By FEMI SALAWU
The job of the Presidential Spokesperson in any country is clear-cut; to market his or her princioal.
It becomes easier when the President is Muhammadu Buhari according to the newly appointed Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina.
In this interview monitored on Saraha TV, the former Mnaging Direvtor of The Sun spoke about his new job experience.
Are you excited about your appointment?
Well, it is a call to service and one should be thankful when called to serve one’s country.
With this appointment will you be switching sides that is, from scrutinising the government to defending the government?
Let me first of all examine what you said, that I will switch sides from scrutinising to defending the government. No. The scrutinising part will still be part of my duty. Before I can speak for the government, I must first scrutinise the decisions and the policies and then make an input before I can then defend. So, it is not a total switch. There must still be a lot of scrutinising because anything I am going to defend, I have got to be able to understand it, agree with it and see the rationale behind it before I can defend it. So, it is not a total switch.
So, what if you do not agree with a policy? How will you approach it?
If I don’t agree with a policy, I will first ask for an explanation and when I am given the explanation, I will make my input. But then, my input does not have to override what may be in the public interest or what is in the interest of the larger number of people. My opinion might not necessarily be the correct one. So, when such challenges come, you have to weigh it and say, is it in the larger interest of the people, is it in the interest of the country? Will it eventually result in a better standard of living for the people? That is the way to look at it. It doesn’t have to be something I must agree with all the time. I should be able to appraise the decisions that have been made and seek to understand them and then make my contribution as necessary.
There are reports that you know President Muhammadu Buhari very closely. What is your relationship with him?
I will say yes. The President is somebody that I have admired for a long time since he was a military ruler. When he was a military ruler, I was already in my third year in the university. So, I can say I knew him and his style and I liked it. I felt sorry when his government was overthrown. So, when he came back into partisan politics in 2003, it was something that was very exciting for me and since then, I have been supporting him. I am a journalist and I write a weekly column. I have been pointing Nigerians in his direction since 2003. And whenever I wrote anything in his (Buhari’s) support, he would call me on the phone and we would discuss and he would thank me. I remember in 2009 or thereabout when Prof. Tam David-West wrote a book on Buhari and it was to be presented at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. I was the master of ceremony of the occasion so we got to speak and know each other better. That was the first time I would meet him (Buhari) in person. Thereafter, he ran for President in 2011 and I still wrote in my column that I thought he was the best person to rule Nigeria and bring a change. Whenever I wrote those things, he would call me and he would thank me and we would talk.
So, eventually, in August 2013, I lost my mother and we needed to do her funeral. So, I sent Buhari an invitation card. The service was in Lagos and lo and behold, before the service started, he drove in. It was a pleasant surprise. It was a Christian service and he sat through it. Those who had said that he was a religious bigot were shocked. This was a Muslim man that came for a Christian service and attended the full service and yet they were saying he was a religious bigot. So, that act cemented our relationship because after the event, I phoned him the next day and thanked him but he said he was the one that should be grateful because he had never given me a kobo and yet I always gave him all the support. He said there were people that could pay me millions of naira for such support but I had decided to pitch my tent with somebody that could not give me anything. So, that cemented our relationship.
You know, in 2011, he said he would not contest the Presidency again but in the run up to the 2015 election, I felt he should still run and I wrote that the fact that he said in 2011 that he would not run again could not be carved in concrete and he could change his mind if he wanted and the rest, they say, is history. He changed his mind, he ran and he won. Significantly, on the night that he was declared the winner, my phone rang around midnight and one of our leaders in the media called and said, ‘Please hold on for Gen. Muhammadu Buhari’. I was shocked and when he spoke to me, he said he appreciated my support throughout the campaigns and now that victory had come his way, he just wanted to say thank you. So, that was how it played out.
How did you get the appointment? Did he call you or were you interviewed?
After he had been declared winner and after he had called me on the telephone, I deliberately stayed away from him for two reasons. The first was because I knew he would be under a lot of pressure. A lot of people would be calling to congratulate him and probably seeking one thing or the other. So, I think from that night, which was March 31, I deliberately stayed away from him because I did not want to add to the pressure that would be on him and secondly, I didn’t want it to be that I was seeking a position in his government. I am a born again Christian and I want anything that happens or comes my way to be what God has ordained. I don’t push anything; I don’t lobby for anything so I kept my distance from him. But then, people around him kept talking to me and kept telling me that they believed I was the best person to be the spokesman for the incoming President. However, I did not give any commitment for two reasons. The first, as I said earlier, was that I didn’t want to lobby and secondly, I have a job that I enjoy doing: Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of one of the leading newspapers in the country, The Sun, and then I was also the President of the Nigeria Guild of Editors. Those are high calibre jobs and responsibilities. So, I wasn’t looking for a job but then people around me kept talking to me till eventually, there was some sort of interview but I would not say it was a direct interview but people singled me out to say, ‘Well, if you are invited to serve in government, will you serve?’. My conviction had always been that I would never serve in a government except one headed by Muhammadu Buhari. So, when they singled me out, I told them I didn’t think I wanted to serve in the government but since it is Muhammadu Buhari, I will consider it. But I also reminded them that I also have a job and I have to consult with my publisher (Orji Uzor Kalu) and I have to seek his blessings. Reluctantly too, my publisher gave his blessings. He told me that they would not know the sacrifice he had made by letting me go but since it is a service to the country, I have his blessings. So, I got back to them and told them yes, that I had sought my publisher’s blessing and the next I heard was the announcement that I had been appointed Special Adviser on Media and Publicity.
You will be going into the job in a changing media landscape. You will grapple with the social media and the traditional media. How do you hope to navigate these two worlds?
I would rather refer to the social media as digital media because the social media is just a variant of the digital media. Nobody can do anything successfully in the media today without factoring in the digital media. The social media, the digital media and every other thing will be used together. You would have seen the role they played in the campaigns. You could feel the pulse of the electorate and could already discern the direction the election would follow by merely following the digital media, particularly the social aspect of that digital media. It played a major role in the campaigns and there is no way you are going to ignore it. The traditional media has its place because there are people who are still glued to it. But the younger generation uses the digital media so you then need to use all the avenues to reach the people.
So far, what do the media headlines regarding Buhari’s administration say to you about what you are going to be dealing with on the job?
I will tell you it is no tea party. It is going to be a hectic work but then it is going to be me working for somebody that I believe in. So, I guess I will have to throw my all into it. I am under no illusion that the job is going to be easy or a picnic. It will not be. But I will throw my all into it and as long as my principal remains who he is: straight, accountable, focused and someone who wants to effect a change in the country, I guess we will get it done. When you have a good product, the marketing is easier.
Have you spoken with previous government spokesmen like Mr. Reuben Abati and Mr. Segun Adeniyi?
I have spoken with Segun Adeniyi (the late President Umaru Yar’adua’s spokesman); I have spoken with Ima Niboro who was former President Goodluck Jonathan’s first spokesman; but I have not spoken to Reuben Abati.
What advice did they give you?
They gave me an insight into how to do the job successfully. I have spoken with Segun more than once but I have spoken with Ima Niboro just once. I will meet with Segun again and we will talk.