonou chapter of NIDO, Chief Emmanuel Uko Elendu; after thanking President Jonathan for squeezing out time, in spite of his tight schedule, to make the visit; informed that while most Nigerians living in Benin for years are peace-loving and law-abiding; lately, some characters described as 'bad boys' for whom Nigeria has become too hot because of enhanced security measures of the Jonathan-led administration; 'have trooped into Benin'.

Hear Chief Elendu's rue: 'We are now having cases of Nigerians arrested for armed robbery and kidnapping, which damage the image of Nigeria and Nigerians'. The chief consequently went on to suggest that Nigerian authorities should enter into negotiations with their Beninoise counterparts so that any convict, after serving his jail sentence in Benin should be deported and made to face the same music in Nigeria.

In Elendu's address, read by his Special Adviser, Mr. Okezie Mgbeahurike, the NIDO president also seized the opportunity to thank Mr. President and Nigeria's Ministry of Foreign Affairs 'for the calibre of personnel posted to us at this embassy (Cotonou)'. Referring to the current crop of leadership at Nigerian Embassy in Cotonou, Chief Elendu averred: 'They have in deed done so much to give Nigerians a sense of belonging… Our consular matters are now handled with despatch'.

However, the point, when Elendu said 'Our embassy is no more 'consulting clinic' as it used to be'; would probably be seen as one of the highpoints or most memorable parts of his speech. In deed, Dr. Jonathan had re-echoed this aspect during his response, when he quipped that the mission had morphed 'from 'consulting clinic' to teaching hospital'.

Chief Elendu, who also expressed displeasure over how successive Nigerian governments in the past 'had neglected the development of (the Nigerian end) Seme Border areas'; observed: 'The Seme Border areas hold lots of investment opportunities'. He however moaned that it is sad that no government policy or frame-work has been designed to encourage Nigerian entrepreneurs to move there. 'Right now, seven Nigerian banks have come to Seme Border without adequate security arrangement provided for them', he observed.

However, of all the points raised by Chief Elendu; his closing remarks went down as the Mother of all comments. Hear him: 'Finally, Your Excellency, following opinion polls conducted by various interest groups and the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation, Cotonou; coupled with this large crowd that turned up to welcome you; I am persuaded to announce to you that Nigerians in Benin Republic have because of you, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, and Architect Namadi Sambo declared; 'No vacancy in Aso Rock come 2011''!

An envoy's highs and lows
Although a quarter of Beninoise elites trace their ancestry to Nigeria, the relationship has not been without challenges, despite this ancestral tie; Amb. Akindele reminded. As regards enhancement of security around the countries' frontier areas, Ambassador Akindele suggested: 'the resumption of the Nigeria-Benin Joint Border Patrol with a view to checking the menace of smuggling, including drugs as well as small arms and ammunitions into the two countries'.

The position of Cotonou as a centre of commerce and government business with an international airport that offers connecting flights to various countries of the world has fostered this city's strategic importance. This means that frequently, top government functionaries from Nigeria are in Cotonou for one reason or another. Expectedly, such dignitaries look to the embassy for support; this, in turn, results in additional squeeze on the lean budget of the local Nigerian mission. Amb. Akindele had therefore used the opportunity offered by his address to plead with the president and the foreign minister to seriously consider an increase in the vote for running Nigerian Embassy in Cotonou.

In spite of all difficulties, however, 'the embassy has continued to work assiduously with relevant authorities of both countries at the highest level to protect the interest of Nigerians, who are sometimes harassed by over-zealous security personnel', Akindele assured. Ambassador Akindele went on to promise Mr. President that he and his mission, regardless of the odds, would continue to prosecute the mandate given to them.

President Jonathan's responses
Although the issues raised were many and the questions asked legion, President Jonathan was able to, collectively, thrash them satisfactorily. With regard to Ambassador Akindele's address and that of the Cotonou Chapter President of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation, Dr. Jonathan observed; 'From the remarks made by my brothers, on the issue of the border; we've even had some preliminary talks and, on the election; in fact, my primary will be on the 13th of January; after that, we're looking toward the main election in April. After that, we'll sit down and introduce some of the required measures'.

The president even had the presence of mind to intersperse his response with anecdotes. Hear Dr. Jonathan: 'Let me thank you, sincerely, for commending the embassy for being very responsive to issues of concern and interest. This is unlike before, as the NIDO President said, when the embassy was only a consulting clinic. Now that the embassy has moved from mere consulting clinic to teaching hospital, we're happy. And, I believe with necessary support they (the embassy) will improve on that'.

