Dr. Reuben Abati (Special Adviser, media and publicity to former president, Dr Goodluck Jonathan) relives some experiences in that capacity in this interview originally granted to Rockcity FM
Please Sum up your experience as adviser to the former president, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, 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. 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 questions, 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 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 represents 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 Nigerians. Nobody must ever give up on Nigeria because this is our country.
You were once touted as the champion of the common man, especially in your writings and criticisms but you suddenly found yourself in government some of those who hailed you as one of their champions criticised you through the same medium-writing, and public comments and saying you forgot your roots; wining and dining with the high and mighty. Were you, at any time, pained by such 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 exists 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 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 the 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. If the critics want to refer to us, if they want to discount partisan-politics, they’ll ad mit, 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; in relation to railways; issues relating to the quality of aviation systems; issues about 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 to get 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.
Besides the experience you talked about, would you say you came out with more money or 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 imagines that governance 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 governance is for primitive accumulation, governance is compromised.
Right from the level of the engine room, the civil service to whatever level, 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 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 good will, 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.
People want you to build houses for them, they want you to buy them cars, they want you to help them solve their personal problems. I think that media houses must assist in sensitizing the public to see that people go into government, they are not there to loot but are there to serve.
There were occasions you defended the administration, straightening some records like when our president allegedly failed to address the AU (AFRICAN UNION) meeting in Addis Ababa. And when the first lady was reported to have been poisoned. Give us the feelings of presidential aides, particularly you.
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 through propaganda and they prepared to twist the news every minute, every hour.
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 to suit their purpose. Sometimes they were ahead of us because they also had an advantage in terms of control of the media. They owned media organs.
Some people will wonder that a Commander- in-chief of the armed forces could be outwitted in the area of media and publicity.
No, the politics of the media is about ownership. He who pays 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 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 stepped back and did 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 would have taken time. 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 Onalememe. So here was Mike Onalememe reminding the president that he had to meet with those other presidents that were 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 he could go and attend to the four presidents who were 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 to the plenary. But the way it came out was that President Jonathan abandoned an important meeting at the AU.
The one he attended 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 overtime 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, they face peculiar challenges and they mean well. President Jonathan definitely means well for this country, those of us who worked with him we mean 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.
As an insider in that government, you just said President Jonathan meant well but many Nigerians were made to misunderstand and underrate him as a person. For instance, without being sentimental, is there anything wrong with an adult taking alcoholic drink?
President Jonathan does not drink. You see, that’s one of the myths about that administration and you must understand this thing is all about propaganda and 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.
(This is a typical example of how sections of the media lent themselves to partisan manipulation). But I can tell you that in my four 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 prison, 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-haunting, 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 would you say were his major achievements that the present administration has to build on?
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.