by Akan Ido
Dr. Reuben Abati, the Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on Media and Publicity is a man with strong opinions and is not afraid to express them.
Abati, who was the former chairman of the editorial board of the Guardian Newspapers has been widely faulted for pitching tent with a government he once vehemently criticised.
In this interview with the Punch Newspapers, the brilliant journalist opens up on his activities in government, freedom of information, arrest of Leadership Newspapers journalists, opposition parties, oil subsidy protests and more.
Read excerpts of the interview below:
You used to be critical of the Federal Government but that has changed, what happened?I think that what has changed is my location, but not the quality of my commitment. Some people said I had crossed to the other side of the street when I first took this job. But my response in one particular interview was that actually, we are all at the end of the day, on the same side of the street. Either as a journalist or public officer, all of us are Nigerians; we are united in the fact that we all want the good of our country. Except somebody is a charlatan or a saboteur or a traitor, I don’t think that any Nigerian should go out of his or her way to sabotage this beautiful country. I think in terms of purpose, wherever you find yourself, your primary duty as a citizen is to work for the progress of your country. And that is why I say that the people who try to make a negative distinction between my work as a journalist and as a government official are being petty. They assume that if you are a journalist and you go into government, you have crossed to the other side of the street. That is not the truth. It is virtually the same side of the street; the same person; the same commitment. In one regard, you try to make a difference from without, in the other, you play the same role from within.And having spent some time in government, I have seen that public officials are there also to make a difference. They are citizens like everyone else, and in terms of character, they reflect the essential character of our society. When you say you used to be critical of government and now you have changed, I think what has changed is the observatory. As a journalist, you are out there observing, you analyse, you are expressing your concern and the concerns of others about how the country is run. But when as a journalist, you join government; it does not make you less critical. It is still the same head, still the same personality. But the thing is that whatever ideas you have; you are now in a position to use those ideas to contribute to the development process from within. Don’t forget that I am engaged as an adviser which means that whatever criticisms I may have, whatever views I now have, I am in a better position to express them directly, and make contributions in whatever ways I can, within the system. So I do not think that it will be right to say that once people join government, they are no longer critical. In fact, within government, a lot goes on at the levels of contributions, evaluation and exchange of ideas. No country can be successfully run without ideas.I don’t think it is right for anyone to say that when you elect to serve your country in any capacity, then you have committed a crime. In fact, I will encourage a lot of people to join government. An invitation to serve your country is the highest honour that can be bestowed upon anybody. From what I have seen, people who criticise me and say he is no longer critical, he has joined them, he is now eating, can’t you see he has added so much weight from too much eating, are just being mischievous or hypocritical. The same people will wish to be on this side, they will wish to be in government, and I see many of these same critical persons, perpetually hanging around government looking for this and that, practically begging, soliciting, hustling, but they go out there and pretend to be otherwise. But that is a story for another day. And their story shall be told someday.As a senior journalist, what do you think about freedom of speech?The Nigerian Constitution, 1999 as amended, guarantees fundamental human rights in Chapter Four. But what the Constitution defines in Section 39 is not exactly freedom of speech. The Constitution talks about the right to freedom of expression and the press. That is, your freedom to express yourself and freedom to establish and own organs of mass communication. It is a basic right. It is a right that is taken very seriously and is actively promoted by this administration.Does that explain the position you took on recent reports published by two newspapers on the President -Leadership and People’s Daily-which many people see as too harsh?In the case of Leadership, the newspaper alleged that a certain memo emanated from the desk of the President and they made certain absurd claims that I don’t want to repeat here. They even published a bromide indicating that this was authentic. The primary duty of a journalist is to inform the public and to do so in a truthful, fair-minded and responsible manner. The journalist is expected to be honest, to be balanced and truthful, not to mislead the public, not to use the organ of information to cause discontent or disaffection or to present other people or institutions in a bad light maliciously.In that particular case, all I did was to point out that the Leadership newspaper was wrong and that this was an irresponsible piece of news because it was not true. What you would have expected under the circumstance would have been for the newspaper to retract the story. But they insisted that the story was true even when evidence was provided to the effect that what they published was false, and malicious.In a similar vein, People’s Daily also alleged that the President asked to visit Gen. Ibrahim Babangida in his home in Minna during the Ramadan to break fast and was turned down. They added to that all kinds of insinuations and innuendoes. All I did was to say no, it never happened. The President did not ask to see Gen. Babangida and Gen. Babangida did not turn him down, and that in any case, the President never goes to anyone’s house to break fast during Ramadan. He fasts along with the Muslim faithful, every year, and he usually invites people to the Villa to break fast with him. The kernel of the story was that they were saying Gen. Babangida