By Reuben Abati
I was really excited on Saturday when I received news of the eventual visit of President Muhammadu Buhari’s media team to him in London. I had always felt that the exclusion of the media team from the London medical vacation and the various visits practically undermined the Presidential media office, and created the space for the mismanagement of the communication process around and about the President’s illness.
I could never have imagined my own boss in our time, travelling without me or shutting me out of any important event. He took my team everywhere. Every President has what is called a Main Body. This comprises his first line of assistants, namely his Chief Security Officer, Aide-de-Camp, Chief Detail, Chief Physician, State Chief of Protocol, Personal Assistant (Luggage), Personal Assistant (Private matters), and of course, the Special Adviser (Media and Publicity)/Official Spokesperson.
Whereas other parts of this body face their own challenges, the major problem that the President’s media team often faces is that everyone in the Presidency, and even persons from outside, particularly the na-my-brother-dey-there crowd tend to assume that they know a lot about the media. They probably have an uncle who once worked as a journalist or newspaper vendor, or they happen to know one or two editors or correspondents, who are perpetually telling them how the media team is not doing what it is supposed to do.
While other parts of the President’s Main Body are usually civil servants, the Chief Physician and the Special Adviser (Media) are traditionally political appointees, and they are easily the targets of so many people who want their positions. My then colleague, the Chief Physician used to complain bitterly about how on many occasions he had to warn self-appointed physicians who used to recommend vitamins and other drugs for the President behind his back. In the corridors of power, the jostling for power, territory, and space could be psychologically crippling and emotionally corrosive.
I recall in particular, how in those days, (indeed, yesterday is beginning to sound like those days!), some persons used to draw attention to how the media is managed in the US White House. After a while, I started asking them: “have you ever worked in this White House, that you talk so eloquently about?” Now, we have seen a different White House under President Donald Trump, and hence, when I call up “the White House experts”, their only response these days is that “it is not easy.” Of course, no part of Presidential work is easy.
There is also no standard formula for serving a President. No two presidencies are alike in any way. The nature and character of an executive Presidency is determined by the style/temperament/competence/choices of the individual President and the circumstances of his tenure, and it is these same factors that account for the differences between great, mediocre and bad Presidents. To each category, history is the eventual judge.
Nonetheless, I thought it was wrong to have kept President Buhari’s team out of the London trips. The core team should have been there all the time to take photographs, issue statements, if needed, organize video recordings, liaise with local journalists, and manage “inconvenient” journalism and public perception. But what did we have? The various pictures taken of the President until the visit by his media team, looked like photos taken by quacks. The President was presented as if he was a statue, or at best, as a sick man propped up for photographic effect. Nobody even paid attention to his wardrobe.
I imagined that some characters would have filled the gap left by the absence of the media team, and would have been busy taking pictures with a miserable gadget, not knowing that photos are meant to tell stories and that they are taken with the brain. Whoever was behind that newspaper vendor style of journalism did the President a disservice and was responsible for most of the damage that was done. The real damage was that Nigerians did not believe the official narrative, they concluded that the pictures were photo-shopped or that they were old pictures and that there was an attempt to hoodwink the public. It didn’t help that whoever took those early pictures focused on the President’s weak points: his fingers and arms in a poor pose, for example.
But the game changed the day Bayo Omoboriowo accompanied seven governors to London to see the President. With five pictures, the President’s official photographer showed him in better light. The photographs presented him as a living being. Every Presidential assistant is as important as the amount of access and empowerment that he/she enjoys. Many Presidents undermine their media team, as US President Trump has done. I consider the visit to London by President Buhari’s media team, a form of rehabilitation, for the team and for the office. The meaning of that visit was not lost on the team either.
Alhaji Lai Mohammed, on his arrival at the Abuja House, looked like he had been grinning about 100 metres away before he met the President. When the President extended his hands for a handshake, Alhaji Lai Mohammed did a Nigerian version of the Cameroonian Bidoung challenge. He bowed close to 90 degrees. Even when the President took another person’s hand, Lai Mohammed was still busy bowing. When the President praised him, he grinned so much, I thought he was going to prostrate! My brothers, Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu didn’t bow, they stayed professional, but I have never seen both former Presidents of the Nigerian Guild of Editors grin so enthusiastically!
Lauretta Onochie was probably the biggest beneficiary of the visit. Considered by opposition activists a footnote in the Presidency pretending to be a valuable attack dog, her inclusion in that trip has elevated her relevance. She still has a lot to learn on the job though, especially from the masters of the attack dog game in Nigerian politics: the inimitable and talented Femi Fani-Kayode, the grandmaster of this chivalric Order, Doyin Okupe, the senior warden of rebuttals, Lai Mohammed, Ayodele Fayose, Reno Omokri, Lere Olayinka, Deji Adeyanju, and Jude Ndukwe. Given the nature of Nigerian politics, future Nigerian presidents will certainly need the services of these dogged political fighters to complement the officialdom of Presidential spokesmanship.
