Reuben Abati, winner of Fletcher Challenge Commonwealth Prize for Opinion Writing (2000), recently granted an interview to The Nation in which he spoke about governance in Nigeria and his experiences working for 4 years as a senior advisor to former President Goodluck Jonathan.
Abati was editorial board chairman of The Guardian before his Aso Rock appointment, and is arguably, Nigeria’s most respected columnist. He suspended his column during his years in government and recently revived his column with The Guardian, which is now syndicated.
Below are excerpts of the revealing interview.
Q: Being a critic, I am sure you would have offended some people. How have you been able to maintain your relationship with those you criticise and those who criticise you?
Abati: People should have a sense of humour. The first principle of intellectual work is humility. You are trained to know that you don’t know it all; and that every viewpoint is relative and important. When you are engaged in intellectual pursuit, you don’t act like your view is superior to that of others, because it is from the interplay of perspectives that knowledge is obtained and quality contribution made to scholarship. So, I don’t go about carrying in my head that this person criticised me; so this he/she is not my friend.Take, for instance, Rudolph Dr Damages Okonkwo whose book, This American Life Sef’s reading, I attended in Lagos, I have been a victim in his hands for more than 10 years, even before I went to Abuja.
He was one of those attacking me but we are still friends because we know that the larger objective is to move our country forward. It is not about personal issues, but about our commitment to the public space in ensuring that Nigeria is a good and open society for the benefit of all. We are friends, it doesn’t matter whatever our views are. And there is a rich dialogue going on out there about Nigeria by Nigerians in the Diaspora on issues pertaining to the country.
Q: How was the experience of moving from the critical mass into the other side of the divide?
Abati: I think it was a great experience. And in the process, I must have acquired some additional skills and experience. Also, it was an office that offered me additional responsibility – and it was a very challenging one.
Looking back also, it was a tough work because I was dealing with a very critical constituency. It was a very political period, with a very vibrant opposition that challenged every little effort by that administration. It was like going to war. Coming out from the warfront, when you get back home, there would be memories, there would be experiences; but at the end of the day, we thank God for the opportunity.
Q: Of all the wars you fought as presidential spokesperson, which was the toughest?
Abati: Well, politics is war by other means. One of the toughest moments was after the deregulation of the downstream sector. You know that marked a turning point for the Jonathan administration in January 2012 when we had Occupy Nigeria’s protest and all that. And trying to explain something that you would think was very simple to the public and straightforward enough was a problem because the opposition was ahead in imposing a certain prejudice. Ironically, a new administration came in and did exactly the same thing. Then, you begin to ask yourself: the same people, the same issue, but in one instant it caused so much problem and resulted in long-term loss of goodwill for one administration; but with another administration, the people just accepted it. I think it is something we can interrogate on another level.
Q: Was it tougher than the Chibok girls’ issue?
Abati: The Chibok girls’ issue was another turning point. But the very first was the deregulation of the downstream sector. That is what we call it officially, but you call it removal of fuel subsidy.
Q: How has your being on both sides of the divide impacted your writing?
Abati: It enriched my perspective. And that is what is important. And you would how find it has impacted my writing in some pieces I have done in recent times. I’d give you two quick examples. When everybody was saying President Muhammadu Buhari was travelling very often, that he should stay at home, I wrote a piece defending him. I said he is the Number One diplomat of the country and it is part of his job to engage the international community. And if there are things to address internationally, you can’t complain that he is travelling too often. A President cannot travel too much. It is part of his job. That is not the full summary of the article but the premise – and I offered a defence. If I didn’t go into government, I probably would have had a different perspective. But if you ask me 100 times, I would defend it because I was there and I know that Presidents don’t go on tourist trips. It is not a jamboree; it is a lot of work because I was involved. And recently when John Kerry was visiting Nigeria, I wrote a piece, John Kerry’s visit: Beyond the cover story. If I had not been in government, I probably would not have been able to write such a piece. Somebody who had not had my kind of experience would probably just write a general copy, full stop.
But I was there. I was involved in interfacing with the foreign affairs ministry; I was involved in preparing briefs on international trips, on foreign visits and diplomats coming to see the president. I was involved in helping to edit their copies, walking with diplomats, discussing with them and attending meetings. So, I had an idea. I know what a president would face when he has an important visitor like that. So, I could prepare a brief to guide foreign affairs. If I had not been there, I would not have been able to write such a copy.
Q: But some critics say the president does not need to travel so much since the foreign affairs minister is there?
Abati: No, it is not the same thing in international relations. It is not enough to say, when the minister of foreign affairs is there, why does he need to travel? It is not the same thing. Every minister is an appointee of the president. Even when he sends an ambassador, they are there as his agents. And the highest level of government-to-government relations is between the presidents of countries A and country B, sitting together and exchanging views. And it is a serious business. People can complain about the size of delegation; that is not what I am talking about. But they cannot say the president cannot do his job as the country’s Number One citizen.
Q: What is your take on the way the Niger Delta crisis is being handled?
Abati: I have written on that. In my last article on that I was saying, there was no point in adopting violence or military repression as a strategy – that the issues at the basis of the renewed protests would still need to be addressed.
Q: Some say your articles are no longer as critical since your voyage into government…
Abati: That is not true. Since I left office, I have written on the Niger Delta Avengers; I have written on MASSOB. There is no topical issue that I have not actually treated. But I have not been doing frontline political writing because it could be misinterpreted as sour grapes. You can’t be a spokesman for the immediate past President, and immediately, you start criticising the people who are there. That would be sour grapes.
Q: Do you have any regrets going into politics that you don’t want to talk about?
Abati: No regrets. In fact, it was a good experience. If you are in the private sector, you probably would not know what goes on in the public sector. But if you have that kind of experience that moving from one side to the other offers, in the long run, it’s an advantage.
It was an opportunity to learn a lot – I learnt a lot. Looking back, the kind of experience I have had, not too many people have been that privileged. So, it is not a thing to talk about regrets: it’s a thing to be grateful for because in 100 years, not many Nigerians would have the opportunity to even have that exposure.
Q: I am sure you’ve had many people asking you, what next, after being presidential spokesperson? Let me be presumptuous, what next – journalism or memoirs?
Abati: Well, I have never left journalism. Immediately I left Abuja, I went to Oxford to do a programme on the side so that I could refresh, having been in the midst of politicians for four years. And immediately I came back, The Guardian asked me to continue writing my columns. And I have been writing those columns – Saturday and Sunday – for more than a year now.
Q: Segun Adeniyi and Governor El-Rufai each wrote a book about their experiences while in government, are we expecting one from you?
Abati: Definitely, but when? I cannot say. Certainly, the experience was so rich and the exposure was so useful that it would be a disservice not to at least, someday, sit down and reflect on it. But, when you leave the government, I don’t think it would be a good idea to rush quickly and go and write. At the end of the day, you’d discover certain gaps. It probably helps to give some time for reflection. And in the light of what has been happening in the last one-and-a-half years, there are new revelations coming up that could guide anyone who wants to write about the President Jonathan years.
Basically, I think the kind of experience that we had should be documented and I would like to do it. Although when I was in office, there were people on the social media who were saying “we know Abati would write a book one day. And if he writes it, we would not read it, we would not buy it. And I used to be amazed – that a book that has not been written, people are already saying they would not read it”. (Laughs).