By Shola Oshunkeye
It can’t be easy being a presidential spokesman. Not now. Not at any time in history. Whether you speak for a well-loved president, a man of history like President Goodluck Jonathan, or a much-hated tyrant in the tower of power like the late maximum ruler of Nigeria, General Sani Abacha, the challenges are more or less the same. Sleepless nights. Frequent travels. Tackling journalists. Dealing with all kinds of intrigues and interests. Speaking the master’s mind whoever’s ox is gored. Risking hard-earned reputation to defend the master, sometimes defending the indefensible.
All these and more are the reasons why not a few Nigerians were confounded when Dr. Reuben Abati, sizzling columnist and erstwhile chairman of Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspapers, accepted to serve as Senior Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Jonathan. Many of Abati’s dyed-in-the-wool fans wondered how a prolific critic like their man would want to imprison his pen and imperil his hard-earned reputation in the ever-spiking political voltage of the Aso Rock Presidential Villa.
However, one and a half years down the line, Abati, who holds a PhD in Dramatic Literature, Theory and Criticism from the University of Ibadan, has dispelled all fears, as he continues to soar on the job. Stating that there is no fundamental difference between his beat as a journalist and his current beat as the president’s mouthpiece, he declares: “I am glad that I took the assignment.”
Although he admits the job has its peculiar challenges, there has never been a time he felt like throwing in the towel. “I have never felt like taking a walk,” he continues. “You can’t go to the river and you are afraid of cold. Once you are in the river, you know that you are inside water and you can catch cold. And you must be ready to swim because if you don’t swim, you will sink. I have never thought of walking away. I have taken the assignment and, as I told you at the beginning, when I look back, I am glad that I took the assignment.”
Well, as they say, the taste of the pudding is in the eating.
Please, enjoy the full interview.
When you were called to take up this job, what was the working of your mind?
You will recall that I was invited by President Jonathan to serve in his government at a special moment in the Nigerian history and that special moment has to do with the emergence of President Jonathan himself. It’s special because, one, it is the first time a minority will be president over Nigeria. It’s the first time a PhD holder will be president of Nigeria. It was the first time an election would be conducted and everybody, locally and internationally, will adjudge the election to be free and fair. It was the first time that Nigerians generally really felt that ‘yes, something momentous has happened in Nigeria’. And on the face of every Nigerian, you could see hope. You could see overwhelming support, you could see overwhelming goodwill. And when I went for the invitation, I considered it a great privilege to have been invited to be part of this great wind of change in Nigerian history and to work for a man who is clearly a man of history.
Whatever happens, President Jonathan will always be remembered as a very significant man of history. His coming to power was on a platform of great hope. He represents, if you wish, the Nigerian Dream. He doesn’t come from any wealthy background; he has never been in the military; he is not a rich man; he is a man that from whichever angle you look at him, you see an image of yourself as an ordinary Nigerian who wants to succeed. For the younger generation, he is a symbol of success; for the older generation, he is a symbol of what is possible. For all of us as a collective, he represents the fact that Nigeria can really make progress and change is possible in our society. These were the considerations. And looking back, I think it was a good decision to have accepted the invitation.
Did you ever think that your job would be made easy by the tremendous popularity of Jonathan’s ascendancy to power? By the fact that the man was coming on the crest of history, by the fact that he was soaring high on the crest of history…
First of all, I have never really worked in government at this level, but as a public affairs commentator and analyst, I know also that leadership is very complex, and that nations face different kind of challenge at any particular time. So, I didn’t imagine that I was coming into an arena where there would be no challenges. Definitely, running a country is a very complex task; it’s very challenging, but so far so good. I think whatever challenges we are facing in the last one and half years, those challenges have strengthened all of us as Nigerians. And for those of us who are privileged to work for the No 1 man, it’s been a great learning opportunity and it has also been an opportunity to make our own little contributions.
What have you learned so far from your principal?
