Friday, March 18, 2011

Benin 2011 presidential polls

Benin presidential poll latest
Incumbent President Yayi, leading opposition candidate Houngbedji warm up for run-off

As predicted in our analysis of this year’s presidential election in Benin Republic, published in Daily Sun of Friday, 11 March (reproduced below this report); a run-off seems inevitable from preliminary results released by the country’s independent electoral commission, CENA (Centre Electorale Nationale autonome) Wednesday.

Although the principal opposition candidate, Dr. Adrien Houngbedji has taken an early lead with 46.3 of the results so far collated; he will have to square up against incumbent President Boni Yayi to determine who occupies the local Presidential Palace from April, this year. Dr. Yayi polled 44.5 percent of the votes to come second, however; the results are not conclusive. 
President Boni Yayi's poster. PHOTOS: MAURICE ARCHIBONG
Mr. Adrien Houngbedji is candidate of UN, a multi-party coalition; instead of just his party; the PRD (Parti du Renouveau Democratique). Since none of the flag-bearers bagged the mandatory minimum of 50percent of the votes for an outright win, Beninese voters will return to polling stations for a run-off election within three weeks.

It is worth noting that disputes arose over results released for Cotonou’s 8th Council (Huiteme Arrondissement), where speculation is rife the number of votes recorded outnumbered that on the voters’ register. Huiteme Arrondissement includes a densely-populated neighbourhood called Agbontikan. However, it is not clear which of the candidates the result from that area favoured. 
Scene from one of Adrien Houngbedji's UN campaign offices.
Interestingly, 10 of the 14 candidates scored less than one percent each; collectively, with less than 4 percent of the total vote garnered by this octet; they ended up mere also-ran, as we did forecast. Moreover, our position that charismatic Mr. Abdoulaye Bio Tchane (fondly called ABT, who promised Integrite, Unite, Travail; i.e. governance built around integrity, unity and industry, would not make much difference; also proved true with the 5.6 percent of the votes he got. Mr. Salifou Issa came fifth with 1.6percent votes cast. 
While the campaigns were on.
It could be recalled that the 13 March presidential election had earlier been postponed twice apparently due to inadequate preparedness.

Below is my piece on this year’s presidential election in Benin

Benin Presidential election holds Sunday
…Run-off expected

Finally, this year’s presidential election in neighbouring Benin Republic will hold on Sunday, 13 March. The 2011 presidential poll, which had been postponed twice, is the fifth; since this country returned to democracy 20 years ago.

Home to roughly 2million Nigerians and a major trading partner of Nigeria, Benin Republic is also vital to West Africa because it serves as an important link between the eastern fringes of the sub-region to the western frontiers around Mauritania.

Millions of Nigerians and other travellers daily commute between Cameroon, through Nigeria, Cotonou (Benin), Lome (Togo), Accra (Ghana) and on to Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire; therefore, any unrest in Benin could prove debilitating for countless West Africans, who shuttle on daily basis the Littoral Axis of the Trans-ECOWAS Highway.

Fortunately, however, the Beninese people have acquitted themselves commendably during the campaigns. There has been no assassination here and the level of violence virtually inconsequential compared with the norm in one or two other West African nations. In deed, the numerous floats bearing colourfully attired supporters of different parties across Cotonou, Porto-Novo and other settlements in this country evoked a carnival-like atmosphere everywhere.

At Agblagadan, a Cotonou neighbourhood, for example; three different parties’ campaign teams riding in floats and marching in the street ran into themselves; and, unlike in some other country, where cudgels and missiles would have been flying everywhere over such encounter; the parties’ partisans simply tried to do outdo their rivals through louder volume of music and more vibrancy in their chanting and dancing.

The Vuvuzela, South Africa’s gift to the world after a successful hosting of the first World Cup on the continent has also come in handy here. Many parties’ faithful could be seen zooming past on motorcycles and joyfully blowing their “vuvuzela” as they rode along. Also, Nigerian hip-hop music was frequently heard blaring from some of the gigantic loudspeakers mounted on the floats. Such has been the carnival air of the campaigns that you wished the presidential election could be held every year in Benin.
Curiously, almost 4million voters were registered for the 2006 presidential election in this nation of barely 7million population; and, even then; there were complaints that millions could not get on the voters’ register. Psephologists, journalists and independent observers; both local and international, could be seen across this country; and, to record a successful election, various relevant organs; including CENA (Commission electorale nationale autonome), Benin’s equivalent of Nigeria’s INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission); CSP (Commission de Supervision Politique) and LEPI (l’etablissement de la Liste electoral) had since swung into action.

