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Exclusive: Putin wants Ukraine ceasefire on current frontlines

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A guide stands next to a German-manufactured main battle tank Leopard at an exhibition displaying armoured vehicles and equipment captured by the Russian army from Ukrainian forces in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, at Victory Park open-air museum on Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow, Russia, May

Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to halt the war in Ukraine with a negotiated ceasefire that recognises the current battlefield lines, four Russian sources told Reuters, saying he is prepared to fight on if Kyiv and the West do not respond.

Summary

  • Russian sources indicate Putin ready to halt conflict at front
  • Putin to take more land to pressure Kyiv to talk: sources
  • Does not want another national mobilisation: sources
  • Putin has no designs on NATO territory: sources
  • Russia concerned about nuclear escalation: sources

Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to halt the war in Ukraine with a negotiated ceasefire that recognises the current battlefield lines, four Russian sources told Reuters, saying he is prepared to fight on if Kyiv and the West do not respond.

Three of the sources, familiar with discussions in Putin’s entourage, said the veteran Russian leader had expressed frustration to a small group of advisers about what he views as Western-backed attempts to stymie negotiations and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s decision to rule out talks.

“Putin can fight for as long as it takes, but Putin is also ready for a ceasefire – to freeze the war,” said another of the four, a senior Russian source who has worked with Putin and has knowledge of top level conversations in the Kremlin.

He, like the others cited in this story, spoke on condition of anonymity given the matter’s sensitivity.

For this account, Reuters spoke to a total of five people who work with or have worked with Putin at a senior level in the political and business worlds. The fifth source did not comment on freezing the war at the current frontlines.

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Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in response to a request for comment, said the Kremlin chief had repeatedly made clear Russia was open to dialogue to achieve its goals, saying the country did not want “eternal war.”

Ukraine’s foreign and defence ministries did not respond to questions.

The appointment last week of economist Andrei Belousov as Russia’s defence minister was seen by some Western military and political analysts as placing the Russian economy on a permanent war footing in order to win a protracted conflict.

It followed sustained battlefield pressure and territorial advances by Russia in recent weeks.

However, the sources said that Putin, re-elected in March for a new six-year term, would rather use Russia’s current momentum to put the war behind him. They did not directly comment on the new defence minister.

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Based on their knowledge of conversations in the upper ranks of the Kremlin, two of the sources said Putin was of the view that gains in the war so far were enough to sell a victory to the Russian people.

Europe’s biggest ground conflict since World War Two has cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides and led to sweeping Western sanctions on Russia’s economy.

Three sources said Putin understood any dramatic new advances would require another nationwide mobilisation, which he didn’t want, with one source, who knows the Russian president, saying his popularity dipped after the first mobilisation in September 2022.

The national call up spooked part of the population in Russia, triggering hundreds of thousands of draft age men to leave the country. Polls showed Putin’s popularity falling by several points.

Peskov said Russia had no need for mobilisation and was instead recruiting volunteer contractors to the armed forces.

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The prospect of a ceasefire, or even peace talks, currently seems remote.

Zelenskiy has repeatedly said peace on Putin’s terms is a non-starter. He has vowed to retake lost territory, including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. He signed a decree in 2022 that formally declared any talks with Putin “impossible.”

One of the sources predicted no agreement could happen while Zelenskiy was in power, unless Russia bypassed him and struck a deal with Washington. However, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Kyiv last week, told reporters he did not believe Putin was interested in serious negotiations.

SWISS TALKS

Ukraine is preparing for talks hosted by Switzerland next month aimed at unifying international opinion on how to end the war. The talks were convened at the initiative of Zelenskiy who has said Putin should not attend. Switzerland has not invited Russia.

Moscow has said the talks are not credible without it being there. Ukraine and Switzerland want Russian allies including China to attend.

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Speaking in China on May 17, Putin said Ukraine may use the Swiss talks to get a broader group of countries to back Zelenskiy’s demand for a total Russian withdrawal, which Putin said would be an imposed condition rather than a serious peace negotiation.

The Swiss foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We are ready for discussion. We never refused,” Putin said in China.

The Kremlin says it does not comment on the progress of what it calls its special military operation in Ukraine, but has repeatedly said Moscow is open to the idea of talks based on “the new realities on the ground.”

In response to questions for this story, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said any initiative for peace must respect Ukraine’s “territorial integrity, within its internationally recognised borders” and described Russia as the sole obstacle to peace in Ukraine.

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“The Kremlin has yet to demonstrate any meaningful interest in ending its war, quite the opposite,” the spokesperson said.

