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Dr Abati: It’s Hard To Say Goodbye – By Philips Akpoviri

July 15, 2011

In 1985, at the tender age of twenty, he proudly bowed out of the University of Calabar as the overall best graduating student of the University returning to his home in Ogun State with a First Class honours degree in Theatre Arts. Four years later – at an incredible age of twenty-four – this intellectual dynamo racked up both a Master’s degree, and a PhD from the premier University of Ibadan.

In 1985, at the tender age of twenty, he proudly bowed out of the University of Calabar as the overall best graduating student of the University returning to his home in Ogun State with a First Class honours degree in Theatre Arts. Four years later – at an incredible age of twenty-four – this intellectual dynamo racked up both a Master’s degree, and a PhD from the premier University of Ibadan.

He commands a fan base that ranks high up among Nigeria’s sparse writing class and reading minority; his readership is so vast, widespread and colourful that one needs not state that he is about the most popular active columnist in Nigeria today. He sits atop the editorial board of Guardian Newspapers – one of the nation’s best print media firms – and doubles as a contributor and columnist in a few web-based media platforms.

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His works are ubiquitous on the blogosphere just as they are neatly stacked on the pages of his newspapers, such that one feels rather safe to say that no Nigerian columnist or commentator alive – home or abroad – has more articles easily accessible on the public domain as this gargantuan academic cum journalist who generates loads of highly informative and educative articles as though he was born solely for this.

But, in no time, these adulations would be substituted for vituperations. Dr Reuben Abati would soon lose his mountain-high public acceptance, his professional ethos, his teeming fans and most likely, his conscience. He would soon start speaking coarsely, scruffily and perhaps ramblingly. Do not ask me why; they almost certainly do. It is no longer news that our hitherto indefatigable social commentator has shifted base from Rotham House in Oshodi Lagos State, to Aso Rock in Abuja from where he now operates as the Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan – his fellow academic doctorate degree holder.

Perhaps tired of the ennui of being a critic of the seemingly interminable pro-aristocrat works of the PDP-led government, he has done an about face; now he has opted instead to taste life as a defender of the same fellows he severally valiantly challenged armed with his pen and paper.

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From suturing paragraphs chronicling how the government fail daily to impact positively on the lives of the dying masses, Reuben would now reverse himself to sew together cleverly worded vocalizations that would convince the browbeaten Nigerian masses to continue to praise the government even when the little for which they crave seems so near but is actually very far away.

This I know the talented Reuben can do excellently well if ability is all it demands. He has in abundance the abstruse potentials to articulately x-ray issues, proffer smart solutions and to create make-believes if necessary. His mellifluous tongue can win over most of the staunchest haters of President Goodluck Jonathan, and his subterranean academic knowledge of history, law, English language, and the typical Nigerian mentality can quite effortlessly woo even the diehard hecklers of this administration.

However, it does not stop at ability. Character is also required; perhaps even more important than the mere endowment to write and to speak. True to our fallible human nature, he too might have made some mistakes in the past. He was accused by some of hanky-panky in the last weeks of our late President. A few others have also accused him of surreptitiously evading some issues of national importance in his discourse. But, as Facebook would say, “you do not get five million friends without making a few enemies.” Truth is, this man appears to many – including the author – as someone with a rich pool of character, value, and astuteness even if he is not so qualified to be canonized as a saint.

Hence, this begs the questions; can Reuben Abati comfortably climb up the high horse newly acquired for him, look down at the trough overcrowded with his people crying, wailing hopelessly, and tell them all is well in the face of the Afghanistan-styled Boko Haram, staggering rate of unemployment, absolutely avoidable minimum wage brouhaha amongst many other fears? Can Reuben Abati mount the podium using specially fabricated exotic English vocabularies and seductive grammar justify the impending removal of government subsidy from petroleum products thereby making life more excruciating for his dear people? Can Reuben Abati go after his master’s ‘enemies’ promptly and crassly as most of his predecessors did – even when some of the so-called enemies appear better to the Nigerian people as friends?

Well, it may be said that going by the title, the actual terms and job description of a Special Adviser are more indoors than outdoors if they ever would be outdoors. Yes, it is a sound and balanced argument that his job stops at giving professional counsel to the president similar to a professional consultant based on his discipline of training and practice. One who devotes time and efforts into tutoring the president – and his details – on the mechanism and dynamics of communication, publicity, the media and the people. Yes, I concur, that should be the true definition of his office.

Matter of fact, this is not a new portfolio in Nigeria. In fact, Dr Abati is the sixth occupant of that seat, and it is quite confusing that in Nigeria that position appears more as a typical political office than one which bears any professional appendage as it were. Consequently, the occupant is traditionally expected to act as a loyal (blind?) politician. And with the benefit of hindsight, some of the occupants of that office in the past few years have unmistakably (re-)defined the duties of the office along this line: the Special Adviser is the official mouthpiece of the president who goes after anyone that says what the President or his government dislikes (fire-for-fire). Before you contest this, kindly do a quick flashback. Just recall some of his predecessors. You know the names!

It sounds plausible to expect Reuben Abati to make a bold attempt at convincing the President to hire a Spokesman who would serve as the official public mouthpiece while he (Abati) squares in to be a professional adviser, knowledge bank, coach and master communicator who manages sensitive correspondences and responds professionally on behalf of the President behind-the-scene in the interest of the masses. This will keep him away from controversies and maintain his professional profile. Should he succeed here, then we can reasonably harbour the expectation that we have not seen the end of Dr Reuben Abati the brilliant columnist. I pray so.

Better still, there is the slim chance that Reuben Abati could warm his way into the President’s heart hot enough to deserve an elevation to the stool of a substantive Minister. As a highly skilled, principled professional, he will definitely be more productive in such a position where he calls the shots directly rather than where he will be essentially a yeoman. I hope for this miracle.

Aside the fear of the inappropriateness of his choice – in the light of the daily mudslinging, lie telling and name calling that comes with that office versus his towering fine reputation – I strongly fear if the pro-masses Dr Reuben Abati as a Special Adviser and or Spokesman, or Minister will not get carried away by the bliss and immoderation of the powerful PDP club. I fear that once he settles in fully, he might lose his verve to speak wisely and truthfully. This is a disaster I pray against.

Sadly though, as an avowed realist, this does not seem so realistic to me. It is by several miles easier to believe that Dr. Abati will tow the paths of his predecessors who lost the bulk of their public trust currency on the altar of defending the powerful paymasters. And, as expected, they varnished swiftly into oblivion after their Aso Rock expiry dates. By the way, it will be nice to have a few of them back but who would take their criticisms and admonitions seriously again?

In fairness to them it is not wholly their fault. It is cultural in Nigeria that people do not talk with food in their mouths – not even when they eat alone. Who knows, maybe, our dear Reuben – at the risk of eviction from the house of gold – might just stumble into a gush of courage and good luck strong enough to break this tradition by developing a new slogan: multi-tasking is allowed – even on the dining table.

Until then, it’s goodbye to you dear commentator extraordinary, Dr Reuben Abati.


Indian Ocean, July 12 2011.

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