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Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Joyful Pain of Public Office

As a child growing up in Lagos with a passion for the media, the Guardian was my drug of choice.  There was something about its lay out, font and logo that appealed to my juvenile air of self-importance. Its sport section was the best, helmed by Olukayode Thomas, a leading light in that field. As I grew older it began to make more sense. The paper was clearly designed to appeal to the bourgeoisie and this fed to my faux sense of importance. I began to understand the power of its columnists. Levi Obijofolor stood out, as did Okey Ndibe. However, Reuben Abati was the most renowned in the country. He had columns on Friday and Sunday and they were quite popular. Many a time, I got the impression people bought the Guardian on those days just to read him.

Dr Abati

 Dr. Abati was the voice of the people. His writing, built on the foundations of eloquence and satire, would examine the state of the polity, condemning decisions made by governments whilst also analyzing the Nigerian society and a lot that was wrong with it. Abati, drawing from his discipline of Theatre Arts, was able to use words to dramatic effect. He captured the thinking of the average person and was the toast of the land. Plaudits came his way. Year in, year out he would triumph with the much coveted Diamond Award for Media Excellence prize for Informed Commentary. Dr. Abati was a leading inspiration to a new generation of Nigerians to which I belong. In July 2009, I would have the pleasure of meeting him at a book launch in Lagos of which he had served as Guest Reviewer. I walked up to him, eager to engage in a debate with him on his trending article where he had condemned the entertainment industry for contributing to what he called “a nation’s identity crisis”. Artistes like Eldee, Banky W and Tosyn Bucknor disagreed with him by right of reply and it was an issue which was garnering a lot of attention. As we spoke I told him what I thought whilst also pointing out to him that I enjoyed writing and he was someone I looked up to. He gave me his card, asking me to send him emails of my work. He offered me constructive criticism and I saw him as a mentor of some sorts.

A week later (on the 24th of July) he gave me my debut by publishing my article on the illustrious page of the Guardian’s op-ed page, which was directly under him as chairman of the Editorial board. That moment changed my life and counts as one of my finer achievements. One of the greatest feelings in life comes from being able to meet and interact with people you admire. That is like having a rich intellectual meal. Getting their approval is like dessert to that good meal. Sadly, after this my life took a whole new direction and my writing was the worse for it which disallowed me from pushing on as I would have liked.

I retained communication with Dr. Abati, sending him articles now and then, congratulating him on his laurels and sometimes giving him my opinion on his pieces. Upon his election as President of Nigeria, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan appointed Dr. Abati as his official spokesman. As expected, this was criticised in some quarters. To some, it signified a strategic move by Jonathan. What better way to blunt the opposition than to have one of the loudest voices on your side? Abati also bore some of the brunt. Writing on 18th July 2011, Lawrence Nwobu of Sahara Reporters in ‘From Government Critic to Apologist’ said “The appointment of Reuben Abati as federal government spokes-person and his hasty acceptance of that ignoble post, which in effect makes him the chief spin-master and defender of a federal government that thrives on deceit and whose main purpose in governance is the massive looting and consequent dehumanization of  her own citizens came as no surprise.” 

Dora Akunyili

To some, it was an act of betrayal. Why spoil all the good work and credibility gained over the years by getting into a marriage that would only have one outcome, they wondered. This episode also allowed for some revisionism. We had seen this happen before, people we loved and looked up to go into government and lose the respectability they earned. Dora Akunyili’s spell as Minister of Information and Communications in the Yar’Adua years comes to mind. By denying what we knew to be fact about the then President’s ill health, ‘Aunty Dora’ as she was fondly called eroded a lot of the goodwill she had gained whilst prosecuting the state war against unsafe food and illicit drugs as the Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). Her role as government spokesperson put her in the firing line. To her credit, it is worth recalling that she made a bid at rescuing this credibility by being the first member of cabinet to request power be passed to then Vice President Jonathan as President Yar’Adua was unfit to rule. That was the ‘Aunty Dora’ we loved. By the time she made this bold step, we had fallen out of love with her. My father’s generation speaks of the likes of Ebenezer Babatope and Lateef Jakande in the same light for taking ministerial roles during the Abacha regime.

As expected, Reuben Abati has undergone a significant transformation. Recently, journalist Tolu Ogunlesi tweeted “So Reuben Abati is still the saying the same things he used to say as a Columnist. Only now it’s no longer satire. He means it ”. Dr. Abati has been involved with clashes with his primary constituency: The Media. In February, by right of response to an article by Dele Momodu he took a cheap shot at the Ovation Publisher by alleging that Momodu’s wife had not voted for him in his unsuccessful bid at the Presidency. Momodu, in response, revealed that Abati is a polygamist. He also dismissed him as one who when judged on posterity would be remembered as being a person “who voluntarily set fire to everything he ever wrote. Shame!”  

This offers food for thought. It says something about the psyche of our people. They know it doesn’t always end well but still put aside whatever sentiments and doubts that might be mentioned and take the dreaded path. Why is this so? Is it because the Nigerian culture teaches us that working in government is one of the quickest ways to enrich oneself? Is there something about such appointments that those of us outside do not sufficiently understand and make us unfair critics? By taking such appointments, does it suggest there’s a genuine belief that some positive impact can be made? Do they take these roles out of patriotism and the notion that the country supersedes the individual?

Do we as an audience place these people on pedestals they didn’t ask to be placed conveniently ignoring the fact that they aren’t super human? Who am I to suggest what is right or wrong about the decisions they make? Do they owe me any explanations on the life decisions they make?  Don’t they live their lives for their pleasure and if they see certain things as contributing to that, who am I to find faults with that?


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