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Reuben Abati earned a first class degree from the University of Calabar, a cerebral writer he is also the recipient of several awards. Amongst them is the Cecil King Memorial Prize for the Print Journalist of the year, 1998; Fletcher Challenge Newspaper Commonwealth Prize for Opinion Writing, 2000, and four times winner of the Diamond Award for Media Excellence in Informed Commentary. For several years he penned informed commentaries for The Guardian Newspaper, which in turn affected national policies. He personified the motto of the Guardian newspaper which says that conscience is an open wound that can only be healed by truth. He has been criticized for abandoning his ideals and joining the government. In this edition of Conversations with Abang Mercy, Abati opens up on why he accepted the appointment and other issues of national importance.
Given the criticisms, as the Presidential Spokesman, do you have any regrets working with President Jonathan and the Nigerian Government?
I have no regrets, absolutely no regrets. As I have said in a previous interview, I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to serve in government in any capacity, to accept the offer. It remains the highest honor that can be bestowed on anyone. Out of about 170 million people, it is indeed an honour to be singled out for any particular kind of responsibility, to be called to national service. Considering the number of people that I see who are perpetually hustling to be in government, lobbying, playing the CV game, the biggest game in government and in town, including the people who claim that government is this, government is that, there must be really something about public service. They all want to be in government, it’s just that they haven’t yet had the opportunity. Even people who have had the experience before, when they are out there, they feel like fish out of water. They don’t want to be outside, that’s partly why there is so much desperation among those I have described as yesterday’s men.
But wait, let me deal with my own case which is the question you have asked me. I have absolutely no regrets and I don’t bother myself about what you call the criticisms. It’s a free country; people are entitled to the freedom to express their opinions but my point is that they have no right to determine the choices that other individuals make. Every individual will make his or her own choice and you can only be knowledgeable to the extent of your exposure and that’s why I have had cause on this job to talk about a lot of ignorance being on display.
And if there is anything I have gained so far, it is a lot of knowledge about the character of the Nigerian or by extension, about human nature. That’s why sometimes when I react to some criticisms, I talk about ignorance, I talk about emotional responses because I have been…I have been involved and I can see it.
Amnesty International has called for investigation of deaths of Boko Haram suspects in custody. Hundreds of people are dying in military detention from shootings, suffocation or starvation as you must have heard. Why are BH suspects dying in Custody? Why has government not responded to such serious allegations?
You are probably referring to a recent report by Amnesty International. I saw the Amnesty International press release but I initially did not want to comment on it because I felt that the Defence authorities should be in a better position to do so, because most of the issues raised dealt with how the security agencies have been handling the arrest and detention of suspects and all that. But what I can tell you straight on, from my own relationship with the Defence authorities and what I have been able to get from their end, is that the report is not fair to our national security agencies. It is a biased, one-sided report. If some objectivity had been involved in its preparation, the conclusions would have been different.
Over the years however, I have noticed that whereas reports of this nature bear the imprint of international organisations, the main inputs come from people in Nigeria, not necessarily from foreign observers and investigators. And these Nigerians who serve the purposes of biased international organisations, have their own biases, their own partisan views. They feed international organizations with their own bias and, very often, that bias is either sponsored, emotional or borne out of complete ignorance or mischief or as is the case, a thoughtless effort to promote Western stereotypes.
In this particular case, there may have been challenges in terms of placement of suspects in detention facilities. But the context is that the Boko Haram terrorists in their various onslaughts, targeted and destroyed the prisons and police stations. You will recall that in both Baga and Bama, the special target by the Boko Haram elements included police stations, public infrastructure, telephone masts. In fact, either in Baga or Bama, the terrorists set the prisoners free. Now, Amnesty International says Boko Haram suspects are not been put in proper prison facilities. What our security agencies have done is to set up special detention facilities in the areas where the declaration of emergency is in force and prison facilities had been destroyed.
