3 Aug 2015
Can you sum up your experience as an adviser to the president on media?
Well, let me thank you for this invitation, since we disengaged in May, I went to Oxford, to do a programme. This is a good opportunity for me to reflect on four years of quality experience, four years of quality engagement with Nigeria. So it will be difficult within the limited time that a radio programme affords us, to summarise the entire experience but I’ll like to say this: a lot of people in Nigeria, who are on the other side of the street (if I may describe it that way) who criticise, who look into the system, who query the system, who ask question, who interrogate the system, but somewhere along the line, an opportunity comes for you to be part of the team, to rescue Nigeria, to help Nigeria, to help Nigeria move forward, now that was my own case, I was out there as a critic and then I got an opportunity to be on the other side of the street, the principle is the same-to help move Nigeria forward and coming out of that experience four years later , you can’t tell everybody, it was a good experience and I’d like to encourage every Nigerian who receives that call, who gets the chance, to be part of the building of Nigeria, to take up that challenge and go and make that contribution.
You cannot give up on Nigeria, Nigeria is our country, whoever is called upon to make a contribution should see it as an opportunity to do so, it doesn’t matter the criticism you receive, it doesn’t matter the amount of vilification that comes your way at the end of the day, Nigeria is more important than every individual, so I come out of that experience four years later, fully convinced that I made a good choice without any regret, and indeed my example represent an example that encourages other Nigerians to serve Nigeria in whatever capacity and to see how they can make a difference. The judgement belongs to history, belongs to Nigerian people, nobody must ever give up on Nigeria because this is our country.
You were one Nigerian that was believed to be a champion of the common man, your writings, your criticisms, but suddenly you found yourself in the government house, some of those Nigerians who hailed you for being one of their champions, criticised you through the same medium-writing, and public comments- saying you have forgotten what appears to be your constituent and now dining and wining with the high and mighty in the Aso Rock. Did you at any time feel pained when you read or listen to this type of comment?
The truth of the matter is that many Nigerians, on this other side of the street do not know what goes on in government, they do not understand what government is all about, and the people who have been in government, after spending few months in government, they will realise that there is indeed a lot that the ordinary Nigerians does not know about. However, government exist to serve the people and the people have expectations and those expectations in theory and in practice are perpetually rising and because of the crisis of rising expectations, people jump to different kinds of conclusions, I was in the government and I’ll say my experience is probably the experience of other people, realising that what goes on in government is not exactly what people outside the government understand. The first thing is that a lot of hard-work goes into governance process, to govern Nigeria you have to work hard, we worked very hard for this country, and I’m not saying it because of my loyalty to Goodluck Jonathan, I’m saying it because this is what I experienced.
In every section, in every department of this country, whether at the local government level or at the state level, if you mean well and are principled, you must work hard for the Nigerian people and if the critics want to refer to us, if they want to discount partisan politics, they’ll admit, they’ll realise, they will concede that during the Jonathan presidency, a lot was done in many aspect of Nigerian lives to solve Nigeria’s problems. Issues of transportation, issues of aviation, issues of transportation in relation to railways, issues in terms of raising the quality of aviation systems, issues in terms of raising the education system, issues in terms of strengthening the integrity system in terms of payment, issues in terms of ensuring governance in real quality sense, a lot of these were talked about, particularly during the campaign- I don’t want to campaign after the campaign but I think in the fullness of time, Nigerians would realise all of these and they will give president Goodluck Ebele Jonathan due credit that he deserves.
Speaking for myself, I went into government, it was a great experience, like I said earlier, I recommend it to everyone else who has been on this other side criticising, I don’t regret it. When you get in there, you gain a lot of knowledge, I like to tell my friends, to get a PhD if you’re a smart student, you don’t need more than three years. If I had enrolled for another PhD in 2011, by 2014 I would have obtained that PhD, a second one and it would have been a quality PhD, but looking back now, I spent four years there, there is no way a man like me would have spent four years in getting a PhD, maybe two years. But at the end of the day, I came out with a lot of experience, a lot of quality, so I encourage every Nigerian out there, who wants to make a difference, to take a special interest in Nigeria, you’ll come out learning a lot.
Apart from the experience you talked about, will you say you came out with making more money or getting better off than you were before going in?
