Special Adviser (Media) to former President Goodluck Jonathan, Reuben Abati, who recently clocked 50 years of age, has indeed become a phenomenon. He got into the government of former president Jonathan having crept into public scene as a social commentator, but his exit after the tenure of his boss was as interesting as they come.
The PhD holder recently wrote an article, where he stated that his phones have stopped ringing intermittently as they used to do, when he was in office.
In this interview he granted ‘The Interview, ‘ Abati speaks on a wide range of issues covering his years with former president Goodluck Jonathan and all that transpired under his former boss and some of the allegations he regarded as misconceptions.
With the immediate past petroleum minister, Diezani Allison-Maduekwe, now on trial in the UK and widespread allegations of corruption against the former administration, president Jonathan’s administration seems to be unravelling in its aftermath. Is this fair comment?
I will put it like this. I think you used the right word. You said allegations. And allegations remain allegations. And people against whom allegations have been raised, even when they are charged to court, remain innocent until proven guilty. And I think in the case of the Jonathan administration, we have seen a lot of sensationalism. We have seen a lot media lynching, which is quite unfortunate because trial-by-media can be problematic. The problem is that in Nigeria, once an allegation is raised against someone, you have a whole army out there that doesn’t even want to listen to details of the matter; and they go to town. But the truth of the matter is that, to be fair to all parties concerned, people can only be accused, people can only be taken to task, and they can only be labelled only after they have been convicted. I wouldn’t say that the Jonathan administration is unravelling. The new administration that is in place is carrying out a lot of investigations. All of that is within the powers of the administration to do because that is the priority it has set for itself But I think I would just advise caution. When people have not been convicted, when they have not been proven guilty, we should just be careful with this media lynching, this trial by the media.
Rather than say ‘trial-bymedia,” let us use the words “trial-by-public”. Now the Latte r is based on perception. Was the public perception on what was happening in the Jonathan administration all wrong?
What I can go by is what I call trial-by-media because that is concrete evidence I can hold onto. This public perception concept, it depends on who is defining it. I have also seen people who have given a lot of credit to the Jonathan administration, who have praised him for how he has helped to unite the country and how at a critical moment, President Jonathan decided to make that personal sacrifice to ensure that there was no blowout as predicted for the country. That is also perception. I have also seen people who say that the Jonathan administration did very well in several sectors of the economy. Don’t forget that in that election, he lost the election by just over 2 million votes, out of the many other millions of votes he received.
This means he had and still has a large following out there. He still has a lot of people out there who support and believe in his administration. That is why I say it is trial by the media and it is just a section of the media. So perception can also be delicate. But of course I know what you are trying to say. Public opinion is at the centre of the democratic process and it is an important part of that process. But in talking about public opinion, you must define it correctly and not do so from a prism of prejudice.
The Buhari administration has criticised the government in which you served of treating the handover to the present government shabbily, why?
Again, you must realize that this is a case of the opposition taking over from a party that had been in power for about 16 years. And if you look back, it wasn’t as if during the campaign process or even the processes leading to that moment, there was a lot of friendliness in the air. So what we still had immediately after the election was a hangover of the election mood. In terms of the handover, there were committees set up. The two committees worked together. Handover notes were prepared. They were submitted to the relevant bodies. In any case, government is continuous. And a system is in place for taking government forward. And don’t forget that there is still a lot of partisanship. But we should move beyond partisanship because at the end of the day. this country belongs to all of us, whether we belong to this party or that party, to this ethnic group or that religious group. So I would like to see a situation whereby there is a lot of cooperation across all divides because Nigeria is more important than political parties, more important than ethnicity or religion.
After your appointment the opposition at the time published very critical articles that you wrote as a columnist against president Jonathan and the-then first lady. Did you regret writing the articles?
