People Who Go Into Government Service Must Have A Second Address- Reuben Abati

Reuben Abati
Reuben Abati

In an interview with Straightnews Publisher, Israel Umoh in Uyo, Reuben Abati, a PH.d holder, a one-time Chairman of The Guradian editorial board, Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to ex-Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, newspaper columnist, politician and television anchor bared his mind on a wide ranging issues- from media, politics to family.

Excerpts:

You have been in the mass media as a newspaper columnist and held other positions particularly in Nigeria. What has been your experience in all these positions?

Well, it is a very rich experience. The media profession is about responsibility in two regards. One, every journalist must realise that whether you are a writer or in the news section as a reporter; you owe your readers a responsibility to ensure that you put in your best. As a professional in the presentation of whatever you do, even as an anchor in television, you still have responsibility. I think Nigerian journalists should continue to place the right emphasis on what Francis Merrill, author of Responsible Journalism.

The second part of it, that I always tell people, is that every work as a journalist in any of the platforms; you must realise that you are as good as your last report. It is a job that you are constantly taking an examination. Nobody is going to say (because you did a good story yesterday or made a good presentation today), then you can afford to relax tomorrow. You cannot afford to do that, and I guess that’s part of the reason it is a profession.

The third point about this is that, as a journalist, you enjoy certain privileges- to inform, educate and engage the public- on a constant basis. But, one of the lessons I have learnt in the course of my career, is that many of the viewers watching you; or reading your stories are experts among them who probably understand the subject better than you. Maybe, that’s their own area of specialization. So, as a journalist you must also be a knowledgeable person. If I must be a knowledge worker in this age of the internet, people can double-check your story or what you say, they can check your level of knowledge immediately; so, it is not a joke or a profession anymore where anybody can pretend.

It is a profession where you can distinguish yourself through knowledge, ethical competence, professionalism, hard work; because you have to be truthful, credible, accurate and fair to everyone you are engaging with. Meanwhile, as human beings, we have individual weaknesses; so, you have to balance it. The good thing about the profession is that you can practise it as long as you are alive. Like today, we had a workshop for the training of journalists in Uyo. You can see that one of the major speakers in the training is an icon of the journalism profession- Ray Ekpu- who is over 70 years. You look at his level of energy, his level of commitment. So, his example gives me hope.

Yes, I may have been in the profession for decades; what do we say of a person of Mr. Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, Mr. Yakubu Mohammed, Ben Lawrence? All that generation is still very active; they are still writing, attending workshops. So, that’s one consolation; it’s a job that keeps you active mentally, physically and intellectually.

As the then Chairman of the Guardian Editorial Board and a columnist, after that you were appointed as SSA to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, how will you compare your reputation rating then, and as a political appointee?

Well, it is not for me to judge what people think about me or my craft. It is for others to talk about, but what I can say is that when I worked in government; there was a lot of concern. People were worried; some were saying what exactly is he looking for- someone who is already Chairman editorial board. Well, you see in life, you can’t stop learning. I have not regretted working as a presidential spokesman. It took people three years to get a Ph.d. The truth of the matter is that, I said “if that was going back to college, I would have returned with another Ph.d.”

In terms of what I learnt, and the exposure, for me; it is not a waste, because I got to learn a lot about Nigeria, and how it is governed. I will always encourage journalists, bankers, engineers to take the opportunity to gain more knowledge- the governance process. Talking about reputation, when I returned because of the circumstances of the exit of Jonathan’s administration in 2015, opinions were divided about that administration; persons said all kinds of things about the performance of that administration.

Today, President Jonathan is considered an icon of democracy, a hero of democracy, very visible internationally. He gets invited to lead teams even within Nigeria. People are now appreciating his administration much better. So, there is no reputation problem. Many people criticised President Jonathan and those of us who worked for him. You must have heard stories of some of them apologizing, saying that “they are sorry, that they take back the criticisms.” Maybe, they were biased; maybe they spoke for political reasons. As for me, since I returned from government, I am back to the practice of Journalism. I have broadened my scope; I still do Print Journalism, I still write columns.

Reuben Abati
Reuben Abati

I’ve even gone into broadcasting. I am a television anchor; I have been doing that for more than two years consistently. I present two programmes on Arise News– the morning show which is the flagship programme every morning Monday through Friday. I do another programme on Sunday ‘This Day Life’ and I write a column on Tuesdays at the back page of ThisDay. I am also into digital media, and very active on social media. The whole point for me is that when people go to serve in government, they must have a second address. If you are a professional, you remain a professional. Government service is not a profession except you work in civil service. If you go in as a political appointee, and you are called in to use your skills to serve a particular purpose; you must have a place to return to.

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People have told me, ‘it is very strange to go to Abuja after four years.’ You will leave the place and go back to your work, I said ‘well, if they are the people who go to Abuja and never leave the place, for me Abuja was never my base; I went there to work, the work ended I returned to my work. When lawyers, engineers, medical doctors go into government, when they return; they go back to their profession. I don’t see why journalists after appointment should not return to the newsroom. So, I don’t think it should be an issue.

In terms of policy formulation and implementation, how will you rate your ex-boss and the incumbent Nigerian President?

It will not be fair for me to compare them, because whatever I say; people will read meanings into it that I am biased. The only thing I can tell you is that every president has his own style. No two Presidents are the same. A lot depend on so many factors, particularly even more on the priority of the President- the team that he has, the circumstances of the country, the peculiar challenges that he faces. In other words, there are objective conditions and it will amount to armchair commentary for you to take two presidents to compare this one performed better than the other.

Speaking about policy implementation, I think this has always been a problem in Nigeria. Even if the policy is good, if it is not properly implemented then there is a problem. Even the budget, if it is not properly implemented; it will still remain a challenge, because these things must be contextualised.