An Amnesty International report that now begins to talk about the rights of those same people who wanted to destroy the sovereignty of Nigeria, who destroyed prison facilities and law enforcement facilities needs to be subjected to the tests of truthfulness and objectivity. This government has made it clear that it is fully committed to human rights and the observance of best practices and the rules of engagement, even while taking the battle to the terrorists in their enclaves. But why is Amnesty International not focussing on the rights of the majority of Nigerians to live in peace without being assaulted by Boko Haram terrorists?
What is Amnesty International saying about the right of other Nigerians to human dignity, and their right to the freedoms of thought and association? I don’t think that a thorough job was done. The Nigerian Security agencies deserve commendation, not condemnation, for what they have done so far to check the menace of terrorism in the North Eastern part of Nigeria. It is reassuring that the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, long before the Amnesty International Report, had pointed out that Nigeria is prosecuting a just war against terror and that it is the Boko Haram that is guilty of human rights abuses. That endorsement was based on direct observation and investigation, and it puts the lie to the Amnesty International report. Those Nigerians who for the purposes of filling their own pockets, write fiction and put their own country down, so that they can get stipends from international NGOs, should have a re-think. They need to search their conscience.
Is government confident with the economy?
Government is very confident that it is doing its best to improve the economy, with great benefits for the people. The growth of the Nigerian economy is not fictional at all, it is real, and that is why we are getting high scores from the rating agencies. But apart from that, the growth is visible and measurable. Despite the global economic recession, Nigeria is one of those few economies that have been growing consistently. The growth rate is about 6.7% and there are projections both by IMF and the World Bank and others that Nigeria’s economic growth rate will be about 7% by 2014. This is not what you call jobless growth. It’s not artificial growth. According to another recent report, Nigeria is said to have overtaken South Africa, in other words, the Nigerian economy is relatively doing better than the South African economy. You may ask: what are the indicators? In this regard, we are talking in terms of the ease of doing business, access to the market, the policy environment and potentials for further growth and all that. Nigeria is moving ahead. And the ratings have indicated that Nigeria is a good market for business.
The Nigerian economy is also growing in terms of what it brings to the table for the average man. Nigerians often forget that against the background of the past, we have made a lot of progress. Take power, power supply has always been an issue in this environment, but under President Jonathan there has been an improvement, very significant improvement with the privatization process already yielding positive results. Those who are honest enough to say the truth have confirmed this.
They have also observed that a lot has been done to improve public infrastructure. But if you feel that the transformation is yet to reach your neighbourhood, and in this season when every owner of a phone or an i-Pad is a citizen journalist, the temptation is always there to go on twitter, or to a blog and say what you like. But you will also realize in your heart, that what you are expressing is your own emotional bias rather than an objective assessment of the whole picture. The plain truth is that you have a government that is working very hard to continue to move the country forward.
Crossroads, was a popular column you penned, Patio’s Gang was also another TV Show you were part of. What happened to the Reuben Abati that used to be critical of the Federal Government?
Nothing. I see that every interviewer insists on asking this question again and again. And I think I have spent enough time responding to it. People don’t stop thinking because they are in government. They don’t stop being critical because they are in government. The only difference is that if there are things that you are not comfortable with, you don’t have to stage a public protest and carry a placard like those who consider themselves outsiders or sworn enemies of the state. Within the system I can express myself. That’s why I am called an Adviser. I haven’t suddenly become dumb because I work for government.
What is your grouse against Social media; you once described young Nigerians online as “Children of Anger”.
I once wrote a major essay on the internet phenomenon. I think this was when I delivered the Faculty of Social Science lecture at Babcock University, Ilishan Remo, a few years ago. Part of my focus in that presentation was this internet phenomenon, online journalism, I tried to provide an assessment of it, raising questions as to whether it poses a threat to print journalism or not, as well as issues of ethics, freedom, responsibility, and the challenges of the digital information age. I had cause to say a lot about some of the limitations of social media.