'I also thank all of you for the love you have for me. All the countries I have visited within this period, Nigerians there have encouraged me and always turned up in large numbers to welcome me. Even today, although most people could not enter this venue because of the number; but, I saw the crowd at the airport, and learnt that most of you were ready to wait the whole day until my departure. What more can your people do for you?

It's just like a dancer; no matter how well you dance, if there's no ovation; you'd feel demoralized; as if you had not performed well at all. But, if you hear the ovation, the applause, you would feel encouraged to perform even better. So, wherever I go, and you come in numbers to encourage me, as you've done today; I feel challenged to do more. And, I know that you expect more from us. So, I promise that we will do more', Jonathan vowed.

Attendance
Although some top-flight diplomats, such as the high commissioners of Ghana and South Africa, were conspicuously absent; since the timing of the visit coincided with the Yuletide holiday period, which meant that many people had left town; numerous other chiefs of the diplomatic community were at Cotonou International to receive the Nigerian president.

The Country Representatives of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the European Commission; the ambassadors of Cuba, France, the Nederland and the USA as well as Monsignor Blume, Ambassador of the Holy See, who is also current Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in Benin; were all at the airport on that day to welcome President Jonathan.

The embassy reception was witnessed by hundreds of well-wishers. In deed, the majority of those that turned up to welcome the president could not be admitted to the venue for want of space. At the traditional rulers' level, we noticed the presence of 'Alaiyeluwa' (Oba) Ajirotutu Fadipe, Olota-Kumi II; paramount ruler of Kpormasseh, near the Benin Republic ancient port settlement of Ouidah. 'Alaiyeluwa' (Oba) Ajirotutu Fadipe, who further introduced himself as king of all Egba in Benin Republic, described President Jonathan's visit as phenomenal. He added that from what he saw, and heard, it was easy to believe; as many Nigerians at the venue had said, that; 'Truly, there is no vacancy in Aso Rock in 2011'.

The garden within the ambassador's residence was filled with guests, which included the president and general secretary of NIDO Cotonou, Chief Elendu and Pa Olujobi respectively; Chairman of Nigeria's Hausa Community in Cotonou and his Yoruba counterpart, Alhaji Mounirou Garba and Alhaji Ishola Bello respectively; Minister 1 at the embassy, 'Mallam' Musa Hassan; Defence Attaché at the mission, Colonel Chukwunedum Martins Abraham as well as Chairman of Ede Community in Cotonou, Alhaji Abdulazeez Bello, were all there.

As usual, the Master of Ceremonies, Mrs. Nkechi Jeanne-Frances Maduakor, Managing Editor of Benin Republic Bureau of Ovation International magazine, Cotonou; gave reasons why she deserved to be engaged for that purpose. The human throng included Alhaji Sulaimon Lawal, PRO of Yoruba Community Cotonou since 2002; and Chiefs Anthony Ife Akpolunde as well as Alasa Okorie. Mrs. Maureen d'Almeida, and Mr. Maduakor, husband of the MC, Jeanne-Frances; and, last but not the least, Mr. Okey Sunday Okoroafor, Coordinator of Rebuilding Nigeria by Jonathan, a pro-Jonathan group in West Africa; were also present at the events.

Mr. Okoroafor, a 45-year-old Nigerian, has spent the last 12 years living in Cotonou; where he makes a living as a cloths and textiles importer. He was one of many Nigerians, who lamented they were forced to live abroad because of parlous conditions at home. He vowed that, even though he sought nothing personally from supporting the Jonathan/Sambo ticket, he was investing his hard-earned resources to ensure this team's victory.

According to Mr. Okoroafor, a Jonathan Presidency after the 2011 election was Nigeria's only hope of climbing out of the ditch of stagnation that some of the current presidential aspirants had put his country. Okoroafor, who reminded us that over one million Nigerians live in Benin Republic, went on to add that his group was networking with off-shoots in Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast. Collectively, more than 3million voters are resident in these countries; he intoned.

This West African Coordinator of Rebuilding Nigeria by Jonathan went on to reveal that he was hoping to make a difference by hiring scores of buses to bring millions of eligible voters home from neighbouring ECOWAS countries for the 2011 presidential elections. 'We have created necessary awareness and we are already mobilizing. We will help to ensure victory for Jonathan/Sambo because we don't want to die as exiles', Okoroafor concluded emphatically.