This piece is not about Rueben Abati, the presidential media person. Neither is it going to be about the present perception that his former admirers have of him. Rueben Abati or Segun Adeniyi or any journalist for that matter who has served or is serving a politician, it doesn’t matter – this is just a stereotypical or an archetypical analysis of the way we see government officials, how they see us, and the distances from where we both see ourselves. This piece will not be an ululation favourable or unfavourable to any one person or institution.
But who was or is Rueben Abati? I first knew about Abati from reading his opinion pieces in The Guardian newspapers – those pieces were forthright and blunt and were lampoons targeted at governance in its entirety. It did not matter who it was – civilian or military, whether it was in corporate or incorporate establishments – Abati’s pen proved to be a scimitar with which he fought many battles – and many of us brandished our little assegais like his scimitar like some raw recruits waiting for a the command of a modernmajorgeneral to go to war.
Therefore one day, I wrote something which I thought was akin to his style. I took it to him (that was when he was the editorial board chairman at The Guardian – I guess so). My article never got near the hallowed opinion section of The Guardian. But if I didn’t get published, I left that office with a lasting picture of our Rueben Abati – while submitting the said article, I peeped into the door left ajar – and wow by Jove, there he was, our champion ensconced in his couch and hammering away at his desk top computer. He appeared shut off from the world he was writing about.
The second time I was to run into him, I was a reporter with one of Nigeria’s flagship in the zine industry. My editors assigned me to cover the industrial strike embarked upon by journalists working for The Guardian newspapers. As I hovered around the place talking with the striking journalists, I discovered that some were for or against the strike action. And just as my luck would have it, Rueben Abati started walking by. What would his position be? Would he be on the side of the striking workers – his colleagues – or he would be on the side of the people who paid him a salary for championing the course and cause of the downtrodden? So I sidled up to him to ask his position on the strike embarked upon by his colleagues. But he waved me aside before he muttered, ‘No comment, please…’
But the position he occupies today stipulates that he must comment and comment for his boss Mr. President. And it is also not a different position from the one he occupied as Editorial board chairman for The Guardian. As the president’s media person, he must take the gauntlet and take it, no longer on behalf of 160 million Nigerians, but on behalf of the one man who pays his salary, just the same way his employers at The Guardian expected him to write for the people. And we all have found out that there seems to be a world of difference in the Segun Adeniyi who was also seen first as a firebrand journalist before he became a media officer to Yar’Adua (RIP sir) and a Rueben Abati, formerly chairman of the editorial board of The Guardian, now as media man to the president. What this seems to translate to, is that there usually is a Dr. Jekyll in the journalist before government employs him and then he suddenly transmutes to a Mr. Hyde when he begins to works for a politician.
I want to buttress my argument with this curious example. Almost every Friday in Abuja, the vice president of Nigeria, Architect Namadi Sambo leaves his mansion in Aso Rock. He is headed for the central mosque, I guess, to offer prayers most likely for the peace and unity of the Nigeria and for his family. About four hours before he gets to the central mosque, members of the SSS, the police and army would have sealed off all the roads leading to the mosque, subjecting commuters to untold hardship because of the snarls created from the blocked roads. He gets there with 27 vehicles. Of the 27 vehicles that the vice president comes to the mosque with, one of them is loaded with journalists covering the state house. These journalists know about the suffering that Mr. Vice President’s entourage causes but they will never report it. Why do you think they wouldn’t report that unnecessary blockade and report that the Vice president goes and comes with 27 vehicles?
My answer to that would be to state my own side of the story – well as a journalist. Before I walked the corridors of power briefly in 2010, I wrote articles as sharp as barbed wire nearly all a denunciation of government. I was saying all of these things, like an Abati and like an Adeniyi, from a great distance unmindful that in wagging one finger at government the rest were pointing at me. I found out so many things even from that peripheral position in government and these things tempered my insight into the workings of government. I found out why Nigeria moves at such snail pace but one of the greatest discoveries was this: there is a system so powerful and so overwhelming in government that even if you were the Pope, you would get suctioned in. The system is run by a malignant leitmotif that only one who has been there can tell.
And that is why I want to suggest to government: employ more and more of your harshest critics. To silence them, do not arrest them. Give them the Sambo treatment and before long, you will find that employing them into government or governance bridges that gap from where they hurl those stones at you.