Special Adviser (Media) to former President Goodluck Jonathan speaks with The Interview on a wide range of issues. Enjoy...
With the immediate past Petroleum Minister, Diezani Allison-Maduekwe, now on trial in the UK and widespread allegations of corruption against the former administration, President Jonathan's administration seems to be unravelling in its aftermath. Is this fair comment?
I will put it like this. I think you used the right word. You said allegations. And allegations remain allegations. And people against whom allegations have been raised, even when they are charged to court, remain innocent until proven guilty. And I think in the case of the Jonathan administration, we have seen a lot of sensationalism. We have seen a lot media lynching, which is quite unfortunate because trial-by-media itself can be problematic. The problem is that in Nigeria, once an allegation is raised against someone, you have a whole army out there that doesn’t even want to listen to details of the matter; and they go to town. But the truth of the matter is that, to be fair to all parties concerned, people can only be accused, people can only be taken to task, and they can only be labelled only after they have been convicted. I wouldn’t say that the Jonathan administration is unravelling. The new administration that is in place is carrying out a lot of investigations. All of that is within the powers of the administration to do because that is the priority it has set for itself. But I think I would just advise caution. When people have not been convicted, when they have not been proven guilty, we should just be careful with this media lynching, this trial by the media.
Rather than say “trial-by-media”, let us use the words “trial-by-public”. Now the latter is based on perception. Was the public perception on what was happening in the Jonathan administration all wrong?
What I can go by is what I call trial-by-media because that is concrete evidence I can hold onto. This public perception concept, it depends on who is defining it. I have also seen people who have given a lot of credit to the Jonathan administration, who have praised him for how he has helped to unite the country and how at a critical moment, President Jonathan decided to make that personal sacrifice to ensure that there was no blowout as predicted for the country. That is also perception. I have also seen people who say that the Jonathan administration did very well in several sectors of the economy. Don’t forget that in that election, he lost the election by just over 2 million votes, out of the many other millions of votes he received. This means he had and still has a large following out there. He still has a lot of people out there who support and believe in his administration. That is why I say it is trial by the media and it is just a section of the media. So perception can also be delicate. But of course I know what you are trying to say. Public opinion is at the centre of the democratic process and it is an important part of that process. But in talking about public opinion, you must define it correctly and not do so from a prism of prejudice.
The Buhari administration has criticised the government in which you served of treating the handover to the present government shabbily. Why?
Again, you must realize that this is a case of the opposition taking over from a party that had been in power for about 16 years. And if you look back, it wasn’t as if during the campaign process or even the processes leading to that moment, there was a lot of friendliness in the air. So what we still had immediately after the election was a hangover of the election mood. In terms of the handover, there were committees set up. The two committees worked together. Handover notes were prepared. They were submitted to the relevant bodies. In any case, government is continuous. And a system is in place for taking government forward. And don’t forget that there is still a lot of partisanship. But we should move beyond partisanship because at the end of the day, this country belongs to all of us, whether we belong to this party or that party, to this ethnic group or that religious group. So I would like to see a situation whereby there is a lot of cooperation across all divides because Nigeria is
more important than political parties, more important than ethnicity or religion.
The Buhari administration said it received the handover notes only four days before the inauguration. Why was that?
You and I were in this country. You know that before the formal handover, there had been meetings upon meetings. There had been preliminary submissions. What happened at the end of the day, before we left, was just a formal ceremony. But they had been talking. Both parties had been meeting. They had been exchanging information. So that is why I say we should watch out for partisan comments. We should focus on Nigeria.
But then someone that is not particularly partisan headed Buhari’s transition committee. That is Alhaji Ahmed Joda. According him, there was lack of cooperation. In fact, the Buhari government blames that lack of cooperation for the delay it has taken them to form a cabinet. What is your take on this?
My recollection is that meetings were held and there was a lot of collaboration. I didn’t attend the meetings so I wouldn’t know the tone of the consultations. But I do know that meetings were held and there was a readiness on the part of the Jonathan administration and the Jonathan team to work with the other party. After all, President Jonathan as the leader of the team had already conceded. So there was no reason either to withhold information or to refuse to cooperate because he had already informed the whole world that look, we have conceded victory, we are leaving. So what will be the basis for refusing to handover? There was no basis for it. At the level of principles, at the level of the results, the matter had been settled. So I don’t think that can be used as an excuse for anything. In any case, you must also consider the view of those who say that in other dispensations, when an election is won and lost, within 24 hours, the new government will announce its team. So if there are other reasons like circumspection, like negotiations, like trying to be careful in putting the team together, that is understandable. But once a government loses the election and it concedes and it hands over, it is gone. The new government is at liberty to do what it likes. So I don’t think we should bother about all these red herrings. We should just focus on moving this country forward.