No, this is not about money. You see, this is part of the problem with Nigeria, everyone perceives/imagines that governance arena is an arena for primitive accumulation and anybody who goes into government, people assume that person is going there to make money but the emphasis should never ever be on money, because once you assume that the governance arena is arena for primitive accumulation, the entire governance is compromised. Right from the level of the engine room, the civil service to whatever level, and that is why when people go into government, they face special problems- relatives are asking for money, your old colleagues are asking for money, ordinary friends are asking for money, acquaintances are asking for money, the people who work in your department will not want to do anything except you pay them, everyone believe that you have some special access to money, I think that Nigeria will begin to make progress when we begin to play down this emphasis on money. Of course if you go into government, you’ll enjoy a lot of goodwill, people will be nice to you, and try to assist you but to think that the opportunity to serve is an opportunity to loot, it’s an opportunity to accumulate, I think that mentality needs to be addressed, and that is why an agency like NOA (National Orientation Agency) and that is why I think institutions need to be rebuilt, they need to be strengthened, but at the end of the whole thing, it is about morals but I think people are part of the problem, people complain about corruption, but it is the ordinary Nigerian man who transforms the man in public service into a corrupt man, because they put pressure on him. People will want you to build houses for them, they want you to buy them cars, they want you to help them solve their own personal problems, like medical bills and all that are sent to you. I think that media houses must also assist in sensitising the public to see clearly that when people go into government, they are not there to loot but are there to serve and can we encourage them to serve? And the average journalist also has a responsibility in this regard. I am a journalist and when you are a journalist at my level, you are dealing with a whole community, millions of journalist abroad, local, on the internet, even beyond what your office can carry and I know the story, but this is not the occasion for that story. It will be told some other day maybe in another forum or in a book.
There were occasions where you had to take up that task of having to defend the administration, having to straighten some records. I am going to recount some of those occasions and get what your opinion is about the perception and the interpretation of the public. First, the AU meeting in Addis Ababa where it was said that our president failed to address that conference. Secondly, the period in which the first lady was also reported to have been poisoned. Can you give us the feelings of what the aides to Mr. President were, especially you in particular?
Look, these are very simple issues. You must recall that as a special adviser media and publicity to President Jonathan, I was facing a very difficult opposition and that opposition wasn’t doing publicity they were doing propaganda and they prepared every minute, every hour, to twist the news. We were doing publicity and an honest work to engage Nigerians, they were doing propaganda and whatever it was that came from our side was twisted by them. Sometimes they were ahead of us because they also had an advantage in terms of control of the media. They had media organs that they owned and I’ve always told people to do the intelligent…
Cuts in: Some people will wonder that as the President, Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, that how possible can it be for an incumbent president to be outwitted in the area of media and publicity?
No, the politics of the media is about ownership. He who plays the piper dictates the tune. We found ourselves in a situation whereby the major media organs were in the hands of the opposition. And you know of course that if your ‘enemy’, I use that word in quote advisedly, had gone ahead of you to seize the space, because it was a battle for space, it was also a battle for the public mind, and you step back and do the strategic analysis of it. Most of the media organs had been captured by the opposition, so it was like knocking our heads against the brick wall and for the government of the day to be able to get ahead will take time. And we had a very peculiar situation to work with; all the Northern media organs were in the hands of the opposition. If you come down South-west, 70 per cent of the media organs were in the hands of one man who was on the other side. So within those constraints, we still did a lot to put our own message across. Now, I go back to the issue that you wanted to know about, the issue that occurred in Addis Ababa, of course I was there and I issued a statement to say that President Jonathan did not abandon the meeting. I was with President Jonathan everywhere, I was with him in every meeting, for 24 hours; I was there, so I have no reason to lie to you.
Every special adviser media will have his own experience; no two presidencies are the same. In this particular place, he was in the meeting, but there was a special meeting about the West African highway and other presidents were ready and they wanted to discuss the issue. Then he excused himself to go and attend to those other Presidents because he was also at that time the chairman of that meeting and the Nigerian minister of works was the vice chairman of that particular body, Mike Onolememe. So here was Mike Onolememe reminding the president that he had to meet with those other presidents that are already waiting for him about a critical decision that needed to be taken on a West African highway and he also had this other presentation in the plenary. When you have a presentation in the plenary, you can delegate, you can ask your minister of foreign affairs to stand in for you. But the minister of foreign affairs was not in a position to stand in in the other meeting. So it was a question of managing time, joggling the bus. So the President told the minister of foreign affairs to stand in and present his papers in the plenary so that go he could go and attend to the four presidents, who are already waiting for him in one of the meeting rooms. So he went and attended to that meeting and immediately that meeting finished, we came back immediately to the plenary. But the way it came out was that President Jonathan abandoned an important meeting at the AU. The one he went to go and attend to was more important than reading a statement on the floor of the plenary.