In the past, Kyiv has dismissed Russia’s purported readiness to talk as an attempt to shift the blame onto it for the war.

Kyiv says Putin, whose team repeatedly denied he was planning a war before invading Ukraine in 2022, cannot be trusted to honour any deal.

Both Russia and Ukraine have also said they fear the other side would use any ceasefire to re-arm.

Kyiv and its Western backers are banking on a $61 billion U.S. aid package and additional European military aid to reverse what Zelenskiy described to Reuters this week as “one of the most difficult moments” of the full scale war.

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As well as shortages of ammunition after U.S. delays in approving the package, Ukraine has admitted it is struggling to recruit enough troops and last month lowered the age for men who can be drafted to 25 from 27.

TERRITORY

Putin’s insistence on locking in any battlefield gains in a deal is non-negotiable, all of the sources suggested.

Putin would, however, be ready to settle for what land he has now and freeze the conflict at the current front lines, four of the sources said.

“Putin will say that we won, that NATO attacked us and we kept our sovereignty, that we have a land corridor to Crimea, which is true,” one of them said, giving their own analysis.

Freezing the conflict along current lines would leave Russia in possession of substantial chunks of four Ukrainian regions he formally incorporated into Russia in September 2022, but without full control of any of them.

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Such an arrangement would fall short of the goals Moscow set for itself at the time, when it said the four of Ukraine’s regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – now belonged to it in their entirety.

Peskov said that there could be no question of handing back the four regions which were now permanently part of Russia according to its own constitution.

Another factor playing into the Kremlin chief’s view that the war should end is that the longer it drags on, the more battle-hardened veterans return to Russia, dissatisfied with post-war job and income prospects, potentially creating tensions in society, said one of the sources, who has worked with Putin.

‘RUSSIA WILL PUSH FURTHER’

In February, three Russian sources told Reuters the United States rejected a previous Putin suggestion of a ceasefire to freeze the war.

In the absence of a ceasefire, Putin wants to take as much territory as possible to ratchet up pressure on Ukraine while seeking to exploit unexpected opportunities to acquire more, three of the sources said.

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Russian forces control around 18% of Ukraine and this month thrust into the northeastern region of Kharkiv.

Putin is counting on Russia’s large population compared to Ukraine to sustain superior manpower even without a mobilisation, bolstered by unusually generous pay packets for those who sign up.

“Russia will push further,” the source who has worked with Putin said.

Putin will slowly conquer territories until Zelenskiy comes up with an offer to stop, the person said, saying the Russian leader had expressed the view to aides that the West would not provide enough weapons, sapping Ukraine’s morale.

U.S. and European leaders have said they will stand by Ukraine until its security sovereignty is guaranteed. NATO countries and allies say they are trying to accelerate deliveries of weapons.

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“Russia could end the war at any time by withdrawing its forces from Ukraine, instead of continuing to launch brutal attacks against Ukraine’s cities, ports, and people every day,” the State Department said in response to a question about weapons supplies.

All five sources said Putin had told advisers he had no designs on NATO territory, reflecting his public comments on the matter. Two of the sources cited Russian concerns about the growing danger of escalation with the West, including nuclear escalation, over the Ukraine standoff.

The State Department said the United States had not adjusted its nuclear posture, nor seen any sign that Russia was preparing to use a nuclear weapon.

“We continue to monitor the strategic environment and remain ready,” the spokesperson said.

-Reuters

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Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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Moroccan Sahara: Slovenia joins growing global acclaim for Morocco’s autonomy plan

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During the Slovenian official’s talks with her Moroccan counterpart in Rabat, she also commended Morocco’s reforms at all levels.

Slovenia has commended the Moroccan Autonomy Plan as “a good basis for reaching a final and consensual solution” to the regional dispute over the Moroccan Sahara, under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General and his Personal Envoy.

This position was expressed in a joint communiqué issued following talks held on Tuesday in Rabat between Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation and Moroccan Expatriates, Nasser Bourita, and the Slovenian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Tanja Fajon.

Slovenia reiterated its country’s constant support for the UN-led process and hailed Morocco’s serious and credible efforts to achieve a realistic, pragmatic, lasting, mutually acceptable and compromise-based political solution to the Moroccan Sahara issue, the joint communiqué said.

The two ministers, added the same source, expressed their common position on the exclusive role of the United Nations in the political process, reaffirming their support for UN Security Council resolutions, including resolution 2703 of October 30, 2023.

They reiterated their respective countries’ support for the efforts of the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy to move the political process forward on the basis of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, as well as their support for MINURSO.

