|President Obasanjo's White House Press Conference with President Bill Clinton, Oct. 28, 1999|
|White House Press Conference, report by V. 'Yinka Vidal, OUTCRY Magazine, Florissant, MO.|
|President Obasanjo and President Clinton at the Joint News Conference in
the White House
Thursday October 28, 1999 was to be a historical day for me to cover the White House events and for Nigeria as a nation under democracy as President Clinton was about to receive President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria. It was the primary reason I came to Washington and I was filled with great excitement and anticipation on this historical morning. Although President Obasanjo was to arrive at the White House at 11:35 a.m. I wanted to be sure I was in place ahead of time before his arrival.
At 9:30 a.m. I arrived in front of one of the White House doors trying to get inside because we were supposed to be in place by 9 a.m. according to Mr. Ayendi the press attaché to the Nigerian embassy. I could not get inside because I was at the wrong entrance. My security to enter the White House was not cleared yet based on the White House computer information from the gate. I was directed to the press entrance at the northwest entrance of the White House. I hurried to the press entrance and found I was still not cleared. It was then one of the officers guarding the White House gate suggested I use the telephone in front of the White House to talk to the White House press office. General Jim Fallin of the White House was very nice in explaining to me that I would be allowed inside White House one hour before the news conference was to start. So, I waited for my security clearance to show up on the front gate computer. At around 10:30 a.m. my security clearance appeared on the computer. A wave of excitement hit me as I made my way passed the security gate into the White House. After security check and putting cameras through those detectors, I headed to the press briefing room of the White House.
Arrival at the Press Briefing Room
The press briefing room was a short distance from the main gate. I received the schedule for the day's event and anticipated the arrival of the Nigerian press pool. At the briefing room I saw other press agents and media technicians from different organizations as if permanently camped inside the White House. From time to time we received over-head radio update from the White House press office. Later, we were informed that the President of Nigeria was on his way to the White House from the Blair House where he was staying. We were to be in position in front of the White House if we wanted to cover his arrival. I jumped up grabbed my cameras and headed for the door joined by other journalists. In front of the White House were other agents from different news organizations already setting up their cameras and in place to cover President Obasanjo's arrival.
Arrival of the Nigerian Press Pool
At a brief moment when people forgot that the guards were there, suddenly, the head guard would shout out a command again -- grabbing everybody's attention again.
President Obasanjo Arrives at the White House
A few minutes later, from where we were standing, we saw the White House large gate open and the motorcade of President Obasanjo was in view. The head guard shouted, "Guards attention!" Every body took position and as soon as the motorcade came closer the cameras went off like a barrage of shots. President Obasanjo came out of the car and in a few seconds disappeared into the office to meet with President Clinton with the rest of the Nigerian delegations. Both Presidents were scheduled to have an afternoon closed door session in the Oval Office before the open press conference at 3:20 p.m.
While we were waiting outside the West Wing door, I saw a familiar figure quickly walking into President Clinton's office followed by an assistant --- he was Rev. Jesse Jackson. I was told he visits the White House from time to time as an adviser to President Clinton on various issues.
Side Attractions: Update on Sen. Jesse Helms throwing Congresswomen from Committee Hearing
Media briefing and the petition of the Congressional women thrown out of the hearing by Sen. Jesse Helms was distributed to the press. According to the story Senator Helms who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations asked the Capitol police to throw out he Congresswomen led by Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey from the hearing. Senator Helms claimed they were not acting like ladies or like Congresswomen since they were shouting and carrying placards like protesters.
The Congresswomen wanted to deliver a petition of protest to the senator because he was not conducting a hearing for the U.S. ratification of an international treaty of the United Nations to end discrimination against women. The treaty was drafted first at the first women conference in Mexico in 1975, approved by the United Nations in 1979, already ratified by 160 countries and President Clinton presented the treaty to the Congress for ratification in 1994. The women's group believe Senator Helms was intentionally delaying the hearing since he was opposed to the treaty because some people claimed that the treaty goes far beyond equal rights for women. Some claimed the treaty supported abortion, same sex marriage and family planning. The women group denied the treaty was designed for such purposes. According to the women's group, the treaty was supposed to define clear guidelines of equal rights for women within the government, social and economic structures of a country.