But there is so much ignorance about how government works. And I guess that people over time will learn and understand how government works. And that of the first lady, yes she went abroad but the details were not immediately available, so we did not issue a statement. But she herself came back and said look, I was ill and this was what happened and all that and at the end of the day there was disclosure and transparency even coming from the principal person involved in the matter. How is that an issue? But I think that with the benefit of hindsight, Nigerians will understand that people who go into government, face peculiar challenges and they mean well. President Jonathan definitely meant well for this country, those of us who worked with him we meant very well, and we will continue to mean well. While we were there, our interest was the interest of the Nigerian people, to make life better and to move Nigeria forward. They may be a lot of vilification and all of that but lessons have been learnt on all sides, and I believe we did our best and that history will be fair to President Jonathan.
You were an insider in that government, you just said President Jonathan meant well, but how come Nigerians eventually misunderstood and underrated him as a person? For instance, without being sentimental, one would think there is nothing wrong with an adult taking alcoholic drink, does he drink?
President Jonathan does not drink. You see, that’s one of the myths about that administration and you must understand how this thing is, it’s all about perception, communication, it’s all about what goes out and it’s about stereotyping. People just stereotype people from a particular part of the country as drunkards, and they look for justification for one type of behaviour or the other. But I can tell you that in my 4 years of working for President Jonathan, I never found him in a bibulous situation. If he ever tasted any drink, maybe a glass of wine during special occasions. All those stories about him drinking, about President Jonathan always being berated, about bibulous situations inside the Villa, those things did not exist.
The people must find justifications to say this is why we think this situation is this way it is. I tell you and Nigerians will remember that he is a very humble man; he is a very committed person to the Nigerian project. If you look at the results of the elections, you’ll see that he lost the elections with about 2.5 million votes or thereabout, which means that a large number of Nigerians still believed in him and also believed in his ability and his capability of his administration to move Nigeria forward. We were dealing with a democracy; the people have a right to make a choice, when the people make a choice, we respect that choice. And our commitment as Nigerians, whoever we may be, whatever we maybe our station, is to remain committed to Nigeria, and to support whoever has emerged and to respect the choice and the decision of Nigerians. This is not about witch-hunt, it’s not about criticising people, the Nigerian people have spoken and we stand by the decision of the Nigerian people. And we all support whoever is there to move Nigeria forward. So this backward looking, can we just look forward? Can we all just work together to move Nigeria forward? For me, that is where the emphasis should be, because we are all Nigerians and at the end of the day the country is more important than all of us.
What will you say were his major achievements that the present administration has to build on?
As I’ve told you, the campaign is over, I’m not going to sit here and continue to campaign, no. All I can say is that the election is over, the campaign is over, and we have President Buhari in the saddle. President Buhari has his own vision, he’s already engaging Nigerians, and we must support him and encourage him to move forward. We are not looking backwards, we are looking forward. And I can tell you that President Jonathan is fully in support of President Buhari’s administration, he respects President Buhari because he believes that Nigeria is more important than everybody, and that is why he has chosen not to say anything because he believes that we are all, at the end of the day ordinary citizens, and whoever is there who has been chosen by Nigerians deserves our support. And you won’t find him fighting President Buhari, he wouldn’t do that, he will do everything to support the president that is there.
Those who have met President Jonathan and those who have worked with him have described him in beautiful words. Some said he is a gentle man, he is humble, he is a democrat to the core, and a civilised Nigerian. The critiques went further to say that these were the attributes. Some of those who worked with President Jonathan, particularly some of the ministers saw this and undermined him. What will you say to this, sir?
I won’t comment on the president’s team, I won’t comment on the ministers, I don’t think it will be fair. I won’t make such comments. But I can confirm to you that President Jonathan is a gentle man, he is a very humble person, he is not a man you can read very easily, he isn’t a talkative, he is very reticent, very reserved. He is an introvert but he is a man who has a mind of his own. I worked with him and I studied him very carefully, you will underestimate him at your own risk. All those tales about people pushing him around and all that are not true, he had his own ideas and he was very clear about them.
He was a firm, principled character and he remains firm and principled. If he asks you for example, to write a statement or speech for him, you can’t put your own ideas there, he will not agree to it and he could send you back to rewrite it ten times, until you write exactly what he wants to say. So all these stories about President Jonathan not knowing what he was doing, about him being dumb, that’s not true. He is a very strong personality, humble but strong, firm and principled. Whatever the assessment is on the side of those who voted against him, I think in the fullness of time, they will appreciate his quality. But one thing you cannot take away from him is that he is a man of history. His emergence says a lot about Nigeria, the fact that an ordinary man from a small background, a limited background, can rise to the greatest height in Nigeria, I think that is a great achievement for Nigeria. And I’ll like to congratulate everyone who made that possible, either with their votes or with their support, and I think that also the fact that a man can emerge from a part of the country that have been deemed irrelevant, that could not be part of the highest level, I think also that that is a major achievement for Nigeria.
