The Trial of Reuben Abati By Akin Osuntokun
I recently attended the burial ceremony of the mother of the spokesman of President Goodluck Jonathan, Dr. Reuben Abati, in Abeokuta. I had many years earlier similarly attended that of his father. The attendance at the two occasions were qualitatively different-reflecting the variation in his professional and occupational status. Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State was, in the instant, provoked to make a side reference to the more political identity of Reuben in the course of engaging in a political spat of his own at the ceremony. The earlier one was nearly dominated by his professional media colleagues who mostly also doubled as friends and associates.
President Goodluck Jonathan led the cast of presidential and political luminaries and socialites that prevailed at the latter. If the dead could see and hear, the father would have wished to swap position with the mother. But if the Chinese theory of the harmonious coupling of the ying and yang; and that of the scientific harmony between positive and negative signs are to be believed, Reuben would not have wished the order of the two ceremonies to be reversed. What these expositions simply suggest is that in human relationships, the opposite genders of male and female are naturally, scientifically and vibrationally liable to harmonious and synthetic coupling. Among other derivations, this tendency is made manifest in male children taking to their mothers while the female take to their daddies. In the creation day myth of the garden of Eden, it was Adam and Eve that God created to complement one another and not Adam and Adam nor Eve and Eve. And so it was that Madam Maria Taiwo Abati got a grand burial ceremony at the courtesy of his celebrity son.
Our mutual friend and presidential contender, Madam Nuhu Ribadu, was not present at the ceremony in Abeokuta. Not surprisingly. The task had fallen on me to intimate and invite him on behalf of Reuben – who is unsparingly preoccupied with his presidential entourage chores and perhaps also a bit hesitant to approach Ribadu on account of a recent jab he dealt him. In his vocation as presidential contender, Nuhu had employed a platform at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) to pontificate on contemporary Nigerian politics including a critical glance at the stewardship of President Jonathan or so the media reported. The home run of the scheduled presidential election of 2015 provided the ambience and the context of Nuhu’s statement. The president felt sufficiently pricked to join issues with Nuhu and consequently rouse his spokesman to do his job- which he did with overwhelming force. While acknowledging that his friend was doing his job, Nuhu nevertheless reasoned that action and reaction were not equal and opposite; that the reaction was grossly disproportional to the tame critique he made against the principal of his friend. He felt that the obligation of friendship should have tempered the rejoinder from the presidency. This was the rationale he proffered for declining the invitation and it is a safe assumption that there are other friends who did not turn up at Abeokuta for similar reasons.
The role of a presidential spokesman is mostly a no-win situation. It is his lot to champion and defend the president in all materials particular even where he personally entertains a different opinion. It is also in this capacity that he has to play the advocate to unpopular policies, which remain unpopular no matter how well intentioned and in good faith they are conceived. If this role is ordinarily problematique, it is doubly so for a spokesman of Reuben’s antecedence. His immediate background is that of being at the vanguard of the adversarial liberal media intelligentsia in Nigeria-a station he took and projected with uncommon talent, populist gusto and intellectual aplomb. His column, like other successful columns, pandered to the insatiable appetite-for pedantic disdain and scorn-of a conflicted and condescending Nigerian elite perpetually at war with itself and the Nigerian nation.
Nigeria is a country comprising very few Nigerians and teeming with a multitude of Yoruba, Igbos, Kanuri, Efiks, Beroms et al. It is a country brimming with numberless egotistical critics and attended only by a handful of patriots. It is an open secret that if a referendum is conducted today on the desirability of a loose federation (often a synonym for dissolution) majority of the sub nationalities would opt for loosening the bonds that tie us together. We remain together not because we are happy to do so but on account of the collateral damage of disintegration. I was told of a notable columnist who captured this sentiment in a rather accurate depiction of what the release of Major Hamza al-Mustapha meant to Nigerians as “Mourning in Lagos and Celebration in Kano”.
Nigerians are generally alienated from Nigeria and it is considered a mortal sin for any Nigerian not to speak ill of his country and suggest that the Nigerian state and its personification i.e. government, has ever done anything commendable. I do not know if it has come to other people’s attention-the perennial denunciation that every successive federal government (since I can remember) has been consistently cited as the worst government Nigeria ever had; the most corrupt government in the history of Nigeria. A rather voluble leading opposition commentator was recently asked why he believes Dr. Frederick Fasehun is a devil that must be kept at arm’s length and he said Fasehun dared suggest that there could be a modicum of goodness in working with Obasanjo (as President).
But let us return to Reuben. It recently transpired that a column he wrote to entertain his audience three years ago on the imperfections of the first lady was reproduced as an advert to ridicule him as inconstant and unprincipled. Similar exposes have been relentlessly exhumed since he took up station at Aso villa. What has happened and is happening to Reuben is a trend from which his predecessors were not spared. Beyond the question of the individual competence of any particular incumbent, it is a moot point whether – given the enormity of our developmental challenges, the depth of governmental dysfunction and massive infrastructural deficit, given the revolution of rising frustration – any government of Nigeria can be popular. The nature of the problems that dog Nigeria are themselves prescriptive of solutions that are guaranteed to incur the hostility of the public, at least in the short run. We can readily cite the instances of the deregulation of pump sale of PMS and the rationalisation of the public service as conspicuous examples. If we throw into this mix the syndrome of nihilistic criticism and condemnation of government; gross exaggeration of its shortcomings and foibles; externalisation and demonisation of its functionaries; we will see that the job of an embattled spokesman is cut out for him.
It is certainly difficult to see how he could accept this position and avert the role of a committed advocate. And like all legal advocates, he advocates and defends his client whose viewpoint he is bound to partisanly adopt no matter how compromised or untenable the public adjudges the case in contention. He is, so to say, like a suitor who has entered into wedlock and bounds himself with the vow of for better for worse, in health and in sickness, for richer and for poorer….. And for good measure he may be occasionally required to engage in the rough and tumble of unrestrained pugnacity which the president/principal personally considers lese majeste but covertly endorses and enjoins. He may even be asked to fudge a statement with the objective of giving the principal a room to manoeuvre and make clarification. He may be required to play the fall guy if the circumstances so dictate. I recall the Press Secretary to President Barack Obama, Jay Carney, addressing Senator John McCain as grossly irresponsible (which the latter deserved). I cannot, however, envisage Obama personally calling out McCain as grossly irresponsible regardless of the misconduct and outrageous behavior of the provocateur.
Reuben’s situation is further compounded by the fact that he was essentially an outsider when he joined the Jonathan presidency. His position is among the select few regarded and prescribed as principal and personal aides who, by job definition, are with the president at all times save perhaps when he retires to his private concerns. The sense of belonging in this charmed circle is usually predicated on the extent that one shares commonality and bond with the president either by reason of consanguinity or enduring personal acquaintance and friendship. The absence of this kind of identification poses an initial obstacle which an outsider essays to surmount through a self-motivated need to prove himself and be deemed worthy of admittance to the inner chambers of the presidential court. Proving yourself in this manner often requires recourse to the logic of over compensation; of going the extra mile to answer the call of duty.
The situation is further put to the test if the principal has a regular coterie of sycophants who thrive on seeing ghosts where none exists in the effort to fawn and flatter and generally pretend to be more royalist than the Ooni of Ife and caliphate than the Sultan. Here I rest my case and if my effort looks more like an apologia and a labour of love, I plead guilty as charged. Reuben is, after all, a close friend and it is a road I have travelled before.
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