One, the president’s humility, and every body remarks upon this. It’s a very humble man and working with a man like that and you see him so humble, so accessible, you just learn that whatever position you may be in life, you must be yourself. He is president but all his friends that he went to school with, they are still with him. If he travels and he sees somebody, an old colleague, he would reach out to the person. He would say, for instance, that guy was my colleague in NDDC, or OMPADEC as it was then. When he goes home in Otuoke, you need to be there, his entire compound is filled up with cousins, ordinary people, secondary school mates, etc. He would go to the village, from house to house, he would see somebody he wants to greet. He would greet the person. The person would crack jokes with him and he would respond. Then he would tell us he was my classmate in secondary school. And you could see the excitement. And for a man to be in that high position and to still be so humble, it’s amazing.
Are sure there is no issue of dual personality here-humble and soft as jelly on the outside, then hard as steel on the inside…
(Cuts in…) But if you see him, even in terms of his relationship with the public, I don’t think anybody has ever described him as being arrogant. The other thing that you will discover about him is that he has a very strong character. He is very determined. It is not easy to shake him. He is not easily rattled. But most people say he is weak; they say he doesn’t have backbone. And I look at them and say ‘they don’t know this man’. Because he is focused, he knows what he is doing, he is determined and he is very optimistic. And above all, he is man who believes in God.
Still on some people’s perception of the president as being weak, the other day, his mentor, President Olusegun Obasanjo passed some remarks about President Jonathan’s approach to the Boko Haram nuisance; comparing the approach of the government to Boko Haram to how he handled Odi. That comment elicited some commentaries, some fair, some not so savoury. What’s your take on this?
Let me put it this way. We shouldn’t talk about weakness. It is mater of difference in style and approach. The president himself had already responded to that in a media chat. His response was not really a response to President Obasanjo. If you look at the way that a question was phrased, it was just an open question and he commented on it. But when the media reported it, in contextualizing it, they made it look as if he was responding to President Obasanjo. But the truth of the matter is that there is no quarrel between the two leaders.
Are you sure?
President Obasanjo and President Jonathan have very good relationship. Okay? But when you read, what is in the media, all kinds of speculations, all kinds theories, all kinds of suppositions, I see most of those things as an attempt by people to sensationalize the relationship between the two leaders. I can tell you that there is no quarrel between the two of them.
People were suggesting that Obasanjo was saying all he was saying because they had parted ways, and he wouldn’t want support the president for 2015…
(Cuts in…) President Jonathan has not even commented on 2015 in terms of whether he wants to run or not; and we have been saying this over and over again, that we consider the discussion of the 2015 general elections at this moment premature and a distraction. President Jonathan also responded to that in the media chat and he has done so again and again. In that media chat, he made it clear that, ask me this question again in 2014. But for now, Nigerians should just allow him to concentrate on the assignment that he has been given. I think that is clear enough. And he further offered explanations as to why he just wants to concentrate on his assignment. But Nigerians would not let him rest. Everybody is just talking about 2015. But he is focused on service delivery.
If you were to write a personality profile on the president, taking into consideration where you were before you got this job and what you now know, what kind of a manager would you describe President Jonathan to be?
I think he is hands-on. He pays attention to details. He encourages teamwork and he is very clear as to the direction of his government and what he wants to achieve. Now, some of those priorities may not yet have fructified fully, but the things that people should know is that service delivery, in a significance sense, is a process; and when those things fructify, many of those people who are condemning now would see that, indeed, this government is working hard. And you can already see many of the results. When there was significant improvement in power supply, we didn’t need to go and inform Nigerians. We didn’t need to use any propaganda. Nigerians themselves started talking about it. The things that the Ministry of Aviation is doing, we are all living witnesses in this country. There was a time in our recent history, when some airports were shut down for two to three years under the guise that they were going to be renovated and rebuilt. Two years later, those airports were reopened with nothing having been done on them. But you can see what is happening in the aviation industry today. The people who go to those airports are testifying to the great work done in them.