However, there have been complaints; including reported late arrival of electoral materials and inability of many eligible voters to get on the voters’ register. Difficulties in compilation of voters’ register and snags in distribution of voters’ cards were commonly cited. In fact, a newspaper, “l’evenement précis” in its 10 February edition, carried a report on page 3; where Mr. Adrien Houngbedji, candidate of UN, a multi-party coalition; condemned alleged serious irregularities.

The report hints at possible disenfranchisement of over 1.5million voters through the inability of such prospective voters to register to vote. Evidently, issues like these compelled a shift of the election, which was earlier due to hold on Sunday, 6 March.

Given the crises that trailed last November/December elections in Ivory Coast as well as the one in Guinea two years ago; there could be apprehension in some quarters over the outcome of next Sunday’s presidential election in Benin Republic. However, it is doubtful this election would spark any serious strife; for, Beninese remember very well the hardship countless Togolese suffered, following post-election violence in the late Gnassingbe Eyadema’s country.

It could be recalled that thousands of refugees that fled Togo were camped by the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Beninese town of Come; and, millions of Beninese, who saw first-hand some of these victims and heard their tales of woe would be wary of doing any thing that could land them in similar plight.

This year’s presidential poll in Benin has been made more exciting because it features a unique realignment of forces. Unlike 2006, when as many as 26 candidates were in the race; there are 14 flag-bearers this time.  Even with this much fewer 14 candidates, it is widely believed that the poll will result in a run-off; like several others before it. Where the 13 March exercise proves inconclusive, a re-run by the two leading contenders must take place in two weeks, going by the Constitution of the Benin Republic.

Incumbent President, Dr. Boni Yayi, is in the race; which features only one female candidate in the 14-man pack. The sole female candidate is 57-year-old Ms. Akouavi Marie-Elise Christiana Gbedo, a one-time minister of commerce, industry and tourism in the late 1990s under the Mathieu Kerekou presidency. Ms Gbedo was also in the 2006 presidential race, and it could be recalled that while campaigning as an independent candidate, she had practically urged then outgoing President Kerekou to prosecute all political office holders, whom she alleged had plundered the national economy; before handing over power on 6 April of that year.

Though widely respected as a distinguished adjudicator, intellectual and feminine rights activist; it is doubtful she would make much impact, given the political weight of those she is up against. But, it would be wrong to write her off; for, going by the constitution, Ms Gbedo has two more presidential elections in which she could run before clocking 70 years. Septuagenarians and older folks are barred from contesting for Benin Republic’s highest political office.

Other candidates in the 2011 presidential election in former Dahomey include Abdoulaye Bio Tchane (ABT), Cyr Kouagou, Issa Salifou, Joachim Dahissiho, Kessile Tchalla, Janvier Yahouedeou, Victor Topanou, Joseph Biokou, Jean Yves Sinzogan and Lagnide Christian. Janvier Yahouedehou also ran as an independent candidate in the 5 March 2006 presidential elections in Benin. As before, he promises to build a modern, professional and transparent administration, if elected.

On his part, charismatic ABT promises (“Integrite, Unite, Travail”); i.e. governance built around integrity, unity and industry, while Dr. Yayi is being marketed as the candidate of all Beninese (“Le candidat de les tout Beninois”). Truly, with Bariba, Fulani and Yoruba bloods flowing in his veins, Yayi certainly enjoys an advantage here. It is also worth noting that despite being baptised Muslim, he had later converted to Christianity. However, in this nation, where state religion is voodoo; it is hard to say to what extent his conversion might count in this election. 

Having been president for four years already, Yayi is also reminding prospective voters that his experience is an advantage (“Notre experience, notre force”). However, Mr. Houngbedji’s camp is calling on Beninese to opt for change, even liberation; (“Maintenant Avancons”), as their posters say. But, for presidential candidate Issa Salifou, the future is now (“l’Avenir c’est aujourd hui”).  

Benin Republic comprises 12 Regions: Alibori, Atacora, Atlantique, Borgou, Collines, Couffo, Donga, Littoral, Mono, Oueme, Plateau and Zou; and, the 14 candidates come from seven of these dozen political units. Biokou, Houngbedji and Lagnide come from Oueme Region. Salifou hails from Alibori, while Gbedo, Sinzogan and Topano are from Atlantique; Kouagou is from Atacora; and, Dahissiho and Yahouedeou from Zou. However, this time around, the majority of these 14 candidates are likely to again end up simply as also-ran.