No, I don’t regret writing those articles. I am as much a Nigerian as anyone else. In doing my job as a public affairs intellectual, if there are things I feel strongly about, I write about them and I express my opinion. And if I am invited to serve my country, I am not going to be apologetic. Because the people who are in government in any case, they are Nigerians like me. I have addressed this issue before, that anybody that is called upon to come and serve Nigeria in whatever capacity should see it as an opportunity to contribute to the making of Nigeria. We have been making this point all the time that for people in civil society, there is a tendency to get locked in the criticism mode and you are perpetually criticizing and all that. But when you get the opportunity to go to the other side of the street, I don’t think anybody should run away from it. And in my own case, I think it was a very great experience. I was in there for four years. The experience that I gained, the insights I gained, the knowledge, the exposure, I don’t think I would have gained all of that if I had remained outside. And I know my country now. I know how better how government functions.
In your first article after leaving office, you described the pressure and huge expectations attached to public office and what happens afterwards. How did you balance the pressures and competing interests for almost four years?
What I was describing in that piece, I could have written in a lot of other pieces. I wanted to do a series to talk about my experience inside government. But people then said, “don’t expose everything. If you give us all the juicy stuff, then you won’t have any material for your book”. So I stopped the series. I just write and keep in the hope that if I put them together in a book form, they will be refreshed. In that article I just wanted to describe an experience. People go into government, and then everything just disappears. Immediately President Jonathan lost the election, Aso Villa became a ghost town. All the people who used to fall over themselves to go there disappeared.
You know access to the president of Nigeria is a big deal for Nigerians because the office of the president is so powerful. The Nigerian president is a very powerful president. The powers at his disposal are enormous. But I was in that place; I saw a situation whereby immediately the president lost the election, people just evaporated. They disappeared into thin air. People ordinarily would come and they would even impede those of us working with the president to have ready access to him because they were always hanging around; and the president would not want to keep people waiting because he is a very humble person and he respects people a lot. Suddenly, after the election they stopped coming. I was shocked. And people who used to call me 20 times a day, UI want to talk to Abati, Abati should do this”, they stopped calling. I was just describing the reality of powerlessness, of the loss of authority; it wasn’t meant to be a self-righteous piece. It was just to describe an experience. The reaction that the piece generated was quite interesting. I’m sure if you are listing famous articles this year, it will be one of the top ones. What I again found amusing was that someone else who left government in another African country wrote a similar piece, also saying that people have not been calling!
But I think the article speaks to something much deeper than the light analysis a lot of people who read it would ordinarily give it. It says something about power and reality of powerlessness. It says something profound about human nature.
Do you regret losing the government position?
No. Absolutely no regret. It is a democracy. When you go into an election, somebody will lose, somebody will win. I think it was in that same piece (about his ‘phone not ringing) or elsewhere, I made a point that at the end of the day, it is democracy that won. It is Nigeria that has been strengthened. And the fact that a sitting government and a party that has been in power for 16 years can lose power and an incumbent government can also lose power, is a very strong message. The ultimate winners are the Nigerian people. And today, you can say that the average Nigerian is walking tall simply due to that fact. And the people’s confidence in democracy has been deepened. The average Nigerian will tell you now, any government that comes around that doesn’t do well or doesn’t serve our purpose, we will vote out that government. So what you have seen is the power of the vote, the people’s right to choose. I think at a higher level, those are things to worry about, not about the individual, not about people who were in government and lost out. We shouldn’t talk about loss or triumphalism. We should talk about how democracy in Nigeria is being further consolidated.
The common characterization of former president Jonathan was one of a good man but an incompetent and clueless leader. Do you think this is a fair description of the man you worked with?
It is not a fair description. A new government is in place now. There are critics who are using those same phrases to describe this new government. What it tells you is that the Nigerian people want quick fixes. They want quick solutions. They are impatient. When you tell them you are bringing transformation they want it immediately. like fast food. When you tell them your gospel is that of change. they want it instantaneously. But the truth of the matter is that anybody that has been there will tell you there is a process to governance. It is not a bullet theory thing.
