Paying tribute to O. J. Abuah
By Reuben Abati
Life is all about memories. It is the only thing we are left with when flesh and spirit depart the earthly plane, and we can do no more than remember the life of the departed, through memories of times and moments shared, and their deeds in their lifetime. I received a phone call and a whatsapp message announcing the death of Justin Abuah, popularly known to all and sundry as O.J. Abuah, and the world seemed as if it had stood still for a few minutes. He was one of my media officers when I served as President Goodluck Jonathan's Special Adviser, Media and Publicity and as official spokesperson; after the retirement of another dependable officer, Musa Aduwak, he replaced Aduwak as Director of Information in the department. I left him behind in the Villa in 2015, hale and hearty, an asset to the department, an efficient, service-oriented, disciplined, and devoted civil servant who could be relied upon at all times for high quality delivery. And now they say he is gone. Last Sunday. Just like that. It is painful, shocking and sad. OJ, what happened?
I had some difficulty initially adjusting to the ways and habits of civil servants when I got to the Villa in 2011. I found them too laid back, too conspiratorial, and always on the look out for reward, or what they call motivation. But what I found most exasperating was the lack of initiative. Coming from the private sector, I was used to members of a team doing their part and not waiting to be directed, knowing that any delay could affect the rest of the team and the quality of service delivery. But I met a situation whereby civil servants believed they always had to be directed to carry out even the same routine tasks that they undertook daily.
'SA, you didn't give me any instruction'
'How? You and I discussed this matter and you know what to do, you do it everyday.'
'You didn't tell me to go ahead'
I always felt like hitting the roof. I didn't see any reason why a media assistant had to be reminded to take a podium to a presidential event, microphones, batteries, or why a photographer or cameraman needed to be reminded of pre-announced events, or why an information officer could not use the initiative to prepare drafts. I used to get worked up and I would scream: 'civil servants, what is wrong with you people!' I was perhaps prejudiced. I had been warned as soon as I assumed office that I should not make use of the civil servants. I was advised to sideline them and bring a team of my own who would get things done. I didn't think this was right. If there is a full-fledged department in place, with paid staff, assigned different tasks, and who have been in the system forever, the best thing to do is to get them to do their work and not undermine them. It may have taken a few months to establish a rhythm, but I eventually won the confidence of the departmental team to create a very resourceful and creative communications and media team that ensured efficient coverage of the President's activities. OJ Abuah as Director of Information and as the most senior staff, as well his predecessor, Aduwak, were most effective in helping to achieve this objective.
OJ became the bridge between the general staff and me. I eventually figured out that apart from their love of directives, civil servants worship hierarchy. They have this inherited military era mentality that pushes them to function when they are given express orders. It was better if the order was documented, and OJ had his ways of pushing them. This took a lot of pressure off my shoulders, up to the point that at a time, whenever I shouted 'civil servants!', the staff around would also say 'SA!' or 'The great Abati' and we would all burst out laughing. We had great fun in the long run. The civil servants were all individually and collectively my backbone.
It was just a matter of discovering their talents and getting them to work: there was a lady for example who was so excellent in protocol matters who later left us, there was another who always got things done particularly during foreign trips because once she showed up, all the men around could never say No to her, we later recruited a multilingual chap who was also so good in protocol matters that the protocol department used to report him to me to keep him away from their territory, and of course the diligent quartet who monitored the print, electronic and digital media and prepared daily reports and analyses, and the army of other staff, the foot-soldiers – from secretary to drivers and boom operators- who covered every event. I want to thank OJ for his friendship and support and also for his readiness to take responsibility on behalf of the other staff whenever anything went wrong or when other departments blamed the media department for a microphone that did not work, a podium that stood in the way or photographers and cameramen blocking people's views.
OJ had my back. He had been in the Presidency since Dodan Barracks. He had served under different Presidents and Media Advisers. This placed him in a vantage position to avail me of institutional memory. He could tell me what previous advisers did under certain circumstances, and the expectations of those who occupy the office of President. He also knew the intrigues within the palace, and the scent of inter-departmental rivalry. Because he had been in the system for long, nothing escaped his notice and if anything was going on, somehow he would get to know. He always tipped me off. He drew my attention to intrigues even before they blew into the open. Let no one joke about it: the Nigerian Presidency is a nest of malevolent intrigues. And running the media and publicity department could be very much like being in a wrestling ring, because it is one job that everyone claims to know.
People whose responsibility it wasn't wanted to arrange media interviews, manage the President's appearance, organize his public speaking, take his photographs, record his speeches, and determine how speeches and press statements should sound. Someone even came up with what became known as 'the space theory', meaning anybody could do anybody's job, once they could create a space to do it. It got so challenging at a point, and on one occasion, a cleaner accosted me early morning and told me: 'Oga Abati, you are working hard, I see you for television, I no know say you sabi speak English like that. Make you dey talk more hen. But dis your staff and journalists…' I didn't know what to say in response. But in the face of it all, OJ helped to protect the integrity of the department. He was loyal and dutiful.
He not only knew the system, he drew my attention to many rules and regulations. If something could not be done, he would bring out the rules book and state the position of government. In the end, I left the matters related to civil service rules and regulations to the civil servants and stayed with professional and technocratic aspects of the work. Every outsider who finds himself in a political position in government needs a man like OJ. He was nobody's sycophant. He would tell you as it is. He had a critical mind, but he was nevertheless fair-minded and constructive, and there was no reason to doubt his loyalty to government and country.
He was above everything else, intellectually gifted. He had been a journalist before joining the State House media department, and he remained a damn good reporter and editor. He had a nose for news and a sense of what can work or not in a media copy. He wrote well too, his prose was spare but precise, his sentences were clean, his thoughts were clear. OJ could discuss literature, politics, history, geography, economics and a wide range of other subjects. We spent hours in my office whenever our schedule was light, debating issues in a friendly atmosphere. In the course of duty, I also met many knowledgeable and experienced civil servants, men and women who toil daily to keep the Nigerian system going, but who are often unheard and ignored. OJ was one of the most impressive. He was an ideal information officer, talented and experienced, mature and disciplined, knowledgeable and smart. It was not surprising that he passed his promotion examination in 2014 and became a Director. I consider his death a major loss to the department and the Nigerian civil service.
Gifted as he was, he was nevertheless a very quiet and impeccably gracious man, to be found moving quietly close to the wall, as if he did not want to be noticed in his regular, stylishly spacious batik caftan. Even if he was angry, you would hardly hear his voice. He was self-effacing almost to a fault, and he was intensely private. It was always difficult to reach him after office hours or on weekends, but whenever he was around or available, he got the job done beyond the call of duty and earned everyone's respect. He never talked about his family - the closest I got was when we went to a bookshop in New York once and he bought books for his son whom he said was studying in the UK. He did not invite anyone to his house. Nobody knew which church he attended or whether or not he had ceremonies to which he invited guests. Some of the staff even thought he was queer. If he was in pains, he never showed it. If he was ill, nobody knew. He was just himself. People like him are difficult to replace. He was the type of man who would never have asked for a tribute, but he deserves this and more tributes to come. So sad, he is gone…