When I started taking on hate-filled critics of former President Olusegun Obasanjo during the days of his 8-year tenure, many hurled abuses at me and called me a sellout! Very few recognized my passion for putting facts in their correct perspective no matter how bitter we are. I knew deep in my heart though that I would have been the greatest “Obasanjo-hater” if there were mass praises for the man with an attempt to sweep the negatives beneath the carpet. Fortunately or unfortunately, the reverse was the case. I suffered abuses and denigration by people who believed in the expression of sentiments as a yardstick for measuring objectivity.
It was fine with me as long as such pretended writers were just hobby bloggers and not trained professionals. When trained professionals however throw the ethics of a noble profession overboard and embrace the principle of cheap popularity, the equation becomes awfully different. Such was and still remains the case with Dr. Reuben Abati who has today, exposed his true colors to the discerning mass of information consumers. For the layman in Nigeria, journalism is not just a calling; it is a matter of divine inspiration. Any moderately educated Nigerian who is thus able to articulate his thoughts in half-way comprehensible English often makes haste to invoke inspiration by the Holy Spirit since they were not trained in journalism and the writing “simply flows throw them”. Never mind the loads of often unacceptable and unpardonable grammatical errors!
When, on the other hand, educated and highly qualified journalists begin to write and echo the sentiments shared by these laymen however, the laymen begin to believe that the profession of writing is so simple and easy. The crucial element of fairness and objectivity, which they have often heard but hardly knew much about in connection with journalism, is then equated with the proper expression of personal and subjective sentiments. This is the criterion that presently rules Nigeria’s world of free-for-all journalism and the damage is horrendous.
Such is the journalism that was encouraged and implanted on a whole generation of Nigerian hobby writers by the likes of Reuben Abati, Okey Ndibe and Simon Kolawole. In fact, unconfirmed oral records reflect that Reuben Abati had approached former President Olusegun Obasanjo to ask for appointment as media spokesperson. He was said to have been snubbed and denied the appointment. The battle line was drawn. As for Okey Ndibe, ethnic rivalry deriving from the civil war of the early seventies that saw many Nigerians of Eastern extraction nursing neck-deep hatred for the Yoruba ethnic group that Obasanjo belongs to may have played a crucial role. There are definitely many, who choose to attribute Okey Ndibe’s animosity towards the former President to this ethnic factor. The Yorubaman Simon Kolawole like his ethnic kindred, who seem to detest their own man Olusegun Obasanjo for not toeing the tribal line and doing more for Yorubaland while a military President seems to fulfill a stereotype. In fact I have personal Yoruba friends who have such neck-deep hatred for Olusegun Obasanjo, you’d think the man was Adolf Hitler or a devil incarnate of sort. There are many, who would readily see Simon Kolawole in this light.
All these three personalities however shaped opinion immensely and defined the direction of journalism in Nigeria during the Obasanjo days. After Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua also refused to make Reuben Abati a media spokesperson and chose Olusegun Adeniyi instead. But it was lost on no one that Reuben Abati then began to strike a moderate tone in his criticism of that administration. A friend of mine who had associates in Aso Rock (that people now choose to call “Asshole Rock”) told me that Jonathan was Abati’s ethnic brother. Ever since though, I have been left wondering where Abati hails from! The name Abati is said to be Yoruba and this has been confirmed to me on several occasions. Yet there are people who swear that the man is from the Delta.
Be that as it may though, Reuben Abati is today, the media spokesperson of a regime that has made many Nigerians yearn for the strongman days of Olusegun Obasanjo, at least, as far as the handling of Boko Haram is concerned. The same President that Reuben Abati – in the most irresponsible of journalistic styles – took pleasure in deriding and ridiculing! Having spent the first four-year tenure traveling round the world and leaving routine governance to a de-facto ‘Prime Minister’ Abubakar Atiku with no result to show, Olusegun Obasanjo took off in the second term, determined to achieve results, take responsibility for his actions and not listen to too many unsolicited advices any longer. He set himself the task of reorganizing Nigeria with a view to creating a balance of geographical power in military and government institutions. This earned him many enemies that then fueled popular sentiments against his presidency.
Abati knew this, Ndibe knew this and Kolawole knew it too. Determined not to give a damn what critics say, President Obasanjo would shout down any journalist who dared to ask unfavorable questions and thus also incurred the wrath of practicing journalists. Unfortunately though these professional operatives failed to draw a line between personal anger and fair reporting and appraisals! Corruption was rightly placed in focus and the selective prosecution of enemies of the President began to dominate the headlines and the bandwagon was fired up to cheer Atiku on in his politically suicidal battle against his own boss. Abati led the way in eloquent and poisonous desecration. He minced no words stressing uncontrolled elements of corruption in Obasanjo’s regime.