Mr. Adrien Houngbedji and Abdoulaye Bio Tchane constitute the leading opposition as far as incumbent President Yayi, who hails from Borgou, is concerned. However, the run-off is most likely going to feature Dr. Yayi and Mr. Houngbedji; even though Mr. Tchane, fondly called ABT, also commands something of a large following. Seen as a possible surprise candidate in some quarters, ABT is a seasoned economist and banker; his chances could, however, be adversely affected by the fact that he hails from the same Donga Region as another candidate, Mr. Kessile Tchala Sare.

Interestingly, speculation is rife within some quarters that next Sunday’s election could actually throw up an outright winner in the person of Houngbedji; irrespective of the fact that two other candidates from his region could dim his performance by splitting the voters there.

Already 69 years old, Houngbedji would be 74, and therefore, too old; going by the Benin Constitution, to ever run for president again beyond this election. This is the reason many Beninese think he is handling this one as the election of his life; and, it is worth noting Houngbedji is not only candidate for his PRD (Parti du Renouveau Democratique).

In the 2006 election, Lehardy Soglo, one of the sons of former president, Nicephore Soglo; was presidential candidate on the platform of RB (l’Renaissance du Benin), while Bruno Amossou was flag-bearer for PSD (Parti Social Democrate) and Lazare Sehoueto for Force Cle as well as Kolawole Idji for MADEP (Mouvement African pour Developpment et le Progres). This quartet has withdrawn from this year’s election and thrown in their lot with Houngbedji. In other words, Houngbedji’s chances are now much brighter because he is candidate for the six-party coalition called UN (l’Union fait la Nation).

Moreover, former president Nicephore Soglo has also thrown his weight behind Houngbedji; but, it shouldn’t be difficult to say, who; between Boni Yayi and Houngbedji, is the preferred candidate of Mathieu Kerekou, another ex-president of Benin. Houngbedji could be likened to Nigeria’s late lawyer and activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, in some ways. Here is a man, who would not keep silent in the face of tyranny. Like Chief Fawehinmi of blessed memory, Houngbedji trained as a lawyer; and, like Fawehinmi; Houngbedji was never afraid to speak out in defence of the truth, even at the risk of losing his life. Houngbedji, in deed, was a thorn in the flesh of Kerekou in those days, when the latter served as head of government of the then socialist state.

To escape alleged possible assassination, Houngbedji had to flee into exile in Gabon; where he lived for years until 1990, when he returned to join others in pressing for a sovereign national conference that eventually put paid to Kerekou’s dictatorship, finally paving the way to the democratic governance, which Benin Republic has enjoyed, uninterrupted, for over 20 years now.

Subsequently, Aplahoue-born Houngbedji had served twice as President of Benin National Assembly from 1991 to 1995 and 1999 to 2003. A Member of the Academy of Sciences and co-President of the ACP-EU Parliament in 2001; Houngbedji is also recipient of “grand-croix de l’Ordre national du Benin”, the highest honour in his country. It is worth recalling that this is Hougbedji’s fourth shot at the presidency; and, that he came third in the 2001 presidential election. In 2006; he came second. Could he possibly come first in 2011? Only time can tell.

Interestingly, 23 flag-bearers had earlier emerged for as many political parties; but, the constitutional court had disqualified nine aspirants for various reasons. Those barred from running are; Thierry Didier Adjovi, Olivier Agossou Lary-Egoundoukpe, Yacouba Olaniyi Badaru, Phillipe Toyo Noudjenoume, Henri Medrid, Ganseli Hermine Capo-Chichi, Patrice Ago Simenou, Louis Tobossou and Francois Xavier Loko.

Interestingly, Benin’s Constitutional Court (Cour Constitutionnel) has been kept extra-busy because of this year’s presidential election: such has been the contribution of this court in interpreting the laws to determine who was eligible to vie and who was not as well as appraising requests for postponement of the election that media focus had sometimes shifted from the flag-bearers and their parties to the Cour Constitutionnel and its President, Justice Robert Dossou. In deed, former president of Burundi, Mr. Pierre Buyoya, who is leader of an observer mission from the International Organisation of French-speaking states’ (l’Organisation International de l’etat Francophonie); held a meeting with Justice Dossou in Benin last week.

