There are certain opportunities in life that one should see oneself as bigger than. One such opportunity was provided to Dr. Reuben Abati, the former head of the editorial board of the Guardian, perhaps Nigeria's leading newspaper and almost certainly the one with the most prestigious history, to become spokesman to President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan of Nigeria, an opportunity accepted by Abati.
The loss of Abati to Jonathan means that Nigerian civil society has lost one of its most trenchant voices responsible for informed and entertaining analysis of central issues in the development of Nigeria. Instead,we have Abati signing Jonathan's announcement that he is putting before the National Assembly a bill to extend the terms of office of the President and state governors to seven years each. The initiative of developing Islamic Banking or interest free banking governed by Sharia law, as it also being described, in Nigeria, is raging, with contrastive perspectives fuelling the flames, and Abati's voice is nowhere to be heard.
If anyone has read him on these subject speaking in a capacity independent from his new job as government spokesman, please let me know so I can see that wonder for myself.
The Boko Haram crisis is raging as the violent Islamic sect vows to continue its campaign of terror, as troops occupy Maiduguri in an effort to flush out the group, provoking questions about the relationship between the central government and various kinds of violent groups defined by differing goals, founding inspirations and methods.
Within these public conflagrations, as the country enters into a historic phase in which the Presidency is held for the first time by someone outside the larger ethnic groups, someone from the much violated Niger Delta, the heartland of oil, the country's central income earner, part of significant changes in Nigeria's political configurations, and Abati's voice has been silenced.
We have lost a voice that was able to place in context the salient issues in decades of Nigerian development, going from the most recent being the conflicts over the last concluded elections, going back to the Yaradua saga where the former President was ruling without formal deputisation even as he was on sick leave, going back more than ten years to when Abati began writing in the Guardian as a member of the OSU Collective at Ogun State University, after a spell as a Youth Corper at the University of Benin where I first learnt of him from his students who were dazzled by his linguistic skills and range of knowledge.
Abati should be too big to act as spokesman for any government functionary, including the President of Nigeria, who, well before he became President clearly showed himself as a political opportunist willing to adapt to the winds that would keep him in power, a trait shared by many politicians, including, to some degree, US President Barack Obama. In the Nigerian setting, however, the redeeming possibilities for such a stance are fewer, the pressures for action different from such self serving attitudes from within the political class is weaker, and so the politician might not rise beyond that level.
Abati's legacy might never recover from this blow.I wonder if he can plausibly return to his old career if he continues on this path. He will become more well off monetarily than he has ever been.He might never again live anything less than a rich man's life. He might even be able to enter into politics or leverage this recent appointment into other lucrative appointments, such as an ambassadorial post. Perhaps he could develop the economic clout that will enable him develop a media business where young Abatis like his former self, can thrive.
What will be the ultimate character of his legacy? In comparison with great journalists like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who uncovered the Watergate cover up that brought down Richard Nixon as US President, as documented for posterity in numerous media and in their book All the President's Men, with Edmund Wilson who was also a pioneering literary critic, whose bookAxel's Castle is a landmark work of Western literary criticism, with Robert Hughes who made a name as a notable art critic on TIME magazine,among other achievements,and whose books have immortalised his work, to give a few examples, where will Abati's name stand?
How many books has Abati published? What will be his enduring impact on Nigeria and beyond?
The pursuit of a career with such questions in mind, are to me, more relevant for Abati's legacy than taking up that job with an African head of state who shows colours similar to many other heads of state from that particularly challenged continent. I see that job as a demotion for Abati. He is now compelled to be the mouthpiece of a politician whose primary goal seems to be the political survival of himself and his fellow political travellers.
Perhaps Abati wishes to reinvent himself as something different from a critical leader and shaper of public opinion in Nigeria. Such a reinvention is possible, in which one's previous career and the expectations it generates are different from what follows after one has made that change.
There is a difference, however, between levels of achievement people demonstrate in various fields. Perhaps Abati can achieve more in this new path and the opportunities it provides than in his old career.
He knows best, however, what he wants for himself.