Lauretta Onochie has a lot to learn from them, albeit she is doing much better than the pathetic play-safe crowd in the Buhari team but the London recognition should further empower her. Abike Dabiri-Erewa was also in London, curtseying with both legs and hands; she was described in the reports as Senior Special Assistant on Diaspora Matters, but I guess she was included in the team in her professional right as a seasoned broadcast journalist. Bayo Omoboriowo, the official photographer, was also in attendance and when it was his turn to have a Presidential handshake, he grinned and shook so much he almost staged an Olamide-inspired Wo-challenge. I hope he remembered to inform the President that his wife had just been delivered of twins and that being a father of twins has serious implications in Yorubaland!
Together, the team delivered a professional reportage. Brilliant. Different. Good moment for the Presidency’s Media Department. Whereas previous coverage before the Governors’ visit showed the President in an unconvincing manner, his media team has managed to show him in a three-dimensional frame. We saw him sitting, standing, and walking. He shook hands. He talked. His wardrobe was different. He appeared animated and alive. With that visit, many doubts have been laid to rest through the power of media. We now know that Buhari can talk. Dirty-minded persons may even stretch the matter and imagine that our President has been engaging in “the other room” skelewu in London. The media team has also managed to establish that medication or not, Buhari remains in charge. He is still President and he is not incapacitated.
In the kind of system that we run, there cannot be two Presidents at a time. When you have a living and breathing President, be he in Iceland or Antarctica, for whatever reason, he remains the President. This, thus, creates a special problem for Acting President Yemi Osinbajo. The combined interpretation of the to-ing and froing to London to visit President Buhari is the impression that whereas Acting President Osinbajo has an office, transmitted to him constitutionally in the light of Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution, he has neither the power nor the authority of that office, or he is not being allowed to enjoy the full benefits of his legal status. This puts Nigeria in a lurch, technically and pragmatically and let no one make any bones about that.
What is worse is the declaration by the media team that the President’s return now lies in the hands of his doctors and he is resolved to obey their orders. It is tragic that Nigeria’s sovereignty, which resides in part in the office of the President, has been ceded to UK doctors. They alone can determine when Nigeria can have its President back in the homeland. Saddening as that situation is, not even the Queen of England or the British Prime Minister has deemed it necessary to visit President Buhari or seek audience with him.
This egregious insult is well-deserved by Nigeria and other African countries whose leaders embark on medical tourism to Europe, Asia and North America. The intelligence agencies in these countries have all the strategic information on our leaders and country, but we are happy to play third fiddle in global politics. In 2050, Nigeria’s population is likely to be over 300 million, with some of the youngest people in the world being Nigerians. If by 2050, we do not have enough good hospitals and medical facilities to take care of our people, we would be a doomed nation.
This is not a task for Buhari’s media team. But just as they tried to put out a fire in London, another had already started at home. By the way, a Presidential media department is a Fire Service office and an ambulance operation. There is always another fire next time and victims in need of desperate rescue. In the present instance, a group called “Our-mumu-don-do” group, led by Charly Boy, the self-acclaimed Area Fada of Frustrated Nigerians had begun a protest in Abuja asking President Buhari to resume office or resign.
They were echoing the protests of those who have argued that the Nigerian electorate voted for a President not an absentee one, that they voted in the expectation that their President would stay in office and serve them, and did not expect that the President would become an apparition or a London-based tourist and museum attraction. Charly Boy, 66, went out with his pro-democracy troops, but they were tear-gassed and harassed by the police. They were accused of engaging in unlawful pro-corruption and irresponsible activity that was hijacked by hoodlums. That of course is stupid talk.
At issue was the right of every Nigerian to protest without being molested, and the right to free speech. When free speech is denied, hate speech is encouraged. It is ironic that the same government that is so concerned about hate speech is the same one promoting it.
Meanwhile, sycophantic speech is encouraged. To counter the Charly Boy group, someone organized a pro-Buhari group, which has been busy dancing around Abuja proclaiming that Buhari will win the 2019 election, denouncing those who want him to resign. I have taken a look at this group and they look like a bunch of hoodlums, every one of them, but they have so far enjoyed police protection and the government is very happy with them. When government gains one thing with one hand, some other characters remove it with another hand. This is the sign of the times.
But there are unresolved questions that will not go away just like that. For how long will the President remain on medical vacation in London, even when the Constitution, the country’s basic law, is silent and ambiguous on this score? What is the actual cost of the President’s absence in a context that disallows the transfer of power and authority in the presence of an apparently living and said-to-be-capable President who is otherwise indisposed?
I’ll not ask that the visits to London be stopped, in case that is part of the doctors’ therapy, but it is ridiculous and insensitive that government officials are now visiting the President in medical exile, with some of them posing for photo-ops with their children. Our President should not be turned into a tourist attraction and the Abuja House in London should not become a museum.