It is pertinent to point out here that whoever emerges victorious in this year’s Benin presidential election would have his hands full. Although Yayi has in many ways positively transformed the state of this country’s infrastructure, a lot more work remains to be done. Cheerily, all the leading candidates are accomplished professionals; also, both Yayi and Houngbedji are doctorate degree holders.

Houngbedji was described throughout his school days by various teachers as an exceptionally brilliant student. By 1967, when he was barely 25 years old, Houngbedji had bagged a PhD in Law from University of Paris. Apart from having served in Benin Supreme Court, Houngbedji also has years of experience as a two-time distinguished Member of Parliament. In deed, many believe he is better connected to members of Benin’s political elite than anyone else.

On the other hand, Yayi who holds a PhD, which he earned in 1991 from University of Orleans in France; had served as Presidential Technical Adviser on Financial Matters in the past and had also, garnered useful experience from working in high-ranking capacity for many years at BCEAO (Central Bank of West Africa).

Clearly, therefore, each man is well qualified to serve as president; and, whoever wins would bring invaluable experience to office. Hopefully, that would rub off positively on the fortunes of the average citizen.
 - By MAURICE ARCHIBONG in Cotonou: +22966757512

Sight and sounds of Potiskum

Sights and sounds of Potiskum
Welcome to Potiskum, an ancient settlement in Yobe State, north-eastern Nigeria. Ngizim is the name of Potiskum’s earliest settlers, although different historians, ethnologists and anthropologists had variously recorded this ethnic group as Nguzum, Ngwazim, N’gazim, Ngojin, Ngazar, Nkazara and even Nguidjim.
Today, virtually all Ngizim are Muslims; proud, devout and sincere worshippers. But, once upon a time, before Islam came their way; not by violence but by persuasion and voluntary adoption; Ngizim believed in a deity called “Gisku”. Those days, upon returning from war, the soldiers shared the spoils on the outskirts of town. As tradition had it, the heart of every animal captured as part of the spoils of war that was slaughtered to be shared among the warriors was reserved for the town’s Mai (traditional ruler).

But, on one occasion; it was discovered that the number of hearts was one short of the number of cows that had been killed and shared. After counting and cross-checking, the warriors were still baffled because things simply didn’t add up. After much more pondering over the mystery yielded no fruit, they decided to leave everything in hands of Gisku.

As was their tradition, upon reaching such a pass; the worried warriors looked to the heavens and prayed. To conclude their supplication, the shocked soldiers chorused: “Gisku, we leave this issue in your hands”. And, pronto! A lightening sprang forth from the skies and struck one of the soldiers named Ari. Ari hit the ground and died instantly. As some of the returnees would later tell the town’s folk; Ari had actually died, even before his body hit the earth.

In any case, it was subsequently discovered that Ari had stolen the missing heart, which was later recovered from the dead man’s bag. That, in a nutshell, is how the phrase “Ari-Gisku” entered Ngizim vocabulary. “Ari” means “with you”, while “Gisku” stands for God. The incident, local lore has it, took place at Babut Village in Yerimaram; near the present Palace of Mai Pataskum, Alhaji Umaru Bubaram Ibn Wuriwa Bauya I; according to Mallam Usman Garba Potiskum alias Babayo, who is Curator of Pataskum Emirate Council Palace Museum. 
Pataskum Emirate Council Palace
To date, a sacred tree stands as part of a symbolic shrine of “Ari-gisku”; whose legend goes back to time immemorial; to those days, when judgment came swift as a swallow; when sin was abhorred and everyone lived in fear of the all-knowing, all-seeing and all-powerful God.

“We don’t have shrines”, the town’s paramount ruler, Mai Pataskum, told us during an encounter inside the Pataskum Emirate Council Palace. Interestingly, however, many Ngizim were Ziga or practitioners of traditional religion in ancient times.

Evidently, times and attitudes have changed across Potiskum and in deed all over Ngizim lands; for, in the days of yore, adherents of traditional faith worshipped Gamarim, a unisex deity. Although Islam swept Ngizim nation almost 1,000 years ago, when they aligned themselves with the revered Kanem-Borno Empire, Ngizim people are, nonetheless, proud of their heritage.

The high level of their intellect could be gleaned from their traditional craft and how they relate with their environment and others around them. Furthermore, Ngizim people played enviable roles in the development of their immediate environment and surrounding territories. For example, Waziri Kabir Kursu Ibn Harun was a unique Ngizim warrior, which led to his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Army during the reign of the famous Mai Idris Alooma (1571 to 1585).