After your appointment the opposition at the time published very critical articles that you wrote as a columnist against President Jonathan and the-then First Lady. Did you regret writing the articles?
No, I don’t regret writing those articles. I am as much a Nigerian as anyone else. In doing my job as a public affairs intellectual, if there are things I feel strongly about, I write about them and I express my opinion. And if I am invited to serve my country, I am not going to be apologetic. Because the people who are in government in any case, they are Nigerians like me. I have addressed this issue before, that anybody that is called upon to come and serve Nigeria in whatever capacity should see it as an opportunity to contribute to the making of Nigeria. We have been making this point all the time that for people in civil society, there is a tendency to get locked in the criticism mode and you are perpetually criticizing and all that. But when you get the opportunity to go to the other side of the street, I don’t think anybody should run away from it. And in my own case, I think it was a very great experience. I was in there for four years. The experience that I gained, the insights I gained, the knowledge, the exposure, I don’t think I would have gained all of that if I had remained outside. And I know my country now. I know how better how government functions.
You moved from being very critical to being very defensive. How do you defend that?
No. I don’t think that is the way to put it. I had a particular assignment. I think it is important to understand the nature of that assignment. So when people make the remark, “you moved from being critical to being defensive”, it is as if a part of my brain shut down. When you are inside government it doesn’t mean that you have stopped being who you are. You will still remain critical. But now you are inside and you are in a position to criticize from the inside. But you also have an assignment. You also have a commitment. You have taken an oath of office to defend Nigeria, to do the best and serve the president who is your immediate boss. And once you take that oath, it is not something you take lightly. But people don’t understand this and a lot of people who make this comment really don’t understand what they are talking about.
In your first article after leaving office, you described the pressure - and huge expectations - attached to public office and what happens afterwards. How did you balance the pressures and competing interests for almost four years?
What I was describing in that piece, I could have written in a lot of other pieces. I wanted to do a series to talk about my experience inside government. But people then said, “don’t expose everything. If you give us all the juicy stuff, then you won’t have any material for your book”. So I stopped the series. I just write and keep in the hope that if I put them together in a book form, they will be refreshed. In that article I just wanted to describe an experience. People go into government, and then everything just disappears. Immediately President Jonathan lost the election, Aso Villa became a ghost town. All the people who used to fall over themselves to go there disappeared.
You know access to the president of Nigeria is a big deal for Nigerians because the office of the president is so powerful. The Nigerian president is a very powerful president. The powers at his disposal are enormous. But I was in that place; I saw a situation whereby immediately the president lost the election, people just evaporated. They disappeared into thin air. People ordinarily would come and they would even impede those of us working with the president to have ready access to him because they were always hanging around; and the president would not want to keep people waiting because he is a very humble person and he respects people a lot. Suddenly, after the election they stopped coming. I was shocked. And people who used to call me 20 times a day, “I want to talk to Abati, Abati should do this”, they stopped calling. I was just describing the reality of powerlessness, of the loss of authority; it wasn’t meant to be a self-righteous piece. It was just to describe an experience. The reaction that the piece generated was quite interesting. I’m sure if you are listing famous articles this year, it will be one of the top ones. What I again found amusing was that someone else who left government in another African country wrote a similar piece, also saying that people have not been calling!
But I think the article speaks to something much deeper than the light analysis a lot of people who read it would ordinarily give it. It says something about power and reality of powerlessness. It says something profound about human nature.
Was it an expression of regret?
It is not an expression. I don’t regret working for government. If I had another opportunity, I would do it again.
Do you regret losing the government position?
No. Absolutely no regret. It is a democracy. When you go into an election, somebody will lose, somebody will win. I think it was in that same piece (about his ‘phone not ringing) or elsewhere, I made a point that at the end of the day, it is democracy that won. It is Nigeria that has been strengthened. And the fact that a sitting government and a party that has been in power for 16 years can lose power and an incumbent government can also lose power, is a very strong message. The ultimate winners are the Nigerian people. And today, you can say that the average Nigerian is walking tall simply due to that fact. And the people’s confidence in democracy has been deepened. The average Nigerian will tell you now, any government that comes around that doesn’t do well or doesn’t serve our purpose, we will vote out that government. So what you have seen is the power of the vote, the people’s right to choose. I think at a higher level, those are things to worry about, not about the individual, not about people who were in government and lost out. We shouldn’t talk about loss or triumphalism. We should talk about how democracy in Nigeria is being further consolidated.
The common characterisation of former President Jonathan was one of a good man but an incompetent and clueless leader. Do you think this is a fair description of the man you worked with?
