Reuben Abati’s Rough Road to Redemption   

  
Oblivion is a scary place. And for all who walked in the corridors of power and had enjoyed a reign expected to last longer, an abrupt end would surely be remembered with a painful nostalgia. Such pain must be the inspiration for Reuben Abati’s first engagement with the media after leaving office, in a widely shared and contested account of his inglorious stint as Spokesman to President Goodluck Jonathan from 2011 to 2015.
 The story of Abati is, in the briefest summary, that of a reckless marketer who pandered to pettiness and disabled the use of intellect and wit for which he was known, to sell a damaged brand. Not even his remorselessly condescending post-office reflection of what he termed the period of “potential nervous breakdown” was honest in describing his stint as the tragedy it really was.

 Even out of office, Abati remains the same obnoxious and delusional salesman wired to remind us that the popular perception of his brand, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, was born by our unrelenting ignorance, despite his honest interactions and skills deployed in easing our collective stupidity. He left out all the bits on his descriptions of critics of the government as “yesterday’s men and women” and “children of anger” while serving as President Jonathan’s spin doctor. I’m really shocked that he is shocked their PR failed. Woefully.

Jonathan may not have been an irredeemably bad brand, but the salesmen hired to market him were an uninspiring quadruplet—Reuben Abati, Doyin Okupe, Reno “Wendel Similin” Omokri and Laban Maku—who, instead of establishing and maintaining respectable and humanising communication with unimpressed Nigerians, some of whom had tried to give them the benefit of a doubt, were intolerably indecorous and dedicated more time to multiplying the enemies of the government than in actually managing perceptions. 

The quadruplet insulted both partisans and unaligned citizens who sought explanation for why things kept getting worse. You can’t be so insensitive to expressed grievances, squandering the last kernels of your goodwill, yet expect the same people to volunteer as foot-soldiers of your principal’s bid to remain in the very Office that gave you the opportunity to insult them. This is commonsense, and for many Nigerians who had had such sorry encounters with these agents of an elected leader, it’s that experience of humiliating engagements, that the Presidency was inefficient, ineffective, insensitive and insensible, that inspired fervent advocacies for its replacement!
 Abati’s commentary is also a self-indictment. He wrote about journalism being destroyed by social media, yet it is The Guardian newspaper under him that misattributed polarising quotes to General Muhammadu Buhari simply to portray the man as truly provincial and a dagger-wielding fundamentalist. On April 22, 2011, in its assessment of the violence that followed the presidential elections in parts of the north, The Guardian indicted General Buhari, blaming his remarks, which the newspaper mistranslated and sensationalised, for the killings. It was a lawsuit, and a subsequent resolve to settle the case out of court, that got the newspaper to publish an apology on July 11, 2013.  

 Abati not only damaged the ethics of journalism while heading the Guardian, his obsession with cheap propaganda was a tradition we got used to in his desperate representation of the Jonathan-led government. If Abati, once praised for his intelligent responses to issues wasn’t quoting unverified “Wikileakreports” to ridicule the opposition, he was plagiarising old jokes, lifting from Internet forums, as he did on January 24, 2015 by claiming a popular internet joke as his and publishing same with the title “Why Certificate Matters” just to ridicule his principal’s main challenger. It is, however, heartbreaking that a First Class graduate of Theatre Arts, PhD and one of of the nation’s praised creative minds, became a plagiarist for lack of simple ideas to defend an employer.  

 Still, we must mitigate Abati’s fear of oblivion. We have to assure him that it’s impossible for a writer to be out of the bounds of memories, and that so long as he writes, without restraint this time, and brilliantly, he shall be read, quoted and assessed by critics and fans. What isn’t assured is the possibility of regaining what he had lost as a cerebrally malfunctioning media manager. 

It is Nigerian to forgive those who don’t ask for it, but forgiving all who mismanaged public funds and misrepresented our interests should begin with returning their loot, or tendering an apology if found innocent, which is unlikely.

While we await more memoirs of “yesterday’s men and women”, of whom Abati is not a model one, announcing that not every Nigerian is amnesic becomes necessary. Not all are gullible. And for all who have failed us, may their pathway to oblivion be smooth, and that to redemption be of understood lessons. As for Abati, with a pen to keep his memory alive and to manipulate the gullible and the amnesic, he will be remembered by some of us as that firebrand who served the government with his brains locked in a drawer at the headquarters of The Guardian. I’m shocked that he’s shocked that his phones no longer ring. As if a failed salesman deserves “well done” phone calls. May God save us from us!

By Gimba Kakanda

@gimbakakakanda on Twitter 

The Wisdom of Comrade

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It was my cousin who first drew my attention. I thought he was lying, was somehow trying to make the man we both admired look smarter than we’d thought he is. “Comrade is sharing camels for Sallah,” he said. He didn’t laugh as I expected. And it was not the first of April, not even the right month. I asked him to swear by Allah that it was true that Comrade had indeed bought camels for the masses. He did.