Sacred tree in Yerimaram
Aside Waziri Kabir Kursu Ibn Harun, Nasir Bultu and one Gamaru were also among many outstanding Ngizim ethnics that held exalted offices in the famed Kanem-Borno Empire. Expectedly, Ngizim people cherish their history of gallantry and rich culture; and a museum was therefore conceived to preserve this history and other aspects of the way of life of this ethnic group.

That repository, called Pataskum Emirate Council Palace Museum, was launched on 8 May, 2007 as part of ceremonies marking the formal opening of the sparkling new Pataskum Emirate Palace by the then Yobe State Governor, Alhaji Bukar Abba Ibrahim.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Burial of Ambassador Akindele on 12 March in Ibadan

Burial of Akindele, Nigeria’s late envoy to Benin on Sat, 12 Mar
Body leaves Cotonou Fri

The burial of Mr. Lawrence Olayiwola Akindele, Nigeria’s late Ambassador to BeninRepublic; will take place on 12 March in Ibadan, Oyo State.

The Embassy of Nigeria in Cotonou; where the late top-flight diplomat held sway, held a Service of Songs from 5pm to 7pm on Wednesday, 9 March, at the local Ambassador’s Residence in honour of their departed boss.

Meanwhile, during a chat at the Nigerian Embassy on Monday, 7 March with Mr. Ajayi Ayoola James, Charge d’Affair, following Ambassador Akindele’s demise; it was gathered that the remains of the late envoy will depart Cotonou at 6am on Friday, 11 March; for Ibadan.

In the same vein, executives of the Cotonou chapter of Nigerians in Diaspora Organization (NIDO), after a meeting with other members of the local Nigerian community on Wednesday; revealed at least one luxury bus had been hired to convey sympathisers to Ibadan for the burial. The vehicle(s) will depart Cotonou at 5am on 12 March for Ibadan, according to Pa Abdul-Lateef Olujobi; who spoke with mauricearchibongtravels in the Beninese economic capital.

According to funeral arrangements announced by the family, the interment will be preceded by a wake at the deceased’s compound, No. 9 Awomoro Street in the Shasha neighbourhood of Ibadan on 11 March; followed by Requiem Mass, billed to begin at 9am, the next day; 12 March, at the University of Ibadan Catholic Cathedral. Interment will follow thereafter.

Meanwhile, tributes have been pouring in for the late Ambassador Akindele, who died at the age of 57 years on Thursday, 3 February 2011. NIDO Cotonou President, Chief Emmanuel Uko Elendu, was among the earliest to pay a condolence visit to the Nigerian embassy; and, has been at the forefront in arrangements to make the trip to Ibadan as comfortable as possible for members of the local Nigerian community, most of who are still reeling in shock over Ambassador Akindele’s sudden transition.

Similarly, Chief Ebuka Onunkwo, Leader of Igbo Union in Benin Republic; has also contribution in various ways to succour his grieving compatriots. Chief Onunkwo, who described Ambassador Akindele’s passage as a terrible blow to the Nigerian community; had added: “It is a disaster to Nigerians in Benin Republic”.

Ambassador Akindele’s death “Has created a gaping vacuum because he was a very good man. Apart from being an outstanding diplomat, he also stood out as a humane and very humble personality. He ran an open-door policy and all Nigerians came to see in Ambassador Akindele; a friend, a brother and a father. In fact, words cannot describe the way I feel”; the Igbo Leader rued. 

Chief Onunkwo re-echoed this impression in his tribute left in the condolence register, where he wrote, inter alia; “We are going to miss you tremendously. You were like a father to all of us; now, we’re like sheep without shepherd. A big vacuum has been created”.

The entry of Chief Omeregbe Bruno, Chairman of Edo Community; who was first to sign the condolence register was: “This life is a journey and a visitor must come and go”, while the lament of Medina Nadako, an Abuja-based freelance journalist, was: “It was an honour knowing a true diplomat like you; unfortunately, the relationship we established is now short-lived. Just a few days ago, I played back the interview I had with you, unknowingly to me, you had passed on. I will definitely miss your warmth and camaraderie anytime I visit the embassy. Thank God for your able leadership, your staffs have taken after you”.