It is not a fair description and I have dealt with this issue. A new government is in place now. There are critics who are using those same phrases to describe this new government. What it tells you is that the Nigerian people want quick fixes. They want quick solutions. They are impatient. When you tell them you are bringing transformation they want it immediately, like fast food. When you tell them your gospel is that of change, they want it instantaneously. But the truth of the matter is that anybody that has been there will tell you there is a process to governance. It is not a bullet theory thing.
With what we have been going through in this country for the past 55 years, can you really blame the people for being impatient, for holding government to account after several disappointing experiences?
There is nothing wrong in holding government to account. The nature of democracy also is that it raises people’s expectations. So you face a crisis of rising expectations and those expectations will never go down. It is part of the burden of going into government or choosing to be a Nigerian leader. The people will always put you under pressure. But the leader himself must just carry that burden. So I say to you that President Jonathan was very competent, he was committed to the job and he had a focus. He was the first president to present Nigerians with a document, to say this is what I want to achieve; this is the roadmap. If you look back now you will see that he was faithful to that roadmap; we can talk in terms of agriculture or in terms of reviving the railways or in terms of strengthening certain institutions or in terms of empowering women with appointments into government or in terms of changing the style of governance and showing that a leader can be humble, and so on. That a leader can be accessible.
Those phrases you are referencing came from the opposition. Those are phrases from the ACN, APC axes, seeking to do everything possible to discredit the government of the day. At that time also, I used to make the point that all the name-calling and abusive style of opposition will not help. In other climes, the opposition will come with positive ideas, with alternative ideas about how things can be done. But you had people who specialized in abusing President Jonathan. It is called labelling. They kept labelling the government. And any time we reacted from our side, you will use the phrase you used earlier; you will say I was being defensive. This usually came after I wrote a press statement at that time, and there were many of those, saying “don’t abuse the office of the president, it is the heart of democracy; when you abuse the person of the president, you are trying to take something away from that institution of the presidency, etc.”
But the opposition at that time, all they could focus on was trying to discredit the president. They called him clueless, they said he was incompetent, they said he was a drunkard. I expected that intelligent people will at all times say “we have to protect that institution”. Because that institution, one of the lessons we will learn, in good time, is that the institution of the Presidency is really at the heart of a democracy.
Isn’t part of that institution the intelligence to take criticism in good faith?
Well, we took criticism in good faith. We were also entitled to our responses and trying to clarify things, which was what the opposition called defensiveness. It was an open society under President Jonathan. I mean people were not intimidated because they expressed an opinion. Nobody was unnecessarily harassed because they expressed an opinion. And I think it was in the light of that I once said he was probably the most abused president ever, anywhere in the world. You often found the president laughing at himself and expressing concern at the dilemma. An intolerant president would not have said that. He would have used the apparatus of state to literally descend on those people criticizing him.
Back to the earlier question about Jonathan being a good man but clueless and incompetent. In September 2012, Sonala Olumhense wrote a piece in The Guardian, which was also syndicated in Daily Trust, in which he highlighted 39 points which he called “Jonathan’s Vows”. There were vows to fight corruption, to redeem the Chibok girls, etc.; there were 39 vows. As at the time the article was published, most of those vows were still mere vows. Was president Jonathan ultimately voted out because the people couldn’t trust him to deliver on his promises?
No, the president delivered on his promises to the Nigerian people. He said he was going to empower women; he did that. He said he was going to transform the transportation sector; he did that. He said he was going to take housing seriously; he did that. He said he was going promote freedom of information; he did that. We should take a more sophisticated view of what happened. I think Chinweizu just wrote an article, which I saw in my e-mail box, in which he had a different analysis. I find his analysis very interesting. He was drawing attention to Nigeria’s geopolitics, about Nigeria’s power game. Without going into the details of that article, he was saying more or less that President Jonathan was a victim of the power game in Nigeria. He was once a Vice President. I am trying to paraphrase Chinweizu now. He was vice president, his boss died and when he was to succeed his boss, and a certain interest group opposed that. But Nigerians said no; this is what the
constitution says. He succeeded in getting there. Then the same interests said he must only complete the remaining part of his boss’ tenure. He did that and said he wanted to run. Some people said he must not run because power should be located in a particular of the country. He ran and Nigerians voted for him (in 2011).
Then some people came out and said they will make Nigeria ungovernable for him. It was a categorical statement; that if Jonathan won, they would make Nigeria ungovernable for him. They then induced people to make Nigeria ungovernable for him. And from 2011 to 2015, Jonathan did his best. And then 2015 again, they came up will all kinds of things. Chinweizu’s conclusion was that the former president was the victim of a grand conspiracy relating to Nigeria’s power politics and the forces arrayed against him were so strong. The conspiracy was so deep, there was no way he could have faced those forces and Nigeria would not have found itself in serious crisis. Take a look at it from that angle. Read the Chinweizu article. It is a question of who is looking at it. But I see that a lot of people have just taken one position, they look at it from one angle. It is like what Chimamanda Adichie calls the evil of the single story. When you are analyzing Nigeria, there is no one answer. It is better to look at these issues from different perspectives.
