In this interview with LEON USIGBE, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr Reuben Abati, speaks about his daunting challenges in managing the media affairs of President Goodluck Jonathan and other issues, including the reason many of those who had been seen as the president’s most vocal critics are returning to his camp.
How challenging has it been for you managing the president’s media affairs?
I am not complaining. I mean, every work has its own challenges. There is no work anybody would be engaged in and there would not be challenges. That, certainly, is not an issue. But if I may make effort to answer your question, I think one key observation in terms of what I have experienced on the job is the fact that you have to keep explaining things to people. You have to keep reiterating issues all the time. You can’t put out a statement or explain an issue and assume that people already have accepted your position or that they understand or that your message has been communicated. So, this is a major challenge.
Often, you listen to people, they make some statements on television or they write articles in the newspapers and you feel embarrassed that these are issues you have already dealt with. On that particular issue, statements have been issued, the president’s speeches, statements and positions have been distributed worldwide; the only thing this particular person making uninformed comments is required to do is to just go online and do a little homework. You know, these things are available online.
Without trying to boast, I think this presidency has been very proactive in terms of trying to provide information, in terms of documenting the president’s activities, but you just see that some of the more vocal persons in the public domain refuse to pay attention. Either they refuse to listen or out of mischief, they just pretend not to notice or they just deliberately go out of their way to twist information.
And the bigger thing is not just people being deliberately uninformed; it is also about people being deliberately uncharitable, mischievous, mean.
I’ll give you two examples. On one occasion, the president was at the Eagle Square in Abuja commissioning vehicles that had been procured under the SURE-P. Now, somebody went online, twitter, BBM and announced that whereas Nigerians were on strike protesting over the deregulation of the downstream sector, the president was on a jamboree to South Africa. Cruel disinformation, but it spread like wildfire. And the president was not anywhere near South Africa. He did not go anywhere.
He was at the Eagle Square. The programme was being aired live on three TV stations. And yet, the blackmail was going round on twitter, on BBM, that the president had left the country. Somebody even said he sighted him at the airport in Johannesburg. Meanwhile, the same president was on live television attending a programme.
On another occasion, they said the president was involved in a plane crash on a day when the president was in the Villa throughout. In fact, three, four days before the phantom helicopter crash, he did not go anywhere. So, the extent to which people can go to be mischievous, to be mean either for political reasons or just out of plain ignorance is so amazing and can be frustrating.
The challenge, therefore, is that you keep seeing these things and you just have to keep explaining, and clarifying, and pushing back, even when it is clear to everybody that it is the other party that is ignorant, unintelligent and mischievous.
Some of those you are complaining about now were your colleagues as editors and columnists. How difficult was it for you to transit between being a columnist and where you are now?
I was not just a columnist, I was an editor for many years and I was also a journalist full time, both print and television, both serious and soft sell. In addition to that, I did a lot of purely intellectual work: teaching, publishing, dilettantism. I did that for about 25 years. But I don’t think it will be fair to blame print journalists, because the way your question is phrased, you are making it seem as if it is print journalists that spread misinformation.
I have not in my comment identified any category of journalists. The thing to realise is that in this type of work, you are not dealing with only the traditional journalist. The idea of the journalist as a traditional practitioner is long gone. We are effectively in the age of information, a far more inclusive province of communication and debate.
In fact, some of the people who make the most impact in terms of public opinion, they are not people who wear the label of a journalist. And I think the time has probably come where there must be a redefinition of who a journalist is, because the way it is now, the ordinary citizen has become a journalist. Anybody with a laptop or with a phone can set up a blog or choose to be very active on twitter, instagram, BBM and other platforms of influence and communication.
Some of the boys who influence public opinion, particularly among the younger generation, have never been to journalism school; they have never worked in any newsroom. They have no professional media exposure. All they have is their phone and they are on that phone 24 hours tweeting, posting photographs, influencing public opinion, leading and misleading people, and you will be amazed how influential they are. Even bloggers have become so influential now that advertisers patronise them either for political campaigns or for marketing purposes or for any kind of campaign because they have an active live audience.
So, we have gone past the stage of saying my former colleagues or my colleagues. I deal with a communications constituency that is large, that is international. I mean, you have the print journalists, you have the broadcast journalists, you have the foreign journalists, you have the local journalists, you have bloggers, both local and foreign, you have the average citizen whose only source of power is that he has a BBM PIN number, or a phone with a camera with which he plays the role of a photojournalist and some of those phones take amazing, award-winning pictures.
