Think about it – who remembers or will remember the Olusegun Adeniyis, Reuben Abatis, Tolu Ogunlesis and Femi Adesinas with fondness? Nobody.
By David Hundeyin
In July 2015, former presidential spokesperson, Reuben Abati, wrote an article called “The Phones No Longer Ring.” In that article, he recounted how during his time working under Goodluck Jonathan at Aso Rock, his phones constantly buzzed around the clock, to the point where even his wife got irritated with the constant intrusion into their personal life.
Every hour of every day, there was an important person trying to reach him on the phone. The president now, a governor in 10 minutes, a minister in 30 minutes, it never stopped.
And then came May 29, 2015, when President Jonathan handed over power to a certain individual who shall remain nameless. Abati’s portfolio was taken over by another journalist-turned-presidential-spokesman, and overnight he found himself essentially unemployed, albeit not in the broke or desperate sense. In a matter of days, Abati recalled, the constant rush of never-ending calls and messages slowed to a stream, then a trickle, then shut off altogether. The phones had stopped ringing.
Is it actually even worth it?
I have been asked multiple times whether I would consider taking up a political appointment in a hypothetical future where Nigeria is led by an administration that represents all that He-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless is not.
Each time I give the same answer – not a chance. Many respond with a knowing nod, silently taunting me with their eyes: “We’ve heard that before, and you’ll definitely end up doing a Tolu Ogunlesi like all the other bright journalists ended up doing.”
The reason I secretly scoff at the idea is manifold. For one thing, I was raised by a civil servant who turned into something of a pro-free market, pro-private sector evangelist – such was his distaste for the institution where he built his initial career.
I genuinely dread the idea of working under a slow, incompetent bureaucracy where politicking trumps merit, good ideas do not win, and bad behaviour is constantly rewarded. I have only ever worked in the private sector all my adult life, and I cannot ever see that changing. My second reason, however, is a lot more profound.
That reason is linked to Abati’s article mentioned at the introduction. You see, I grew up reading Reuben Abati’s work in the Guardian. On one occasion when my dad set up a meeting with the man to discuss Jehovah Witness media issues, dad dressed up in a suit and tie as if he was going to meet the president – such was the respect that his name and personality commanded in ours and millions of Nigerian households. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he was one of a small number of Nigerian journalists whose work influenced my career direction as a 16-year-old choosing my university programme in 2006. And then he took that job.
It’s not that Reuben Abati did a bad job as GEJ’s spokesperson. It was that it didn’t matter what kind of job he did – people only cared about results, not how they were communicated.
Jonathan’s presidency was (erroneously) adjudged to be a failed one, and along with it went the entire Abati aura. It wasn’t just his phones that stopped ringing after May 2015.
The whole portfolio and personality he had built for decades was effectively swallowed up by a single job that lasted just about half a decade. He became the target of several scathing, nasty, personal attacks in the public space, as well as something of a social media joke meme. Was it worth it to him? I have no idea, but I do know that it certainly is not worth it to me.
There will always be another – don’t believe the hype
While Goodluck Jonathan’s image has been somewhat rehabilitated since leaving office – aided in no small measure by the performance of He Who Has Still Not Been Named, Abati still remains something of a hate figure for many.
The reason is the same reason why his phone stopped ringing in 2015 – Nigerians, or maybe humans in general, only fear or respect people in power, while secretly despising those around them who have some appearance of power, but no actual constitutional power. Media aides fall squarely into this category, unfortunately, which is why the worst vitriol is reserved for them.
Think about it – who remembers or will remember the Olusegun Adeniyis, Reuben Abatis, Tolu Ogunlesis and Femi Adesinas with fondness? Nobody. If they are lucky, they fade out of the public’s consciousness outright and retire quietly, as long as they do not attempt to make a comeback into frontline journalism as Abati has done.
For their principals, however, the story is different. Umaru Musa Yar’Adua receives regular posthumous praise for allegedly being a “good president.” Goodluck Jonathan will someday have statues of him erected.
Even He Who I Have Still Managed Not To Name will have his image rehabilitated after his tenure, especially if a popular candidate emerges the winner of a perceived free and fair election.
The lesson there is simple for journalists who get seduced by the possibility of being close to power and wealth. We might get a job like Abati did, which puts you in very close proximity to power and powerful individuals, but none of that means that we are, in fact, powerful. At best, we are merely useful. As I always say, a journalist has no friends – just temporary allies that he or she is useful to.
Nobody in power really likes or trusts a journalist when you get right down to it, even if they happen to offer them a job as a media aide. A media aide is just that – a media aide.
I think there are better things for a journalist to aspire to do. But then again, that’s just my personal opinion.
• Hundeyin is an investigative journalist.