Except that we have beautiful edifices now but no planes to fly…
Government is addressing that now. But people go to those places and they feel more comfortable that an effort is being made. A lot more would be done. To the question of the availability of aircraft, government has already announced a bailout plan for the aviation industry. There are also plans to start a national carrier. We used to have a national carrier in this country. Now, government wants to do it again, making use of the expertise and the creativity that is available within the private sector. I think the private sector would be involved, the existing airlines would be strengthened and if you check the aviation industry, the aviation minister will be in a better position to provide the details. In terms of facilities for air traffic controllers, upgrading of the airports, a lot has been done.
Is there any particular leadership model that the president adopts in doing what he is doing?
I cannot speak for him in terms of who his heroes are but I know that his favorite books are books on leaderships, particularly biographies of other leaders, and then, what he calls development politics or something. He has a phrase. I think its development economics. He reads book on that. So, if you want to buy him books, buy him biographies, buy him books on development economics and then books on his field-science. The man is still naturally a teacher, a scientist. Watch very well, if at any time he has to discuss anything related to science, or technology, he is very much at home. The things are still very fresh in his head. Sometimes, he says ‘I wish I could go and teach’. I even admire him for the fact that he is president but he is very conscious of his background as a scholar and researcher and he still keeps in touch with issues in his field. Sometimes, we joke with him that ‘Sir, you can’t go back and teach.’ He is first and foremost a scholar and an intellectual, a leader, a researcher.
When he sits at meetings, does he come across as a leader that allows plurality of opinion?
Oh yes. Discussions are usually very robust and people are free to say their minds. He allows everybody to have a free say. He is not a dictator. If there is any credit that Nigerians give him, it is that this man is not a dictator. He is a team player; or rather he encourages teamwork and at the end of the day, he synthesizes and then provides the leadership that is required.
When you talk about reading, does he really have time to read?
He has time to read. I will tell you about his routine. In his residence, he has a library. It has an office and he has books there. And when he wakes up in the morning, the first thing he does is that he monitors the media and then he reads the paper online. By the time I arrive…
(I cut in…) He reads his papers by himself? It’s not as if you read and then underscore the issues that should interest him for his attention, like most chief executives do?
No, I don’t underline things for him. He reads newspapers himself and he listens to AIT, NTA, Channels, and STV, and all those channels. Before 8 a.m., he has gone through all the channels, watching the headlines, newspaper reviews, discussion programmes, those ones that come very early, he monitors them, he listens to them. By the time I sit with him to do media briefing, we are just looking at the issues and discussing them. So, you can’t go and tell him any lies. And we don’t mark papers for him. We give him the papers. He reads the papers himself. What we now do is to identify certain highlights and when I sit with him, we just go through some of those issues together. He is not a president who is waiting for you to read the papers on his behalf, mark pages 1 and 2, or more, for his attention and bring them to him. No! I have never done that. He reads newspapers himself, and, in fact, if you are briefing him and you forget a particular issue, he would be the one to remind you. And if you are misrepresenting the fact, he will correct you because he has read it.
So that tells you that you have to be on your toes?
Yes, and that is important because he is not a man you can lie to. Don’t forget he is an intellectual, he is a teacher, and he is coming from the background of scholarship. So, reading is not strange to him.
If he has to go through the whole gamut before 8 a.m., that means he must have woken up by 6 a.m. or thereabout…
That contradicts what we hear outside that the president doesn’t come to office until 12 noon.
Who is saying that? The man wakes up before 6 a.m., because by 6 a.m. he has to be at the Red Carpet; that is where they do the morning devotion.
In the Chapel?
In the residence. The use the Red Carpet for early morning devotion. He worships there. He has his early morning prayer there. When he finishes the prayer, he goes on to monitor the news. By then, we would have brought the newspapers. The papers get to him very early. So, he would have monitored the news. Later, not more than 9:30 a.m., he comes out. Before 10 a.m., he is in the office, and he could be in the office till very late. So, if anybody is telling you that he comes to work at 2 p.m., that is a lie. In fact, on many occasions, by the time, I will get to his residence, they would say ‘Oga is in the office’. And many of us would start running to catch up because sometimes he would go there by 8 a.m., and by the time we are arriving, following the schedule that we know, we would hear that he has gone to the office. We would quickly rush in. Because if your Oga is in the office before you, it means that…
(I cut in…) On the average, on a daily basis, how many hours do you spend with the president?
