That was when he came on the line at the Lagos end. His voice was unmistakable, as if his words were trademarked as they wiggled their way through the gap between his two front teeth. Without many pleasantries, he informed me that Bola Tinubu's media team had selected me to interview the presidential candidate.
When I said my phone rang, I meant that the voice of Burna Boy filled the room. He crooned:
"E don cast,
Na everybody go chop breakfast..."
I jumped off the bed, almost knocking down a half-glass of unfinished cognac on my side lamp stand. Despite my mild disorientation, I clapped my hands to turn on my bedroom lamps. I needed the light to see my glasses, without which I couldn't see who was calling. It has been almost a year, but I am still dealing with the consequences of answering a Nigerian call half-asleep.
That was when he came on the line at the Lagos end. His voice was unmistakable, as if his words were trademarked as they wiggled their way through the gap between his two front teeth. Without many pleasantries, he informed me that Bola Tinubu's media team had selected me to interview the presidential candidate. He dropped a few flattering words and garnished them with a self-serving declaration that my interview would bestow instant credibility because I was a critic of their candidate. His remarks rolled out with calculated audacity. The only caveat was that I had only 12 hours to prepare for the interview.
I did not have the luxury to think through all that he said. I said yes before I had the time to reflect.
"Set up the zoom link or whatever platform you use," he said over the phone, "send it to us and let us broadcast it to the world. Once and for all, we want to shut up Nigerians who suggest that Asiwaju cannot withstand an hour of a probing interview from an independent journalist that he did not pay to throw friendly questions at him."
I was still scratching my head at the implications of all these when he said, "do you have any questions for me?"
He did not wait for me to answer.
"Just in case you are wondering," he continued, "this is no holds barred interview. You are free to ask any question that you want. Bring up the hardest questions in your arsenal. Asiwaju is ready."
After he dropped, I wondered how a man who was not ready to attend Kadaria Ahmed's presidential interview series, The Candidates, or any of AriseTV's Town Halls, had suddenly become free and prepared to be interviewed. The first possibility that came to my mind was that a big story about Bola Tinubu was about to break, and they wanted something that would distract Nigerians. A live interview streamed on all social media platforms will provide enough memes and jokes to last a week and drown out any big scandal.
Unfortunately, I did not have the time to explore these thoughts fully. I got up, brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee, and started to set up for the streaming of my interview with Bola Tinubu.
I could see the clock ticking, even as I scanned through pictures for an appropriate image of Tinubu to use as a thumbnail. What would the reaction be when the Tinubu campaign shares the announcement? As tradition demanded, Nigerians would scream that the Tinubu campaign had compromised me. I pictured comments like, "How much have they paid you to sell your soul?" "Another proof that everyone has a price." "I told you guys, you cannot trust these journalists."
To lessen the blow, I decided to announce the interview first. But I needed to clear it with Tinubu's team. I called, and nobody answered. Time kept ticking.
I sent a text and changed my mood. I had to come up with questions next. Though I was interviewing Bola Tinubu, I knew that viewers would also judge me. Like I do when I have a challenging assignment, I turned off my phone, moved over to a writing laptop with no Internet connection, and started to craft questions for Bola Tinubu.
1. The world Cup is going on in Qatar. Nigeria's national team, the Super Eagles, is not there. A primary reason the Nigerian team did not make it was the penchant of the Nigerian Football Association to ignore excellence, competence, and dedication for nepotism, quota system, federal character, and "it's my turn" ism. In some cases, players have bribed officials to be selected. There are several reports of top government leaders forcing coaches to name particular players to the national team when more deserving players, in better form, are available and ready to represent Nigeria. That lack of a merit-based selection process shows whenever Nigeria goes out there to compete for a spot at the World Cup. In "The Trouble with Nigeria," Chinua Achebe put it this way: he wrote that Nigeria fields not our first eleven or even second eleven but something like our eleventh eleven. Looking at all the primary candidates who contested to be the flag-bearer of the All Progressives Congress party in this election, are you the brightest crayon in the pack, the player in the best form, or are you the one who has the means and the regalia of the Nigerian factors to be selected?