snubbed the President which was a piece of fiction. Even after Gen. Babangida issued a statement saying that such a thing never happened and that he respects the office of the President and that if the President asked to see him, he would willingly see the President; the newspaper still insisted that they stood by their story. What story?That is not journalism; that is obduracy. Journalism should not be about intimidation or blackmail. If you make a mistake and you are confronted with the fact, you just apologise and move on because we are all human beings. But to make a mistake, publish absolute falsehood and still say you stand by falsehood; that is not freedom of speech. That is malice, that is an abuse of platform and it is one of the challenges I have faced in this position while trying to collaborate with my colleagues to make sure that they get the information as it is and that government policies, actions, programmes are properly explained.Why do you always attack everyone who is not in support of President Jonathan’s government?What do you mean by that? President Goodluck Jonathan supports and defends the right to the freedom of expression and freedom of the press. I have also just told you that the media is very free under this administration. When you say I attack anyone who criticises the President, I don’t know how many of these people that I have attacked, compared to what you encounter on a daily basis, when you read the newspapers or listen to the kind of things that some people say in the electronic media and online. What I don’t accept is when people deliberately make unintelligent, unreasonable, and malicious, hypocritical statements just because they want to be heard. I go out there and correct them and say one, the office of the President is the office of the President. You may for political reasons say you are attacking the office, but don’t insult the President. Don’t seek to desecrate the office of the President. If you have views, you can express your views but the constitution does not give you the right to go and malign the integrity of the occupier of that office based on false claims. The law does not allow you to propagate falsehood. If you lie against the office of the President or you insult the President, or you turn the facts upside down and I come out and say “no, you are wrong, these are the facts and that what you have said does not show any trace of intelligence or common sense”, I don’t think you can classify that as attacking people.Does that justify why the media aide to the president should get into dirty name-calling each time somebody attacks the president- I remember you described Fashakin as a ‘medieval-era ignoramus and brainless individual?I was very nice to Fashakin, I could have been harsher. I could have said worse things about him. Fashakin was at a time the spokesperson for the CPC, one of those parties that vanished in a desperate search for true identity. He made a comment about the President in relation to an AU programme in Addis Ababa when it was alleged that the President was not available when it was time for him to speak on behalf of Nigeria during a plenary and Fashakin went on and on with all kinds of insinuations, based on extremely sophisticated ignorance. This was long after I had issued statements clarifying the issue. I think part of the problem with some of our opposition mouth-pieces is that when you put something in print, they don’t read. Even when you issue a statement trying to clarify something, it is either they don’t read or they lack the capacity to understand or just to serve their own purposes, they just go out there and talk.So when I saw that statement by Fashakin, I said No in anger. Maybe what you are complaining about is the pugilistic and irreverent nature of my response. But when we see a spade, we should just say this is a spade and that’s precisely what I did. I think since then, Fashakin has learnt to conduct himself like a gentleman. Even Lai Mohammed has since become a fine gentleman. They all seem to understand the ground rules now. Say what you want to say, it is a free country, and I respect your right to speak, but if you try to ridicule the President, I am not likely to be nice to you at all. If you throw a punch, I will connect you with an upper cut and may be a kick to the groin. But of course, there are some people I will never dignify with a response.You also described Chief Bisi Akande with uncharitable adjectives….What do you mean by being uncharitable? Who is deciding that? I have issued statements to say President Jonathan welcomes criticisms but when you criticise the President, criticise him on the basis of facts. You can disagree with the President or the government because this is a free country and we are running a democracy. If Mr. President has done one thing or the other that you disagree with, you are free to say “I disagree, these are my views and I am angry because my wife has left me and I can’t pay my children’s school fees or an old lover is denying that we were once intimate and that hurts because I can’t get her out of my system.” Fine. No problem. You are perfectly entitled to your own demons. However, members of the opposition and some failed political jobbers are the ones who are most guilty of these attacks on the President. They like to quote other democracies, they will say “this is how it is done in the UK; this is how it is done in the US.” But if you look at the people who criticise the government for partisan reasons in other countries, they do so constructively, they offer alternatives.But here, these persons resort to direct personal attacks on the President, and their motive is unclean. This is the context of my reaction to Fashakin or to any other person. You say you disagree with something that government has done or having declared publicly that your purpose is to pull down the government, you start calling the President names everyday, using different tricks. You say the President is a kindergarten leader who is clueless; you say the President is drunk, you say he has no balls, when we all know you are angry and unreasonable because of your own selfish reasons. For more than one year, I kept issuing statements saying “stay with the issue, stop throwing stones” and you don’t respect that, now if you talk nonsense, and I respond using your own tactics, they say a President’s spokesman should not be so aggressive. I