“Serving the fatherland with patriotism and competence is our duty as citizens but for some, it is a high calling. He was one of our best and we are grateful for his exhibitions”, wrote Prof. Alfred E. Opubor of WANAD Centre, Cotonou. “Your exit is painful to me and all the children who were with you in August 2010. We can’t forget your fatherly role which you played while we were in Cotonou on excursion. We only submit to the will of the Almighty God”, stated Mrs. C.S. Nwoye of Channelle Francaise.

Ambassador Ramadan Bakr, Embassy of Egypt, Medegan K. Frederick, Embassy of Angola, Ambassador Muftau Laleye, Embassy of Benin Republic, Abuja; are among members of the diplomatic community that left tributes in the condolence register. Tributes also came in from staff/students of Jos University, Laurel International School, Cotonou; Adesina College Ibadan, Soussoukpe Sylvaine of Huawei Technologies in Benin Republic; University of Ilorin; Funso Ibitoye of EcoBank, Seme branch, observed: “He lived a good life”.

Others that have visited the Nigerian mission to condole with the family and embassy staffers include members of the International Model School, Cotonou as well as the Rebuilding Nigeria Initiative aka West Coast Movement.

Akindele assumed duty as Nigeria’s Ambassador in Cotonou on 8 July, 2009; he had earlier worked as Permanent Representative of Nigeria’s Mission to the United Nations in New York, USA, among other postings; in a distinguished diplomatic career which spanned decades.

An alumnus of University of Ibadan, Akindele was much loved by everyone, irrespective of ethnic group, religion or calling. In deed, memorable encomiums were showered on him by Nigerians of all nationalities during a reception held at the local embassy’s residence; when President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan visited Cotonou on 31 December last year. 

It could be recalled that President Jonathan was so touched by commendations for Akindele and the improved Nigerian Embassy Cotonou that he practically quipped: “I am happy that our embassy here has transformed from mere consulting clinic to a teaching hospital”.

Truly, Akindele radically transformed the hitherto negative perception by the Nigerian community of their country’s mission in the brief period that he spent as Nigeria’s envoy to Benin. One of his legacies is the Business Forum, which has brought together principal stakeholders of the Nigerian corporate community working in Benin Republic.

A keen athlete, Akindele was a table tennis champion in his younger days and represented Nigeria at several international competitions in this sport. Those that knew him would also remember him as a man of epicurean taste and as a lover of music; especially one from cordophones like the guitar. Akindele also read frequently because of his high regard for proper education and development of one’s intellect.

Decades after taking a degree in linguistics from University of Ibadan, Akindele could still read Greek and Latin; these, he told me during a conversation, while riding with him in a car taking him to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, where he had a Cotonou-bound flight to board last November; had helped him in his work a great deal. He was eloquent in French, and rarely had cause to use any dictionary because of his knowledge of linguistics. His training in linguistics and knowledge of Greek and Latin translated into a good grasp of the etymology of countless English language words.

His interest in education had also manifested in a reorganisation of the Nigerian International School Cotonou, where interviews for principal and deputies were thrown open. After what many described as a very rigorous process, a new principal and three vice-principals had been appointed. Furthermore, after years of struggling to have a passport section in Nigerian Embassy Cotonou, it was in Akindele’s time as ambassador that vital equipment for that purpose was finally installed.

Married with children, Akindele was a happy family man; and, he often spoke about his children with infectious affection. However, he could also pass for a workaholic. But, he would be vindicated by the phenomenal success his career turned out to be. From his dedication to work, it was as if he had some premonition that the end was near.   

I had left him in the office at 11pm on 30 December, 2011; while the embassy prepared to receive President Jonathan the following day. On my way out of his office, he had called out to remind me to be at Cotonou international airport before 8.30am on 31 December.

I had managed to make it to the airport in the nick of time and had jokingly expressed surprise that embassy protocol and others had made it there before me, even when I left them at work around 11pm the previous day. To my surprise, I was told that the ambassador actually closed from yesterday’s work at 4am the following morning.

It’s not every time an envoy gets to host his country’s Number One, so no stone was left unturned in preparations for the arrival of Dr. Jonathan. Every one at Nigeria House in Cotonou therefore had to work extra hard to ensure the visit went smoothly. At the end of the day; Ambassador Akindele and his team would be vindicated by the huge success President Jonathan’s trip turned out to be. It could be recalled that Akindele had similarly scored an A in October, 2010; when his mission organised a celebration of Nigeria’s 50th independence anniversary in Cotonou.