I have never counted the hours; it depends on what we are doing. If there are programmes, yes, I will be there for as long as I’m needed.
Do you attend all assignments that concern you or all the assignments?
You know we are presidential aides. We are always available. It’s not just a case of other people having their own assignments. I have never taken time to count it in terms of hours. But the thing is you are available, if your attention is needed for anything, you can be summoned.
Dr. Abati, I am trying to use you as a prism to look at the president. That is why I am talking about the hours, the kind of food he eats, and so on.
I just told you when he wakes up, and very early he is in the office. Once he goes to the office, we are also in the office.
Have you ever eaten with him?
It’s normal now if you are a presidential aide. He doesn’t eat alone. And I have written an article about what he eats.
I missed the article. What is his favourite food?
I think I have written about it. And he too likes to crack jokes. You know, he read an article once and he came to report back to us that he just read a piece somewhere and maybe somebody said something that “if you go to the Villa, the President consumes a whole turkey at every meal. He said why would somebody write that. Is it possible for one human being to sit down and consume one whole turkey in the morning and another one in the afternoon and another in the evening? The president eats very simple food. What do I consider his favourite foods? Pepper soup, yam, boiled plantain.
He is not a salad person? He doesn’t do salad and all those stuffs?
When do they even serve salads? Maybe on Sunday afternoon, because when he leaves church and goes home, some guests may come back home with him and he will have lunch with them. And what does he eat? Rice. In fact, many Nigerians eat better food in their homes than the president.
That is subjective.
What is special in pepper soup, yam and boiled plantain and stew and maybe rice?
Like in the White House where President Obama brews his beer, does our president drink beer in the villa?
He doesn’t drink there.
What does he drink?
Ordinary water, no alcohol?
Maybe I have seen him once or twice at a function taste wine, not more than that. He doesn’t drink. But when you hear people, they will say, they are drinking in the villa.
What are the challenges you face managing this president?
Just this kind of thing that is happening. You have asked me whether we brew beer in the villa. You have asked whether he drinks. You have asked what does, what he eats, and I know where you are coming from, because some people go out there and say if you see what they eat in the villa… Somebody called me this morning, he said he saw somebody on the TV, the person has packed so much weight because he is in government. He said they just go there to go and eat food. I said no, it is not like that. So, the main challenge would be this kind of misrepresentations. People making up stories. I think that this also is part of the fact that we live in an information age. It is very easy in this information age, and with the phenomenal impact of the Internet, for you to tarnish anybody’s image. You can just say anything and the thing will go viral on the Internet in seconds. And Nigerians like to believe the worst about those who are leading them. And many of those things, I can tell you, are not true. And when you read those things, you feel really pained because you know that this thing that this person has written is not true. Or sometimes when there is a fraction of the truth there, the thing has been twisted, sometimes to serve political ends. Don’t forget that one of the major challenges we are facing under this administration is that, for some members of the opposition, it is as if the election is not yet over. One and half years later, it is as if there is still a contestation over who is president. There are persons who believe that they must work very hard to discredit this administration so that the president would not even think of 2015 at all, and the battle is at the level of information. So, people throw up all kinds of negative things out there and we are also always trying to clean up those things they throw out. It is a major competition. It’s a perpetual one.
Talking about clean up, how do you decide on what to respond to as the president’s aide on media and publicity?
