Clearing the house for Kerry

LAST Monday, I had to do a little research to know who the United States Secretary of State is. Of course, I know he is John Kerry at this moment, but a development that day, cast some doubt in my mind concerning his status as I wondered whether he was much more than the Foreign Affairs minister as that position is known in most countries.

Before I go any further, I found in my little search that under the U.S. Constitution, the Secretary of State is the President’s chief foreign affairs adviser. The Secretary carries out the President’s foreign policies through the State Department and the Foreign Service of the United States. The Secretary among other related functions, conducts negotiations relating to U.S. foreign affairs; grants and issues passports to American citizens and exequaturs to foreign consuls in the U.S; and advises the President on the appointment of U.S. ambassadors, ministers, consuls, and other diplomatic representatives. These are not different from the responsibilities bestowed on our own Minister of Foreign Affairs.

But on the day in question, the eve of Kerry’s arrival for a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari at the presidential villa, Abuja, the office of the Special Adviser to the President (Media and Publicity) issued a media advisory that was essentially how State House correspondents were expected to behave when Kerry was in the house. We were told that the meeting would be closed to the media even though cameramen could take establishing shots on his arrival at the villa forecourt while only the President’s official photographer and video cameraman were to have access to the venue of the meeting, also to take establishing shots and get out.

Oddly, correspondents were to steer clear of the path of the Secretary who would not be granting press interview. We were requested to avoid the corridors where we normally hang around to wait for events and in stead, asked to sit back inside the press briefing room until Kerry departed. The explanation for that was that Kerry would walk through the corridors on his way to another briefing room where he was scheduled to meet with some northern state governors. Essentially, on his way to that room, he was not supposed to come in contact with reporters.

Beyond what was contained in the statement released after the meeting, not much was revealed about the encounter between Buhari and Kerry since reporters did not have the privilege to interrogate the visiting Secretary on his mission as is normally the case. The statement indicated that Buhari used the occasion to pledge his commitment to the anti-corruption crusade in the country which he said would be deepened and institutionalized to last beyond the life of his administration.

His government, he said, would be putting the necessary structures in place in the public service to ensure that they struck to administrative and financial instructions as disobeying them would no longer be tolerated. Apparently conscious of the criticism trailing what has been regarded as a political and one-sided war against corruption in some quarters, Buhari promised Kerry that in prosecuting the war, he would be fair and just to all concerned.

The message that was disclosed on Kerry’s part was that he lauded Buhari’s courage on the drive to rout corruption as the Secretary believed that corruption “creates a ready-made playing field for recruiting extremists.” “You inherited a big problem, and we will support you in any way we can. We will work with you very closely. We don’t want to interfere, but will offer opportunities as you require,” he was also quoted as telling the President.

It was difficult to understand what was different about that Kerry’s visit. The Villa is no stranger to high profile visitors including presidents, prime ministers and other foreign envoys and apart from the normally closed-door sessions, State House correspondents have mostly had the opportunity to cover the visits, many of which are accompanied by joint press briefings between the president and his guests.

Kerry came as the emissary of the most powerful individual in the world, the leader of the free world, President of the U.S. Perhaps, that was why  he was treated differently. But as far as I can recall, none of the visits by even foreign leaders themselves to the villa has generated the sort of palpable tension felt in the case of Kerry. Not even when his predecessor in office, Hilary Clinton came calling in 2012 in the height of the Boko Haram insurgency. If there was a media clear out for Kerry’s sake at this time, what will be the case if ever President Barack Obama himself visits? I’m just wondering.