After that New Year’s Eve assignment, I was set to resume my journey to Ivory Coast, my original destination until being informed of the possibility of President Jonathan’s visit to Cotonou; and, had put in a call to Ambassador Akindele to tell him I was on my way. The man had invited me to meet him to bid me farewell; and, guess where that encounter took place? Inside his office at the Nigerian Embassy on New Year Day!

On arrival at the Ghanaian settlement of Elubo, I had been discouraged from entering Ivory Coast because of news of the spiralling crisis then and had begun my return trip to Nigeria. As I approached Nigeria, I had called at the ambassador’s residence on a Saturday only to be told he was at work. I had joined him in the office, where he introduced me to another topflight diplomat described as Coordinator.

The three of us were there till about 8pm; when one of Akindele’s children, a son and an SS2 student, was shown into his father’s office. The lad, apparently unable to bear daddy’s absence any longer; had come to enquire: “Dad, when are you coming home”? “Very soon, very soon”, Ambassador Akindele had replied somewhat apologetically. In a way, this compelled me to leave to enable our affable egbon rejoin his family.

On my way out, Ambassador Akindele had advised me to call him on his Nigerian number from around 28 January; when he would be visiting Abuja for consultations. As we had agreed, I had called him on 1 February. When I couldn’t reach him on his Nigerian number, I had tried the Beninese one all to no avail. After several attempts to reach him on all numbers failed the second day, I had called the General Secretary of Nigerian community, Pa Abdul-Lateef Olujobi, to enquire if he had seen Ambassador Akindele.

This chief scribe had said he just returned to Cotonou after a trip home; and, that he would get in touch with me after visiting the embassy, where a meeting had been scheduled the next day. Sadly, after calling some other Nigerians, I had learnt that His Excellency had been hospitalised; following what seemed to be stress-related ailments. Further probes later revealed his state was critical and that an air ambulance was on hand to fly him abroad for emergency medical treatment.

And, like a bolt out of the blue, news of the man’s passage hit me through a text message the next day. Our beloved guide had gone. I had subsequently rushed to Cotonou, where I met many in tears. In my grief, my heart went out to the late man’s family: If his son couldn’t stand missing him for hours, what now; when daddy was gone forever? Yet, in this funereal moment I was struck by a consoling philosophical muse: Our ultimate father is God Almighty. He gives and He takes; but, so is His kindness that He does not give any one a cross too heavy to carry. At that moment, US President, Mr. Barack Obama, crossed my mind. Truly, God Almighty is our ultimate parent.

This experience is heart-rending: our great friend is gone, but we find solace in the fact that he was a good man; one who left good examples for others to follow. Interestingly, I knew Ambassador Akindele for barely four months; and, like many others, I wish I had known him much earlier in life. Good men will die, but death cannot kill their names. Sun re o

Nicholas Kowalski and two of his paintings, a decade apart

Above: A 2008 painting by Kowalski. Below: A 1998 rendition.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Celebrating Ghana at 54

Nicholas Kowalski: Ghanaian artist and gallery operator

Twenty years ago, in 1989, Ghanaian painter and art historian Nicholas Kowalski made his first visit to Nigeria. Mr. Kowalski came to Nigeria because his works were among those that went on show in a group exhibition organized by Fenchurch Art Gallery. Three years after that exhibition, in 1992, Kowalski had returned to Nigeria for a two-day holiday.

In the same vein, he has made several stop-over in Lagos or Abuja in the course of international flights. All these notwithstanding, Kowalski admitted he really doesn’t know Nigeria. He said he would love to visit Nigeria more often but, “You know how it is,” he mused, alluding to his tight schedule, which includes being a family man, a painter, art historian and gallery operator.

We, Kowalski and I; first met in 1997, during my visit to Ghana to report on that country’s 40th anniversary. Over the years, I must have travelled to the Ghanaian capital some 40 times, and most of those times; I had looked in on Kowalski. Apart from stopping by to see this artist, I was also attracted to his home because Kowalski runs an art mart, Step-in Gallery, in the frontal area of the compound where he resides.

Viewing the different paintings on display over the years, one consciously and unconsciously gleans trends, styles, and perhaps, what the numismatists are collecting. Since Kowalski holds a masters degree in art history, one could also rely on him for further insights as to the goings-on. It is for the sake of the location of Kowalski’s art shop and home as well as that of Samlotte House, home to The Loom, Accra’s first art gallery that I usually stay in the Kwame Nkrumah Circle area of town, each time I visit Ghana.

