MY MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT AS A PRESIDENTIAL SPOKESMAN BY REUBEN ABATI

The spokesperson to the immediate past President  GOODLUCK Jonathan, Dr. Reuben Abati has maintained his reservations about discussing his time in the Presidency. But on the occasion of a recent book reading session in Lagos, he opened up to AHAOMA KANU on his experience in politics and more

You were at the book reading and signing session of This American Life Sef by author and columnist, Rudolph Okonkwo, and in the book, he narrated some stories about life of Nigerians in Diaspora juxtaposed with living in Nigeria, what reaction do you have about the book and the ideology behind it?image

Well sitting down here I tried to read some part of the book and also listened to the various readings and I see that this is like a dialogue between home and Diaspora; an attempt by a Nigerian in Diaspora to give a reflection of what he has seen; what he has observed; what he has experienced about the American society.

And you know in Nigeria, everyone wants to go the United States – a lot of young people want to go to the United States in pursuit of the American dream. So, reading parts of the book, I could see him trying to convey the kind of challenges that the man who goes to live in America in pursuit of the Golden Fleece or the American is likely to face.

What he has offered is truthful; he doesn’t say don’t come to America but he says just be prepared. It is not as rosy on the other side as you probably think it is. And I think that the manner in which he looks at the two cultures and creates a dialogue and a conversation around many of the codes along that line is very interested.

But of course, he also writes well and that helps. So, even if you don’t agree with his perspective, you will enjoy the beauty of his prose. And it is not just about reflections on America, there are also short stories and this will be, I think his second major book.

Before this, he has done Children of a retired God: Notes from an American Exile, which was essentially a collection of his articles. So, I think he should be encouraged to continue along this line, to continue to write and to continue to offer us these perspectives from the Diaspora and I think that this dialogue between Nigerians in Diaspora and Nigerians at home is far more enriched now in the context of advanced technology and globalisation, the democratisation of the communication space.

Talking about the advancement of the communication space, the social media has become a tool in the hands of young ones, and in Nigeria, most times you hear this cliché that Nigerians don’t read. How can the social media be used to enhance the reading culture of Nigerians?

I would not want to agree to that statement because the way it came about is prejudicial and is not about Nigeria. You know that old quote that if you want to hide something from an African, you put it in a book. So, that impression that Nigerians don’t read comes from there and it is a racially determined statement, so I would not put it like that.

But I will say that there is a crisis with regards to the reading culture in Nigeria. One, from a traditional source because of the conflict between orality and literacy; you know the African culture is basically an oral culture than a literacy culture.

So, you can say on that level, there is an issue. But the second issue is that not enough conscious effort has been made to promote reading and in the face of economic crisis, economic dispossession, even people who used to read in the past don’t want to read. In the 70s, you had average families buying newspapers as many as five or seven, and it was a common thing for ordinary civil servants to buy copies; government departments also bought newspapers and homes had libraries.

There were comics, there were novels; there was so much to read if you were interested. But with the crisis within the economy, you can’t even get the books; the various publishing houses have collapsed and all of these have eroded the reading culture. But I see of course that there are a number of civil societies and NGOs trying to promote the reading culture. In a cosmopolitan place like Lagos, we get events like this where people are invited to book readings and not a book launch and people discuss ideas.

But that again is a restricted elitist kind of engagement, we would like to see a situation whereby the system itself will promote a culture of reading and that then takes me to the third level of it which is about the education system. For you to promote reading and knowledge within the society, you need to strengthen the education system but unfortunately we have issues with our education system from the primary to the tertiary level.

So, our message to government should be that at all levels a greater investment in education of young people can save a nation because we are in a world of competition and because the battle of the future even of now is at the level of skills. And that is why countries are perpetually taking a second look at their education system and trying to improve and prepare for the future.

And in a country where the average age of the young person is 19 years; where the demographics shows that Nigerians are predominantly young people, we can’t afford to produce a generation of young people who cannot compete in the future.

But you can’t gain the skills and the knowledge if you don’t have the discipline to read. The fourth point has to do with the value system, and unfortunately, we have a value system that has created the wrong kind of role models and the wrong kind of priorities.

We have people who want wealth without work; we have people who don’t understand the principle of delayed gratification. We have a now-now generation of Nigerians, who just want reward without any effort and that is a serious problem and I guess that in this regard, the family as the basic unit of society, religious groups and other groups in civil society and even the media can play a role to ensure the general re-orienta-tion of society that places a higher premium on values on efforts and achievements.

Don’t you think that things are changing with the coming of the social media?

What the social media offers is not a replacement for the culture of reading. Reading a book is a different kind of thing. I know that there is this argument about the likely dearth of authors, newspapers and the likely disappearance of reading as we know it in the age of audio books and the internet. But they are two different things as the internet represents the future in terms of communication but it also has its dangers because it offers a short cut, it offers a short hand and it has its negative effects.

You now find a lot of young people who have now become victims in the culture of abbreviation and short-cut thinking that the internet provides and that cannot be the way forward. It should be a complementary thing and not become an alternative to the traditional rigorous mode of acquiring knowledge by sitting down and engaging in a serious scholarship full with the virtual interaction with a book.

