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