But a few years later, on this job, I have found myself confronting some of the issues that I raised in that lecture. Understandably perhaps, for there is no doubt that the Jonathan Presidency is effectively the first internet age presidency that Nigerians have had. The internet didn’t start in his time you know, under President Olusegun Obasanjo the internet was there, and the social media in Nigeria was just emerging as a tool of socio-political engagement. Under President Yar’adua too, it was beginning to find its roots. But under President Jonathan, social media has become an explosive, unavoidable phenomenon such that as Spokesman to the President, I have to deal with an entirely different kind of communications and public relations template. I doubt if any spokesman in this office before has had to deal with the same scope of internet penetration. Today, everybody is a journalist. All you need is a phone, an i-Pad, access to the internet. You can set up your own blog, you can rely on BB, you don’t need a licence, and you are free to utter whatever nonsense takes over your head. And you can be arrogant about your own ignorance, hide your identity and tell lies, say things you’d ordinarily not say in the open.
The social media is a very strong platform for socio-political communication, for debate, and for extending the frontiers of human freedom and interaction. I use it for my work, for publicity purposes and as an observatory to monitor the tenor of public discourse, but I can tell you that it is an imperfect medium, the kind of boundless freedom that it offers, including anonymity, is being exploited by sadists, psychopaths, mischief-makers, Luciferian characters and their cheerleaders, to misinform the public, to cause disaffection and they do so without apologies. We may see it as a veritable symbol of freedom of expression, indeed the ultimate signification of democracy but at the same time it shows up the limitations of that freedom of expression in the sense that most of its Nigerian users have no regard for ethics or the rights of others to human dignity. When a platform acquires a certain level of power that impinges on the rights of others, we must also insist on its being used responsibly. But the question is: who guards the guardians? I think that is a relevant question, otherwise the social media could do more harm than good in many circumstances.
In a recent interview, you were quoted to have said most of your critics hang around government looking for favours? Who are those and why do you think people that criticise government shouldn’t be seen around their government?
Well I think I have answered this question already, both in the course of this conversation and in an earlier interview published by the PUNCH newspaper. I recall that the interview generated a lot of debate. What people must realise is that my position is quite a privileged one and I get to see a lot of things. I have the kind of experience which people who have not been in this position are not likely to come across and so when I made that statement I was speaking from a position of knowledge. But it’s not an issue I want to stretch any further because the kind of reaction that it has attracted, the volume of rejoinders that it has generated, simply indicated that I was saying the truth and that some persons are really uncomfortable with that truth. But what we are condemning is hypocrisy, it is Janus-faced conduct. What we are condemning is crass opportunism; friends at night, enemies during the day time.
What will you say to persons that say Reuben Abati was critical of the government for an opportunity to be appointed?
I insist that I do not owe anybody any apologies for the choices that I make. The truth is that this country belongs to all of us and people have the right to contribute to the development of their country at various levels. It is perfectly okay to remain in civil society, and criticise: it is a form of contribution as long as you are not operating as a portfolio-wielding NGI (Non-Governmental individual) or an SPV for some dubious groups. If you also decide to become a direct participant in the governance process by taking up a public appointment, I don’t think that amounts to a crime.
In Leadership training programmes, we used to teach students about being change agents. The way to be a change agent is not necessarily by standing outside and throwing stones, you can be a change agent from within, and that is why at a time, the big opinion out there was that those who have been critical about government, who have the big ideas about how nations grow or fail, should be courageous enough to go into government. But once you do that, you see a small crowd showing up, blackmailing people, demonising them saying all kinds of things. This is really not an educated response. Your expression of anger or protest may bring you undeserved attention but it won’t stop others from making their own choices.
Why did you say millions of those that were out to protest against the removal of Subsidy in Ojota were occupying their stomachs with Jollof rice and wine? Was your comment to jest at the unprecedented outing by millions of Nigerians or you actually believed that the massive crowd the world saw was rented?
