by David Diai
I have long been a great admirer of Dr. Reuben Abati and i say this with every sense of sincerity and indeed in recognition of his quite impressive achievements, which i would refrain from itemizing here for the simple reason that i want to spare his blushes.
My admiration for him dates back to our days in the University of Ibadan (Great UI), in the late 1980’s, where he had spent some time in the Theatre Arts Department. In those days when UI was arguably the toast of all Nigerian Universities, Abati arrived with a pedigree that was the stuff of narratives. His legend as a 1st Class Product from the University of Calabar, preceded his arrival and though he was in transit from Ife (OAU), we embraced him with pride and possessed him like one of our own. As a student of English, who had dabbled into the Theatre for the love of performance, I was fortunate to have been around when Abati stopped by and i often gravitated towards the Theatre crowd, after my English lectures, were i got involved with a few commendable performances and also had the opportunity to see Abati at close quarters.
For one, he was just about the same size with some of us and even though we were undergraduates and he was lecturer, this gave us an even greater sense of bonding with him. Secondly, his exceptional brilliance was effortlessly breath-taking and his mastery of subject and environment, in the mythically intimidating ambience and context of UI, coupled with his confident oratory left no one in doubt that he was a cut above the most of his peers. Third, he belonged to the pantheon of emerging young Nigerian intellectuals, especially in the Literary constituency, from the Ibadan/Ife axis, most of whom represented the nucleus of a new radical consciousness in the strategic confrontation of a strange and disturbingly benevolent military dictatorship, and who by the sheer spontaneity of their generational relevance, became the major sources of inspiration to us undergraduates. In fact it was unbelievably incongruent to imagine that Abati had already comfortably snared his Doctorate in the bag at that young age.
After Ibadan, i encountered Abati again in the hugely popular Hints Magazine of that time and to say that his stories and craftsmanship helped shape the decision of most graduates of our day, including me, to get into Journalism, is only stating the obvious. We all wanted to write like him; fluid, lyrical, intoxicating prose that left you breathless and hankering for more…
It was therefore fortuitous that I joined the Guardian in the early 90’s and met Abati again and though my sojourn at the Flagship was brief, i and a small band of followers devoured his column every Tuesday and Sunday with relish as he wove his weekly stylistic web of satirical craftsmanship and stirred our sensibilities with a fervour which was at once passionate and oftentimes elicited angry loquacious engagements with the social and existential miseries and dislocations which society offered the disenchanted youths of that generation. He became one of the very few symbolic voices of an arrested and militarized generation that is only now just finding its place in the space of the evolving Nigerian nation.
Several movements within the Guardian Newspapers establishment saw him rise to become the Chairman of the Editorial Board Chairman and by then he had already garnered several other Academic qualifications into his burgeoning bag of excellent credentials, which Google and other search engines can confirm to any curious Nigerian, who would like to know more about this young, gifted Nigerian.
So should Dr. Reuben Abati, Chairman of the Guardian Newspapers Editorial Board accept the responsibility of becoming President Goodluck Jonathan’s spokesman if he is offered the job? My answer is very simple: Dr. Reuben Abati should have been offered a place in the Nigerian Government a long time ago and the fact that an offer is coming now means that a great injustice which has been done to the Nigerian people since the advent of this democratic dispensation in 1999, is about to be corrected.
I read the article by Mr. Tony Eluemunor on this poser and i tend to agree with him on his assessment of all those who had served as Spokespersons to various Presidents in the past. I will reseve a special mention for Segun Adeniyi, who incidentally was my co-anchor in the very first story i reported for the Guardian on Sunday Newspaper. Those were the days and i was quite proud to recall that referential anecdote to anyone who cared to listen, when he became the spokesperson for the Yar’Adua administration. I cannot of course share the same sentiments on his performance in that office, but like Mr. Eluemunor said, Adeniyi served at a very difficult time for both himself and for Nigeria. In addition, he and all the other Presidential spokespersons served under strong men, who completely dominated the space and essence of their office and by extension, the nation.
