Meeting the president
Everything I had read about him sounded evil and scary ... but would meeting President Theodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea ahead of an election be as daunting a task as all that?
It was 8am on Thursday, 26 of November, 2009 in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, when the call came in. The caller spoke French and said he was Chief Protocol Officer for His Excellency President Theodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.
He said the President had agreed to my interview request and that my cameraman and I needed to be ready in 15 minutes as Presidential Protocol Officers were on the way to pick us up. I wanted to scream "NO" - I have a whole day of filming planned on an oil platform in the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa for my report about Equatorial Guinea's oil wealth.
But I knew I was in no position to say no.
Our interview with the President would be now or never. I was overcome with nerves. Everything I had read about him sounded evil and scary. He took power in a coup in 1979, not long after I was born, and according to some reports, had his uncle killed by firing squad. I was scared about what to ask him, could I ask him any serious questions I thought, or would I be booted out of the Presidential Palace and on the first plane out of the country if I raised the issues of corruption, alleged human rights abuses and authoritarianism perpetrated by his family.
I hurriedly and nervously got ready. Egging my cameraman Romeo on to hurry, pack the gear, pack the car. Except, we would not be travelling in our own vehicle to see the President.
The President's protocol people eventually showed up at our hotel. They wanted to know the precise questions I intended to ask the President beforehand. I explained, that good journalists don't do that, that my idea was to take President Obiang by surprise. They looked mystified. Did I really, really expect the President to appear on Al Jazeera and take questions without knowing them beforehand? Yes, I did. I said.
Eventually we got to the Palace gate. We were waved in by fierce looking security officials. The Presidential Palace was beautiful, located in the centre of Malabo, it was huge and a beautiful fuchsia pink colour, very Spanish looking. Not surprising really, Spain once ruled Equatorial Guinea. It was a world away from much of what I had seen on the streets of the capital leading up to the call from the President's people.
My cameraman and I were whisked through a series of halls and ballrooms where I imaged State guests were entertained. We then went through a very rigorous security check - our equipment was looked at forensically and tested. Small wonder, there have been two coup attempts in very recent times. I got the feeling that the sentiment was that anyone could be a threat, even visiting foreign journalists.
Eventually we were taken to a room where we were told the interview with His Excellency, President Obiang would take place - and that he would be along shortly. Shortly meant 4 hours.
My cameraman Romeo and I spent the time setting up the President's chair, deciding what angle to film from, thinking about what we would do when the President walked in. Would the President shake my hand, would he walk straight past, would his security officials make sure I sat down before or stood up for his arrival? We rehearsed a number of scenarios.
President Obiang made his entrance at around 1pm that afternoon. His security officials and protocol people invited me to stand up and shake the President's hands. He was warm and courteous. I had hoped he would be more nervous. I knew it was rare for President Obiang to give interviews, particularly to foreign media organisations.
To make matters worse, the President spoke Spanish, it was the nightmare I prayed would never happen, the President addressing me in Spanish, when I don't speak one word of the language.
Thankfully, I was saved by his translator, Armando. Armando courteously explained to the President why I could not speak Spanish, I am not sure what he said, but I just smiled and tried to look clever.
Then I was ready to get down to business - as my cameraman Romeo put a microphone on the President, I was gearing myself up to ask him some tough questions - just a few days before he was to stand for a 5th term of 7 years as the President of Equatorial Guinea . I started by asking President Obiang why, after 30 years, he is still holding onto power...