I’ll admit that I’ve never been very impressed by Reuben Abati’s supposed wonderful columns. Even before his Aso Rock days. So when his last article began to spread around social media, and I looked it up, a small part of what I felt was some kind of vindication. The larger part was shock and sadness.
The man comes very decorated. Degrees, honours, the highest government job for a journalist. So how exactly has he found time to devolve into the scriptwriter of a very bad movie from 1990s Nollywood? I confess I couldn’t quite finish his column the first time and have only just done so. I am a film critic and prefer my Nollywood straight from the screen. When I read, I expect more thought and less melodrama. Instead I get this:
“I am ordinarily not a superstitious person, but working in the Villa, I eventually became convinced that there must be something supernatural about power and closeness to it. I’ll start with a personal testimony. I was given an apartment to live in inside the Villa. It was furnished and equipped.
“But when my son, Michael arrived, one of my brothers came with a pastor who was supposed to stay in the apartment. But the man refused claiming that the Villa was full of evil spirits and that there would soon be a fire accident in the apartment. He complained about too much human sacrifice around the Villa and advised that my family must never sleep overnight inside the Villa.”
Being Nigerian comes with its peculiarities. I daresay it’ll be difficult to find any child of the soil who is completely without a sense of the malevolent capabilities of spirits and the like. Our folktales have stories starring not very amiable otherworldly beings; our songs have them; our books have them; our grandparents tell those stories. People have turned into tubers of yams and four-legged animals in the Nigerian press for years. It is the reason no one criticises a Nollywood film with sentences like, “There are no evil spirits.” In our cultural vocabulary, spirits only come in one brand: Evil. Not for us Casper the Friendly Ghost. It is only in church that spirits get a makeover, and even then it is just the one: the Holy Spirit.
Despite this Nigerian belief in spirits, we are not as silly as to take serious Abati’s claims that a plausible reason for the sheer ineptitude that our leaders have shown is due to “persons in the Villa walking upside down, head to the ground” or because of the substitution of Lux soap with “Goat blood. Ram blood. Whatever animal blood.” Matter of fact, if President Buhari decides that bathing in several jerry cans of bovine blood—or in a Jacuzzi filled with the blood of imported kangaroos—will bring some kind of sanity to his governance and to the Nigerian economy, we’ll say go for it. Sure the west will scream “animal cruelty!” but if the economy gets better, we can show them results. President Buhari can then show up with his hopefully unbloodied gap-tooth to address the nation on the utility of animal blood.
Until that happens, with Abati’s article what we have is a former government worker offering excuses for the failure of his boss, the former president—and then extending a hand to the current one, who is failing his way through his own tenure.
Both former and current presidents share a lack of image projection know-how. The fear no one likes to say aloud is that there may simply be no way to clothe both regimes in the pretty pink of positive PR. The past president was dubbed “clueless” on the basis of his own actions. The current one is doing his best to be tactless whenever there is a microphone nearby. Both presidents seem to have been thrust into power in a time before the invention of the camera. And today that things are recorded live, they have no hiding place. Add that to the instant spread of impressions on social media, and what we get appears to be their real selves in real time—which is emphasised by the shambolic handling of all things media by the current president’s often e-thuggish men that themselves need help with image branding.
All of this is perceptible by anyone half-alert to the country’s politics, but not to Abati. The man has other thoughts:
When the President [Jonathan] makes a speech and he truly means well, the speech is interpreted wrongly by the public. When a policy is introduced, somehow, something just goes wrong. In our days, a lot of people used to complain that the APC people were fighting us spiritually and that there was a witchcraft dimension to the governance process in Nigeria.
But the APC folks now in power are dealing with the same demons. Since Buhari government assumed office, it has been one mistake after another. Those mistakes don’t look normal, the same way they didn’t look normal under President Jonathan.
Jonathan never made a great speech in all of his time as president. I am not convinced there was a Prince of Persia blocking his well-intentioned meaning from reaching the citizens of Nigeria. I mean, the joke at the time was how badly Jonathan used a teleprompter, and how his body language—uncontrolled by witches, hopefully—was unable to fill his audience with confidence. Buhari has some time but he hasn’t made a great speech either. Perhaps in the future, Abati will pen another column telling us that the recent plagiarism scandal was the product of spiritual manipulation, and not the laziness and unimaginative designs of a speechwriter.
In a way Abati has shown us the workings of a Nigerian leader and his cohort. The key to Nigerian leadership is blame—as long as you know who to pin it on you’ll be fine. Achebe said the trouble with his country was “simply and squarely a failure of leadership.” Abati disagrees and says the trouble goes higher: the trouble with Nigerian leadership is unfettered witchcraft.
Maybe we all should admire President Buhari’s approach. For now, he is yet to blame witches. He is still in the phase of blaming the previous administration. Perhaps when he vacates Aso Rock—and rises from the other room—he might change his tactics. If he requires some spiritual entity to blame, he knows who to call. The respected Reuben Abati will be patiently waiting beside his phone.