Some of the conversations that were raised here dwells very much on the state of the country what is your take that after some years of into a democracy, we still have brain drain and Nigerians in Diaspora have not found it suitable to bring the knowledge they acquired abroad to develop the country?

One of the take aways from the conversation we had, in my view is the point that Nigerians in Diaspora are not necessarily happy to be outside Nigeria. In fact Rudolph Okonkwo used the expression that many of them are even frustrated and will prefer to be in Nigeria if the conditions here are friendly and welcoming enough. According to him, it doesn’t matter what you become in Diaspora, in the US, Europe, you would still be treated as if you are not at home even if you have the American passport; somehow you will be reminded that this is not your home. In his contribution, he said hence Nigerians in Diaspora try to create a semblance of home away from home.

What does that tell us? If indeed it is true that many Nigerians in Diaspora still have their hearts here and they have acquired education, experience and exposure, then the challenge for us at home particularly for government is to make this environment a liveable place.

I used the word liveable advisedly in terms of an environment that is friendly; an environment that every Nigerian no matter the extraction, religious ethnic or geographical can fulfil his or her potential to the fullest, enjoy the benefits of citizenship and have a sense of belonging in his own fatherland or motherland as we say it. I think that is where the challenge lies and many Nigerians abroad will like to return home as it happened when there was a return to democracy in 1999. Many Nigerians said then that now we have democratic rule in Nigeria I have no business staying outside the country and many came home to contribute to the process of development.

Some Nigerians are of the opinion that the present government has a kind of discord with Nigerians and has rather choose to work through propaganda machinery that tends to take the people’s thoughts away from the present economic realities. What is your take on this issue against the backdrop of your recent article on the man who named his dog, Buhari?

I don’t want to discuss politics because of the subject. I wrote on it penultimateFriday and also have a follow up article. My main point is freedom, human rights, the freedom of choice and the freedom of expression. But since I wrote the article there has been other perspectives, which I have tried to reflect in the follow up piece because some people called from Abuja and said that what I did initially was a western perspective and that we should have a perspective from home and I tried to juggle the views.

But the residue of it all is that people should be free and should have the confidence that they are living in an open society, where they do not have to look behind their shoulders because of the choices that they have made. The freedom of expression is very important and government and political leaders and agents of government should also have a sense of humour. If there is enough humour in a society, many of these pressures that we face will not be there.

Okonkwo has attacked you on several occasions and you were not even bothered and attended his book reading session. And obviously so many other people may have written about you not possibly in the positive, how do you maintain relationship with people outside of politics regardless of the choices you made?

I think that people should have a sense of humour. When it comes to intellectual work, the first principle is humility. You are trained to know that you don’t know it all and that at every viewpoint is positive. When you are engaged in intellectual pursuit, you don’t act as if your view is superior to that of other people because it is from the interplay of perspectives that knowledge is created and other people learn and quality contributions are made. So, I don’t go about carrying it on my head that this person criticized me therefore the person is not my friend.

What is next for you after your spell with politics, are there plans to return to journalism?

I never left journalism. Immediately I left Abuja I went straight to Saeed Business School in Oxford University to do a programme to refresh, having been in the midst of politicians for four years. Immediately I came back, The Guardian asked me to continue writing my columns and I have been writing them on Fridays and Sundays from more than a year now.

You don’t like talking about politics and your time in the Presidency, but I am inclined to ask if you have regrets ever going into the Presidency.

No! I have no regrets but rather it was good experience. If you are in the private sector, you probably will not know what goes on in the public sector. If you have the kind of ambidextrous experience that moving from one side to the other offers, in the long run, it is an advantage.

I learnt a lot and it was an opportunity to learn and you can see that if you look back, the kind of experience that I have had, not too many people have been that privileged. So, it is not a thing to talk about regrets, it is a thing to be grateful for because perhaps in 100 years not as many Nigerians will have the opportunity to even have that exposure. So, it is an opportunity I am grateful for.

How will the experience affect your writing?

It enriches my perspective and that is what is important. You can see that in some pieces I have done in recent times. I give you two quick examples; when everyone was complaining that President Muhammadu Buhari was travelling too often and should stay at home, I wrote a piece defending him. I wrote that he is the number one diplomat in the country and it is part of his job to engage the international community. And if there are things to address internationally, you can’t complain that he is travelling; a president cannot travel too much, it is part of his job.

That is not the full summary of the article but that is the premise and I offered a defence. If I didn’t go into government, I probably would have had a different perspective but if you ask me now 100 times, I will defend it because I was there and I know that presidents don’t go on tourist trips, it’s not a jamboree it is a lot of work because I was involved. Also, recently when John Kerry visited Nigeria, I wrote a piece, John Kerry’s visit beyond the cover story, and if you read it, if I had not been in government, I probably would not have been able to write such a piece.

Somebody who had not had my kind of experience will probably write a general copy just talking but I was there. I was involved in preparing briefs on international trips, foreign visits, diplomats coming to see the president. I was involved in interfacing with the Foreign Affairs ministry; I was involved in helping to edit their copies, working with diplomats, discussing with them and attending meetings, so I had an idea. I know what a president will face when he has an important visitor like that, so I can prepare a brief more or less to guide foreign affairs. If I had not been there, I would not have been able to write such a copy.

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