Dr. Reuben Abati Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to former President, Goodluck Jonathan was the guest recently on a local radio program “Face the Nation” on Rock City 101.9FM, Abeokuta, Ogun State South West Nigeria. The former Presidential aide recounted his 4 years experience at the presidency.
In the Radio interview, the former Chairman, Editorial board of THE GUARDIAN Newspaper painted a different picture of his boss and Ex Nigerian President Good luck Jonathan in a way many Nigerians do not know. Enjoy the Excerpts…
Can you sum-up your experience, as an adviser to the president on media?
Well, let me thank you for this invitation, since we disengaged in May, 1 went to Oxford, to do a program. This is a good opportunity for me to reflect on four years of quality engagement with Nigeria, so it will be difficult within the limited time that a radio program affords us, to summarize that entire experience but I’ll like to say this, a lot of people in Nigeria , who are on the other side of the street (if I may describe it that way) who criticize, 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, 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 Nigerians to serve Nigeria in whatever capacity and to see how they can make a difference, the judgment belongs to history, it belongs to Nigerian people, nobody must ever give up on Nigeria because this is our country.
Dr. Abati, there were occasions where you had to take up that task of having to defend the administration, having to straighten some records. I am going to recount some of those occasions and get what your opinion is about the perception and the interpretation of the public; first, the AU (AFRICAN UNION) meeting in Addis Ababa where it was said that our president failed to address that conference. Secondly, the period in which the first lady was also reported to have been poisoned. Can you give us the feelings of what the aides to Mr. President were and you in particular?
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, they were doing propaganda and they prepared every minute every hour, to twist the news. 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. Sometimes they were ahead of us because they also had an advantage in terms of control of the media. They had media organs that they owned and I’ve always told people to do the intelligent.
Some people will wonder that as the President, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, that how possible can it be for an incumbent president to 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 of course that if your ‘enemy’ I use that word in quote advisedly, had gone ahead of you to seize the space, it was also a battle for the public mind, and you step back and do 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 will take time. And 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% 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 24hours; 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 are already waiting for him about a Critical decision that needed to be taken on a Wes 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 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 presents his paper in the plenary so that he could go and attend to the four presidents, who are already waiting for him in one of the meeting rooms. So he went and attends to the 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 went to go and attend to was more important than reading a statement on the floor of the plenary. But there is so much ignorance about government works. And I guess that people overtime will learn and understand how government works. And that of the first lady, yes she went aboard 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 challenge and they mean well. President Jonathan definitely means well for this country, those of us who worked with him 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. There 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.
You were an insider in that government, you just said President Jonathan meant well, but how come Nigerians eventually began to misunderstand and underrated him as a person. For Instance, without being sentimental, one would think there is nothing wrong with an adult taking alcoholic drink, does he drink?
President Jonathan does not drink. You see, that’s one of the myths about that administration any you must understand how this thing is, it’s all about 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 behavior or the other. But I can tell you that in my 4 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 very humble man; he is a very committed person to Nigerian project. If you look at the result of the election, you’ll see that he lost the election with about 2.5 million voters or thereabout, which means that a large number of Nigerians still believe in him and also believe in his ability and the capacity of his administration of moving Nigeria forward. We were dealing with a democracy; the people have a right to make a choice, we the people make a choice, we respect the choice. And our commitment as Nigerians, whoever we may be; our position is to remain committed to Nigeria and support whoever has emerged and to respect the choice of Nigerians. This is not about witch-haunting, it’s not about criticizing 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.
Those who have met President Jonathan and those who have worked with him have described him in beautiful words. Some said he is a gentle man, he is humble, he is a democrat to the core, and civilized Nigerian. The critiques went further to say that these were the attributes some of those who worked with President Jonathan, particularly some of the ministers seized and undermined him, what will you say to this sir?
I can confirm to you that President Jonathan is a gentle man, he is a very humble person, he is not a man you can read very easily, he is not a talkative; he is very reticent, very reserved.
He is an introvert and he is a man who has a mind of his own. I worked with him and I studied him very carefully, you will underestimate him at your own risk. All those tales about people pushing him around and all that are not true, he had his own ideas and he was very clear about them. He was a firm, principled character and he remains firm and principled If he asks you for example, to write a statement or speech for him, you can’t put your own ideas there, he will not agree to it and he could end you back to rewrite it ten times, until you write exactly what he wants to say; all these stories about President Jonathan, not knowing what he was doing, about him being dumb, that’s not true. He is a very strong personality, humble but strong, firm and principled. Whatever the assessment is on the side of those who voted against him, I think in the fullness of time, they will appreciate his quality. But one thing you cannot take away from him is that he is a man of history. His emergence says a lot about Nigeria, the fact that an ordinary man from a small background, a limited background, can rise to the greatest height in Nigeria, I think that is a great achievement for Nigeria. And I’ll like to congratulate everyone who made that possible, either with their vote or with their support, and I think that also the fact that a man can emerge from a part of the country that have been deemed irrelevant, that could not be part of highest level, I think also that is a major achievement for Nigeria.