Today however, Reuben Abati is claiming that President Goodluck Jonathan did not create corruption in Nigeria and cannot wipe it out overnight. Criticizing Obasanjo those days however, you would be forgiven if you understood Abati to be insinuating that Obasanjo created corruption in Nigeria. There was no limit to his ridiculing and no holds barred in his abusive words. Today however, he sits beside the throne fanning off the king’s sweat of public disappointment. Today even the most committed erstwhile admirers of this onerous personification of treachery agree that Reuben Abati’s venom has always been about gaining relevance in the corridors of power. To achieve this aim however, he sacrificed the intellectual orientation of a complete generation that was readily receptive to the sweetness of the destructive rhetoric of wanton desecration. Such is the damage that journalism championed by the wrong characters has unwittingly done to the development of a God-forgotten nation alongside the evils of political mismanagement over several decades. I highlighted this fact all too well in the book “Nigeria’s Journalistic Militantism”. In fact, I am still awaiting a “Gbolekaja” series from Reuben Abati on the present running battle between President Jonathan and a serving Governor!
Some products of this gutter journalism still persist today in some prominent websites running web televisions and celebrating themselves as superstars of damning quality. Coincidentally, I stumbled onto one of the low-quality interviews aired in this web television recently and finally saw the quality and faces of people behind the campaign of smear and calumny and my fears were confirmed. I saw an interviewer who had no clue how an interview is conducted and merely flowed with his instincts in asking questions. I saw subjects struggling to put sentences together and hardly sounded convincing. Anyone could be forgiven for assuming that the entire program was a classified advert paid for by unknown adversaries. The program was supposed to unveil damning revelations on Olusegun Obasanjo.
As viewers and readers comments subsequently uncovered however, hardly anyone was convinced that patriots were at work. They questioned Obasanjo’s sudden richness when he had nothing left in terms of assets when he came out of prison in 1999. They referred to his hilltop mansion that seeks to copycat Babangida and also talked about owning a private jet in a passing comment.
Indeed anyone would shake his head in disbelief, who knows the facts about the man at the center of their attack. In fact, after getting to know President Obasanjo personally in the aftermath of the publication of my book “Nigeria’s Journalistic Militantism”, one of the major issues I tried to investigate was the source of his wealth and how he was able to afford the hilltop mansion and the vast expanse of the presidential library. In one of my reports “The Presidential Library that I saw”, I provided information on how an opposition Governor at the time provided the plot to the former President for the project. Fund-raising events that the President organized afterwards are now history. In fact, as my source uncovers, very few people know today that President Obasanjo received the plot for the hilltop mansion free-of-charge from the elders of Abeokuta who simply wanted to see the area developed by reputable sons of their land.
In the course of my curious interactions, I found out one crucial fact about leaders at the top! They are often exposed to loads of gratis offers in all areas of life that people virtually fall over themselves to offer political leaders one gift or the other. That is the reason I always remain bemused at the amateur nature of President Jonathan who was reported to have asked an Italian company bidding for a contract, to first build a high-quality church in his own hometown free-of-charge before the award of contract. Most often, gifts are better not solicited. They are often thrown after leaders. At this point, I saw no further need to probe into how President Obasanjo built the hilltop mansion, being absolutely sure that one contractor or the other would have fallen over themselves to supply materials free-of-charge.
If Nigerians were used to putting facts in perspective, they would be asking what these contractors demand or even get in return for their gratis offers. Instead Nigerians make false accusations based on wrong assumptions that money must have been stolen to build a mansion on a hilltop. No one who knows President Obasanjo has ever known him with a private jet. He flies commercial airlines. Unlike the Igbinedions and Iboris, Olusegun Obasanjo is not known to have private estates in England. In fact the last interview I had with the former President was in London where I met him in a hotel not a private home.
The greatest mistake made by Olusegun Obasanjo as President was not to have given a damn about critics and what they said. President Obasanjo gave up on reading newspapers and engaging his enemies. He virtually ceded the mass media to his enemies who had a field day desecrating the President at their whims and caprices and the damage sticks till today. If the President had adopted the idea of weekly Radio address in the fashion of the American President and thrown more lights on some issues from his own perspective, a few of his explanations would also have stuck till today.
Now, playground kiddies come out of nowhere to accuse him of having run a robbery squad or a killer squad and who knows? Soon, he may be accused of having run a kidnapping squad as well. Politicians nurtured and raised to stardom by him now turn against him to exploit sentiments that they once fought against and call themselves accidental servants. Gladly for the former President however, the present government of Dr. Jonathan has succeeded in making several erstwhile die-hard haters see the difference between a clueless leader and a determined leader with a blueprint no matter how imperfect.
Frisky Larr (M. A.)
Radio/Television Journalist/Communication Scientist
Govt.-accredited Translator/Interpreter of the English language