For me, there is so much out there, people say things and all that but the responsibility of my office also is, as the president’s spokesman, I really cannot descend low. How do I put this? There are certain things I cannot do, because if I say certain things or respond to certain things, it will be immediately credited to the president and that institution is a very high institution. So, what is important at all times is the dignity of that office. The president cannot engage people in a shouting match. So, most of the time, I try to just offer explanation, I try to provide correct information, clarify things to journalists. Even when I see that what has been said has been twisted, I try to provide more explanations. But there have been occasions in the more than one year that I have been here that I have had to also to take people on frontally.
Either colleagues or the opposition, because when you see that these people are just lying and being mischievous as a human being, it touches you and you feel compelled to respond to them. But it is not a thing that my office can do on a daily basis, because to do that, it would seem as if the president is engaging everybody in a shouting match. But when opportunities as this arise, and issues come up, I use this kind of opportunity to clarify certain issues. I believe that Nigerians would get to know the truth and know that most of the criticisms are undeserved and that those who try to make it their business to drag the president and attack his person are being unfair to him.
What has been the most traumatic experience you have had on this job, an experience that you feel like throwing in the towel and walk away?
No, I have never felt like taking a walk. You can’t go to the river and you are afraid of cold. Once you are in the river, you know that you are inside water and you can catch cold. And you must be ready to swim because if you don’t swim, you will sink. I have never thought of walking away. I have taken the assignment and, as I told you at the beginning, when I look back, I am glad that I took the assignment.
There must have been moments of frustration since you came into this office. Tell me about them.
Like any human being, on any job at all, there would be moments of depression. Maybe people annoy you or people are trying to undermine you, especially given the peculiar nature of this job where everybody anywhere thinks he’s a media expert. They all know how you should do your job. Even the cleaner, who has a relation who is just a reporter in one remote publication, would tell the media adviser what he should do. They are all more knowledgeable than the man who has been given the job. When I came newly that used to bother me lot. You see all kinds of characters pretending to know the job and offering advices. Some of them would even go out of their way to say things that they know nothing about. You get over things like that. You take it in your strides. This is part of the job. It used to bother me at that initial stage. It doesn’t bother me any more.
How about your primary constituency, your media colleagues? How do you now evaluate that constituency? You have been there, you are now on the inside of the other side. From your experience so far, how do you evaluate that constituency?
I don’t think the time has come for me to be evaluating the media institution. I think these are still my colleagues, we work together. This is my primary constituency. I know virtually everybody, but the thing is that, sometimes when I see some of those headlines and I call them. Or I see some of the columns and I complain, and I said, how could you write this kind of thing? This thing is not true. Some of them will say ‘if it were you, when you were here, it would have been worse’. I say ‘what else do you want me to say?’ They say ‘oh, it’s even because of you that the thing is mild like this.’ But I think that the media is very important. It’s very strategic and being on both sides, you get to learn a lot about how the media works and also about how government functions.
What are the fresh lessons that you have learnt about how the Nigerian media works?
Please, allow me to leave that for my memoirs.
If you were to be on the outside looking in, don’t you truly think you would do worse than you think some of your colleagues are currently doing, knowing the Reuben Abati that we used to know?
I keep saying it’s not the other side; it’s the same side of the street. In terms of objectives, what journalists want is also, in principle, what politicians want, i.e. nation building and contribution to the development of society. It’s essentially the same objectives. It’s just that in terms of the roles, the media has been appointed the watchdog. But if you take both institutions, you take government, you take the media, it’s just that there are good and bad people in the government, just as there are also good and bad people in the media because we are all in the same society.
I really don’t think that the media, as an institution, can really be holier than thou because it’s the same society, it’s the same reflection. There are good people on this side, there are good people on that side; there are bad people on this side, there are bad people on that side. But all of us are united in one objective-to build Nigeria, to get things right, to improve our country and I think that is what is important. I think that at that level, both government and media can work together effectively because these are two very strategic institutions. And if you have been on both sides, you will be in a position to see what the challenges are on both sides. But I think the residue of it all is the media and government working together, focused on that principle of nation building and national progress.
When Dr. Reuben Abati finishes this tour of duty, do you think your pen would be as sharp as it used to be before you came on to this job?
