Visit from Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari

[Above: Ambassador Johnnie Carson listens as President Muhammadu Buhari responds to questions from the audience. Photo credit: USIP]

I did not take the above photo. I did, however, have the privilage of being in the room while recently-elected Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, made a public address at USIP today. 

President Buhari's talk was part of his first visit to the U.S. since taking office in early April. He made one public speech durnig his time in the States -- at USIP. Understandably, his visit generated much excitement from those within and outside of USIP. When the USIP event was announced, over 500 people RSVPed to the event within two hours. To accomodate such a crowd, USIP opened up its Carlucci Auditorium and provided two overflow spaces - each filled to maximum capacity.

Carlucci Auditorium, where President Buhari spoke, was reserved for the Nigerian delegation, the media, VIPs, and for forty lucky members of the public who arrived early enough to get seated in such a prime location. Others were directed to the overflow spaces. I volunteered over a week ago to help collect question cards during the event, and was fortunate enough to be stationed in Carlucci Auditorium.

In preparation for such a high profile event, I attended a meeting yesterday for volunteers, event facilitators, and security personnel. We were provided with a document that described down to the minute what would happen, how the President would move through the building, and names of all staff and volunteers on hand for each part of the event. The volunteers only attended the meeting for half an hour; after we left, the event staff and security personnel went line-by-line through the entire itinerary. I enjoyed getting a glimpse at such event procedures and all of the careful planning that goes into them.

Today, I got to work early since everyone knew it would be a hectic day - my supervisor even offered to let me telecommute for the first half of the day since it would be so crazy at USIP. Fortunately, I arrived early enough to park in peace and avoid the lengthy line that formed outside of USIP's doors.

I went down to Carlucci around 9:45, grabbed some extra question cards and pens, and stood in the back with the media. I didn't bring my iPhone to take pictures since I wasn't sure how formal the event would be. It turns out I should have brought it - those in the audience were excitedly taking selfies and Tweeting in anticipation of the event, and they captured plenty of iPhone photos during the talk. I am thankful for the USIP photographers who posted pictures so that I can visually remember the event and post them on my blog for those of you following along. 

Everyone rose when the Nigerian delegation arrived in the building. USIP President Nancy Lindborg gave introductory remarks, followed by Ambassador Johnnie Carson. Ambassador Carson served as the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 2009-2013 building on an impressive career with the State Department. He now serves as the Senior Advisor to the President of USIP, and happens to work in the office right next to our RA carrels. Although I do not work directly with Ambassador Carson, he is remarkably kind in his interactions around the office. I enjoyed seeing him in his element while introducing President Buhari.

While Ambassador Carson was speaking, a member of the Nigerian delegation walked up to me. At first I thought he was security who was wondering why I was standing in the back. After whispering back and forth, I finally understood what he wanted: "I need drinking water for the President. Now." I led him outside of the auditorium to speak with other USIP staff who know the building better and could more efficiently assist him. I suppose those efforts were successful -- in a few minutes a man in Nigerian military dress appeared and discreetly placed water on the podium. 

When President Buhari got up to speak, it was time for my job. I walked down the sides of the auditorium to distribute extra question cards and collect them when I needed to. I was kept busy with my task, so I didn't get to fully concentrate on the substance of President Buhari's speech, although he did discuss the many challenges facing Nigeria.

Afterwards, Ambassador Carson moderated questions from the audience. President Buhari joked that he didn't fully trust his memory and answered them one by one. He and his delegation then left.

I could feel the hope as well as trepidation in the room surrounding President Buhari's election. This was a hugely significant election for Nigeria and the world as a whole since President Buhari was elected not only through democratic means, but also since incumbent Goodluck Jonathan bowed out without violence, a peaceful transfer of power that bodes well for the Africa's largest economy. As Nancy Lindborg said, President Buhari was elected "though ballets, not bullets," which is a cause for great hope regarding Nigeria's political future. 

President Buhari himself has had an interesting political trajectory. He briefly came to power in Nigeria in the 80's through a military coup. In recent years, he has tried and failed to be elected president several times. He expressed gratitude towards the West for pointing out the electoral issues that have plagued the past several elections. And now, he stands at the helm of a peaceful transfer of power in the world's sixth-largest democracy. 

While the crowd's excitement about his election was palpable, there was also an undercurrent of uncertainty. While President Buhari's election is undoubtedly a positive development in Nigeria, the country is still plagued with significant problems, spanning severe corruption in the oil industry and instability from Boko Haram. I share the prevailing sentiment of the audience in hoping that President Buhari's administration will effectively address such complex issues. It is no small task. 

There are no words for how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to be in the same room with a sitting African head of state. I am also very appreciative to the USIP staff who perfectly coordinated such a high profile event, and who took the time in the midst of such a busy day to thank the volunteers. I am always so impressed with the professionalism and kindness of my colleagues.