Presidency sources, one of them close to Reuben Abati, a special adviser on media affairs to President Goodluck Jonathan, have told SaharaReporters that Mr. Abati has been sidelined recently and openly shares his apprehensions about being fired anytime.
One source, a confidante of the president, told SaharaReporters that Mr. Abati’s fears are well-founded. “Mr. President is only waiting to be sure that Dr. Abati does not pose any threat to his second term ambition before sacking him,” said the source.
Last Friday, Mr. Abati spoke with State House correspondents on the chronic fuel crisis that has engulfed Abuja, the nation’s capital. But a few hours after the briefing, the embattled presidential spokesman realized that what he told the media conflicted with the views expressed by two of Nigeria’s powerful ministers, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Finance and Diezani Allison-Maduekwe, the Minister of Petroleum. Both ministers are currently at loggerheads over illegal and inflated payments to fuel importers.
Shortly after realizing the faux pas, Mr. Abati made frantic efforts to contact reporters and implore them to ignore his views on the fuel crisis. One reporter told SaharaReporters that Mr. Abati pleaded that the security of his job could be threatened unless they stood down his briefing.
SaharaReporters learnt that some of the reporters asked Mr. Abati to call their editors since their reports had been filed several hours before his call came, and since they were in no position to instruct their superiors to drop stories.
A senior journalist with a Lagos-based newspaper who is close to Mr. Abati told SaharaReporters that the presidential spokesman “has not been enjoying a smooth relationship with members of President Jonathan’s kitchen cabinet since the appointment of Dr. Doyin Okupe as Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs.” Mr. Okupe has since assumed the role of the president’s attack dog.
Presidential office sources said First Lady Patience Jonathan had expected that Mr. Abati would be a robust attacker of the president’s opponents, and that she was furious that the former chair of the editorial board of The Guardian decided to stand aloof as opposition parties and newspaper critics went to town against both Mr. Jonathan and his wife. Mr. Okupe was brought in at the insistence of Mrs. Jonathan who felt that Mr. Abati had failed to stand up to many forces who assailed the First Lady for recklessly spending public funds to acquire funds for a meeting of First Ladies of African nations.
“The First Lady complained several times that she had received verbal bashing from the media without Dr. Abati coming to her rescue,” said one source.
A reporter who covers the Presidency told SaharaReporters that, in an effort to minimize the risk of saying something that might rile the president’s inner circle, a rattled Mr. Abati recently responded to inquiries about the fuel crisis that has grounded Abuja by directing the reporter to Mr. Okupe.
“Dr. Okupe did not disappoint, as he quickly issued a statement, appealing to Nigerians to continue to stick with the government as the fuel crisis is resolved.”
A source in the Presidency disclosed that one of the recent signs that Mr. Abati’s days are numbered is the planned appointment of Ken Wiwa, Jr., the son of hanged writer and environmental agitator Ken Saro-Wiwa, to a newly established office of “senior special assistant on civil society and international media.” The post puts Mr. Wiwa on the same level as Mr. Abati, and gives him primary responsibility for managing the president’s international image and contacts with foreign reporters.
Before now, Mr. Wiwa as well as Bolaji Adebiyi worked under Mr. Abati’s management. “With Ken’s elevation, it will be clear that Dr. Abati’s role in the Villa is as good as useless,” said a source who is close to the president. He said that Mr. Okupe has taken charge of the domestic sphere and that Mr. Wiwa would assume control of foreign media relations for President Jonathan, leaving Mr. Abati in a sinecure.
We asked a close friend of Mr. Abati’s whether the presidential spokesman would resign in order to avoid the humiliation of being fired. The source ruled out that option. “Dr. Abati is definitely not considering the option of resignation. That’s out of the question,” the source insisted.