Based on what you’ve just said, it’s like you describe political competition as a grand conspiracy. It was a competition. Isn’t there a different perspective? That the former president likely mismanaged his relationship with everybody? With the US government? With the Church? With the North as a political entity? Could you even say he had a relationship with the South-West? Could that be why he lost, rather than to a conspiracy?
Well, you are expressing your personal opinion. And you are just reinforcing what I have just said that there is no single story to this matter. But you must keep an open mind to be able to look at social phenomenon of any sort, of any category, and from different angles. But I am not trying to impose my view. You are entitled to your own opinion but that is where I stand on this matter.
It appears that one major reason why the PDP lost - and the president failed in his re-election bid - was that the party turned on itself on the eve of the election and former president Jonathan took his fate in his own hands and went about campaigning personally. How do you see it?
All these details are no longer relevant. What is relevant is that in an election, there will be a lot of dynamics in terms of perception - the word you used earlier - or the dynamics within the political party. The end result is that somebody will win; somebody will lose. How you manage the outcome is what is important to us Nigerians. I think that the residue of that entire process, no matter where you stand in terms of analyses, is that at the end of it all, Nigeria survived and the people exercised their power of choice, to choose their leaders. Today, we look back and say something has happened in Nigeria. When President Jonathan emerged in 2011, we were all excited because a minority from an unexpected part of the country could emerge as president. That has become part of our history. People say, “this man was my colleague; he was a teacher.” The average Nigerian could see in him a reflection of himself. That was a great moment for Nigeria. People looked at him and saw that this man from a poor background could get to that position in the same country. It means the Nigerian dream can take anybody from the lowest level to the highest place in Nigeria. That was a strong message for Nigerians. We have experienced that. It will be relevant in the future.
In 2015, we saw a situation whereby a strong political party, described as the largest political party in Africa and which had been in power for 16 years, lost an election. The details are neither here or there. But that was a strong lesson for Nigerians. We saw a situation whereby the average Nigerian could say “look, I am a powerful man. It doesn’t matter who is in Aso Rock, it doesn’t matter who is in government house; with my vote I can make a difference.” That is a strong message. Can we look at it from that higher level instead of this nitpicking about a process that has passed?
Dissecting the process is about accountability so that people can learn from it; the party itself needs to learn from its loss. After the election, there was recrimination among top PDP members that, perhaps, the unending tirades and scare-mongering by Femi Fani-Kayode and First Lady Patience Jonathan backfired with moderate voters. Was there any merit in this point of view that the PDP wanted to take the low road to a high office?
I am not so sure I understand that question they way you put it. What I can say is that in a democracy, political parties learn lesson. This whole thing called democracy is a learning process. Even in advanced democracies like the UK, the United States, etc., parties have problems. They make wrong choices in terms of how they conduct their own affairs. They send the wrong signal to the public and then they lose. But the same party can still come back to power tomorrow. So it is a learning process for everybody. If you look at what is happening within the public domain, PDP leaders have said they will reorganize. They will address whatever issues they have internally. And they will be prepared to come back a much stronger party in 2019. The APC is there today, APC may not be there forever. Tomorrow, PDP may win. Tomorrow, another political party may even emerge. So all of this is in the construction, the reconstruction of the democratic process, which is good for society and our country.
So you agree that the scaremongering by the First Lady, Fani-Kayode and others was all a mistake?
No, I have not said that. I have just given a theoretical description of what happened.
The theoretical description relates exactly to the question about the scaremongering by the First Lady. Do you agree?
What scaremongering? Let’s break it down. I started by saying the way you constructed your question, I don’t think I really got what you are saying.
They created the impression Buhari would jail people and the First Lady was pitting people in the South against those in the North...
You are constructing these questions trying to establish that the PDP said this and that person said that. But you have not brought up what the other party said. You know that during that election a lot was said on both sides. Look at the language of the campaign. It is probably the hottest election that anybody ever held in Nigeria, in terms of the polemics. So you should open your mind instead of you picking on the PDP, saying this figure in the PDP said this, this figure said that. You haven’t quoted what people on the other side said. You haven’t quoted things that Lai Mohammed said. If you want to use the word “scaremongering”, there was scaremongering on the other side too. So don’t ask a one-sided question; it would not be fair to me.
If I asked you about Lai Mohammed, he is not here to defend himself. You can defend your people...
Those questions you have asked about scaremongering, maybe the persons you are accusing of scaremongering are in a better position to defend themselves. But I have contextualized the matter for you in terms of what happens during an electoral process and in a democracy.