Something happened in Nigeria in 2011 that cannot be erased. Something happened in 2015 in Nigeria that cannot be erased. Nigeria is the biggest beneficiary; can we all as Nigerians look beyond the individuals and look at what has happened in this country intellectually, philosophically, from the point of view of principle? So, at the end of the day, I think you and I ordinary people, we as Nigerians as a collective people have moved forward and this country today is stronger than it was in 1999, and Nigerians should be congratulated. Whoever has lost, whoever has won, whoever feels hurt, whoever feels some form of gain, Nigeria has moved forward and we congratulate Nigeria.
I will agree with you that the 2015 electioneering campaign will go down in Nigeria history and for political scientists and Nigerians as a very strong one, now part of the references people will continue to make in that election is the Elder Orubebe saga when the result were being collated, was it premeditated? is it true that it was planned?
No, may I, I think you know former minister Elder Godsday Orubebe, he himself addressed that, he apologised to Nigerians. You must know that in the heat of partisan politics, in the heat of partisanship, people respond in their own ways but what I can tell you is that he was not acting as an agent of the president, okay, and he immediately came out I think the following day to apologise to Nigerians and to say look, you know it was all in the mood of partisanship and I think that his apology should be taken and that should be put behind us and in any case, that has no effect whatsoever in the consequential circumstances that followed. So I don’t think it’s an issue and I think that you know Elder Godsday Orubebe has been well restored in public reckoning, you know as a very decent gentleman who just in the heat of passion responded in that manner, I don’t think that’s an issue. I think Nigerians have moved beyond that, Nigerians have moved beyond the historic moment. Nigerians have realised that look, at the end of the day this is a great country of diverse people, diverse cultures, different interests, a country that continues to move forward in spite of all the odds.
What will be your reaction if you are referred to as one of Nigeria’s elites?
What does that mean? I’m just Reuben Abati, I’m not anybody’s elite. I’m just a technocrat doing my own thing, you know I’m happy to be a Nigerian, I’m very proud to be a Nigerian and I’m grateful for the opportunity that I have been given.
Okay, you have said so you have gathered fresh experience, what will you be doing next, where are you heading to from here now, what will be the next assignment of yours?
I don’t know but I will remain a public intellectual, I will continue to engage Nigeria, I will continue to speak my mind, you know, so where I go from here is in God’s hand, but it’s no big deal. I’m just another citizen, 170 million people, so I don’t want to consider myself so important but I’m here doing my own thing and I will continue to do my best.
Since the assumption of President Muhammadu Buhari in office, a lot of revelations about corruption within the past government have been thrown out to the public, does this embarrass some of you who worked in that administration?
Well, one thing everybody must realise is that every presidency has his own style, no two presidencies are the same, every leader has his own vision. When you elect a leader, when Nigerians make a choice or people make a choice, they are voting for vision, they are voting for mission, they are voting for perspective. When that new leader mounts the saddle, he will adopt his own style and he will do his own thing. So it’s not a question of what you think or what you don’t think. Is a question of look this man has the power, this is vision and there is nothing you can do about it. You must encourage him to pursue his vision as long as it’s for the overall good of the people, what we define as the common good.
Let’s have your assessment of the Nigerian media, looking at them from your own experience in Aso Rock.
No, this is not the time for that assessment yet. The only thing I can say is that the media will continue to remain very important to Nigerians, not just because it is the fourth estate of the realm but it’s an institution that perpetually stands at that counter point between the state and society and that will continue to ask question, and is a brave, courageous media.
However, we have seen a mutation in terms of the character of that media in the last few years. Particularly, with the triumphalism of the social media, today everybody is a journalist. You don’t even know who a journalist is, anybody with a phone or iPad is a journalist, anybody with a tablet is a journalist, which is good; we are in the age of information. We are in the idealistic open society and anybody can ask questions. I think that what is happening now is the triumph of democracy, the ultimate exemplification of the democratic space, space and spirit. To assess the Nigerian media, you have to compartmentalise it, which media are you exactly talking about, but I’m happy with the fact that we are now living in an open society, but that open society raises certain ethical, moral challenges but we do not have enough space to go into all that theoretical explanations. But I think that it is good, we are in the age of information, but the people who play in that space, that open space also have a responsibility to pay attention to the ethical issues, to be responsible, to realise that there is no journalism if it is not responsible. Journalism must be responsible because as journalists we are first and foremost citizens, and as citizens we have obligations to be responsible.