So, the template for this job had changed radically by the time President Jonathan assumed office. And anybody who is a media adviser to a president in the age of information, to a president in the age of the internet cannot be complaining about editors or columnists. No. You are dealing with a very wide platform.
The technological revolution, I am describing, makes this work even more challenging. It makes the constituency you have to deal with bigger and wider: mass communication in the 21st Century sense; completely post-modernist in orientation. Old assumptions don’t work anymore because even the famous 24-hour news cycle is much shorter now. That’s why when we release statements; we are not just sending statements to newspaper houses or broadcasters. We send statements to bloggers, instagrammers, flipgrammers, and virtually anybody with a device.
Even before the newspapers come out with the story the following day, the bloggers have already taken the story everywhere. But there is also the question of timing, knowing when to send the news out so that the blog sites don’t exhaust the news and the newspapers will not find it useful anymore. You must always keep something special for the traditional media too, because there is still a lot of force, influence and potential in that direction. I end up doing a lot of balancing. It’s a big, media market out there.
When you were out there, one of the reasons you were able to build a large following was your critical positions on issues, on government, government officials and policies. Your critics say you have changed, that if you were still out there, your stance would have been different from how you see things now. How do you manage this perception?
This is an old question. I have responded to this question so many times. I don’t owe anybody an apology. It was my decision to take, to work for government, and in particular to work for President Goodluck Jonathan because I believe in him and I admire him. And having taken that decision, I am not going to spend my time apologising to people because as an individual, I have the right to make a choice.
It was my choice to work for President Jonathan and to accept the position of his spokesperson and media adviser and I have absolutely no apology and I have seen that for me, it is a positive move because today, I consider myself much better informed, because I have been on both sides. I have lived the life of the outsider looking at government, governance and society from one observatory and I have also been inside and I can see how government functions.
I don’t think any form of apprenticeship in terms of exposure to public life can be higher than working with the president of a democratic country, working at the highest level of authority. It puts you in a vantage position to learn so much. If this was a course of study in which a certificate is awarded, I think I should be getting close to getting one, having taken so many course units and learning so much.
I am talking about apprenticeship in a serious sense, and the opportunity also to serve one’s country. I don’t think anybody can put that down by saying “you were once a social critic, you shouldn’t be here.” No. In fact, I will encourage so many other journalists and persons in other capacities to come into government and work for government. Why is it an issue that when a journalist works for government, people complain? There are doctors in government. There are engineers working for government, their colleagues have not carried placards. We all have a duty to play a role in the making of our country.
But of course, since I came here, I have seen many of those who criticised me ferociously – our own colleagues – hanging around and hustling for appointments and many of them have taken this or that position in government, much excitedly too. And when they land on this side, I say to them: ‘Ha, I thought you wrote an article the other day and published articles criticising Reuben Abati. You are on this side now too.’ I welcome them and I congratulate them. So, you see, I have no apologies whatsoever. I have no regrets also.
The president believes that he is doing a lot to improve the country and many people actually see it that way but many others think nothing much has been done by this administration. Why do you think that in spite of what government is saying, there are some people who don’t think Jonathan has achieved anything?
I don’t know who you are talking about because when you say some people, the only people I still see out there that are misinforming and misleading the people are people who have partisan interests. They are persons who sponsor other people to pull down government because they themselves are interested in the office of the president. But you see, it doesn’t matter, the amount of blackmail or hate campaign or disinformation that those persons put out. They cannot run away from the facts and the facts speak for themselves in terms of the achievements of this administration. And I will urge you also, as a journalist who has the opportunity to do little research on this, to make the effort and to help us inform the public that whoever is saying this administration has done nothing is telling a lie.
Now, for the first time in the history of this country, you have a president who approached the electorate and said: ‘This is my contract with you, this is what I will do, I will focus on the following issues; job creation, inclusive growth, strengthening the education sector, providing infrastructure, ensuring transformation in many aspects of our life both local and in terms of our relationship with the rest of the world, change the look of government and provide purposeful leadership.’ And he has kept his promise on all of these goals.
This is the first administration in Nigeria in recent memory, the first president that would give the directive that his ministers one by one, should go and face the public, face the cabinet first, give an account of what they have been doing and go to the public and also give an account of what they have been doing. This is the government that has upheld the twin pillars of transparency and accountability in every regard.