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This constructive stance by Slovenia, the 16th European Union country to support the Moroccan Autonomy Plan, is part of an international dynamic that has seen over a hundred UN member countries lend their support to this initiative.

The Slovenian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs is paying an official visit to Morocco, at the invitation of Bourita, to mark the 32nd anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Republic of Slovenia.

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Thirty one years after June 12 saga, there is no one like MKO Abiola, Africa’s First & Only Pillar of Sports’

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At the Hotel Calderon in Barcelona where we held the African Footballer of the Year 1991.

BY KUNLE SOLAJA

It is 31 years today since Nigeria election of 12 June 1993 of which Bashorun MKO Abiola has been the living symbol.

It is widely acknowledged as the most credible election ever in Africa’s largest democracy – Nigeria. Despite all pre-election gimmicks at instigating violence through general black-out, fuel shortages and all sorts of provocations, Nigerians largely turned out to vote disregarding ethnic, religious and social divides.

Most largely focussed on “Hope ‘93”, the election slogan of Abiola whose stature, and achievements as well as influence cut across all divides and was seen as a unifier, especially when the topic shifts to love for the masses, philanthropy and the opium of the masses – sports.   

Only one man was ever bestowed with the title, Africa’s Pillar of Sports.

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The honour was bestowed to Bashorun MKO Abiola. His interest cut across many sports  and covered many African countries.

He sponsored various sports activities in Nigeria and 14 other African countries.  Among them are Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia and Tunisia.

Such was his unparalleled support for sports that no other African has been able to fill his position as Africa’s First Pillar of Sports since 1980 when the then African Sports Journalists Union (ASJU) bestowed the honour on him.

On January 11, 1992 in Dakar, Senegal, he entered the African football Hall of Fame when the Sports philanthropist-extra extraordinaire was honoured by CAF with an award of Order of Merit in Gold. This is the confederation’s highest honour. Abiola at the occasion donates the CAF Cup trophy endowed with $100,000.

Not many deeply involved in business and political activities have the kind of devotion that Abiola had for sports. He lived in virtually everyone’s lives until a adventure into politics cut short his life.

It is 31 years today, since the historic June 12 election in Nigeria. The date has in the past two years been symbolically accepted as the Democracy Day, marking what was believed to be the fairest ever national election in the country.

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But the final outcome of the election was never officially released as it was suddenly annulled by the President Ibrahim Babangida’s administration.

The major character of the political drama, Bashorun MKO Abiola,  a philanthropist, businessman, and politician was later arrested and detained a little over one year later as he struggled to claim his mandate.

He died under unclear circumstances on July 7, 1998. Even nearly three decades after his death, the clamour for the recognition of that struggle remained strong. 

June 12 was only officially and nationally accepted as ‘Democracy Day’ as a replacement to May 29.

Incidentally the former May 29 day, also marked the first declaration of a state of emergency in the country when  at the Federal House,  Prime Minister Sir Abubakar moved the ‘the resolution’ for the declaration of a state of emergency in the Western Region.

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His motion was seconded by the Federal Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh.

Before June 12, there was January 11, 1993 when the foundation of the June 12 episode was laid.

I was in the delegation of MKO Abiola to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire for the inaugural CAF Super Cup that pitched hosts, Africa Sports against Wydad AC Casablanca of Morocco.

While in Abidjan, on the eve of the January 10 match that was attended by the CAF president, Issa Hayatou, we were discussing the presentation of a trophy on behalf of President Babangida to CAF for the continental under 17 football tournament.

The trophy was named the ‘Renaissance Cup’ and was designed by Patrick Okpomo while before then, I had submitted to Abiola, the design of the then third-tier African inter-clubs football competition trophy-the ‘Abiola CAF Cup’ which composed of a gold plated outline map of Africa atop a stylised base.

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Both trophies were produced in Germany. At Sofitel Abidjan Hôtel Ivoire on the night of January 9, 1993, Okpomo and I were saddled with the responsibility of drafting a speech for President Babangida to formally present the trophy to CAF President.

At the time, I was the Group Sports Editor at the MKO Abiola owned Concord Press of Nigeria and had often travelled and drafted speeches for him at sports events.

We had issues on how much the president was to endow the trophy. A year earlier in Dakar, Senegal, Abiola endowed the CAF Cup with a $100,000.

Releasing one of his famous proverbs, Abiola remarked: “You can’t shave a man’s head in his absence”, when we enquired on how much we should put in the draft speech as endowment money for President Babangida.

We left a  blank space. Abiola collected the speech and sent it by fax to the State House. We left for Abuja two days later aboard Abiola’s private jet in the company of Issa Hayatou and five other Cameroonians.

