Friday, August 10, 2012

Abuja-Accra-Cotonou Aug 9-10

Well, pretty much as I feared – been to three new countries in the last 24 hours and I haven’t seen anything!

We flew from Cape Town to Abuja, Nigeria, where Clinton was to have talks with the president (the fantastically named Goodluck Jonathan) about the security situation and Boko Haram. It was a six hour flight, and we arrived at sunset. It was hard to make anything out of Abuja at night, but you got the feeling there wasn’t much to see even during the day. Its another of these new, fake capital cities filled with office blocks and bureaucrat housing. The funny thing was it looked beautiful from the air: very green (it is the rainy season) and the landscape dotted with bulbuous round rock hills – some geological phenomenon.

We went to the president’s office, waited outside while she had her meeting, and then dropped by the embassy for the traditional “meet and greet”. The best part of the trip was the trip back out to the airport. A “Nigerian motorcade” is something out of the ordinary: they don’t block traffic from the roads, but simply (somehow) use police outriders to thread their way through. It caused huge traffic jams and lots of people were trying to jimmy their way into the motorcade along the way to get where they were going that much faster. Strange system, but we made it.

Then it was an hour flight to Accra, Ghana where we were to spend the night before the funeral of the late president. Because all kinds of grandees were in town for that event, we were put up in the airport Holiday Inn. Compared to some of the fancy places we have been staying this was upretentious, but it was also absolutely fine and we were exhausted.

The next morning Clinton went to the funeral without press, and we waited at the hotel and worked on our stories about her Saturday meetings in Istanbul. The dead president, John Atta Mills, had died unexpectedly about two weeks ago and the city was in full on mourning, with almost everybody wearing red and black. It was an impressive feat of color coordination, but the colors themselves looked sort of ominous when everybody was wearing them.

Clinton came back – after a long wait, because they all had to leave the funeral in protocol order. And we went back to the airport where there was another long wait on the tarmac while all the presidents’ planes left in protocol order. But finally we got out, about two and a half hours late, and flew an hour to Benin.

I wish we had a chance to look around. This place is famous as the home of the voodoo religion, and the capital’s name Cotonou means (at least according to Wikipedia) “Mouth of the River of Death”. But we are seeing very little. From the airport we went straight to the ambassador’s house where Clinton met the embassy folks, and now we are sitting at the presidential palace (a ferociously ugly structure) while she meets him inside. The only good bit is the presidential guard – like Togo, they are outfitted Broadway-style in green, yellow and red, with capes, caps, epaulets and swords. When we went in they were all ramrod straight on either side of the red carpet. But when we came out ahead of Clinton, they were all relaxed and chatting: some leaning on their swords, others with their caps on crooked, some with their capes thrown dramatically over their shoulders. They looked fantastic.

Hope she comes out soon because we have a six and a half hour flight to Istanbul ahead of us, and probably won’t get in much before sunrise at this rate.