By Azu Ishiekwene
I knew Femi Adesina when he was “Daddy Tobi.” He still is, of course. But back in the day when we were neighbours in “Olowora Inside”, a Lagos suburb, when you could call to a neighbour from your frontage, often by using the name of their first child, that was how we called Femi: Daddy Tobi.
I have heard people complain that a friend in government is a friend lost. I have seen it too – friends who are not only lost but who are also happy to lose themselves once in power or positions of influence. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing. People have their reasons.
But Daddy Tobi did not change. He has not changed. Through the eight years of his appointment, he has been the same jolly good fellow, slow to give offence, contemplative, almost ponderous to act, anxious to be politically correct (which is why he would say, the Good Book, instead of the Bible or Quran, for example), and full of thunderous laughter.
His new book, “Working with Buhari: Reflections of A Special Adviser, Media and Publicity (2015-2023),” narrates his struggles, his hopes, his frustrations and triumphs as Buhari’s first political appointee and perhaps the longest serving media adviser in Nigeria in the last nearly three decades.
I wasn’t surprised by his longevity, though that also brought its own miseries especially after the first two years of Buhari’s government. They’re partly reflected in Chapter Nine of his book entitled, “2017, Year of Health Challenge,” a chapter that also reminded me quite vividly of the book, Power, Politics and Death, by Olusegun Adeniyi.
A significant difference, though, is that while Femi’s book is very personal – like a diary, Adeniyi’s is intensely revelatory, capturing not only the author’s odyssey but also the intrigues that shaped Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s short-lived presidency.
Femi makes it clear, upfront, that his book is not about the making of policies – monetary, fiscal, foreign – or even about the fundamentals of government. It’s a journey to understanding Buhari, the enigma from Daura.
After assuming office in 2015, Buhari enjoyed an extended honeymoon. The public was fed up with President Goodluck Jonathan and the chaos in the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Masu gudu sugudu?
Buhari seemed to be the right man for the job, in spite of concerns about his academic and human rights credentials. The country was so taken in by the Buhari charm that a Hausa song, entitled, “Masu gudu sugudu,” became a hit for the dire fate supposedly awaiting the corrupt and their acolytes.
I was against Jonathan, and for Buhari, though not as remotely as Femi, a self-confessed Buharist. My support was conditional, sometimes confused, and for the most part of Buhari’s second term, frustrated and disappointed. But sometimes, you have to be close to people to know them better, which is the point of Femi’s book.
His reflections, however, did not assuage my disappointment about the former president’s congenital insularity or about the chaotic freedom in his government that obviously encouraged some of his appointees to run wild.
The new book did something quite important, though. It helped me, through Femi’s eye, to see a part of Buhari that may have been flawed but was perhaps not fatally damaged by malice.
In his own words
I will give two examples from the book. The first occurred after Buhari removed Ita Ekpeyong as Director, State Services (DSS) in 2015, and replaced him with Lawal Musa Daura. At this time, there were already suspicions that Buhari, being Buhari, his election would deepen Nigeria’s already fragile ethnic fault lines.
On page 166 of his book, Femi said he went to Buhari to complain about the potential ethnic blowout of the change.
“I had asked him,” he wrote, “Mr. President, you are removing Ita Ekpeyong from the South-south, why not replace him with someone from that region, for balance?”
Buhari replied: “Before people are recommended to me, a search must have been done by appropriate set of people or committee. And one, two or three people are brought forward, in order of performance and competence. Now, if someone comes first and I bypass him because of ethnicity or religion, Allah would judge me.”
“But do not worry,” he told an obviously worried Femi, “the appointments would balance out.”
It would seem, from this passage, that Buhari was genuinely concerned about merit and competence. Maybe that was the case in his first term. Documents that I obtained independently at the time appeared to support this view.
For example, between 2015 and 2018, while the North-central topped appointments in Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), with 102 appointees; the South-west came second with 101 appointees, giving both zones 35 percent or 203 of the 567 appointments made.
But the complaint was not just about numbers but also about consequential postings. If Buhari passed the test on numbers in his first term, he failed disastrously on both counts in his second term. Not only were his appointments lopsided, he seemed so painfully absent, at least in the public eye, that any suggestions of competence or merit in his choices were commonly laughed out of hand.
The second example from the book of Buhari’s fatal innocence, portrayed through Femi’s sympathetic lens, was the former president’s role in the naira redesign palaver.
In Chapter Twelve, entitled, “In His Own Words…,” Femi quoted Buhari as saying, “The scarcity of money was not deliberately done to punish Nigerians…When he (former CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele) was linked with the campaign for 2023 presidency, I did not ask him, because he told nobody he was getting involved. Otherwise, I would have removed him and told the nation why.”
Naira redesign, ‘Emilokan’
In the goodness of Buhari’s purple heart, which obviously saw no evil, heard no evil, and did no evil, he could not contemplate the open travesty perpetrated by the Central Bank governor who took the APC to court in his own name, asking the court to protect his right, as sitting governor of the bank, to contest the presidency. Emefiele did not hide his intention from the party or, in fact, from the public. But by some spell of magic, he managed to hide it from Buhari.
And the president who “did not want to deliberately punish Nigerians” twice publicly defended the naira redesign even when the country was chafing under its impact and in spite of a Supreme Court ruling against it.
But it was Femi’s job to defend him, and that shone through in the book, with at least three of the 28 chapters – “Wailing Wailers,” “You Always Defend Them Because You Are One of Them,” and “Managing ‘Brand Buhari,’” – devoted to the many stripes of his valiant efforts.
His reflection on whether or not the Villa is a haunted place as his predecessor, Reuben Abati, wrote in the famous article, entitled, “The spiritual side of the Villa,” is quite interesting. The jury is still out on that.
Yet, there were also moments of pure drama, like when Femi and late former Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari, squared off over a turf war or when Femi broke the news of Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s “Emilokan” speech to Buhari aboard NAF One, only to get the parsimonious reply, “Asiwaju said all that? Thank you for briefing me.”
As is often the case with such jobs, family and friends also suffer collateral damage. But when people who knew that I had known Femi since our Daddy Tobi days called me to lash out, I often told them that Femi’s Buhari-philia wasn’t for the money or the attention.
And that was true. It was a matter of conviction and loyalty. As the book, which dedicated nearly 16 percent of its 488 pages to a chapter on Buhari’s achievements shows, nothing could change that.
Not even the burning spear of a million wailers!
Azu Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP
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