Former First Lady Patience Jonathan seemed to have a larger-than-life image in the public; she often came across as tough and controlling. Is it true that she was displeased you refused to defend her over allegations her office bought 200 BMW cars for the African First Ladies Summit in 2012?
There is prejudice in that question. You were saying she was controlling, she was that. You have already dismissed her.
But those were things said in the public space about her...
There is a lot of prejudice involved in many of the things said about certain actors in the Jonathan administration and the issue of the African First Ladies’ Summit. We already addressed that. That is not an issue. I have had a lot of people say the erstwhile First Lady didn’t like my face or that the First Lady thought I didn’t do certain things. That is not true. I had no problems whatsoever with First Lady Patience Jonathan. She was very supportive. She was a mother figure and she encouraged all of us who worked with her husband to be committed. And she took an interest in each individual’s welfare. A lot of people do not know her. A lot of people do not understand her. That is why I accuse you of being biased against her.
Was the BMW matter an issue at all between your office and hers, and whether they expected you to speak up for her?
It was never an issue. I never had any problems with her. As the head of the media team, I also worked most of the time with her own team. But I didn’t absorb the functions of her Media Office. But I collaborated with them on many occasions and they went out there and spoke. I had no problem whatsoever with the former First Lady. This is something I have heard people talking about, that maybe she didn’t like my face. No, she was very supportive. There is a lot that people do not know, a lot of prejudice. You know the opposition was perpetually feeding the public with negative information about the Jonathan administration. And a section of the media supported them. That section of the media has suddenly gone quiet or has suddenly become deaf and dumb. Those are the kind of analysis that I expect people, intellectuals and those involved in social criticism to be doing. But I think that many of you were so much anti-Jonathan that you don’t even want to look at reality as of today and do proper analysis.
But you could also say prominent political figures and leaders, like Olusegun Obasanjo, were in many ways “anything-but-Jonathan”. These are people many Nigerians look up to. Can you then blame Nigerians for wanting someone else as president other than Jonathan?
I don’t like this idea of trying to drag me to comment on personalities. Let us deal with issues.
What kind of president was Goodluck Jonathan? How would you describe him?
A patriot, a statesman and as I have said also, I believe history will be kind to him. With time, people will understand that. Nigeria is a very complex country. The level of competition, political competition, the struggle for power, it’s really complex. But one thing you cannot take away from him is that he was committed, he was hardworking, he was focused and he meant well for Nigeria. He did play his part and history will recall the fact that at the critical moment when Nigerians needed someone to stand up and rescue the country from the imminent threat of violence, from a blowout, he stood up to be counted. And he made it clear that his ambition (to remain president) was not worth the blood of any Nigerian. I think that was heroic of him. It is most unusual, and many people have commented on this. I am not saying anything original; for an African leader faced with that kind of situation, to make the kind of choice he eventually made, without any prompting. And again, that is one of the good things that came out of the 2015 process. Because in the future, if another Nigerian leader is in a similar situation, Nigerians will expect the person to follow the Jonathan example and say to himself or herself, “look, the country is more important than the rest of us”.
In so many ways, Boko Haram defined the Jonathan administration. And yet he left giving the impression he wasn’t willing to do anything and everything to stay in power. Of the two (Boko Haram and leaving power), which do you think he will be most remembered for?
Boko Haram is not about Jonathan. Boko Haram is a Nigerian dilemma. It is a Nigerian problem. It was propaganda. It was not Boko Haram shaping his administration. Since the president left the office, Boko Haram has become even more ferocious. More people have been killed between May and this moment we are in. When we were there, we were issuing statements everyday, virtually every Sunday. Every time there was an incident, people will say “Abati has not spoken. Jonathan has not issued a statement”. Journalists will be asking me at that time about the president’s reaction. How many statements have been issued since May? You can count them. The same journalists are not asking about the statements not issued. How many newspapers have you seen putting the pictures (of Boko Haram’s carnage) on their front-pages every day? Don’t let us go into all of that. There was propaganda and there was desperation for power in certain quarters and they were probably organized in doing all of that.
But Nigerians are not stupid. Since President Jonathan left, is Boko Haram still not an issue? The people who used to gather to bring back our girls and made it look like it was a Jonathan problem, they have relaxed. I don’t see them with the same desperation on social media. Their spokespersons have all gone in search of other things. Let’s be honest in our analysis of this. What I am saying is that with time, people get to understand what happened. Jonathan is not the problem of Nigeria. The one thing he will be remembered for is keeping the country united, keeping the country together. His example, the symbolism of his emergence and of his Presidency has also said that. He will forever remain a symbol of hope for every Nigerian. I am sure you will also feel that someday, you can become President of Nigeria. And you will feel that way because you know that at a point in this country, the point has been made that it doesn’t matter where you come from in this country.