I don’t know how you arrived at the figure, millions of Nigerians. Did you conduct a census of the people who gathered in Ojota? This is how you people just throw up numbers and jump to wrong conclusions. I mean there was…
Mercy (cuts in): But the picture was very clear…
Which picture? Can you count people from pictures? Certainly there is no way the camera can capture everybody and there is no way you can count every head in a photograph of indistinct figures; not even a television camera can capture everything but that is not the point. My point is the protest was hijacked by the opposition; at the time by the ACN and by the CPC and people who borrowed the phrase “Occupy Nigeria” from the United States. There is a book on that kind of event. I remember reading OCCUPY by Noam Chomsky, an extended essay on popular protest. It is not the same template we are talking about in Nigeria.
Many Nigerians are very good at borrowing slogans; they are very good at borrowing other people’s modes and the people who lead the process are often times so poorly educated, they don’t even know what they are doing because they are motivated by other considerations. That whole issue about Occupy Nigeria; what happened in Ojota, Lagos clearly was politically motivated. At the end of the day, half of the people who claimed they were occupying whatever it was knew nothing about what was going on. What kind of protest was that where people wore designer T-shirts; musicians were rented, and a so-called rally became an owambe party.
Who paid for those musicians, who provided the music, who provided the food? That was a case of some vested interests hijacking the protest for their own political ends; the thing must be properly conceptualised. I hope someday, somebody will do a proper analysis of it. Apart from the political opportunists, you also had the rent-collectors, the marketers of empty petroleum vessels who did not want transparency and accountability in the downstream sector, who tried to blackmail the government.
Of course in due course, there was a disagreement between organised labour and the political parties because their motives were different, and that was when the protest started collapsing. That protest was not a protest against the Jonathan government, it was not a referendum against the Jonathan government. The whole of the South East, North Central, South South, North East, North West was peaceful; nobody was protesting there. In many parts of the north there was no protest; the whole thing was reduced to this Ojota phenomenon contrived by the ACN and its allies. That is why I said it is not all kinds of protest that is honest protest. Some protests can be politically hijacked and we must be able to separate what the people are saying from what the opposition is saying and the opposition does not necessarily represent the interest of the people.
Dr Reuben Abati, many believe you’ve been the most controversial of all the Nigerian presidential spokesmen, with so many contradictions, what makes your job difficult?
I take the being controversial part of your question as a compliment. It means that my method of operation has been very impactful. I must be doing something right to attract so much attention. As you probably know, this is a country where people feel very uncomfortable when they see someone who can stand up on his feet and who is confident and resolute and who takes a position and stands by it. Other people who think that they also have opinions, challenge you, and you respond to them and then you have a controversy. If that controversy generates a healthy debate, then it is perfectly in order. About contradictions, I don’t know what you mean about contradictions. I don’t see any contradictions.
My earlier question is so we understand you; you were on Channels Television shortly after the Presidential pardon to former governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha defending the President’s decision. To think that in 2005, you wrote a piece and you said “For His Excellency, the Executive Fugitive of Bayelsa state, it is over. Resign now, get on a boat across the border, and run…” When compared to your stand today, isn’t that a contradiction?
There is no contradiction, and this is what I keep telling people who just look at one phrase, one line, one statement in a whole essay and they go to town just to demonstrate that they are making the best use of the limited education that they have received. Now when I wrote the piece against the former Governor of Bayelsa state, that was when the issue was still very fresh and he didn’t want… go and check the dates, he didn’t want to submit himself to due process. He was trying to evade the law; hence the use of the word fugitive. I wrote the article to say no, that was unacceptable. If you have been indicted, you should have your day in court, you can’t run away from the law because if we allow everyone to evade the law, there will be no good society for people to live in. Hence, that article and I stand by the content.
Subsequently, the man eventually had his day in court, he was brought to justice, he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment. He served his term. The purpose of law and justice, and the principle of crime and punishment had been served. It doesn’t matter the weight of the punishment. What matters is the fact of conviction, whatever happens tomorrow you are still an ex-convict. When President Jonathan granted him state pardon and it became very controversial, I made a point. I said look in jurisprudence or the theory of crime in other jurisdictions and even our own, the state can in its wisdom grant various kinds of remission, it can be state pardon, it can be suspension of sentence, it can be parole to a person who has been convicted. They have it in the UK, the US and elsewhere. You are talking about contradictions. I cited the example of President Bill Clinton who even granted state pardon to his own brother and his former Secretary who refused to testify against him in the Whitewater case.