I can assure you my pen is still very sharp.
Would you be able to write some of those things you were writing before you took this job?
I consider myself even better informed now. Because there are things that I see in the papers, these days, and I just say, well, this person is writing because that is the way he feels. But, maybe, if he has information, the article will be more enriched. And you can see some of the people who had been in government who now write for the media. When you see what they write, you will see that in terms of content, in terms of analysis, they have something extra to offer. This is not just an angry citizen, fulminating. This is somebody who has been here, who has been there, and who is back, somebody who has seen the issue from different sides. And you can just take a few examples if you look at what they write, you will see that there is that difference. Because, if you have been in government, you have watched the processes, you have attended the meetings, you will have a better understanding. That is what I mean that when you write from that position of knowledge, the commentary will even be more informed. So, I don’t think there is any problem about my being able to write in the future.
When you take up a job like this, you become like a gold fish. There is no hiding place for you. So, how much of your privacy have you had to sacrifice?
What I try to do is that I try to adjust my lifestyle particularly because the work I am doing is a very sensitive one. I used to attend parties a lot. Oh, I love parties. In a day I could go to as many as possible. Of course, you know Lagos now. There is always a party next door. I used to go to nightclubs occasionally although by the time I came back I had reduced that a bit. But with this kind of job, I cannot do that. You don’t want a presidential spokesman that people see at pepper soup joints all over the place. You don’t want to see a presidential spokesman who attends Owambe parties every other day. Also, you can’t socialize that much, going from house to house and talking all over the place. The job is sensitive. It calls for restraint. It calls for a lot of discipline. And every day I know that at the end of the day when this assignment is over, the only person that Nigerians will call to account is President Jonathan. He is the president. He is the man they voted for. Nobody is going to remember any spokesman. Nobody is going to remember any other official. It’s President Jonathan they would invite to come and explain what he did when he was president. He is the one who would be right there at the centre page of history book. So, those of us who work for him also have the responsibility to be careful. So, as much as possible I try to be careful so that I don’t say anything or get into situations that can detract from the dignity of the office that I work for. That is the main restraining factor.
How has this job impacted on your family life?
As presidential aide, we are always with the president. We really don’t have much time for the family. Even the president himself, how much time does he have for family? He is always busy. Sometimes, you will say I haven’t seen my children. We would come back from a trip or we would go somewhere, you would say I have to go and see my children, just give me few minutes. You dash there, go and see them just to make sure that they have not gone to bed before you arrive, and you would come back immediately. But if you say let me go and greet my mother. And those moments are usually very touching for me.
It is very touching for me when I see the president, with his tough job, squeezing out time to attend to family issues and people will still bring other issues to him. Yet, he will squeeze out time to attend to every one of those issues. It’s a lot of hard work to even have time for family. And those of us who work for him, we know that, working for Nigeria, we are making a sacrifice. It’s for a season. And if you see the boss making such a huge a sacrifice, who are you, his aide, to say you can’t make a sacrifice. And the president shows perfect understanding of the situation. He meets with us regularly and he says ‘I know you people. I know it’s tough for you. But, let’s work together, let’s make sure we do our very best.’ What inspires most of us is that he is an optimist, and he has absolute faith in God. And I am convinced that at the end of the day, this would have been a very good job.
Your two columns in The Guardian, Reuben Abati on Friday and Reuben Abati on Sundays had a huge followership. Do you miss them?
I miss writing on a daily basis. That was what I did for years. That was my major-to think and write and put things together, to edit materials and give lectures. But the routine here is different. So, I miss that part. In fact, there will be events that happen and I will see a column idea and I will say ‘O my God, how I wish I can just put these things together’. I even have tighter deadlines now. But all these things are in my head. But it’s all right. This is national assignment and it’s a great privilege to have been invited to serve at this level.
When this tour of duty is over, if given another opportunity that you should come and serve in the same capacity, would you accept knowing what you know now?
Let us finish this tour of duty first. Tomorrow will take care of itself.