“Friendly fire” at the dawn of a new era: an exchange that may prove prophetic By Biodun Jeyifo



I got the response below from Mallam Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant (Media and Publicity) to President Buhari to the three-part open letter that I addressed to him in this column over the last three weeks. The response speaks for itself. I was both surprised and pleased to receive it; more importantly, I am glad to have it published in this column so that it will reach as many of those who read the series to which Shehu is responding. In the spirit in which Shehu writes, I respond to him with the hope that the exchange here will clarify many things that were on my mind when I wrote but were probably merely implicit in my series. In my short response to Shehu, I have made these things more explicit.


Garba Shehu

Dear Biodun,

Thank you for your letter to me, published in The Nation newspaper over the past three weeks. In addition to your generous but humbling praises of the work I do for the President, all three parts of the essay contained a profusion of goodwill towards the President himself. Behind these cordial notes however, the essay seemed to have done some straight talk on the need for a fair and balanced government structure, which is fair enough. It equally contained a sense of forewarning, and, perhaps, frustration on the part of the writer.

For me, what it all amounts to, is “friendly fire”, or better still, a mock dialectical battle. The Emir of Kano, Mohammed Sunusi (The Second) said it all a week ago.

Your friends are those who tell you that which you don’t want to hear. They don’t love you if all they tell you is what pleases you. I read it with a sense of pride at being part of a government such as that of President Muhammadu Buhari’s, where Nigerians are able to enjoy such freedom of expression on the pages of a national daily. Our great country has indeed come a long way from the days of censorship and clampdown on the press, and I am grateful to God for granting me the unique opportunity to be a part of this new dispensation in Nigeria’s history.

Indeed, my participation in this government nullifies a number of points you made in your article.  My very presence among President Buhari’s staff destroys the foundation of your argument that our Commander-in-Chief is parochial and not accepting of new people in his environment. If that statement were true, President Buhari would have chosen someone other than Garba Shehu as his spokesperson.  I would have been considered unqualified for the job.

For over a decade, I was the spokesperson for former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, who stood against President Buhari, not only in the last elections but in two previous ones: 2003, 2007 and to a lesser extent 2011.  Despite this, after Atiku conceded defeat in the December 10, 2014, APC primaries and pledged his full support to the Buhari candidacy, I was appointed as the head of the APC Campaign Media and Publicity Committee.  Thus, President Buhari not only trusted me with his presidential campaign but, thereafter, made me his spokesperson. He gave me the privilege of attending nearly all his meetings.  Clearly, President Buhari is not distrustful of new people around him as you alleged.

You also lent your enormous weight to those who accuse the President of punishing individuals and parts of the country that voted against him.  This criticism of the President began as paranoia in the minds of some Nigerians, when the President’s initial appointments appeared lopsided.  At the time, he had appointed barely a fistful out of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of appointments that he is expected to make over the course of his administration. His staff at the time he spoke was made up of only a Personal Assistant, a Senior Special Assistant on House Hold Affairs, the Special Assistant responsible for his kitchen, a Special Adviser on Media, and myself. At that time, there was no Chief of Staff, no Secretary to the State Government, and none of the many other key appointments that followed.  This remark wasn’t intended as a philosophical foundation for government appointments. Instead, it was meant to be an explanation to what then had happened. If there are a hundred balls in a drum and the first seven someone picks are all blue, can anyone honestly and scientifically declare that the drum is filled with blue balls?  Of course not.  Not if they studied basic mathematics and if they understand probability.

Yes, I am quite aware of that statement allegedly credited to President Buhari during his trip to America.  But no, he never said that politics is a system of reward, and that you give favours to only those who voted for you. The infamous remark was removed from its context by people whose stock in trade is to fuel the flames of public distrust. Unfortunately, critics won’t just let go of this falsehood even after the publication of the full transcript, which clearly shows that President Buhari’s meaning was distorted. Pity. What he actually said on that occasion was that in politics in its classic meaning, you give rewards to only those that chose you.  However, he went on to add that he was a different kind of leader; that he, unlike the average leader, would be balanced. “I will respect the constitution in ensuring a fair representation for all,” he added.

Dear Biodun, please I encourage you to give the benefit of the doubt to the President as you promised you would. Let us give the President a chance to do his work.  He is bent on improving the economy, on extinguishing corruption and on restoring security to every region of Nigeria.  The success of this government is not to President Buhari’s advantage alone.  All Nigerians will benefit when he does well, when he accomplishes that for which we installed him with our millions of votes.  Let us therefore not succumb to the distractions from mischief-makers with no one’s interest in mind but their own.  There is nothing to be gained by propagating accusations that have no basis in reality.  Thankfully, the media in the country, including our foremost columnists such as your good self, to their credit, have shown that they are fully aware of the challenges facing the country at this time and our much-admired President. As President, Muhammadu Buhari will walk his talk as a converted democrat and a civil, fair and a balanced leader. Time will prove him right on all counts.

