Dear Reuben Abati, Nigeria’s problems are caused by men, not spirits

by Joachim Mac-Ebong

Since the end of the Jonathan administration, Reuben Abati has returned to his prolific commentary on Nigerian politics and society, sometimes writing three or four times a week. In all this, he has rarely dwelt on life as Goodluck Jonathan’s media aide. He dabbled into it in the immediate aftermath of leaving Aso Rock when he wrote ‘The phones no longer ring’ in July 2015. The piece echoed the experiences of many who have come and gone from political office. When you’re there, you are the darling of everyone, much sought after, always in demand for one favour or the other, but as soon as the revolving door of power swings again and you find yourself on the outside, your ‘value’ drops.

Writing about ‘Rituals, Blood and Death: The spiritual side of Aso Villa‘ is his Abati’s first attempt at describing life in Aso Rock itself. He attempted to explain the gap between what the government puts forward as policy and how these policies are either implemented in the real world and received by Nigerians. Abati wrote about convoys entering ditches, helicopters nearly crashing, a bird strike on the Presidential jet in Kenya, erectile dysfunction and family bereavement galore. Oh, and let’s not forget morning baths with animal blood.

Clearly in Abati’s view, all these occurrences were linked by a malevolent atmosphere in the Villa, a perspective supported by – no prizes for guessing – Femi Fani-Kayode, who is himself no stranger to putting forward one conspiracy theory or another.

All of what Abati and Fani-Kayode describe about events in the Villa can be adequately explained by various factors. A convoy moving at high speed, on bad roads, and probably breaking half a dozen traffic laws at any one time, is sure to run into trouble eventually. Working in the Presidency is often a high stress situation that can derail a person’s sex life, just like entering a pocket of turbulence can nearly derail a chopper.

Nigeria’s life expectancy is 54 years old, and when you combine that with a lack of attention to health, and a broken healthcare system, those who live past that age are the exception, not the rule.

Rather than reach for these obvious explanations, however, Reuben Abati defaults immediately to seeking a supernatural answer. It cannot be the fault of the human actors involved. The final arbiter is in the spiritual.

Like Abati, Femi Fani-Kayode is a highly educated man, but none of this seems to matter, and there are immediate parallels to draw between those articles and the way Nigeria and Nigerians conduct their business.

In our personal and public lives, Nigerians prefer prayers to properly out plans. Instead of subjecting our challenges to intellectual rigour, it is more fashionable to blame this or that spiritual force, and to spend time and money on the places and people we think can break the hold of these ‘forces’.

If a policy fails or a tragedy occurs, rather than get to the bottom of it in a rigorous manner and ensure that lessons are learnt, the outsourcing of blame to ‘principalities and powers’ is swift.

There are countless Nigerians who base important decisions on the say-so of a religious cleric, even relating to medical conditions. They surrender their agency to a person who can ‘see’ things for them.

These are the kinds of narratives that Reuben Abati is validating in the public space. Who is to say that Garba Shehu or Femi Adesina, upon leaving their posts, do not come around 18 months later to allude to similar things? Is there no space for taking responsibility for decisions? At what point will we hear: “We got this wrong”?

There is at least one part of Abati’s article that is correct, though not for the reasons he thinks.

Should I become President of Nigeria tomorrow, I will build a new Presidential Villa: a Villa that will be dedicated to the all-conquering Almighty, and where powers and principalities cannot hold sway.

A new Presidential Villa is necessary, but not because of principalities and powers. It is necessary because the Nigerian President is too isolated from his people, too cut off from their daily reality. Ordinarily, it is a battle for a President to maintain the same connection with the people who voted him into office. This task is doubly difficult when that man lives far away from those he is supposed to serve.

How many Nigerians know what Aso Villa looks like? Does it even have an address? There is 10 Downing Street, there is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, even in Ghana, Flagstaff House, the seat of the Presidency, is just off Liberation Road, and visible from all four compass points.

A President and Presidency that is cut off from its people the way Nigeria’s is, will find it nearly impossible to make policies that will move the majority forward. Rather, its isolation is tailor made for state capture, which is what has been going on for decades.

Those are the real principalities and powers that Reuben Abati and the rest of us should concern ourselves with. All of Nigeria’s issues are caused by men, not spirits. The sooner we accept this, the better.

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