Briefing at the Press Office by Joe Lockhart
Some of the other journalists took time to relax, others went to obtain their lunches from the back room while some went outside the White House to get something to eat. Some of the Nigerian journalists took time to have a friendly chat with Mary Masserini -- she was such a nice lady. At 1:15 p.m. while people were taking it easy, Joe Lockhart came inside the briefing room and updated everybody about the Republicans' budget game. He implied that they have been spending the surplus from the budget due to the program they put together. For this reason, they were asking for across the board cuts. But many Americans are unaware of these tactics and they want Democrats to take the blame from the public for spending the surplus -- and the political game continues.
Joint Press Conference of President Clinton and President Olusegun Obasanjo of the Republic of Nigeria
Nigerian officials who accompanied President Obasanjo took seats in the first two rows on the left side of the room followed by the seats reserved for the Nigerian press. Madam Albright came in and sat in the front row on the right side. The next row were occupied by the American press. So, Nigerians were on the left side of the room and Americans were on the right side of the room. When President Obasanjo came in with President Clinton, he took the podium to the left of the room and President Clinton took the podium to the right of the room on the American side for obvious reason which later became clearer to me.
President Clinton started by welcoming President Obasanjo and members of the Nigerian government to the White House. He indicated that President Obasanjo who had served Nigeria before as a president insisted on a peaceful transfer of power to a president elected by the people. Since the birth of Nigeria in 1960 he mentioned that Nigeria's progress was retarded by military leaders who squandered the country's revenue without regard for the Nigerian people. President Clinton quoted Wole Soyinka who said that Nigeria had become a "garden of decay" in his poem, "Flower For My Land." The election of President Obasanjo by the people in a democratic process renewed a new hope for Nigeria.
President Clinton pledged America's support for Nigeria's democracy since it is in the interest of the United States that Nigeria's democracy succeeds. He promised to help Nigeria in the expansion of law enforcement, cooperation to stimulate trade and investment between the two countries and to help Nigeria recover some of the assets of the previous regime.
President Clinton outlined three important issues to help Nigeria. He drafted the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act to remove trade barriers which he said are barriers to opportunities for Africans. He was hoping that the Senate would approve the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. The second issue is debt relief. President Clinton was going to support debt rescheduling through the Paris Club and encourage other countries to do the same. The third issue brought up by President Clinton was to continue support to end regional conflicts in Africa. He praised Nigeria's effort in the peace keeping operation in Africa which cost Nigeria billions of dollars. President Clinton also appealed to America to do its share in the United Nations. He wants America to support peace in African regions so the United States will not have to face difficult choices in the future if things were allowed to go bad due to lack of support for Nigeria's democracy and Africa as a whole. He believes that successful democracy in Nigeria is in the interest of the United States. President Clinton praised President Obasanjo as a fearless leader dedicated to peaceful democracy in Nigeria without fear.
When President Clinton finished, he gave the floor to President Obasanjo. First, President Obasanjo, on behalf his government and the people of Nigeria thanked President Clinton for his kind support for the democratization of Nigeria. He thanked President Clinton for his support for peace initiative supported by Nigeria including President Clinton's support for Nigeria's role in world peace. President Obasanjo said Nigeria will continue its peace keeping operation in the sub-regions of Africa. He thanked President Clinton for his reception and hospitality and looked forward to the opportunity to reciprocate when he would visit Nigeria.
Question and Answer Time
As the floor was opened for questions. President Clinton instructed that questions would be asked alternately one from the American Press side and one from the Nigerian Press side, and back and forth. President Clinton called Terry from the American press side who asked the question about Vice President Al Gore. "President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore last night felt compelled to say in New Hampshire, even though no one had asked about you, to say, 'I understand the disappointment and anger that you feel towards President Clinton, and I felt it myself." Did the Vice President express that anger and disappointment to you at any time, and do you think you have been a drag on the Vice President's campaign and a reminder of the Lewinsky impeachment issue?"
As inappropriate for the occasion as the question by Terry for President Clinton was, the president calmly answered the question. Many Nigerian journalists were disappointed and shocked by the first question asked by the American press. Evidently the U.S. media do not understand the tradition of other countries. In Nigeria, people do not wash dirty clothes before the public and definitely not before an invited guest during a celebration! There is a time and place for everything. The press conference was a celebration not a lynching mob! Nonetheless, President Clinton said that Americans should not hold Al Gore responsible for any of what he as a President did wrong. He emphasized that people should hold Vice President Al Gore responsible for things which Al Gore did. President Clinton urged the nation to look at the achievements of his office and the role Al Gore played in such projects and thereby judge him by his work and achievements.