I rushed to Twitter for a confirmation. One can never be too sure these days. I searched for “Shehu Sani camel”, and the first image that came with the results was that of the man on the back of a camel, surrounded by happy masses. It’s true. Comrade looked royal on the camel. Like an Arab prince, and he has his very cool Afro to go with that royalty.

I scrolled down, and the first ten tweets were personalised attacks of this man we all call the People’s Activist, this man who looked Abacha in the eyes and called him a dictator, this hero who spent the best moments of his life in prison just to give us this thing we call a democracy. Further down, I got disappointed in all who were agitating. These ingrates expected sleek Mercedes wheels. Even those whose senators didn’t share ordinary chickens for Sallah were on Twitter attacking our gallant Comrade who donated whole camel, and not even one, to rehabilitate the stomach of those he proudly, and of course affectionately, referred to as “my people!” I like that he made a distinction on who his people really are, and that was done in response to a certain Abubakar, who hadn’t criticised Comrade with respect. It is rude to disagree with a senator like that. And if you must, start with, “Distinguished Senator Sir…” and then add “With all due respect Sir” before you state your grievance nicely.

This was the reason I was outraged, and asked Comrade to go to bed while I handled all the small boys and girls I suspected of working for Tinubu and el-Rufai to run the People’s Activist down. These politicians are intimidated by Comrade’s profile. He was fighting Abacha as advocate of the people when Buhari, the so-called People’s General, was having tea with the brutal dictator, Tinubu was fighting Abacha from his London mansion as a member of the cowardly NADECO, and el-Rufai was just a 30-something-year-old whose life wasn’t even newsworthy for a local campus magazine. Though I expected Comrade to understand how this Twitter business works, to know how to spot starving critics and procure them to serve as defenders – as what we call Voltrons. Just the way Tinubu and el-Rufai do. We all know the blogs and Twitter handles that began as critics of these politicians but are now standby underlings and professional arse-lickers. This life is tough!

But Comrade was still a wise man, he asked for our advice, we the masses, on what to do with Abubakar, the underling who disrespected him. His reason for disowning Abubakar was that the suspected PDP mole worked against him in the last election. And I supported him for that. I know Comrade doesn’t tell lies. My honest advice was, instead of granting Abubakar liberty to insult a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Comrade must send his political thugs after him to teach him a political lesson.

At first they came at me for this honesty, wanting to blackmail me. They had no idea that even their paymaster el-Rufai had to unfollow me when I wanted to end his career. But I think it was Elnathan John’s profound praise of Comrade that eventually crushed their guts. I like what Elnathan wrote about camels, especially the scientific things he checked on Wikipedia and presented as though he knew them from birth. I like smart people like that. And his name intimidated those semi-literate overlords who have fed fat on the largesse of Tinubu and el-Rufai. Elnathan is famous and influential now that even white men shortlist him for their writing competitions just to promote their brands. It was my gossipy friend, Tabawa Inuwa, that made this observation about the Caine Prize. I didn’t even say pim. I don’t like small talks!

On Sallah Day, after a fill of Camel pepper soup, I spoke to this fellow who had been attacking Comrade. He denied that he was paid a dime by Tinubu or El-Rufai. Not that I believed him. His reason was that Comrade is a former prisoner. I didn’t see why that is a problem. He made it seem like Comrade was a genuinely tried criminal, not knowing how it’s the dream of every activist to get arrested and become instantly relevant. I rolled out the names of powerful people, including Mandela, who had all been in jail, and out to dominate political scene.

Since venturing to defend Comrade, speculations that we are only seeking political appointments have become the headlines of several gossip forums. And it’s true that Elnathan and I have not been considered for an appointment. Yet. I don’t even know why, despite these many profound essays that even white people quote from Aberdeen to Zurich. But God knows what we are doing is simply to celebrate the wisdom of the man who knows, as Elnathan captures it, “the enduring value of camels.” In a place where politicians only share underage goats, commending the man who shared things as gargantuan as camels is only the right thing to do.

One ungrateful beneficiary of the camel largesse contacted me the day after Sallah and asked me to tell Comrade to help him with some money to buy Flagyl. I asked, was it Comrade’s fault that you ate too much camel? This show of ingratitude for the kindness of the man who has given us camels to show us the real meaning of change is just uncharitable. May God save us from us!

By Gimba Kakanda

@gimbakakanda on Twitter

Teacher Yekondunu: The Abrupt End of an Indeterminate Movie

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I was rung out of sleep, and on the phone I could have let out peals of laughter to relish the cruel joke told, if the caller were a professional colleague of the subject. He’s not an actor, and not a friend likely to start a conversation with a joke as dry as death. I ended the call without a meaningful response. He didn’t call back. As what he’d said sank in, I made my first frantic calls to mutual friends, some of whom were aware, others already ruined by the news. Sadisu Mohammed is dead?