2. You went to Chatham House, an independent foreign Think Tank, to talk to the British people. Still, you have yet to speak to the Nigerian people through independent Nigerian media. You avoided Kadaria Ahmed's The Candidates interview series. So far, you have cooked up reasons not to be part of any of AriseTV's Town Hall meetings of presidential candidates backed by over two-dozen media and civil society organizations. Some people think you value Europeans more than the citizens of Nigeria that you want to govern. Do you suffer from an inferiority complex, or are you battling a debilitating colonial messianic complex?
3. You have said that you chose your running mate based on competence. It means that you value competence above representation. The pushback over your decision to go for a Muslim-Muslim ticket in Nigeria, where religious tension is at its highest point in history, is unprecedented. In your appearance before the Christian Association of Nigeria, you tried to assure them that your government would be fair to everyone in Nigeria. If you fall short in this lifetime quest to be president and the exit poll shows that the Muslim-Muslim ticket is the determining factor, who will you blame?
4. After seven years of President Muhammadu Buhari, Nigerians have now agreed on one thing: we must know who will be our next president before we vote for them. So, who is Bola Tinubu? Have you claimed to be who you are not at any time in your life? Have you, for instance, adopted someone who is not your mother as your mother? Have you answered a different name other than Bola Ahmed Tinubu? Have you used a different date of birth at any time? Based on your bio-data, name, and general biography, there are several Bola Tinubus in the public space. Which Bola Tinubu is the right Bola Tinubu?
5. South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is in trouble for money missing from his own farm. He is a rich man like you who became president. But unlike you, the sources of his wealth are clear to South Africans. Records of Alpha Beta transactions that the press made public recently tied the company collecting taxes for Lagos State to other companies associated with you. Before you settled out-of-court your differences with him, the company's former managing director, Dapo Apara, also connected you to the company. When are you going to come clean about your association with Alpha Beta? When you, as the governor of Lagos, asked the current Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to head the panel that awarded that lucrative contract to Alpha Beta, did you not see the conflict of interest? Will you sign a privacy release form to allow Osinbajo to tell Nigerians all he knows about Alpha Beta?
6. We wish you long life and excellent health. But we know that anybody can die anytime, the old and the young, the healthy and the sick. If you win this election on February 25th, 2023, and die before you complete your term, your running mate, Kashim Shettima, will take over. For some Nigerians who have followed the political career of your running mate, Shettima's presidency is the worst nightmare imaginable. Do the fears of these Nigerians concern you, or did you dismiss it the same way you rejected the concerns of those worried about a Muslim-Muslim ticket in a religiously polarized Nigeria?
7. Tomorrow, The Sun newspaper in the UK can publish the details of your medical history on its front pages. It is a matter of when the paper will receive the leaked information from your doctors' offices abroad. Maybe by now, some foreign secret agencies have them. Are you not concerned about that possibility? If you are, why did you spend eight years as governor of Lagos State without building a hospital that you will safely go to for medical treatment? If you are not, God help us.
8. In 1993, the Justice Department settled a drug case you were associated with in Chicago, USA. Were you embarrassed about your involvement in that affair? Do you understand why Nigerians are demanding an explanation from you? Do you sympathize with Nigerians who look at you and wonder if you are a crook?
9. Please complete this statement: Being president of Nigeria is all about …? We assume you have it. Does Buhari have it? Which other past president had it? If they had it, why has Nigerian been progressively worse?
10. What would you say if a Nigerian stood before you now and said the following? "In 2022, we, Nigerians, think that being president of Nigeria is all about character. And based on all the convoluted and obfuscated answers you gave to the questions that Nigerians have asked you today, there is no doubt that you do not have the character to be Nigeria's president at this time. We'll let history decide if you ever had the character to be president at any time."
(To be continued)
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo teaches Post-Colonial African History at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is also the host of Dr. Damages Show. His books include "This American Life Sef" and "Children of a Retired God," among others.