Nigeria remains a land of opportunity for every Nigerian. That point has been made and that point cannot be erased. And he is the symbol for all of that. If you look at the details, you will see that administration made its own contributions. But in a democracy, no administration can be perfect. No Nigerian leader will ever come and you will say this is a perfect man. You don’t describe leaders in terms of, “this one is perfect, this one is imperfect”. We should analyze it in terms of how each person has been able to make his own contribution to the making of society, to the making of Nigeria. People should stop being emotional. Journalists should also desist from being partisan about what goes on. Many of our colleagues have become politicians. They behave like card-carrying members of parties. That is why when journalists ask questions sometimes, you are asking yourself whether they are working for APC or they are working for PDP. I know what goes on. We should be detached. So asking me questions that show bias, I disagree.
At the beginning of the race for the 2015 presidential election, most PDP chieftains described Buhari as a "joke." In fact, one report described him as "the man the PDP loves to defeat." Do you think he was underestimated?
All that was just campaign talk. Look at the electoral process in the US at the moment. People are saying all sorts of things. Donald Trump will say one thing, this one will say another. During campaign season, there is political rhetoric. At the end of the day, somebody will win and somebody will lose. We don’t need to keep dwelling on that. If we hold an election in 2019, people will still talk. They will call each other names, they will say all kinds of things and all this is just competition for the public mind. When you have an election, you will throw everything into it just to gain the attention of the public and to promote your own candidate. But it doesn’t mean that after the election has been won and lost, you will keep dwelling on that. I don’t think we should worry about such issues. It is all in the nature of political campaign and rhetoric.
You were reported to have made peace with Buhari after he took you to court over an article you wrote in The Guardian in 2011, saying he threatened to make Nigerian ungovernable. Why did you retract?
Well, again I don’t want to go back to all of that. I mean I don’t believe that personally, President Buhari has anything against me. As a journalist, I attended meetings that he called. And I’m sure he knows very well I’m also a Nigerian trying to contribute to the making of the country. So it is not a personal thing. That incident, I would like to just put it behind me.
Are there some areas where you think former president Jonathan is not being given enough credit for the work he did or efforts he made?
Generally, I don’t think he is being given enough credit, particularly by the opposition. Again the opposition was in control of a larger percentage of the media. So you find the opposition using organs of that propaganda machinery to discredit the administration. The Nigerian people, over 12 million of the voters, voted for him. That means that even right now, outside power, he has a strong followership out there. It means he has lot of Nigerians who believe in him. And the election could have gone one way or the other. The facts speak for themselves. Let’s forget about the opposition. It is not as if he was beaten with some kind of crazy margin. That means when he went into the election, there were many Nigerians who wanted him back. There were millions who wanted him back. It wasn’t as if it was a landslide victory for the APC. It was a seriously heavily-contested election. That is the truth.
The relationship between President Jonathan and former President OlusegunObasanjo was, to say the least, very turbulent. The low watermark appears to have been Obasanjo's letter to Jonathan. Some people say that the Jonathan government then instigated IyaboObasanjo to respond. Is that correct?
There is no truth to it. I was there. Nobody instigated anybody to attacked Obasanjo. I can’t speak for Iyabo. You need to ask her. Iyabo has a PhD. She is a well-educated person. She has been a Senator. She has been a Commissioner. She is an intellectual in her own right. So I am not in any position to speak for her.
This allegation that President Jonathan or certain people in his administration used Iyabo against her father; did you ever discuss it with President Jonathan? Did you ever ask him?
It never came up. It was not an issue for us. Please let us respect people. If there was an issue in that regard, I think Iyabo would have come out in public to address the issue.
It never came up and you never discussed it and yet you have categorically stated that President Jonathan did not put her up to it. Why?
He did not, he did not. I mean, how? I was in the environment; I knew all of these details. This is one of those big lies that people were putting out. Let us respect people. Like I said, Iyabo Obasanjo is alive. She has been in the public space. She knows what it means to have your name out there, associated with certain things. I think she is in the best position to clarify that question. It is not for me to speak for her. But I can tell you that was not our style.
Share with us some of your memories of the former president's last days in office. You were with him and his wife when they voted in Otuoke. When did he know that he had lost the election? How was it conveyed to him?