It appears that one major reason why the pop lost and the president failed in his re-election bid – was that the party turned on itself on the eve of the election and former president Jonathan took his fate in his own hands and went about campaigning personally?
All these details are no longer relevant. What is relevant is that in an election, there will be a lot of dynamics in terms of perception – the word you used earlier – or the dynamics within the political party. The end result is that somebody will win; somebody will lose. How you manage the outcome is what is important to us Nigerians. I think that the residue of that entire process, no matter where you stand in terms of analyses, s that at the end of it all, Nigeria survived and the people exercised their power of choice, to choose their leaders. Today, we look back and say something has happened in Nigeria. When President Jonathan emerged in 2011, we were all excited because a minority from an unexpected part of the country could emerge as president. That has become part of our history. People say, “this man was my colleague; he was a teacher.” The average Nigerian should see in him a reflection of himself. That was a great moment for Nigeria. People looked at him and saw that this man from a poor background could get to that position in the same country. It means the Nigerian dream can take anybody from the lowest level to the highest place in Nigeria. That was a strong message for Nigerians. We have experienced that. It will be relevant in the future.
In 2015, we saw a situation whereby a strong political party described as the largest political party in Africa and which had been in power for 16 years, lost an election. The details are neither here or there. But that was a strong lesson for Nigerians. We saw a situation whereby the average Nigerian could say “look, I am a powerful man. It doesn’t matter who is in Aso Rock, it doesn’t matter who is in government house; with my vote I can make a difference.” That is a strong message. Can we look at it from that higher level instead of this nit picking about a process that has passed?
Dissecting the process is about accountability so that people can learn from it; the party itself needs to learn from its loss. After the election, there was recrimination among top PDP members that, perhaps, the unending tirades and scare-mongering by Femi Fani-Kayode and first lady patience Jonathan backfired with moderate voters. Was there any merit in this point of view that the PDP wanted to take the low road to a high office?
I am not so sure I understand that question the way you put it. What I can say is that in a democracy. political parties learn lesson. This whole thing called democracy is a learning process. Even in advanced democracies like the UK, the United States, etc., parties have problems. They make wrong choices in terms of how they conduct their own affairs. They send the wrong signal to the public and then they lose. But the same party can still come back to power tomorrow. So it is a learning process for everybody. If you look at what is happening within the public domain, PDP leaders have said they will reorganize. They will address whatever issues they have internally. And they will be prepared to come back a much stronger party in 2019. The APC is there today; APC may not be there forever. Tomorrow, PDP may win. Tomorrow, another political party may even emerge. So all of this is in the construction, the reconstruction of the democratic process, which is good for society and our country.
So you agree that the scaremongering by the then first lady, Fani-Kayode and others was all a mistake?
No, I have not said that. I have just given a theoretical description of what happened.
The theoretical description relates exactly to the question about the scaremongering by the first lady. Do you agree?
What scaremongering? Let’s break it down. I started by saying the way you constructed your question, I don’t think I really got what you are saying.
They created the impression Buhari would jail people and the first lady was pitting people in the south against those in the north …
You are constructing these questions trying to establish that the PDP said this and that person said that. But you have not brought up what the other party said. You know that during that election a lot was said on both sides. Look at the language of the campaign. It is probably the hottest election that anybody ever held in Nigeria, in terms of the polemics. So you should open your mind instead of you picking on the PDP, saying this figure in the POP said this, this figure said that. You haven’t quoted what people on the other side said. You haven’t quoted things that Lai Mohammed said. If you want to use the word “scaremongering”, there was scaremongering on the other side too. So don’t ask a one-sided question; it would not be fair to me.
Former first lady Patience Jonathan seemed to have a larger-than-life image in the public; she often came across as tough and controlling. Is it true that she was displeased you refused to defend her over allegations her office bought 200 BMW cars for the African first ladies summit in 2012?
There is prejudice in that question. You were saying she was controlling, she was that. You have already dismissed her.
