Abdullahi: Back On The Beat
Last week, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi was elected the National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC) at a mini congress of the party which held in Abuja. That position had been vacant for about a year since Lai Mohammed, the former spokesperson and face of the party, had gone to accept a well-deserved cabinet position in the government. The party's search for a suitable replacement apparently ended with the former minister; the first time that someone who has held a cabinet level position would be occupying that office.
I received the news of his nomination, not with delight but with mixed feelings. The reason being that I do not know whether to consider this current assignment worthy of Abdullahi's intellectual depth and abilities; as a step-up or even a demotion. I worked with the former minister for about three years in the Ministry of Youth Development and later Sports and I am a witness to his capacity for hard work, his ability to think through complex problems, and his strength of character and humility.
The question on my mind was, couldn’t the APC have found better uses for this brain and experience than the task of a spokesperson? Do not get me wrong. The position of the publicity secretary of the ruling party is a very important one. In terms of party hierarchy, it is a high ranking position. A spokesperson is what mostly comes to mind when you think of any organisation. To play that role for a ruling party is therefore huge. However, with the myriad of problems afflicting the country at the moment, Abdullahi, if you asked me, would have been more usefully deplored to a strategic area of our national life. Like education or sports. Or somewhere he can use the experience he has gained in more than a decade of public life to fix real problems. To put this in context, just imagine the acclaimed former governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola being offered, not the job of fixing power, housing and infrastructure but as the organizing secretary of the APC! I understand however that to a politician, party positions are almost sacrosanct, it cannot be turned down.
That said. I have no doubt that Abdullahi has the right mix of experience and contacts to be very successful at his current beat. A former journalist and editor with Thisday newspaper, Abdullahi graduated from the University of Lagos and the University of Sussex in the UK. And since 2003 when he left the newsroom to work with the Kwara State government, he has handled varied responsibilities in government, rising from the humble position of special assistant to a cabinet minister in the last government.
My confidence in his abilities is drawn from working closely with him as his special assistant for about three years. On meeting him for the first time, he comes across as a very gentle and easy-going person, one that cannot hurt a fly. No one should be deceived by that affable mien. Abdullahi is tough and could be hard as nails. The exterior is a façade that often fools people, until they get close to him and are familiar with the complexities of his character and strength.
As a minister of youth development, Abdullahi worked night and day with various stakeholders to design the Youth Employment Programme, the flagship programme of the ministry. It was a strategic intervention with the goal of filling critical gaps in the youth employment landscape in Nigeria by empowering between 250,000 – 1 million Nigerian youth with the skills, experience, and business development support that they require to gain meaningful employment and start successful businesses. It was an ambitious plan; but I have no doubt that Abdullahi would have accomplished it he had enough time and was not redeployed from youth.
Like the YEP, his plans to reform the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme was not followed through. That plan involved refocusing the scheme to be service oriented, whereby corps members will serve in thematic areas: education, agriculture, rural health and infrastructure. The idea is to make the compulsory one year service memorable for corps members who would be posted to service areas where the country really needed to be served.
But it was in sports that Abdullahi's deft managerial skill became most obvious. The minister of sports, unlike his cabinet colleagues, actually lacked executive power. He could not just give directives and expect everything to fall into place. It requires great tact and power of suasion because the federations are not beholden to the minister, except when they require funds. They actually tends to believe that their primary loyalty lies with the global federation that they were affiliated with.
Despite this challenge, however Abdullahi recorded significant achievements. One of his accomplishments was the stability he brought to the football family during his tenure. In June 2012, when he was appointed the Supervising Minister of Sports, he met a football sector in disarray as a result of the numerous conflicts within and outside the federation. There were many court cases instituted by several aggrieved parties over issues relating to the previous election into the board of the FA, and even whether the FA should be an 'Association' (NFA) or a 'Federation' (NFF). One of the consequences of the conflicts was that Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2012 Nations Cup in Equatorial Guinea/Gabon. Abdullahi settled the almost fratricidal war in the Nigerian Football Federation, by making all the parties in the crises agree to a comprehensive peace deal. The stability in the sector was the foundation on which the subsequent achievements were built.
Perhaps his most enduring success in sports is the reform of the Nigerian professional football league. Under Abdullahi's leadership, the domestic football league was repositioned in line with the global best practices. The League Management Company (LMC) restored credibility and transparency to the management of the Nigerian Premier League and for the first time in years, the LMC has consistently secured a title sponsor for the league, and attracted significant broadcast sponsorship. Today stadiums are packed full with delighted fans as the reputation of the league as increased considerably.
Abdullahi also left imprint on grassroots sports, with the introduction of the National Youth Game and the launch of Rythm ‘N Play, designed to bring 2 million children into sports. He also set the framework for the practice of high performance sports, among so many others. Not surprisingly, when he left the cabinet in March 2014, he was universally hailed as the best sports minister in recent time.
Now that he has become the publicity secretary of the APC, the party deserves congratulations for attracting such a good hand. If the party was looking for a “talkaholic”, or a spin doctor, they have made the wrong choice. Even though Abdullahi talks well, he prefers to let other people do the talking most of the time. And he is not a propagandist. However, if the party was looking for someone who could help the party to build an efficient communications system and bring respectability to the party, they would not have made a better choice.
It is almost unprecedented that a party would have as its National Publicity Secretary, someone who understands the inner workings of government at the highest level; a professional journalist who understands the media establishment, and a senior member of the policy directorate of its campaign, who therefore understands the philosophy of the party. His close relationship with the Senate a President, Bukola Saraki would also be a distinct asset as the party tries to forge stronger relationship between its members in the executive and legislative arms of government. In fact, I wonder if it is sheer coincidence that the party leadership is meeting with the leadership of the National Assembly for the first time, just after Abdullahi was appointed. This is indeed a distinct sign of things to come.
I say a big congratulations to boss and friend, and I pray God to grant him clarity as he takes on yet another assignment.
Written by Julius Ogunro, MD of Peach Communications.