On my to-do list for that Friday, June 26, was a meeting at 3:30 PM, but the news meant the triumph of God’s opposition over our proposals. I got my things and headed the way to Minna, still unable to overcome the rippling emotions growing within me, every remembrance of his time and acts an increase in the amplitude of my pain.

He had already been buried by the time I got to Minna, buried with his burden of dreams and ambitions, his humour and conviviality so that describing his existence in past tense now seems like a vulgar expression.

In my effort to join his mourners, my memory took me to the first time he told me about his medical condition. He was my guest, staying with me for the night on his visit to Abuja for an appointment at the National Hospital. I attempted to play down his worry the way he would if I were the worried, teasing that he’s become a Big Man now that he’s acquired their disease. He wasn’t tricked into laughter, which was not typical of his nature so I sought to fix my blunder by boring him with stories of friends who had successfully undergone such surgery. He was my friend and I had to try to mitigate the unfamiliar dourness that had accompanied him to Abuja. He returned from the hospital the next day with a report of rescheduled appointment, and that coming and going, which ended with a referral to Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, became his routine until his last day.

But I was impressed to see him eventually overpowering his condition, returning to his jovial self. He even took part in political causes in the last elections, not afraid to pitch tent with an unpopular party. He still vended his skills as a sought-after compere after the elections. But, of all his achievements, his struggles as a social entrepreneur in a society of economically dependent and less enterprising members were the most remarkable.

Sadisu Mohammed was an industry. He was the filmmaking industry in Niger State, and as the state’s pioneer Chairman of Actors Guild of Nigeria, he dug the foundation for, and built, what became the Nupe film industry. This all at a time the youth were going berserk from frustrated pursuits of academic goals. Before appearing on the screen, he had authored a book of short stories, Inaudible Noise, and also participated in stage plays, becoming an energising figure in the evolving arts scene of Minna, a place that’s earned an unofficial praise as the headquarters of literary activities in the northern Nigeria. This period was from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.

It was his creative spirit as a writer imagining a world that ought to be that guided him to the screen, forming alliances with actors above and below the Niger. He not only partnered with the A-list actors of the Hausa-speaking Kannywood and the English-speaking Nollywood, but got them to act alongside him in Nupe films, introducing Nupe culture to those insulated against it while restating its potentials to the informed.

At the peak of his acting career, which exploded into glory with the pace-setting “Teacher Yekondunu”, a drama loosely based on Wole Soyinka’s “The Lion and the Jewel”, we all teased that he was the most popular Nupe man alive, with his fanbase comprising kids and adults alike. Nobody, not even our politicians, commanded such popularity, especially in the Nupe-dominated hinterlands. Despite the klieglights that turned him into a cult figure, his humility was astonishing. Every outing with him was an interaction with his widespread supporters, either asking odd questions about the wicked character in this movie or the funny remark in that. The kids were even his worst tormentors, and my niece was one of them. Before I moved to Abuja, he was a regular at my place in Tunga, Minna. He was the house clown, always acting in the house for my niece. And whenever he wasn’t seen in days, she would ask, “Babo Chicha Yekondunu dan’o” – where’s Teacher Yekondunu? I’d comfort the young lady that he was at a movie location and that he would visit whenever he is done.

The perfect word to attribute to Sadisu’s venture as an actor and filmmaker is buccaneering. This is for offering the disenfranchised in a society dependent on certificates, petty trading and farming, an option to fend for themselves, boosting both commercial, social and even political engagements from the same society that had not given them a chance. Today, the Nupe film has bred numerous self-employed dreamers who have become social entrepreneurs in society. The same industry paved the way for previously unknown music artistes to access international eyes, making anthems of Nupe songs like Sibombo. This alone justified the turbaning of Sadisu as “Sarkin Wasan Nupe” – the king of Nupe Entertainment – by the Etsu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar Kusodu.

Our Teacher Yekondunu will be remembered for many things, and missed for being what many feared to attempt, but I’m still grappling with the reality of Yekondunu gone, the very hopeful mind who, only last February, on reading my tribute to novelist Abubakar Gimba, said, “I can’t believe we’re discussing Abubakar Gimba in past tense. I can’t remember he is gone forever!”

In Life with a cast of all comers, all freely auditioned, and with indeterminable duration, it’s devastating coming to terms with Sadisu’s last role as a strong-willed husband, political mobiliser and serial entrepreneur, gone to be judged by its impartial Director. Ours now is a prayer, a prayer for his soul at the premiere of Life and redemption in his next role in afterlife.

By Gimba Kakanda

@gimbakakanda On Twitter