Thanks, again, for taking the time to write me.  I wish you all the best as you continue to apply your pen to being a voice for the masses of Nigeria.

May your ink always speak the truth.

Garba Shehu.

My Response:

I am heartened by Garba Shehu’s affirmation that we are now in a new dispensation in which the government will fully respect freedom of the press within the rule of the law and will never again clamp down and harass those whose views it finds critical of its policies, actions and inactions. However, I would like to remind Shehu that much as I take this particular affirmation of his in good faith, freedom of expression is not something that has suddenly descended on the country with the coming into power of the new administration; it is something that many of us have fought for all our adult lives and will continue to fight for as long as we are alive. Indeed, I would also like to remind Shehu that in the darkest days of the last administration of the PDP under Goodluck Jonathan when Buhari and his supporters were being hounded, we did not keep quiet but spoke up vigorously against the nefarious humiliations of and injustices against Buhari in particular and many of his supporters in general.

In his response, Shehu completely keeps silent on my reference to, indeed my quotations from the transcript of the President’s interview on the BBC Hausa Service on Tuesday, October 13, 2015. Shehu also keeps silent on my reference to reports of Nasir El Rufai, the Governor of Kaduna State, to the effect that he stated in a public arena for the whole of Kaduna State and the country to hear that the parts of the his state that did not vote for him should expect to be treated differently than the parts that voted for him. Finally, Shehu is also completely silent on the fact that in my series, I dealt rather extensively on trends within the leadership of the APC that I consider ominously neo-feudal.

I draw attention to these “silences” in Shehu’s response because they show that in his understandable resolve to rise to the defence of his boss, the President, Shehu consciously or unconsciously omits the fact that in my series, my criticisms of President Buhari were located in the more general and far more consequential critique of trends in the leadership of our new ruling party, the APC. In now briefly repeating these aspects of my series that Shehu leaves out of his response, I wish to make my motivation for making a general critique of the APC – and not criticisms of President Buhari – the centre of gravity of the series. Because this is a huge subject that cannot be dealt with in one piece in a weekly column, I shall have to be very brief, very summative in the following profile of the dynamics of neo-feudalism in the APC as our new ruling party, hoping that the skeletal account that I give here can be more fully explored in the weeks and perhaps months ahead of us.

Everyone knows or thinks that the alliance between the Northwest/Northeast and the Southwest, or between the CPC and the ACN, was the critical or deciding factor that made it possible for the APC to emerge as our new ruling party, not forgetting the mass defections from the erstwhile ruling party, the PDP. On their own, neither the CPC nor the ACN could have ever become a nation-wide ruling party. I acknowledge these generally well-known facts but derive my perspectives from elsewhere, precisely from what these two parties were before they merged to become the new ruling party. Respectively, Buhari and Tinubu were the moving forces in the CPC and the ACN. Buhari did not base his towering dominance in the CPC on money; he based it on his charisma and the facts and myths surrounding his role and place in the country’s political history. So far at least, within the APC, he has made “reward” of those who have been loyal to him over the decades a cornerstone of his key appointments in his administration. Hopefully, this will be a temporary, passing phase of his presidency.

As the preeminent political boss of the ACN, Tinubu derived his colossal influence in the party from total control of the “war chest” that was used to fight the PDP and keep control of many states in the Southwest in the grip of the party. No committee, no sub-group in the ACN had any say whatsoever in how Tinubu either amassed that “war chest” or spent it on behalf of the party; all that is known is that he did disburse a lot of handouts from the “war chest” to leading members of the party fighting for their political survival against the relentless onslaughts of the PDP. So far, there is little evidence to show that Tinubu will move away from a reliance on this base of his influence within the new ruling party.

In conclusion so far, neither Buhari nor Tinubu seems inclined to put their days and ways in the CPC and the ACN respectively behind them. Neo-feudalism has survived into the bourgeois-democratic era in many parts of the world, including Europe. But only as vestiges, not as the linchpins of the political order. Until ideas and practices that promote progress, peace, justice and unity between our peoples replace the predominance of the currently dominant neo-feudalist currents of the APC, the party will never become a ruling party that fights for the vast majority of Nigerians across the length and breadth of the country. But this is material for other pieces in future reflections in this column.