But those were things said in the public space about her …
There is a lot of prejudice involved in many of the things said about certain actors in the Jonathan administration and the issue of the African First Ladies’ Summit. We already addressed that. That is not an issue. I have had a lot of people say the erstwhile First Lady didn’t like my face or that the First Lady thought I didn’t do certain things. That is not true. I had no problems whatsoever with First Lady Patience Jonathan. She was very supportive. She was a mother figure and she encouraged all of us who worked with her husband to be committed. And she took an interest in each individual’s welfare. lot of people do not know her. A lot of people do not understand her. That is why I accuse you of being biased against her.
Was the BMW matter an issue at all between your office and hers, and whether they expected you to speak up for her?
It was never an issue. I never had any problems with her. As the head of the media team, I also worked most of the time with her team. But I didn’t absorb the functions o her Media Office. But I collaborated with them on many occasions and they went out there and spoke. I had no problem whatsoever with the former First Lady. This is something I have heard people talking about, that maybe she didn’t like my face. No, she was very supportive. There is a lot that people do not know, a lot of prejudice. You know the opposition was perpetually feeding the public with negative information about the Jonathan administration. And a section of the media supported them. That section of the media has suddenly gone quiet or has suddenly become deaf and dumb. Those are the kind of analysis that I expect people, intellectuals and those involved in social criticism to be doing. But I think that many of you were so much anti-Jonathan that you don’t even want to look at reality as of today and do proper analysis.
What kind of President was Goodluck Jonathan? How would you describe him?
A patriot, a statesman and as I have said also, I believe history will be kind to him. With time, people will understand that. Nigeria is a very complex country. The level of competition, political competition, the struggle for power, it’s really complex. But one thing you cannot take away from him is that he was committed, he was hardworking, he was focused and he meant well for Nigeria. He did play his part and history will recall the fact that at the critical moment when Nigerians needed someone to stand up and rescue the country from the imminent threat of violence, from a blowout, he stood up to be counted. And he made it clear that his ambition (to remain president) was not worth the blood of any Nigerian. I think that was heroic of him. It is most unusual, and many people have commented on this. I am not saying anything original; for an African leader faced with that kind of situation, to make the kind of choice he eventually made, without any prompting. And again, that is one of the good things that came out of the 2015 process. Because in the future, if another Nigerian leader is in a similar situation, Nigerians will expect the person to follow the Jonathan example and say to himself or herself, “look, the country is more important than the rest of us”.
At the beginning of the race for the 2015 presidential election, most PDP chieftains described Buhari as a joke. ” in fact, one report described him as the man the PDP loves to defeat.” do you think he was underestimated?
All that was just campaign talk. Look at the electoral process in the US at the moment. People are saying all sorts of things. Donald Trump will say one thing, this one will say another. During campaign season, there is political rhetoric. At the end of the day, somebody will win and somebody will lose. We don’t need to keep dwelling on that. If we hold an election in 2019, people
will still talk. They will call each other names, they will say all kinds of things and all this is just competition for the public mind. When you have an election, you will throw everything into it just to gain the attention of the public and to promote your own candidate. But it doesn’t mean that after the election has been won and lost, you will keep dwelling on that. I don’t think we should worry about such issues. It is all in the nature of political campaign and rhetoric.
Are there some areas where you think former president Jonathan is not being given enough credit for the work he did or efforts he made?
Generally, I don’t think he is being given enough credit, particularly by the opposition. Again the opposition was in control of a larger percentage of the media. So you find the opposition using organs of that propaganda machinery to discredit the administration. The Nigerian people, over 12 million of the voters, voted for him. That means that even right now, outside power, he has a strong followership out there. It means he has lot of Nigerians who believe in him. And the election could have gone one way or the other. The facts speak for themselves. Let’s forget about the opposition. It is not as if he was beaten with some kind of crazy margin. That means when he went into the election, there were many Nigerians who wanted him back. There were millions who wanted him back. It wasn’t as if it was a landslide victory for the APC. It was a seriously heavily-contested election. That is the truth.
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