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By Babajide Alabi
Some years ago, I ran into a “big” Nigerian on the streets of Edinburgh, United Kingdom. To be honest, it wasnt a “running into”, it was a case of a conscious encounter.
This big guy, at a point in time, was a power broker in the political and military set up of Nigeria. I was just over a year living in the United Kingdom at the time of this chance meeting, so I was as eagle eyed as any new comer to a city could be. At every visit to the city centre, I was always “eye opened” and looking out for any body I could have known back home. This is not for any thing than ego tripping, so I could be “reported” to have been seen live in the UK.
If we are to be honest with ourselves, every Nigerian in diaspora has been in this situation before. You want somebody or something to validate the fact that you have now relocated to the United Kingdom or the United States or whichever country you are.
In the days before the availability of smart phones or social media that now allow us to instantly announce/broadcast our locations to our friends and enemies, we relied on photographs. So we find ourselves in the situation whereby though we live abroad, there must be validation or proof of our presence outside Nigeria.
So in my quest for a validation or proof to my friends that I actually had relocated to the United Kingdom, as I was “scanning” the streets on this particular Saturday mid-morning, I spotted this “big” Nigerian on the other side of Princess Street, Edinburgh. I was just coming off the Waverley Stairs to Princess Street to join a bus going to Clovenstone. I recognised him immediately, from pictures of his in the Nigerian media.
I looked his way again, just to satisfy myself that he ‘wasn’t’ really the person I thought he was. At this time, I had a good and long look at him. Instinctingly I managed a muffled “its him”, “I am sure.” And the Nigerian in me woke up.
Wait a minute, I said to myself. But why is he looking so ordinary? Why is he not with the usual retinue of assistants? What is he doing in front of the “One Pound Store”? What has happened to Chief (Dr) X? I just could not place him right now with the “big man” I was used to seeing on TV back home in Nigeria.
In Nigeria a few years before this sighting, this “big guy” was a power broker who commanded all the trappings of power. We were just coming off the military era and he played a big role in various military administrations in Nigeria. Citizens were always queuing at his door to see him and he was always moving about in convoys and blaring sirens.
You can now imagine my bewilderment when I saw him on the pavement of Edinburgh. I crossed to the other side of the road and caught up with him just in front of The Phone Shop, where he was about to start another session of window shopping. He saw the intent in my face and was quite receptive towards me as I said “Hello sir”. He responded with enthusiasm and I could sense a bit of eagerness to talk, and not particularly to me, but to just anybody.
I asked him with feigned surprise and caution, if he was the person I thought he was. Enthusiastically, he replied, “Yes”, and I could see the pride in him. I could situate myself in him as well, as how I would have felt if I had seen anybody I knew back from Nigeria walk up to me and asked if I was the same Babajide Alabi. He was happy somebody could recognise him in a foreign land. Jokingly, he said that probably because he has a T-shirt on instead of the usual military apparels he was identified with on Nigerian TV, that was why I couldn’t easily recognise him.
We exchanged pleasantries like strangers we were. I warmed up to him, thinking he could still be able to facilitate a few things in government. At this time I had “accepted” his “commonness”. So I asked him: “Can I buy you a cup of coffee sir?” I could sense a slight shock on his part, probably thinking he should be the one offering to buy. I was comfortable in asking as I knew there was a McDonald round the corner by the Job Centre and I knew the cost of a cup of coffee there. By quick calculation I knew I would not be spending more than £2 for two cups of coffee or latte. Thinking back though, I wasn’t sure if McDonald was what he had in mind when he said yes.
We collected our coffee from the assistant and took a vantage position in the restaurant. Before we could settle down in our seats, he fired his first question. “Do you work?” Of course I had a job.. He asked practically everything step by step on my journey to Scotland. The questions were all in rapid successions.
At a pause in his questioning session, I “hijacked” the discussion and quickly asked what his business was in Edinburgh. According to him, he was in the city for his annual medical check up. He told me how he had attended a further course at the University of Edinburgh many years ago and was compelled to register at a public clinic, a registration he had not given up ever since he left the university.
He told me his family was in Nigeria, comfortable. So on every trip he lodged for a few days/nights at a house apartment in a street behind Princess Street. He revealed he had been coming annually to make use of the service ever since he finished his course many years back. According to him although he has no history of life threatening disease or ailment, he enjoys how he “maintains” his health free of charge on the bill of the UK citizens.
I sat there depressed and disappointed in our “big man”. And suddenly I really felt uncomfortable in his presence. I thought about the many Nigerians that had no access to good health facilities in the country that was at a time governed by the likes of the big man sitting in front of me. My mind wandered to many who had died just because General Hospitals in Nigeria could not treat them and had to be referred to private hospitals, bills of which they could not afford.
I looked at him from the corner of my eyes and I saw a disgusting little man, who though he could afford private clinic bills in Nigeria felt very comfortable coming over to UK to eat from the “awoof”. What a small-minded man. Here was a man who was part of government for so long and who could have made impact on the health systems in Nigeria, but, together with his clowns in government, did nothing.
Within 45 minutes I had been on emotional roller coaster with my new friend. I admired him from afar, moved close to him, analysed him, angry with him and now I found myself sympathising with him. I could see in him a typical Nigerian leader: Selfish, care less for others and yet vulnerable. While he saw nothing wrong in coming over to the UK to maintain his health on other peoples bills, he felt no remorse in having to come all the way to do this.
Just like many other Nigerian politicians you run into on London streets, his thoughts about the Nigerian health systems are unprintable. Yet he had the opportunity to make a difference but chosen not to. Do you still wonder why Nigerian leaders care less when doctors in public hospitals go on strike? Wonder no more. They either have the money to foot the health bills over here or like my new friend, the cost is the air ticket out of Nigeria.
Abruptly, I took leave of Chief (Dr) X. He was a waste of time. And I caught the next bus home disturbed that I had wasted my precious time on a loser like him.
Published in the Vanguard on September 28th, 2014