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Also in the aircraft were my fellow journalists, Paul Bassey, then of Champion and Tony Nezianya (NAN). It was my first time at the Aso Rock Villa.

We were ushered into an auditorium. Barely 10 minutes later, the President entered as we rose up. It was announced that two events were slated for the day, the first being the presentation of the Renaissance Cup to CAF.

We were aware of this, as that was the reason we flew in from Abidjan with the trophy and also had Issa Hayatou on board. Before President Babangida read the speech we had drafted, Abiola had to make brief remarks and introduced Hayatou.

Just as he took his seat, he hopped up again to add to the recognitions he had earlier made after noting that some of the famous ‘IBB Boys’ were also seated with us in the auditorium.

After apologising for what he called a grave omission and had mentioned one or two of them, among whom was Col. Anthony Ukpo, the President cut in and asked the chief not to border.

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That done, most of us were shocked when President Babangida announced the re composition of the Local Organising Committee (LOC) for the later cancelled hosting of the 1995 Under 20 World Cup and also that of the re composition of the Presidential Monitoring Committee (PMC) which at the time was led by Abiola.

Could the chief had fallen out of favour with the president? We were left guessing. His place was taken by Major General Yohanna Kure. And the meeting ended.

While Paul Bassey, Nezianya and I were programmed to drop off in Lagos, Abiola and Hayatou and five other Cameroonians were to continue the journey, not to Abidjan, but Dakar, Senegal where the African country was to host the French national team on January 12.

Still unsure of the unfolding events, Abiola came to us and informed of change of plans, releasing another proverb that when two logs fall on one another, you attend to the last upper one.

It meant that the earlier plans had changed. He asked Lisa Olu Akerele, a confidant and head of Concord Press’ operation to arrange flights for us to Lagos and also get the Managing Director of Concord in Lagos, Dr. Doyin Abiola, to arrange for Hayatou’s delegation to Dakar.

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It was three days later that Abiola returned to Lagos and announced his intention to run for the presidency in the election slated later in the year.

The three days in Abuja apparently prepared the ground to the June 12 episode. Support for sports was a major casualty in the later June 12 fiasco.

Before then, in1990 in Calabar during the Nigeria Universities Games (NUGA), I asked him if he would return into politics after the failed attempt in the second republic in 1983 and considering the favourable disposition that President Babangida had for him.

He responded negatively saying that even he wanted to, his first wife, Simbiat, another sports-inclined personalty, would not even sanction it.

Incidentally, his venturing into politics again was after Simbiat passed on in 1992. Noting the persistent shift of the transition programme of Gen. Babangida, I  also asked Abiola if the army chieftain was sincere with handing over power to civilians.

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Abiola was never short of proverbial statements, he remarked that the Babangida’s situation was akin to a man who  decline interest in a woman, but got edgy anytime he saw another man with the lady.

It was for me to decipher what that meant. At any given time, he was always finding an alibi for the general.

I remembered when we were at the Hotel Calderon in Barcelona during the Olympic Games in 1992, I asked him for update on the political situation in Nigeria where the 12 presidential candidates were disqualified and banned from contesting – a situation that further fuelled speculations that Babangida was not ready to relinquish power.

I worked closely with Bashorun MKO Abiola

Again, Abiola came up with defence of the general to which I responded that he was being too trusting of a man known for his double-speak methods, hence he was nicknamed Maradona for his ability to dribble people out of position.

I reminded him of an earlier shutting down of Concord Press on a night he was with the president in Abuja.

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The closing of Concord was only known to him after he left the president. His attempt to return to the president for his intervention was rebuffed by security aides.

It was absurd considering that Abiola had always had an unhindered assess to the president. Abiola again explained it off, exonerating the Generals and blaming the security aides.

“If they tell the president that his wife is a security risk and must not enter the bedroom with him, so be it…sometimes you are a slave to the office you hold”, Abiola explained.

Applying another proverb to spice his statement, he remarked: “The bigger the head, the bigger the headache.”

That, he used to explain that the president had a lot of issues bordering him that the Concord ban was just one of the issues the president was attending to.

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On May 1, 1993, party loyalists of the SDP stormed his Ikeja house protesting his choice of Babagana Kingibe as a running mate, arguing that he cannot pick a fellow Muslim and one that fiercely contested the presidential primaries with him at the party’s Jos convention.

The argument dragged on late in the night into the morning. I had to leave the house unable to see my boss for my intended purpose. Next morning, May 2, the delegates had departed, but Bashorun still looked worried.