Certain policies will work very well; others will not. The question will be ‘what are the reasons for that?’ Could it be the external and the internal pressure, the economy, or could it be omission on the part of the team that is supposed to ensure implementation? So, I cannot make general statements.

With the upsurge of the social media and of course practitioners using such to influence a whole lot of things in the country, what is your assessment of the media? Are you satisfied with the use of the social media by professionals and non-professionals?

Definitely, the social media have come to stay. With the new dawn of technology and the increasing dearth of technology, even Artificial Intelligence (AI) has affected the way messages are communicated- the way information is gathered, disseminated and the way the public reacts to information. The social media (online or the internet) has ensured a great democratization of news.

News is now served almost a la carte, and at the speed of light. You find so many people who are not even journalists (because of access to technological devices, like smartphones and other electronic devices) can go online with it using the available social media platform either Facebook, Twitter, Google, WhatsApp, Instagram and others or even set a blog online- with that they engage the public.

In the social media, nobody can wish away given its value, both as an instrument of democratization and a tool for the expansion of the fundamental right of expression. If you like, you shorten it as free speech; now the only concern about it is the other side. While the social media can be used as a constructive tool for social engagement; it also has its downside, the questions that are raised are about ethical issues, lack of control or regulation, the anonymity of the social media actors, the ubiquitousness of the social media. Because of all these, some people exploit it for negative purposes.

They use it to malign people, to disparage people, and to promote fake news or false speech; or, as a purveyor of violence or hate speech, and the violation of the rights of others. Like Twitter, if you recall, had to come up with a policy even targeting political leaders; and people they had it in mind specifically President Donald Trump and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. That these political leaders are using their tweets to play politics, (even the policy they introduced in July) is yet to be implemented and Twitter is saying ‘they do not want to get involved in censoring political speech, because of its peculiar nature.” However, while the social media is useful, it can be put into other purposes.

Some of these major platforms have tried to introduce certain restrictions, either blocking some accounts, or taking content down; but beyond the information, Tech-giants, you find in many countries, have made an attempt to introduce restrictions to mitigate the negative abuse of the social media. In Africa, Tanzania, Egypt, Uganda, Cameroon, in fact in Cameroon; there was a time the social media was shut down when there was a problem between the English speaking part of Cameroon and the government at the centre.

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But when you regulate the social media, shut it down or over-censor it; then you raise questions about freedom of speech. But I think, the social media will continue to evolve as communities continue to discuss the dangers it can pose either in terms of child pornography, or in terms of hate speech, or the virility of negative content; but, all of this, will be part of the development and the evolution of that imagined platform.

As a busy media professional, how do you cope with family responsibilities?

I have been very active in the public arena; and I have added to it lately, involvement in politics, so, there’s never shortage of something to do. But at home, I guess the family is used to i;, when I am at home, I try to spend time, as much as I can, with the children. And, of course, in this age of technology; you are never really be away from anybody. Whoever you want to contact, you have the phone which you contact through WhatsApp, even video calls. So, distances have been shortened unlike in the past if you travelled; until you returned- your family- may not really have access to you. Some people say technology cannot replace face-to-face human interaction; so, I don’t think it’s because I am busy, but a challenge we all face in this modern age we find ourselves.

One of your children bagged a first class some time ago from the University. Is that one the most loved of all your children?

No, I don’t have any preferred child. They all have equal rights. Incidentally, the one that bagged a first class is a girl. She later went to Cambridge and finished with an LL.M; so, I don’t have any preferred child- they are all okay.

What is your preferred dish?

I don’t have any preference; when I am hungry, I take whatever I want.

Assuming you had an opportunity of choosing a profession outside Journalism which one will you prefer?

I have training in three different disciplines: Theatre Arts or Drama, Law and also Management. But if I were to choose what I will possibly retire to, maybe I will go back to teaching, and see how I could do enough work to get a professorial chair. It will be like something that I ran away from, and I have gone back to complete and that will be fulfilling for me.

Any message for Nigerians and journalists alike? 

Well, for journalists, the things I said from the beginning- journalism is a very interesting profession; but it also takes time to build a reputation. or, maybe you become famous, as I said, you are as good as your last byline. It’s a job that requires a lot of hard work. It’s not everyone that will become a superstar in the media; maybe, if you work hard enough, you may be able to make your own impact. But I see it these days that journalists face heavier pressure than the older generation; maybe because of the circumstances they face in the country-  the spirit of it is not to give up.

Some young persons in Nigeria are in the habit of committing suicide. What’s your advice to them?

Suicide is a crime, although if you commit suicide and you succeed; you are free. The crime is tempting because society does not want you to kill yourself. If you attempt suicide in Nigeria you have committed a crime, you will be arraigned in court and sent to jail. No matter how difficult Nigeria is, why will you want to kill yourself, after all Nigeria has been classified as the happiest country, the most resilient and most religious in the world.

Nigerians naturally are very optimistic, but I think when people are depressed, because depression is one of the leading killers in the world today, but I think there should be public enlightenment about depression because when people are depressed they need help and they should not be stigmatized. There is a role for friends, family. Everybody gets depressed at one point or the other, but if they have support, people who can communicate with them, people they can share their pains with, it will help a lot.

And there are people who witnessed it, and thought they could end it all; they were advised and they didn’t do it. They survived, and made it; today they thank those who helped them. And whatever fears brought that depression has disappeared, and I think such stories of survival and exit from depression to optimism should be shared and whatever government at all levels can do; because this is one of the public health challenge they should invest and ensure a lot of people are rescued from it, as I said, nobody should give up on Nigeria, or life.

Reuben Abati, Israel Umoh
Reuben Abati, Israel Umoh