THE THING ABITI MUST DO TO JONATHAN
Transformation is in the air. Even Reuben Abati has transformed from being a critic of presidents to a presidential spokesman. Abati was once the Editorial Board chairman at The Guardian newspaper. Out there, his pen is sharp, his tongue is no less, a reason many say he is a “prolific writer,” and cerebral, too, when it comes to art issues. His review of books is something. People who are good with the pen and can verbally state the same are potent, a force to reckon with. The tongue is more the instrument a presidential spokesman needs; it is what he is paid to deploy. That means President Goodluck Jonathan picked right: Find the man that is good, but who criticizes you the most, and place him right beside you. That means something. Abati has work to do. There are things he must put right. They are things he has criticized as wrong in the Jonathan presidency.
Here is an example. Abati pointed it out way back then. On May 29, 2011, and in The Guardian. “President Goodluck Jonathan almost ruined his inauguration day address by speaking too much at the May 26 pre-inauguration lecture on the theme: “A Transformational Agenda for Accelerated National Development.” And he had more. This one happened three days before the presidential inauguration. Professor Ladipo Adamolekun gave a pre-inaugural lecture. The professor was the guest speaker, the president was not. But the president chose to speak in response to what the professor said. Abati noted he didn’t need to, that he stole the show when he did, and he added: “He uttered quotable statements that can be legitimately read as intimations of what is to come. He simply put himself on the spot. He should have kept quiet. Saving the right word for the appropriate moment is one of the major responsibilities of leadership.”
Incidentally, the erudite ex-columnist wrote the minds of many observers, both at that time, and now. On the occasion of his response at the same pre-inaugural presidential lecture, the president used a parable, insinuating that the problem with Nigeria is not that those in leadership steal, but that they are greedy in the manner they did it.
Maybe the president didn't mean it that way. But that was what his listener understood: Steal, but don’t steal too much. It is a matter of communication approach. And to think that was said to the hearing of many foreigners who were in attendance at the lecture. Sometimes, one wonders if there are people in the presidency that offer sound counsel. The word of a king is power. There is power where the king is. But the president has often proved to be long on issues. And he takes on issues that observers consider menial, mostly in defence of himself.
When the single tenure issue came to the fore, for instance, The Punch newspaper screamed on its front page of July 29, 2011: “Single tenure, not my idea – Jonathan” It transpired that what the president did was to explain how the single tenure proposal came to be. He did at the meeting of the People Democratic Party (PDP’s), National Working Committee (NWC). He was long on that too. Unnecessarily long. When his speech was relayed on TV, it was obvious that the president only tried to defend himself against critics. Must he always do that? Yes, his listeners clapped on the occasions the president took time to offer long explanations about some his policy statements and actions. But careful observers know such do not project the power and prestige of the president well. Measured silence, and measured words are tools for leaders who wish to be respected. Abati’s presence in the presidency may prove useful here.
Critics have not been known to be good executors themselves, especially in this country. But Abati needs to be an exception. As it is, the president addressed the gathering of the PDP’s NWC, and he joined issues, at the level of discuss, with some street politicians. This happened under Abati’s watch. Yet, it was not as if he had not tried to defend the president earlier on. He did do a good job when he addressed the press and said the president only made a proposal on the single tenure issue. That he expected the president’s critics to come up with superior logic, and take on Mr president at the level of ideas. That was well delivered. One wonders if Abati himself knew how logical that sounded to Nigerians who listened to him, if he knew that it was well received, and if the president himself realised that his spokesman had done enough of any defence of his position that was needed.
Presidential spokespersons are recruited to do this: Speak in behalf of the President on matters of public interest, among other things. Considering the restricted level of access that media has to the Chief Executive, the Spokesman is expected to be the primary source of presidential directives in the absence of the President. The post in Nigeria, raised to cabinet level as that of a Special Adviser, it places the occupant in a unique position to have control on how the image of the president is perceived by Nigerians. For instance, President Barack Obama’s image-maker showed a picture of the president (in his ‘Control Room’ with his select team) as he supervised the execution of United States’ most wanted man, Osama Bin Laden. Other pictures of the event were kept away, all in a deliberate effort to show the president as the man in charge. And Americans did see their leader the way the image-maker wanted them to. As the office of the spokesman to President Jonathan currently stands, its occupant more or less has control over everything that others who may be in the communication group for the president do. The potentials here need to be fully utilized.
It is imperative that the president limits himself to landmark declarations. Coming out again and again to defend what he has already stated is not for leaders. It is for their foot soldiers. When notable figures such as Professor Wole Soyinka took on former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the old soldier simply recruited a Femi Fani-Kayode to communicate on his behalf. This man was paid to trade words with the president’s critics. He abused some of them, even, to the chagrin of Nigerians . But the purpose was achieved: Keep arrows away from the president, and protect the power and prestige of the office. It is good that President Jonathan speaks directly to Nigerians, and explains things at the level most could understand. But a leader is one, more in action than in words. Let the president speak once; let the outcome reverberates his words across the land. And let Abati ensure he does; for Nigerians will like to have their president projected well. This is what will justify his transformation from a critic to a spokesman.
Ajibade is a Communications Consultant. [email protected]