A Minister Who Does Not Collect Change


Ibrahim Chonoko



As kids we used to argue about two imaginary rich men who spend money extra-ordinarily. The first one does not collect change whenever he buys anything, while the other does not bargain or haggle for price discount but always pays the asking price of anything. The argument was: who of the two spends or loses more money and therefore richer than the other? Well, it all depends on what is bought and the unit of money used to pay for it. That was the closest 'unanimous' agreement we ever reached on the issue.


As adults we hardly give any serious thoughts to such kinds of stuff, which may be seen as naive and child-like or simply childish. As a journalist I never bothered about the imaginary rich men until I had a very brief encounter with a minister who really does not collect his change.


One of the good things I like about journalism is that it affords one the opportunity to meet and interact with all sorts of people: the rich and the poor, the highly placed and the lowly, the plaintiff and the defendant, the morally upright and the corrupt, the egghead and the illiterate, the truthful and the liar, the beautiful and the ugly, the democrat and the dictator, uniformed personnel and the 'bloody' civilian, the clergy and the laity, etc. It provides opportunities for travel locally, nationally or around the world in the course of assignments. In the course of such interactions and travels you come across personalities, events or places that may make long lasting impressions on you, or even change your life forever.


Sometimes minor incidents that may be dismissed with a wave of the hand do happen to us or occur around us unsolicited, and quite often we find it difficult to explain or understand them. These could be the action(s) or behaviour of people we interact with which we may consider as strange or abnormal, or simply intriguing occurrences that seem to come out of the blues.


During my spell as correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in London, I encountered quite a couple of such incidents, some of which were unravelled by time and later events while a few remained shrouded in ambiguity and intrigues.
One of such incidents was the encounter I had with the rich? minister who does not collect change. The minister, who served in President Olusegun Obasanjo's first term in office is a former ambassador, a philanthropist, a traditional title holder and a successful business man.


It happened at The Dorchester, a prestigious five-star hotel on Park Lane, West London during a visit of former vice-president Atiku Abubakar to the United Kingdom. The vice-president and some members of his entourage were staying at the hotel while the minister, who also served in the regime of military president Ibrahim Babangida apparently stayed outside the hotel.


As part of the former VP's engagements during the visit, he was scheduled to meet with Mr John Prescott, former British deputy prime minister at the hotel on the fateful evening. The minister's presence at the meeting was obviously vital going by his portfolio and that of Mr Prescott. But he arrived at the hotel a bit behind schedule.
Though I arrived at the hotel a few moments before the minister, I was also a bit late due to delays in the London underground trains by which means I travelled up to Marble Arch station on the Central Line. The distance from Marble Arch station to The Dorchester is just a few minutes walk, but because I was running late, I had to pick a cab to beat the time.


As I was hurrying to get into the hotel after settling the cab fare, a voice called out, "Please come", and when I turned, it was the minister. He was standing beside a cab - one of the (in)famous London black cabs - dangling a fifty pound note in his right hand. I halted my steps momentarily, unsure if the minister was calling my attention. As a news agency reporter I always strived to get first-hand information. Arriving early at assignments or events is the best guarantee to obtaining first-hand information. Arriving late may mean missing the real gist of the occasion or ending up with second-hand information from colleagues, which may be sketchy, disjointed or even biased. Every news organisation has its editorial policy, which usually dictates the angle from which news items are viewed or presented.


Determined not to miss the opening ceremony of the meeting, I turned to continue my quick strides into the hotel. The minister, looking a bit agitated called out again, but this time in Hausa, thrusting the fifty pound note to me and indicating the black cab driver with his head almost simultaneously. "Pay him", he said, as he handed the money to me, explaining as he walked away that the cab fare was about eighteen pounds. I gave the money to the driver, collected the change and quickly made way into the hotel. The meeting was just commencing and as expected, the minister was sitting very close to the vice-president. After the opening session, media representatives were asked to leave as the meeting continued behind 'closed-door'. When I left to file my report to Abuja and get ready for the VP's next official engagement, I never knew it would take months before I came face to face with the minister.


Covering the VP's visit to the UK was always a bit of a nightmare for me and, I think, for most of the UK-based Nigerian journalists because you hardly know what comes up next, where and when. Because of lack of reliable information and quite often the absence of a programme guide, sometimes one had to rely on the Nigeria High Commission drivers who usually had to phone their colleagues to know the next venue for the next engagement. As for the time, it is best imagined than described because the VP's entourage hardly kept to schedule. The case of a British 'junior' minister who shunned the VP at his ministry in London is one of the most embarrassing treatment meted to a Nigerian official in the UK which I witnessed.


I remember the VP arriving at the ministry with many cars on his convoy for a scheduled meeting with the minister about 30 minutes late. The VP and his entourage were left standing in the morning drizzle for some minutes before the minister sent a message through his 'messenger' that he would not be meeting the VP as he was now engaged. From the looks on their faces, the VP and his aides were apparently stunned by the minister's message. It took them sometime to realise that they were not in Nigeria as they embarrassingly got into the cars that brought them and sped out.


When I sighted the Nigerian minister during a reception by the Nigeria High Commission many months later, I felt happy and relieved that I could now give him his cab fare change which had been a burden on me since our encounter. During the interlude, I thought about what to do with the change and came to the conclusion that the best thing was to keep it until I met him. And here he was. I walked up to him and greeted him and he responded very warmly. I also greeted a top official of the High Commission who was with him and he responded in a similar manner. But when I started talking about his change, the minister's expression changed from friendly to apparent disappointment. "No! No!", he said assertively, as he cut in midway into my second attempt to remind him of the change.


Astonished and dumbfounded, I turned to the high commission official for a listening and understanding ear. His response to my attempts to explain the situation to him was similar to that of the minister. "Ibrahim, ba ayin haka nan!", (Ibrahim, you don't do that!) he stressed in Hausa as I moved closer to him, trying to explain the issue better. "Ba a yin haka nan", he repeated with some air of finality. I felt glued to where I stood, my mouth agape and my left hand in my pocket fishing out the 32 pounds change. I felt like being in a hostile environment. The minister and the diplomat were clearly not in the mood to entertain any explanations from me. The mere mention of 'change' had consistently elicited strong reactions that bordered on reprimand and hostility from them. They were hostile to me for trying to give the minister his change, his money!


Feeling a bit downcast and dejected, I moved a few steps back from them, surveyed the reception hall and everyone was seemingly enjoying the occasion. "No! No!". "You don't do that!" the exhortations of the minister and the diplomat kept ringing in my ears. But what do they really mean? During our encounter at The Dorchester, the minister had only said, "Pay him", as he gave me the money to settle his cab fare. He didn't say,"Pay him and keep the change" He didn't say what I should do with the change.


Did the minister expect me as a 'poor' journalist, or as a 'bloody' Nigerian to keep his change? If so, what is the implication of such expectations? What effect is such thinking having on our psyche as a people vis a viz the pandemic corruption bedevilling our country? Or was I demeaning the minister by trying to return his change? Is it wrong to return what does not belong to you to the rightful owner? Was I naive or living in a fool's paradise? Was the minister really so rich like the imaginary rich men that he doesn't collect change?  ibrobab@aol.com