Your candid opinion on the presidential phone call from the president Goodluck Jonathan to Muhammadu Buhari, I know you have spoken about this, but it is still not clear to Nigerians who are still saying that as historic and necessary as that phone call was then, that president Goodluck Jonathan told some people who were close to him or showed a manner that he regretted making that phone call?
That is not true; I’ve written an article on this. I wrote an article responding to Segun Adeniyi, to say look, whatever story you have been told, is completely false. Nobody forced President Jonathan into making that concession. I was at home very early that faithful morning, the president called to ask where I was, I told him I was at home and he asked me to come quickly. I went to his office and he said ‘’Abati, it’s over, we’re conceding. He was in his office by 8am, and he told me, ‘Abati, go and write this statement’, this is what I want to say, it’s over, we’re conceding, sorry. I’m telling you life story, when I write a book, I’ll narrate it like that, and I went to my office to start crafting it. Now in the course of the day, all kinds of character started showing up, everybody started showing up, people were coming to my office, they wanted to contribute sentences, and I said can I just be left alone to write this copy? I went back and forth, the man will say “no, you didn’t get it, this is not what I want to say, put it like this” -I’ll say somebody came to my office, he‘ll say “no, I didn’t send anybody to you”. Can you go and write exactly what I want you to say? At the end of the day, that statement that went out was exactly what the man wanted to say, nobody told him. But you know how it is in the game of power, all kinds of characters, all kinds of meddlesome opportunists show up and they would say, we were the one who told him, we were the ones who pushed him.
But thereafter that statement, what were the implications?
What were the implications? Before the statement went out, he placed the phone call. At the moment he approved the statement, then he went and made the phone call, and then we recorded the statement. So what is all about these? That he was pushed, he had always made it very clear that look-his ambition was not worth the blood of any Nigerian, and in his own calculation he had looked at it that if you force this issue, there would be violence, a lot of people will die and he didn’t want people to die on his watch and he said just let it go. Except there is human being on this earth that will say he wrote that statement or that he was the one that was summoned to go and do the draft, then you can tell me I’m lying or if there was any other major player on that day going back and forth writing that statement, if that person exists, bring that person, and I’ll ask that person, where were you on that faithful day? If that person exists, let that person come forward, right now. Up till the recording of the statement to the broadcast, let that person come and challenge me, I’m on my feet.
Why do you think he lost that election? Was it because of his party? Or because of something the people within his government did?
No comment, when I release my memoirs, I’ll address all of this. There have been all kinds of theories and all of that but I have my own ideas, I have my opinion on things, this is not for this forum.
Maybe for this forum, the Chibok girls issue almost became an albatross in that administration. What were the feelings within the presidency over that issue? From when did you think these girls have been taken away? Till when government began to react or act?
The president’s single commitment and honest commitment was to get the girls rescued, there was a lot of misrepresentation, there was a lot of miscommunication from all kinds of sight. The incident occurred and the president took charge immediately, all that talk about the president not responding until two weeks later was just pure propaganda, I was there, I was the one managing the media end of it, and you know the incident that occurred in Nyanya occurred almost at the same time, it was within the same time-frame, so we were dealing with Nyanya and Chibok girls and the president immediately summoned a meeting of the security council. They started acting on it immediately, but now people started bench-marking the response of the administration from the point at which we now issued a formal statement after series of effort have taken place, meeting have been held, people have been contacted, and people said oh, the president didn’t respond until two weeks later. That is borne out of people’s ignorance, and that ignorance coming from people who ought to understand the system well, it is not true.
Obviously while doing your job, it is not impossible you must have stepped on toes, knowingly or unknowingly, have you identified that? Do you have anything to say about this?
As spokesman for President Jonathan, for any president, as spokesman will step on toes because you are an errand man, you’re given an assignment, go and do this, go and say that. And you know the first call on the job is loyalty, as a spokesperson, you must be loyal. If you’re not loyal, you must not spend a day longer in the job and I understood this very well and I was very loyal to my boss and I have no regret because when you run Nigeria, you can’t do half and half job, you must be loyal to your principal, and you must be ready to take bullet for your boss, the president is a special person, he’s the symbol of our democracy, he’s the head of democracy and the way Nigeria’s presidency is structured, the president is at the top of everything, if you can’t take the bullet for him then don’t work for him, whoever you may be. I was ready to take bullet for my boss.