There is always a tendency to controversialize state pardons, and anywhere it has been done, there have been controversies, the classic case being President Gerald Ford’s grant of state pardon to President Richard Nixon. Gerald Ford was vilified, but years later, he was vindicated.
I am of the view that the ultimate purpose of punishment is not to destroy the individual; it is perfectly in order for convicted persons to be given a chance of reintegration into society. How this is done is partly a matter of discretion and also a matter of law. In the Alams case, President Jonathan followed due process and acted strictly within the ambit of the law. And I made it clear on Channels TV that these are the issues, but many people are emotional about such issues. We are now in a season when even educated people choose to be emotional because they have become politicians, and it is expedient to be contrarian.
Yes, this man has been granted pardon, he has been reinstated in society, he has become in the eyes of the law, novus homo, a new man, his sins have been forgiven, but state pardon does not amount to forgetfulness. The stigma, that was the word I used, the stigma of being an ex-convict, can never be erased from the mind of the public. Despite the pardon, has that stigma been erased months after I granted that interview and offered that defence? So this is my point and I am not going to shift just because some people are unhappy.
In your piece titled “The Hypocrisy of Yesterday’s Men”. What is the difference between Yesterday’s men and today’s men?
Again, you must contextualise it. My message to the people that I referred to as yesterday’s men, and you may add the word women, because I see that some of them are female, is that look, when you are called upon to serve your country, it is not your birth right to do so no matter how intelligent you may be; no matter how smart you think you are. We are in a country of more than 170 million people. You may be an expert in a particular area.
There are people who are also talented in other areas and people will have their own opportunity at different times. You don’t say because you have left the government and because you have not been recognised or because you have lobbied for a position you have not been given or because you think that you deserve a certain level of recognition that you have not received, you then begin to attack the government of the day. If you are criticising honestly, well, no problem. But we have witnessed, post-Obasanjo government, a group of egoistic know-it-alls and wannabes who think that they alone know how to run Nigeria. They had their opportunity, and they should be thankful for that, because really, who are they?
I met one of them on a flight to London, He was so cheeky. He said he was waiting for when I will also become a yesterday man. He doesn’t get the point. My point is that when you are no longer in government, move on; get a life, don’t get trapped in a vortex of withdrawal psychosis; to do that to yourself amounts to self-abuse, and sheer ingratitude. Don’t turn yourself into an accidented personality who does not even know how to be grateful for favours received. One of them wrote a book in which he abused the same man who brought him to limelight; and claimed credit for everything.
Well, wake up please. The fact that you were privileged to have been appointed by President Obasanjo to serve in a particular position does not confer on you a celestial Solomonic garb. It doesn’t even grant you the right to say that nobody else knows anything or that nobody else can run government. It is such arrogance that I criticise. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not opposing freedom of expression. I am against hypocrisy, opportunism and charlatanism. The lesson of it all is that when people are offered public positions, they should be such persons who have real background; they should be people we can say this is where Mr X is coming from, this man or woman has real foundation, and can survive in or out of government. But here we are, people taste the opportunity of public appointment and they can no longer imagine life without it. There should be life after office; this country doesn’t belong to any individual; you play your role, you move on, and you stop hanging around. Am I making sense?
There is widespread high level corruption in the Nigerian government, especially with the many scams we see, what would you say are the positives for you since began your present assignment?
I don’t think there will ever be any government in Nigeria and people won’t talk about corruption. It is a standard slogan, or better still, it is an inherited problem. The question to ask is: what is being done to curb it? And I’ve had to respond to this question on many occasions to say that the Jonathan administration has been doing a lot to block leakages, to block wastages, to put an end to rent-collection and through institutional reforms under the transformation agenda.
