It must be demanding to have to polish the image of popular Presidents for even the most acclaimed leaders do falter. The assignment becomes doubly daunting if the publicist is trying to put a brave face on events in a context where the problem is less the image of government than the harsh reality of a low performance scorecard. For Dr. Reuben Abati who made the transition from celebrated newspaper columnist with a rave readership to presidential spokesperson, the odds must be immense.
This predicament is intermittently reflected in the interview granted by Abati to The Saturday Punch and published in the paper’s edition of October 12, 2013. Replying critics who pinpoint the contradiction between the positions he took outside of government to those he now takes, Abati argues that both journalists and public officials are “all at the end of the day on the same side of the street”. What is important he says is the mental software that public officials bring to their assignments.
To be sure, it is romantic nonsense on the part of Abati’s critics to expect that he could more or less carry on in government as the critic he was as a star journalist. Once he accepted the appointment, he had to more or less undergo a mental transformation from intellectual gadfly and conscience of the nation to that of an image making technocrat. Of course he had the choice of not accepting to serve under a PDP government that is not famous for pro-people policies. But once he foreclosed that option, and many Nigerians probably would, he cannot be expected to turn his office to an alternative version of the Guardian editorial board where he served as chairman for several years. Abati himself throws a jibe at some of his critics when he reveals that many of them loiter around government looking for favours; only to turn around and lash at him or the government. The implication here is that these critics would have wished to be in his shoes and that they are berating him out of envy of his plum job.
Three quick caveats here, however. There must be a number of his critics who are not looking for ‘favours’ from government and do not therefore fall into the category of ‘sour grapes’ or ‘bad belle’ critics. Secondly, looking for ‘favours’ from the government of one’s fatherland ought not to invalidate one’s right to criticism of that government or its personnel especially if the favours they are seeking are of a legitimate sort. Thirdly, isn’t the joke on our governance deficits and the circumstance in which politics and seeking favours from government have become the only viable game in town precisely because of the enfeeblement of the professionals and middle classes?
In other words, the horde of elite supplicants for jobs or contracts from government is a comment on the status of governance in the administration under which Abati serves and ought to worry him. If Edo state governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomole’s recent revelation concerning the state of the country’s finances is anything to go by, then the ranks of the distressed supplicants may multiply soon in leaps and bounds. If they are joined by the restive millions of unemployed youths for which government offers no succor, then the true nature of the social crisis in which we are progressively enmeshed may begin to reveal itself.
But let us consider now the substance rather than the motives of Abati’s critics. Several of them finger a shrill tenor, a fit of temper in Abati’s responses to criticisms of the president. Abati’s interviewer cites the example of his reference to the publicity secretary of one of the opposition parties as “a medieval era ignoramus and brainless individual” as well as his irreverent carping of Chief Bisi Akande, a senior politician.
Robustly defending himself, Abati argues that he went after these politicians first, because they impugned the office and person of the president and second, because they were intemperate. He went on to say that he had been calling for moderation in political discourse but since the combatants ignored his appeals, he gave them a taste of their medicine. Abati’s argument here is like saying: I told them not to administer slaps as a substitute for rational argument but since nobody heeded my appeal, I joined the fray and dealt them a few dirty slaps myself. In Abati’s words: “If you throw a punch, I will connect you with an upper cut and maybe a kick to the groin”.Abati did not say however, whether his aggressive and vengeful reprisals have now endeared the President whom he is defending to the people or whether he considered that making his point in civil and dignified language would have shown up the deficiencies and hysteria of the opposition. “Carry a big stick and speak in a small voice” a former United States President once admonished. That counsel is still pertinent today to all those who seek to mould opinion and win friends to their cause.
The other issue raised by Abati’s critics concerns the substance of his policy positions which contradicts what he was known to stand for as a public commentator. For example, on the oil subsidy debate, his widely circulated article setting out cogent arguments against the removal of fuel subsidy in which he called for the “stoning of economists in power” for their cranky and voodoo economics is hard to reconcile with his defense last year of the removal of fuel subsidy by Jonathan. It is possible that from the perspective of a technocrat in government, Abati has since modified the position he espoused as a columnist of repute. It is also possible however, that he’s merely doing what the power game demands of him, namely toeing the official line without interrogating it. It was a bit strange to find him in The Punch interview arguing that the phenomenal anti-subsidy removal riots of January 2012 were the handiwork of “oil marketers, their supporters and political opportunists”, a position also taken by his boss. If that indeed were the case, then this trio of marketers, their supporters and opportunists must be extremely powerful to the extent that they were able to ‘incite’ Nigerians in the Diaspora as well as Americans and nationals of other countries who joined the protest. We may also inquire whether the volcanic eruptions against IMF and World Bank policies in parts of Europe and India were ignited by political opportunists or as is more likely by a distressed humanity in the throes of affliction. True, it may be difficult for someone in government to canvass a policy position that is at odds with the administration’s perspective. To go all out and defend that position with arguments that are tenuous and in tenor that is overwrought is a different matter altogether.
Perhaps, if Abati listens more to his critics, rather than simply dismiss or shout at them, he might learn one or two things about walking the admittedly tight rope between loyalty to the President and the credibility and persuasiveness of his messages.
Olukotun is Professor of Political Science and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences and Entrepreneurial Studies, Lead City University, Ibadan