hear.That is the background again to what happened in Akande’s case. What did I say? It was just a question of telling the elderly man to act his age. I don’t see what was disrespectful in that. I just told him that he should know that he is an elder and he should not talk like a kindergarten commentator. I was just turning his own statement around and throwing it back at him. I don’t think he complained about what I said. Did he complain? After all, you asked me earlier on about freedom of expression. He said something and I replied him and I said the President is not a kindergarten leader; he is a responsible leader who deserves to be respected by an elderly man who should know better, meaning that old age should come with wisdom. That was a simple response. Maybe you are the one who is not happy with the response.In your 2009 piece ‘We shall start stoning economists in power’, you were clearly against the removal of oil subsidy, describing it as a ‘joke’, ‘provocative’ and ‘an invitation to chaos’, what made you change your stance later?One lesson around this issue of deregulation of the downstream sector is about communication. What I have learnt is that when these policies come up, we need to really communicate properly and pro-actively. There must be a strategic communication plan, not that when the sh_t hits the roof, we now start calling the spin doctor. I think in the case of this administration, we communicated properly but there were certain other forces, and yet, we ended up learning serious lessons about strategic communication. So, it is all about communication. When this government wanted to deregulate the downstream sector, we said this was necessary because too many players in the sector were just collecting rent from Nigerians. We said the subsidy regime favours the rich and does not favour the poor. It was just making the rich richer. And we provided evidence to the effect that many of the companies and persons involved in the lifting of refined crude and its marketing were involved in scams. Many of them do not even own vessels, depots, or petrol stations, but they collect subsidy on landing costs from the Nigerian government.But the oil marketers, and their supporters, mainly political opportunists, then mobilised against the Jonathan administration. Other stakeholders involved in the rent collection also mobilised against the government.They started twisting the message. They launched a vicious strategic communication plan. They ignited a dance on the streets of Lagos, in Ojota particularly. In the process, they were able to twist the message because they were more vociferous. They were giving people jollof rice at Ojota. They asked people to come and protest, they gave them designer T-shirts. They recruited top musicians. People were congregating in a section of the country, eating and wining in the name of protest. They said they were occupying Nigeria but they were occupying their stomachs with wine.Have you ever lied to the public in the course of doing your job as the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity?I don’t lie to the public. I explain things to the public. I put things in context, and I do my best as the President’s parrot and town crier to prevent unnecessary news.How then will you explain the situation the other time when you said the government was talking to members of Boko Haram and the President later denied it?It is true that I said back-channel discussions with Boko Haram were on-going. When I made that statement, I also added that the back-channel discussion was not a kind of situation whereby government sat on one side, with Boko Haram negotiators on the other side of the table; certainly not a formal, face-to-face thing. It was not like ASUU or Labour engaging the Federal Government at a negotiating table. I made that very clear. Subsequently, the Honourable Minister of Information also issued a statement saying that there were persons who were talking to Boko Haram elements and government was aware of this. There is no other way to describe that other than back channel discussion. When the President spoke, what he said was that there was no formal negotiation between government and Boko Haram. And that was the truth. So I don’t see any contradiction there and this idea of back channel discussion with a difficult extremist group is something that is done all over the world. Even the Americans, there is clear evidence that they have back channels through which they engage problematic groups. You cannot say that I lied to the public and in any case, subsequently, the Federal Government has since set up a national committee to dialogue with extremist groups and other stakeholders in the North Eastern part of the country.The President had had cause to describe himself as the most criticised President. From your experience, why are President Jonathan’s actions or statements always attracting criticism?It is part of the burden of leadership. Leaders are always criticised. I attribute it to the crisis of rising expectations. People are always expectant, they are always aspiring, They expect government to do so much. In a situation like this when government looms large in people’s lives, it is only natural for people to talk. But for us, what is at issue is not that people talk, what is at issue is not that people criticise; it is the dishonesty, the mischief and the hypocrisy that quite a number of people resort to that is the issue. That is why I told you earlier on that President Jonathan does not mind if you criticise him, all he asks for is fair-minded, honest and objective criticism. I can tell you that in-house, the President encourages us to criticise him.I think the problem is that too many politicians are obsessed. Every Nigerian should be a statesman. If you go to an election and you lose, you should join the winner to build the nation and wait till the next election. But what we have seen is that immediately President Jonathan won the election, the bad losers in the other political parties just resolved that they would not allow his government to function. That is not statesmanship or sportsmanship and it is cruel. I will like to see a situation whereby opposition political figures become statesmen.In all, how will you describe your experience so far as the presidential spokesman?Exciting! In fact, I am enjoying the work. It provides me an opportunity not just to serve but also to learn.