It seems however that what Nigerians are looking for is blood; they want people to be beheaded. They want to hear that Mr X has been dragged along the streets of Nigeria, pulled along by a truck and humiliated. They want to hear that Mrs Y is in detention and is being humiliated. Perhaps, a bit of drama, without the finesse of due process sometimes helps in dealing with matters such as this, but today, you have a President who says governance is not about drama. It is about laying serious foundations. It is about building institutions, and getting those institutions to do their bit. Yes, we can catch the thieves but you must also make sure that you block the opportunities for the thieves, and their ilk to continue to operate.
In terms of the drama that people are looking for, this government takes on cases, identifies indicted persons, but those cases must pass through the criminal justice system. The police will have to do its job, the EFCC will have to do its job, the ICPC will have to do its job, and the courts have to play their part. We have a President who does not interfere in that process. We have a President who does not dictate to the institutions and that is why for example he doesn’t dictate to INEC. When there is an election and the opposition wins he will be the first to congratulate the opposition.
We were all in this country at a time when if there was an election, what people would be trying to do was to find out who was the anointed candidate of the president. Under President Jonathan nobody talks about the anointed candidate, everybody just waits for the outcome and you can be sure that the outcome is the true outcome, not what the President has enforced. The highest level of corruption in this country is political corruption. And this president has not been involved in any form of political corruption. If anything, he has protected and promoted electoral integrity, I think he must be given due credit for that.
A second level is corruption within the judiciary. We were all in this country when there were allegations about the presidency buying judgements, dictating court rulings. You cannot accuse this President of buying judgments and should it now be the case that some of the cases in court are delayed, you still cannot blame President Jonathan. You can only urge that the strengthening of the institutions should continue apace so that these relevant institutions can be more proactive and efficient and can deliver results more expeditiously.
Now, with regard to the building of institutions, take the introduction of a National Identification Number. The whole purpose of that exercise is to eliminate corruption, to eliminate ghosts on the payroll, to establish true identity. We live in a country where people are not even properly documented. We once had a national identity card programme but it failed. Nigeria is probably one of the few countries in West Africa where if you accosted somebody on the street and he is from maybe Togo or Burkina Faso he can tell you that he is a Nigerian and you cannot prove otherwise.
Within the civil service system, this President has also introduced a biometric verification system. If you don’t go for that verification, your salary will not be paid but Nigerians don’t know this. And the President does that because he doesn’t want to hear that there are ghost on the payroll.
Look at the fertilizer sector. It used to be the headquarters of scam: fertilizers scam, seeds and tractors scam. This government has put an end to corruption in that sector. Again, the fuel subsidy issue that generated the protests in January 2012, it was all about checking corruption in the downstream sector of the oil and gas industry.
What does your work entail on a daily basis? Do you sit to advice the President Jonathan on what to do and what not to do as it concerns the freedom of the press and national issues generally?
I am a Special Adviser. I think the title speaks for itself. I work directly with the President. I am his direct appointee; his personal aide, I think that answers the question.
How has it been for you working with President Jonathan and how long do you see yourself in this role?
The second part of your question I cannot answer. As I said, I am President Jonathan’s personal aide. I serve this government at his pleasure and for as long as I am here, I will continue to serve to the best of my abilities. But as for how it has been, yes it has been very interesting, very exciting. It is a great opportunity to serve and also to learn a number of lessons about society, human nature and the business of public communication.
As a very literary person, do you still have time to read books? What books have you read lately?
There is no way a man like me can survive without a library otherwise I will begin to sound the way I don’t want to sound, so you can be sure that wherever I am, whatever I do, there will always be a library close by; a very active and well equipped library. Reading is a way of life for people like me. What books have I read lately? Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan by Richard Neustadt; The Presidency in The Era of 24-Hour News by Jeffrey E. Cohen; Break-Out Nations: In Pursuit of Next Economic Miracles by Bushir Sharma and Emerging Africa: How the Global Economy’s Last Frontier can Prosper and Matter by Kingsley Moghalu.
With the varied experiences you have gained, do you see yourself going to teach in the university, to transfer your expertise?