Interestingly, in July 2009, Mr. Kowalski’s Step-in Gallery closed shop. After 13 years operating along Farrar Avenue in Adabraka area of Accra, painter and art historian Kowalski told “mauricearchibongtravels”: “We’re moving to East Legon”.

Accra’s East Legon neighbourhood could be likened to Victoria Island, Lagos in terms of rental and tenement; so, how was Kowalski planning to cope? That’s how we discovered that unlike the original home of Step-in, where Kowalski was a tenant, the artist was moving to East Legon, because “This is my own place: It’s a project I’ve been doing over the last eight years”.

By 1994, Kowalski had earned a Master of Art degree (Art History) from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Earlier, in 1991, he had bagged a Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) in Painting from the same institution.

Faced by what he considered unfair treatment at the hands of Accra’s major Galleries, those days; Kowalski launched his own art mart, Step-in Gallery, in September 1996. Step-in gallery, he told me in 1997, was set up just to sell his works.

“I didn’t set up this gallery to sell other people’s works; 70% of the works here are mine.”

However, when he recalled the pains he encountered at the hands of some art dealers until he set up his own art mart, Kowalski said he had to accommodate a few friends and collects 30% commission on each work sold.

That, in a nutshell, is how Step-in Gallery came into being. Now, the art mart has not only moved home, Kowalski revealed there were plans to also change its name. Although he would not say that art business is a lucrative enterprise in Ghana, the artist said he couldn’t be happier because he was doing what he loves to do.

Kowalski is however worried by the dearth and quality of coverage of fine art by his country’s media. Hear him: “It worries me that Ghanaian papers are not documenting anything. Without these documents, we’re not laying a foundation for the history of our art”.

The situation is not helped because exhibitions are rare, which means that even those that would love to do reviews often have nothing to write about.

“A lot of artists are no longer interested in exhibitions, anyway. They sell in their studio, which is what they are doing. I haven’t done a solo show in Ghana for a long time. My last one-man exhibition was in 1997 at Step-in Gallery. The show was titled My Return because I just returned from the US then.
“But in terms of group exhibitions, I have taken part in some. One was in 2008 at Herschel Gallery in the Cantonments area, and my works were also part of the exhibition commemorating Ghana at 50, which took place in 1997 at Ghana Museums.

“Exhibition does not enhance your cause, because it’s become a social event. It’s just to come there, meet friends, and have a drink. So, there’s no reason to go. Real artists and collectors prefer quietude without crowd and other distractions. Because shows are dwindling, there’s little to write about. So, there’s nothing in the papers. So, history is getting washed down the drain”.

People should be educated about art appreciation, added Kowalski; who instantly named John Owoo as one of Ghana’s leading fine arts reporters. However, this artist-cum-gallery operator rued that he has not read an Owoo article for some time.

He hoped Mr. Owoo had not given up on fine arts reporting even as he observed the beat is shunned by many because it is not lucrative. In such circumstance, couldn’t a body of Ghanaian artists establish a grant to encourage the reporting of fine arts?

Kowalski revealed that unlike in Nigeria, where there has been a Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) for more than 40 years, “There’s no artists’ body in Ghana”. He believes that for a Society of Ghanaian Artists, or something like that to succeed, “you need a strong base”.

That platform, he intoned, will require participation of the majority of stakeholders. Unfortunately, it would seem that convening such a forum was always going to be difficult because of the independent attitude of the majority of artists and gallery operators.

Aside inadequate media support, the predicament of the Ghanaian artist is worsened by difficulty in getting art materials.

Once upon a time, Accra could boast five marts; where art materials could be bought. These were Acrylix, Bobula, Naibo, Signature and Telfers Art Gallery. Sadly, Signature Art Gallery and Telfers folded up, leaving Bobula and Naibo, both in Osu behind Photo Club as well as Acrylix behind old US Embassy.
Kowalski again: “In the real sense of the word, there’s no art shop. Who wants to put his money in this business and wait 10 years for turnover? There are many little shops, not too professional, but you’ll find colours and brushes et cetera. The dynamics of the problem is overwhelming. People appreciate art, when they have roof over their head and food in their stomach. In view of the current economic meltdown, art is the first to suffer”.

As to where to place him, with regard to style; as an artist, or as an entrepreneur, Kowalski’s response was that, this would be a difficult thing to do. This leaves us with no option but to re-echo his response, when we put this question to him in 1997:

“I hate to categorize myself; that I am this or I am that because everyday of my life I am becoming”.