Something happened in Nigeria in 2011 that cannot be erased; something happened in 2015 in Nigeria that cannot be erased. Nigeria is the biggest beneficiary’ can we all as Nigerians look beyond the individual and look at what has happened in this country intellectually, Philosophically, from the point of view of principle? So at the end of the day I think you and I ordinary people, we as Nigerians as a collective people, have moved forward and this country today is stronger than it was in 1999, and Nigerians should be congratulated. Whoever has lost, whoever has won, whoever feels hurt, whoever feel some form of gain, Nigeria has moved forward and we congratulate Nigeria.
Where are you heading from here now, what will be next assignment of yours?
I don’t know but I will remain a public intellectual, I will continue to engage Nigeria, I will continue to speak my mind, you know so where I go from here is in God’s hand, but is no big deal. I am just another citizen, 170 million people, so I don’t want to consider myself so important but am here doing my own thing and I will continue to do my best
Your candid opinion on the presidential phone call from President Jonathan to Muhammed Buhari, I know you have spoken about this, but it is still not clear to Nigerians who are still saying that as historic and necessary as that phone call was then, that president Goodluck Jonathan told some people who were close to him or showed a manner that he regretted making that phone call?
That is not true, I’ve written an article on this, my brother, Segun Adeniyi, I wrote an article responding to Segun Adeniyi, to say look, whatever story you have been told, is completely false. Nobody forced President Jonathan into making that concession. I was at home very early that faithful morning, the president called to ask where I was, I told him I was at home and he asked me to come quickly. I went to his office and he said ‘’Abati, it’s over, we’re conceding. He was in his office by 8am, and he told me ‘Abati, go and write this statement’, this is what I want to say, it’s over, we’re conceding, sorry’. I’m telling you life story, when I write a book, I’ll narrate it like that, and I went to my office to start crafting it. Now in the course of the day, all kinds of character started showing up, everybody started showing up, people were coming to my office; they wanted to contribute sentences, and I said can I just be left alone to write this copy? I went back and forth, the copy? I went back and forth, the man will say ‘’no, you didn’t get it, this is not what I want to say, put it like this”-I’ll say somebody came to my office; he’ll say ‘’no, I didn’t send any body to you”. Can you go and write exactly what I want you to say? At the end of the day, that statement that went out was exactly what the man wanted to say, nobody told him. But you know how it is in the game of power, all kinds of characters, all kinds of meddlesome opportunists show up and they would say, we were the ones who told him, we were the ones who pushed him.
But thereafter that statement, what were the implications?
What were the implications? Before the statement went out, he placed the phone call. At the movement he approved the statement, then he went and made the phone call, and then we record the statement, so what is all about these, that he was pushed, he had always made it very clear that look-his ambition was not worth the blood of any Nigerian, and in his own calculation he had looked at it that if you force this issue, there would be violence, a lot of people will die and he didn’t want people to die on his watch and he said ‘just let it go’, except there is human being on this earth that will say he wrote that statement or that he was the one that summoned me to go and do the draft, then you can tell me i am lying or if there was any major player on that day going back and forth writing that statement, if that person exist, bring that person, and I will ask that person, where were you on that faithful day? If that person exists, let that person come forward, right now. Up till the recording of the statement of the broadcast, let that person come and challenger me, I’m on my feet
Obviously while doing your job, it is not impossible you must have stepped on toes, knowingly or unknowingly, have you identified that? Do you have anything to say about this?
As spokesman for President Jonathan, for any president as spokesman will step on toes because you are an errand man, you’re given an assignment, go and do this, go and say that. And you know the first call on the job is loyalty, as a spokesman, you must be loyal. If you are not loyal, you must not spend a day longer in the job and I understood this very well I was very loyal to my boss and I have no regret because when you run Nigeria, you can’t do half and half job, you must be loyal to your principal, and you must be ready to take bullet for your boss, the president is a special person, he’s the symbol of our democracy, he’s the head of democracy and the way Nigeria’s presidency is structured, the president is at the top of everything. If you can’t take the bullet for him then don’t work for him, whoever you may be. I was ready to take bullet for my boss.