The next question came from the Nigerian press side asking how President Clinton would help Nigeria recover some of the money looted by the military leaders since Nigeria spent about 8 billion dollars on peace keeping operations in Africa. The same person also asked President Obasanjo what he would do to liberate African slaves from Sudan. President Clinton said he would be working with Nigeria's government including with Attorney General Reno to recover some of the looted money from Nigeria. President Obasanjo added that Swiss Bank has already frozen some accounts in Switzerland. Regarding the issue of Sudan, President Obasanjo said that Nigeria's position is to support IGAD in the horn of Africa to help resolve the problem in Sudan.
A question from the American side asked what President Clinton is expecting in Oslo meeting with Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak of Israel. President Clinton said he will continue to work as a facilitator for the peace talk between the two leaders and hopes to achieve some results, but he did not want to raise high hopes.
From the Nigeria's press side, a question was asked President Obasanjo about the specific commitment made by President Clinton to help Nigeria during the closed door afternoon meeting. President Obasanjo was a little hesitant to expatiate on the discussion since he believed President Clinton already covered those issues when he first opened the press conference. He summarized that President Clinton promised to recover looted revenue from Nigeria, help fight crime and narcotic trafficking, support efforts to lift the burden of debt and also to support peace initiatives in the regions. President Obasanjo added that for those commitment from President Clinton he should be thanked. President Clinton added that he had increased America's bilateral aid to Nigeria four folds more than before. He was expecting Congress to pass the bill which includes this fund because both Democrats and Republicans know that Nigeria is very important to the vital interest of America.
A question was asked from the American side about what President Clinton thinks about Russia's increased offensive in Chechnya. President Clinton did not believe a military solution will solve the problem as much as a diplomatic negotiation to help arrive at a political solution.
The next question was asked from the Nigerian side directed to President Obasanjo about what he would do to encourage investors to come to Nigeria. President Obasanjo said that Nigeria must first create a conducive environment for investors to come to Nigeria by first eliminating crime as a way of life. He warned that no investor would want to come to a corrupt society to start a business. One of his determination is to fight crime and make Nigeria attractive to investors. President Clinton said Nigerians should be applauding the initiative of President Obasanjo because it is not easy from his experience in the United States for seven years to achieve those objectives.
A question came from the American side to President Clinton about the advertisement of the National Rifle Association saying that if the laws already in the book are enforced, no new gun law is needed. President Clinton said the National Rifle Association is wrong as usual because over 400,000 people have been denied access to buy guns due to the Brady Bill working the way it is supposed to work. President Clinton added that if the National Rifle Association was correct, that "guns do not kill people -- that people kill people," then there would not be so many accidental deaths of children in the United States due to guns without aggression behind them. His point was, guns do kill people since accidental gun shot kills people even without intended aggression behind it.
The next question came from the Nigerian Press side to either of the Presidents, the questioner wanted to know what type of debt relief Nigeria should be expecting, whether consolidation, partial or total debt clearance or rescheduling. President Obasanjo explained he preferred for Nigeria's debt to be wiped out. He indicated that since 1985 when Nigeria had a $6 billion debt, not much had been added to it and from rescheduling the interest has grown larger causing Nigeria's debt to be $28 to$30 Billion today. President Obasanjo said it is very hard for Nigeria to nurture its people under democracy and still carry a large burden of a giant debt. President Clinton jumped in saying that he is very aggressive about debt relief than most nations. Unfortunately he explained, Nigeria is not eligible for total debt cancellation because of the oil wealth and revenue. He nicely urged Nigeria to take what it can get for now as the process of development continues allowing more investors to Nigeria.
A question was directed to President Clinton from the American side about whether he believed there would be a government shutdown due to budget battles with Congress. He answered and said he did not believe there would be a government shutdown, he would be surprised if there was one.
The final question came from Nigeria's side about what President Obasanjo thinks about the future of Nigeria when 63 percent of Nigerians are under the age of 24. President Obasanjo said that the figures meant that 37 percent of Nigerians are working to keep 100 percent of Nigerians a live. But, the future is bright he added as they continue to train the young ones through solid education, with a well governed Nigeria and buoyant economy, there is a good future.
At this point the historical press conference ended, President Clinton thanked everybody and President Obasanjo did the same. The hall echoed with a giant applause.
|V. 'Yinka Vidal, reporting from the West Wing Lawn of the White House, Washington, D.C.|
|Reception at the Capitol Hilton Hotel, Washington, D.C.|