We just had the gubernatorial election in Osun State. The PDP lost, the opposition won. President Jonathan immediately congratulated the winner. The same people who were complaining that there was too much security are the same people who are now turning around saying President Jonathan did well. They have seen that this is a president who is committed to the rule of law and who is committed to free and fair elections.
Free and fair election became a major refrain under President Jonathan. Before now, nobody in this country ever believed that elections could be free and fair because it was not the pattern for the ruling government at the centre to lose elections. But under President Jonathan, the PDP has lost elections in a number of states; in Anambra, Edo, in Ondo and now, in Osun. You must have lived in this country in those days when elections were determined on the basis of the readings of the preference of the president. But President Jonathan has not imposed anything on anybody. That, in itself, is a major achievement because this is one president who has gone out of his way to deliberately strengthen the democratic culture.
When you were in primary school, depending on how old you are, you probably learnt something about Nigerian Railway lines under Social Studies. Now, that disappeared for almost a whole generation because the railways were not working again. The Nigerian Railway Corporation collapsed. Schools stopped teaching pupils about rail transportation in Nigeria because there was nothing to teach. Under President Jonathan’s watch, the rail stations are back. There is a comprehensive plan to further link up the entire country. President Jonathan is designing a Railway Network that will take rail transportation in this country beyond Lord Lugard.
The trains are moving again and people board those trains and they give concrete evidence, testimonies. Many of the roads that had been abandoned in this country have been fixed. The power situation; some people still complain that maybe power supply is not yet at the level they want, but they all agree that it has improved because President Jonathan has made power sector revolution one of the major priorities of his administration.
The power sector privatisation process was mismanaged by previous administrations. Today, with President Jonathan in charge, it is now adjudged by international investors as one of the freest and the most transparent that they have ever seen, anywhere. There is evidence to that effect. You can research it. And are you still saying nothing has been done? It was under President Jonathan that the Nigerian economy became the largest economy in Africa and our economy that has not been rebased for 20 years was rebased. Foreign Direct Investment is going up, another record achievement in that regard.
In terms of international reputation, our international reputation continues to rise. President Jonathan has empowered women, he has empowered the youths, he is creating jobs. Every month, he is busy launching one legacy project after another. Because he is such a compulsive achiever, I suspect some people are jealous of him. If there are people who think that President Jonathan’s achievements are hurting their egos, they should just be truthful and say so.
When the Chibok girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram March 14, the president made a declaration to the country that it was the beginning of the end for the insurgents, but up till now, the terrorists are still thriving and people are wondering why there appears to be no movement on the final resolution of the Boko Haram issue.
It will not be right to say that there is no movement. What people must realise is that the fight against terror is an unconventional kind of war and it is also something that is unusual in our environment. Even in other countries where they have had cases of terrorism, it is not something that was resolved overnight. If you go to Mexico, Colombia, they are still battling with the threat after so many years.
It took America 10 years to be able to track down Osama bin Laden. And the thing to understand about the nature of terrorism is that you are dealing with agents of evil, people who have resolved to wage war against humanity and human civilisation and they do not wear any uniform.
They strike at will and their identity is, for the most part, hidden. One thing we must all know is that in spite of the special challenge it poses in our environment, our security agents have been able to quickly develop a capacity to be able to address the challenge. There may be questions, but all of those questions will be dealt with, because primarily, there is political will to deal with the challenge and that is what is most critical.
What President Jonathan has pointed out is that the war against terrorism may be a long drawn out war, but no matter how long it takes, whatever it takes, the government is determined to win the war because the government is not going to allow people who want to pull down the country, who want to destroy other people’s lives to prevail. That is what the president has said, and he means every word of it.
The general elections are just months away and there have been agitations, especially by pro-Jonathan groups for him to contest the presidential election but he has not said anything. When should Nigerians expect him to make his intention known?
What the president has always said in this regard is that people should patient. The INEC has released a timetable and the president has said that at his own time, he would make a statement about 2015 – whether he is going to run or he is not going to run. I think it is better to just leave it at that. I don’t think it will be fair for people to create a job out of be either anticipating or seeking to stampede the president. He is a very experienced politician. He knows what he is doing. Whenever he wants to a make statement in that regard, he will. But as of this moment, what I know is what you know. So, why are you anxious? Let’s be patient.