He later ushered me to his bedroom along with Frank Igwebueze, my colleague and his aide on Reparation as well as Dr. Delu Ogunade, our former lecturer  at the University of Lagos and editorial advisor at Concord Press.

A worried Abiola threw the question at the three of us, Christians, asking whether Christians would not vote for him as he had picked a Muslim running mate.

Dr. Ogunade responded first, using his vast experience of the American system to explain the the presidential candidate is the face of the ticket and that the running mate was less relevant.

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Igwebuze responded in similar vein. When it came to my turn, not gauging the mood he was and the tension he had endured all through the night, I remarked: “Christians would vote, Muslims would vote, but I don’t think there is any vacancy in Aso Rock.”

My remark infuriated him. It was the first and only time he ever got angry with me since August 1989.

“Shut up! What do you know in politics! Is it not just sports that you know?” I seized the opportunity to let him know the purpose of my visit.

The Super Eagles would later that Sunday evening face Cote d’Ivoire in a triangular league that involved Algeria in the final qualification for the USA ‘94.

I felt that he could use the opportunity since he was known for sports, and his opponent Tofa, had no remote link with sports. I advised he attended the match and also sponsor a live telecast.

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His face brightened as the suggestions offered an escape from the prevailing tension.

He instantly put a call across to his pilot at the Lagos Sheraton and told him to get all clearances to overfly the airspace across Benin, Togo and Ghana and obtain the landing right in Abidjan.

He told me to go and prepare for the trip. But by the time I returned, the pilot had called to explain difficulties in obtaining permission across one country’s airspace. The trip was aborted but he still sponsored the telecast of the match in which Austin Jay Jay Okocha debuted for the Super Eagles.

Travelling with teams was always a pleasure for him. My friend and colleague, Onochie Anibeze of Vanguard once told me of his experience flying with Abiola Babes for an African Winners Cup with Experance of Tunisia.

Aboard the flight, the team doctor took ill. He said Abiola, a good knack of easily recognising people just jokingly looked at his side and remarked that when the doctor who was expected to look after everyone took ill, perhaps the journalist here, pointing at Onochie, would take over.

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Onochie said he had only attended one or two press conferences of Abiola and was shocked that with millions of faces the man saw on daily bases, he could still recognise him.

That illustrated his almost encyclopedic power of recognising people, even without having physically meet them. I remembered how I became the Group Sports Editor of Concord Press.

The sports desk was dissolved in August 1989 and the management was making frantic efforts at appointing a new sports editor. I learnt that at the management meeting, names were being thrown up.

My name did not come up for mentioning as I was working in the African Concord magazine which was obviously obscure in comparison with the flagship publication, National Concord.

All of a sudden, Abiola’s personal secretary came in with an handwritten note that read: “I hereby appoint Mr Kunle Solaja of the African Concord as the Group Sports Editor with immediate effect.”

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That ended all arguments. Before then, I had never met him personally. We met for the first time at the Sofitel Hotel in Yaounde the evening of Nigeria’s elimination from the qualifying series of the Italia ‘90 World Cup.

I greeted him and introduced my self. He was shocked at my young age and youthful look, saying that from my write-ups in the African Concord and the display of power of recall, he thought I was much older.

Meeting him for the first time, I just melted and returned to my room. But my media colleagues who had  better knowledge of him surrounded him and later told me they had a ‘nice outing’ with the  philanthropist extraordinaire.

Having met him, he had picked my face. When he spotted me at half time at the Stade du 19 May in Annaba, Algeria when Nigeria faced Zambia in the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations, he was the one that sent for me and later asked that I see him at his hotel the next day.

He told me of his financial support for the football team. “I know you don’t clap with one hand, I will do the same to you the journalists too.”

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He later gave me $2000 and $1000 for each Nigerian journalist at the tournament. It was the first of the numerous benefits I got from the philanthropist-extra extraordinaire.

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Japan hails Morocco’s initiatives on Moroccan Sahara

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Moroccan Foreign Affairs Minister Nasser Bourita and his Japanese counterpart, Yoko Kamikawa.

 Japan on Friday welcomed, “serious and credible Moroccan efforts” within the framework of the autonomy initiative to settle the Moroccan Sahara issue.

This position was expressed by Japan’s Foreign Minister, Yoko Kamikawa, during talks in Tokyo with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation and Moroccan Expatriates, Nasser Bourita, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Based on Japan’s “consistent” position, Kamikawa referred to the Moroccan autonomy initiative presented on 11 April 2007 to the UN Secretary-General, underlining the “serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward toward a resolution” of the Moroccan Sahara issue.

Bourita, who is visiting Japan, welcomed Japan’s position on the Moroccan Sahara.

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