I was with him all the time. Again, this is one of the things you must give him credit for. When he went to the polling centre, he couldn’t be accredited. The PVC failed to work for him and his wife only. But it worked when his mom was to be accredited, when his sister was to be accredited, and others. But for the two of them, it wasn’t possible. And journalists were there. They interviewed him and he said, “don’t worry, these things happen. I will go home and come back.” He was very calm about it. That is statesmanship. That is leadership. There are some other leaders who would take advantage of the situation. Instead, he went on television and told Nigerians to be calm, that INEC would address whatever issues there were. When the results came, like every other Nigerian, he was monitoring the results. When he saw that the thing had gone the other way, he called me. He said “Abati, are you around?” I said I was at home. He said “come quickly”. I went to the office. It was just he and I. He said, “look, I think we have lost this thing. We have to move on. You need to prepare a statement to say it is over. We will start packing our things out of here”. And I asked him what he wanted me to say. And I took notes on what he wanted me to say. That was how that thing went that whole day and the statement was ready. And in the process, I think he informed others that the thing was over. He took it calmly. A few days later, he started packing his things out of the place. He didn’t waste time at all. We all started packing immediately. It wasn’t as if he was going to hang around and all that. He was very calm throughout. If anybody is saying that he was forced, or that he was pushed, there was no such thing.
A number of people have come out and taken credit for being the ones who encouraged your former boss to concede defeat. Did anyone do so?
I saw all those stories. But they were not there when he called me and it was the first thing in the morning. It was very early in the morning. You know in Nigeria, people like to take credit for whatever. Don’t worry, let them take credit but they were not the ones who took the decision. The buck stops at his table. I have just told you what happened. Some of the people will even tell you they were the ones who wrote the statement for him. There is a lot that people don’t know about Jonathan. He is a man who has a mind of his own. People who know him will even tell you he is very stubborn because he has very strong convictions. He is not the kind of man you can push around. You can’t go and write something for him and you want to impose your views on him. If it is not what he wants to say, he will tell that is not what I want to say. On many occasions, he used to write these things himself. But people will not know all of this. It is very easy to judge people that you don’t know.
Was he misunderstood?
I think to a large extent, yes, he was grossly misunderstood. It was propaganda. You don’t want me to blame the opposition for that, though.
Did you watch Orubebe’s “performance” while the election results were being collated? What went through your mind?
I saw what happened on television. But the situation was brought under control. I think that Professor Jega handled the situation very well and the security agencies that were there also conducted themselves very well. He raised an objection and the objection was addressed and we moved on. Orubebe has since addressed the matter. He said he didn’t mean to disrupt anything but that he needed to draw attention to certain things and that is it.
There was a news article on Reuters after the election claiming the intention was to abduct Professor Jega. Other than that, there were also social media reports that the Inspector General of Police Suleiman Abba was sacked because of it; that he was the one person that refused to back down and allow the abduction to take place. Why was the IG sacked?
There were all kinds of conspiracy theories. Why the IG was sacked is not an issue. It is the prerogative of a sitting president to appoint and fire people.
Then the IG was sacked for no reason?
I don’t know. It is not something I can comment on. But it is still not an issue. At that last moment (prior to the exit of the Jonathan administration), there were appointments made. There were people who got appointed, who were fired and all that. A sitting president continues to function until the last minute. If you lose an election, it doesn’t mean you have become a lame duck, as the saying goes. The business of governance will continue and you see that the Jonathan administration remained active till the very last minute. If the new government wants to appoint anybody as IG, it is within their powers to do so. This is about Nigeria. It is not about individuals.
We understand you're writing a book on your experience in government. What key lessons do you hope to share?
This is a book some people even said if I write, they will not read it. They will not buy it. Why should we promote a book that some people are already very emotional about? They don’t want to hear Reuben Abati. He should just get lost. If I tell you the lessons from the book, it spoils the market for me. But I don’t know when the book will be out.
You have passionate followers online, offline. A certain number of them don’t even want to hear your name. What is going on? Is it a question you have asked yourself?
I don’t know. Some people say I shouldn’t have taken the appointment; that I should not have worked in government. I am not going to apologise for that because other Nigerians should also be encouraged to work in government. Government is not necessarily a forbidden territory and like I said much earlier, I feel better enriched by the experience. I have acquired additional skills. So I guess with time, some of these passionate friends will understand the method. And I have been seeing of late, some of them beginning to praise me. If you check social media, some of them will say we thought Abati was this and that. He did a good job and all that. When you go into the public space you will get criticized, you will get attacked. As the saying goes, if you don’t like heat, don’t go near the kitchen. So I take all of that in my stride and don’t let the criticism bother me. But when it comes to defending myself and I want to do so, I can also defend myself. But I don’t want to dwell on that.
Are you planning to go into politics?
I don’t know yet. But I have been inside government and sometimes I look at it and I say, “if you give me this country to run, I can run it. I have been there”. It was not just as an aide. It was also some kind of apprenticeship. You could see the process of governance. You learn a lot in the process, either in terms of how government is run or even in terms of international relations. How meetings are held and what goes on there. I was there, every moment. Maybe you will go and canvass for me one day to be President of Nigeria. I won’t run away. I’ll take on the challenge.