Well I used to teach in the university, I was teaching actively up till 1999. I left Ogun State University to work at The Guardian, but I remained active in the Department as a visiting lecturer, teaching classes and supervising research essays. But in my final year as a law student at Lagos State University, it became difficult to combine so many things at once: law studies, journalism and scholarship. I had to let go of the last one to enable me concentrate. So I gave up, I think I supervised undergraduate theses for another year and I also taught at the university’s satellite campus in Lagos, but when the satellite campuses were scrapped, I finally gave up. I couldn’t combine travelling on the Oshodi-Badagry expressway with another weekly Lagos-Ago Iwoye shuttle.
I miss being a Specialist. Before this present job, I kept up by writing essays for academic journals, and it used to be exciting receiving letters of acceptance, now and then, and getting published in serious journals. But for almost three years now, I have not been able to do all that, and I am scared about losing the skill to engage in specialised, rigorous discourse.
However, I would like to see a situation within the education system in Nigeria whereby persons who have had exposure to academics, who have an idea of how that environment works but who then go to the corporate world or who go to serve in government are encouraged to return. Even persons who are not necessarily scholars but who have just had very great exposure in politics or in business should be engaged by the university system to share their experiences and mentor the younger generation. That is how it is done for example, in the United States.
An Aliko Dangote, or Jim Ovia, or Mike Adenuga should end up as Professors of Business, and Obasanjo should be teaching Politics and Governance, all our retired military Heads of State should be either full time or visiting lecturers at the Nigerian Defence Academy. We have to learn to keep people busy, and make them give back to society, instead of this current system whereby gifted, experienced and capable persons are allowed to hang around like invalids.
You once expressed your views about “Naija music” and its debilitating influence on Nigerian youth; do you still hold this view?
Was that the content of that article? I know that was another very controversial piece that I wrote. I think that the piece was more on the matter of art, functionality and aesthetics. Aesthetics was one of those favourite courses that I took as a student and later taught others. And it is at the heart of performance studies which is a whole field of specialisation, study and research. At the time I wrote that article, I was talking about standards. I was talking about quality; I was talking about form, shape, sound and sense; in general about art and signification. I saw at that point in time, these were serious issues in the emergent tradition in the musical sphere, spear-headed by a young generation of auto-tune inspired artists. Quite a controversial piece. For almost three months, Jahman Anikulapo, then editor of The Sunday Guardian published rejoinders that can translate into a lengthy book on just this matter and people kept writing, including angry young men who thought Reuben Abati was old school who didn’t know the difference between ori e fo ka sibe; and lorile o di gombe. And I just laughed because I was doing my job as someone who is an expert in that field, and who is entitled to a choice of critical modes: ascriptive, analytical or descriptive.
I was saying that when you looked at many of the songs and musicians coming up at the time, the whole thing was like a revolution then, there was a lot of effort but very little talent. This young man would come up and drop one song people will be dancing, and screaming. I don’t want to mention names so it doesn’t look like am putting people down. But a critical look at many of those albums indicated that it was all sound, and no sense, and very little shape.
What I did at that time was to say look, yes many of these young men are doing very well, they may be commercial successes and they have energy but they are not musicians at all because all I see is sound, very little sense, and small talent and I said many of them will not last at all with their auto-tune driven artistry. And I compared that to what I considered real music, the kind of music that will endure. I said we had a moment of too much artificiality in terms of creative expression and this was something to be watched. I identified quite a few people that I considered real musicians among the younger generation. And I think I have been proven right.
Over time some of the examples I gave at that time as people were not doing music have disappeared from the scene, their once popular songs have been effectively forgotten and may never be remembered again. The ones that I singled out for commendation are still in business, and have grown and they already have songs that have been internationally acclaimed. My point takes us back to Horace: “Life is short, art is long.” If you are a true artiste your work will live long but if you are just a commercial wannabe, yes you will reign for a while, you will make money, and attract the finest girls in town, but your art may not survive. I have been vindicated and I remain a keen watcher of the creative industry. Those who were commenting on what I said, who were saying I didn’t know what I was saying, calling me names, blackmailing me, I didn’t take them seriously because then or now, they cannot question my bona fide.
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