Dr. Reuben Abati, on the other hand will definitely not be encumbered by the personal and political considerations which coloured the reign of his predecessors, if he decides to take the job. For one, those who came before him operated with Principals who had huge egos and the only way to be relevant in those administrations was to be obsequious, politically cunning and ultimately primed to adopt the tenets cronyism and opportunistic service, which required the indulgence of personality cults and cabalistic imperiousness as against the demands of social responsibility in the discharge of public service.
Abati was certainly not made of that former ilk and it was even speculated upon at that time that he was actually in the reckoning for a top government job during one of President Obasanjo’s tenure, but perhaps the reason he had been denied or by-passed with such an offer may have been directly connected to the assumption that he had remained commendably apolitical and this was a no brainer in the high wire joustling for political offices in the Presidency.
However, the Jonathan Presidency has exhibited amazing signs that it will be somewhat different from what Nigerians have experienced in the last Ten years before he came on board. He has given the impression that he is a President who likes to decentralize and delegate functions and authority. Such a Presidency needs a Presidential spokesman (or woman), who possesses the aura of intellectual authority and an impressive grasp of existential desires to command the respect of both his peers and Nigerians as he presents and deconstructs the President’s vision, ideology and initiatives to the rest of the world. Dr. Reuben certainly possesses these qualities in fine proportions and he has exhibited an articulate and analytical prowess which will define his responsibilities and guarantee that his acceptance will be assured both nationally and internationally.
To be sure, his three most recognized recent outings, two of which have been in Delta state, speaks volumes for his sterling pedigree. He was in Asaba, the Delta state capital, to help Prof. Dora Akunyili promote her re-branding campaign when she was Minister for Information and Communication. Then he was on hand to lend his credible voice to the ‘Bring Back the Book’ Campaign and the review of President Jonathan’s facebok interactions with Nigerians under the title: ‘My Friends and I’. And only recently, Abati was back in Asaba again to give a cerebral lecture on the Niger Delta as part of the Inauguration programme for Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan’s second term. In all these, he proudly stood his ground and said it like it was, even despite the fact that he was a guest of those who invited him. And can we ever forget his superlative contributions in the heady days of the effervescent Patito’s Gang?
President Goodluck Jonathan has not made any secrets about the fact that he wants to work with some of the best and brightest minds in the country and they do not come any better or brighter than Dr. Reuben Abati in the capacity of serving Nigeria as the Spokesman for Mr. President. Again, Mr. President has both demystified and re-defined the job of his spokesperson to assume a greater importance and relevance above which it had hitherto been regarded.
The new visibility and inherent responsibilities now associated with the position have quite dramatically re-invented the job to assume the very essence and substance of the Presidency. The added significance of this portfolio reconciles itself with the emergent need for whoever assumes the job to connect adequately to grid of the new global social networking media and to at the same time, appropriately interprete the implications and define a responsorial perspective for the recently promulgated Freedom of Information Law and navigate and diffuse the honest and mischievous landmines which will surely be planted by the ever present counter forces in the democratic space. All these are right up Dr. Abati’s alley.
In fact, a man like Dr. Reuben Abati should have been on the list of Ministerial nominees if the selection process had been expanded to accommodate some additional criteria beyond political recompense for display of loyalties at election time. This of course does not foreclose the fact that most of those on the list have not earned their nominations on some kind of merit. However, there are still so many other brilliant Nigerians who can be of immense invaluable service to the country in specific portfolios which not only strengthens the entity of the Presidency but equally fortifies the structure and institution of governance at the very top.
There is no doubt that Nigeria is now moving in a new direction where the era of strong men is gradually giving way to the skeletal framework of an emerging governance vision, which promises the potentials of a strong institution if nurtured by the right personnel and guided by proper ideological intentions. Dr. Reuben Abati belongs to that crop of Nigerians who understand and possess the capacity to be deployed as change agents to drive this new vision of transformation to build strong institutions, without necessarily being encumbered by the tedious burden of performing as the political statistic of some state or ethnic appendage.
If indeed he is the original choice of President Goodluck Jonathan for the job, as has now been confirmed, then one can only congratulate Mr. President for selecting someone who will not only imbue the Presidency with added credibility to complement the personality of Mr. President, but also someone who embodies some of the finest qualities of what Nigeria hopes to achieve in this tenure of transformation in the country.
David Diai is a Journalist and the Chairman of the Delta State Guild of Indigenous Newspapers Publishers.