There is also the question of his eligibility to contest having been sworn in two times already and some people are in court or had been to court to seek interpretation.
I thought that matter has already been settled in court. People have gone to court and they have lost. What the constitution says is very clear. The president was sworn in for a first term in 2011 and the constitution makes it clear that the president or a governor is entitled to a maximum tenure of two terms. What the president has done is just one term. So, he is entitled to a second term. But it is his choice. It is up to him to go for a second term or not.
Some people went to court. They wanted an interpretation which is not a problem. In a democracy, people can always seek an interpretation but I think that is a settled matter. That is not where we are as at this moment. Where we are is your earlier question, people asking what is the position of the President with regard to 2015, is he going to declare, is he not going to declare and I say, well, people should be patient. If your bride is being brought to you, you don’t need to strain your neck. Just wait.
But what is his perception of the pressure people, particularly the overtly pro-Jonathan groups, with television commercials, radio jingles and newspaper advertisements are putting on him to contest? How does he see them?
President Jonathan is not under any pressure. I think it will not be right to say that the president is under pressure. The people who are agitating that they want the president are supporters of the president. They are people who admire him. They are people who are saying the president has done very well and he deserves a second term. They are people who are saying that President Jonathan is the best man for the job. They are free to express themselves. There is freedom of association, freedom of expression. And if you look at the papers, APC blackmailers have been falling over themselves to discredit the Jonathan administration.
I mean, there has been no campaign yet, nobody has called out any campaign but the APC is running negative advertorials on the President almost on a daily basis. And yet you have some other groups coming up and saying ‘no, we will not allow you to tarnish the image of our leader, we will not allow you to distort the truth.’ You find all of that on the pages of the newspapers.
It is a good development that there are people who are saying they will not allow anybody to pull down this administration or discredit President Jonathan. They are also Nigerians. They are stakeholders. They live in this country. And they say when the APC comes up with their negative information, they will confront the APC and go to the public with the facts and the figures.
Listen to their message. They are saying that this is a President who has performed. This is a president who is focused this is a president who is the best man for the job and on the basis of all of that, they say they want the President to run for a second term. And I think you cannot deny them their right to also express their own opinion.
One of the most used words by the opposition or people who don’t like Jonathan is that he is “clueless.” Looking back, from what you have said about the president’s achievement, how do you respond to that?
I have had cause to respond to those people on many occasions. It is very obvious now that it is those people criticizing President Jonathan who are totally clueless. They have no idea whatsoever. You are beginning to see it now. The thing around their neck is beginning to play out. Some of their key spokespersons who used to criticize President Jonathan are now all rushing to come to the President’s party. They are in fact gate-crashing.
I mean, one of the key figures in the APC has declared for the PDP in his home state in Adamawa. And that is a man who was once famously quoted as saying that Nigeria under President Jonathan is a sinking ship. The same man is joining that ship because he has seen that the ship is not sinking at all and that the captain of the ship is a good captain who is providing quality leadership. He has seen the light and the light has set him free. That is the kind of illumination that has been happening to many of these persons. They suddenly see the light and they recant and I am very happy.
Even a former governor and a former Minister have also joined the PDP. These are people who used to criticize the ruling government, these are people who used to criticize President Jonathan but they keep seeing the light. We welcome such people.
So, the same people you are quoting, many of them are coming into the PDP. Many of them are joining President Jonathan. And I believe that as we move towards 2015, you will find more and more people like that. We don’t need to say anything anymore. The Lord Almighty is winning the battle for us.
These are the people who championed the various abuses and they are turning to our side now and supporting us. I mean, there was one person in the fold of APC who even said I was the child of a same-sex marriage just because I pointed out to him that his criticism of President Jonathan was unfair. Today, he is one of the leading defenders of President Jonathan. The thing speaks for itself, then.
They even now make my job easier because those people that I used to fight with, they are coming to our side one by one. We are waiting for Nasir el-Rufai, Lai Muhammed, Oby Ezekwesili, Dino Melaye, and the Jagaban (Bola Tinubu) and their Northern godfathers: may they all see the light, and may the light set them free. And that tells you something, that we have a president who is a true leader who in the fullness of time, you find his worst critics, becoming his strongest promoters. And that is our point; this whole thing should not be about ego, it is about doing the best in all circumstances for our country. Nigeria must and will prevail. We welcome everybody who is willing to be part of that national agenda of progress and transformation.