Has your experience in government affected your view of the role of journalists and demands made on them by editors?
Certainly, yes, because I have worked with journalists from everywhere, both traditional and the alternative media. Both local and foreign. But I don’t think this is the appropriate time to begin to comment on that. All I can say is that the media will continue to be a strong pillar of democracy. But I’m also aware of some things wrong with media practice in Nigeria. I will give you an example and this is recent. I went to deliver the annual lecture of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Ogun State Chapter, about a week ago. Both the subject and the interactive session were quite interesting. And in the process, I raised the issue of ethics. And one journalist stood up and asked, “what do you want us to do? Our employers don’t pay us salaries. To survive, we will ask money from people’. This was in an open forum; it was not hidden at all. So I if say you ask for money, where in all the codes of practice do you have this? That if they don’t pay you salaries, you will collect money and maybe sell stories. And everybody there seemed to concurred that that was the way to go.
What was your response to that?
I took the high ground of quoting the code of ethics, the NUJ code and all that. Another journalist stood up and said our editors are the problems. As a correspondent, he is on the ground, he is seeing what is happening. And the editor will say that is not the story; this is the story you should bring to me. He will tell the editor “no”, that that is not what is happening here. The editor who is in the office will be the one who also reports what is going on. Sometimes, they will twist the story to please the editor. I am giving you real reports from an interactive session, where everybody was a journalist. So there are issues just as there are issues everywhere else. As journalists, we are always sanctimonious, always behaving as if we are better than everybody.
What's your assessment of the four months so far of the Buhari government? Is there evidence of change?
I am still watching and studying. The government is still settling down. It is too early to start making strong comments about how the government is doing. It is not easy to run Nigeria. Let’s be a little more patient and we will see how everything shapes out. I don’t want to make any premature comments. Some people are already making comments. This is my own personal reaction. Have you seen me write anything yet about that? No. But I will form my own opinion with time. I will study and all that. And you know I have very stubborn opinion. I will always write, I will always comment on society.
We understand that one of the regrets of former President Jonathan was that some money bags who had access to him and were very close to him were among the first to switch sides when the results of the election were not going his way. Did he at any time come across to you as a man betrayed?
I told you earlier that the moment we lost the election, the Villa became a ghost town. People disappeared. They fled. That is the nature of a lot of people. I said this when you brought up the issue of phones no longer ringing, the subject of the article I wrote. What is means is that people relate to the office, not to the person. When you are in public office, you don’t have true friends. The same people who will call you, who will struggle to have access to you, once they think you no longer have power, they will leave you. I don’t think it is only in Nigeria that it is like that. It is human nature. It is about power. There are people who were strong members of PDP, after the election, they have since crossed over to the APC. They have seen that is where power is now.
But there is another side to this coin. When you were in public office, how did you respond to your own friends? There are people when they are in public office, they distance themselves from their friends. How did you respond to being in public office?
I didn’t distance myself from my friends. But the nature of my assignment did not make it possible for me socialize. Even to have regular time with my family was not easy. I keep telling people that every presidency has its own style. No two presidencies are the same. You could have a president, for example, who goes to work in the morning and closes early. And the moment he leaves the office, he releases his staff. That staff will have plenty of time to circulate. You have some other presidents who say “I don’t want people coming to my house.” You don’t even go to the residence. But you can have another president who is different. He will start work at 8 am and all of you could be with him; some staff could be with him till 1am or 2am. When you are with a president all the time, you can’t be answering phone calls while you are with him. It is for the individual that is there to see how he can manage the various complexities.
But people don’t understand these things. I didn’t have much time to pay attention to family. I didn’t have time to go to parties. After I left office and I went to Lagos, do you know that the first thing I went to look for was a place to eat isi ewu. While on the job, there was no time to go to any pepper soup joint, things like that. My own attitude to it is that when you are given an assignment, you give it your best shot. I have more time for myself now, I have more time for friends and family.
What are you planning to do next?
I don’t know. That is a subject for public consumption.
Do you think your successor's phone might also stop ringing once he's out of office?
I don’t know but we have dealt with this. People relate to the office and not to the person. It is always like that. Have you not heard about some people, when they leave office, the following Christmas they didn’t receive any gifts? I am not the first person to draw attention to that kind of experience. There have been presidents in this country on the occasion of their birthdays, while they are in office, all the papers will be full of congratulatory adverts. You check, the moment that same president or governor leaves office, you won’t see any adverts. People will just move on to the other person. It is not as if it is something that is peculiar to me. It is a metaphor.
Now that you are all out office, how often do you stay in contact with Jonathan?
He is my boss, I am in touch with him. I have not sat down to check the regularity or the frequency. But I am in touch with him.