By Fred Iwenjora
President Muhammadu Buhari’s top media adviser, celebrated journalist Femi Adesina seems to be permanently on the hot seat. He is either parrying or sieving all the many garbage as well as praises hauled at his principal or projecting his positive points of view.
The former Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of the Sun Newspapers and former president of the Nigeria Guild of Editors opens up to FRED IWENJORA on how it has been as well as other sundry issues.
Did you ever believe that Buhari would win the presidential election even after trying and failing severally?
Prior to the 2015 election, I had always advocated for a rainbow coalition, if we would ever get the People’s Democratic Party out of power. I had always supported Gen. Muhammadu Buhari since he began to run in 2003, but I had always also argued that he needed to build a national coalition, if he would be President. It almost worked with the then Action Congress of Nigeria before the 2011 election, but the talks started rather late.
When the All Progressives Congress was formed as part of build up to the 2015 polls, I knew the goose of PDP was cooked. With the steady basket of votes Buhari always garners from certain parts of the country, all he needed was an addition and the necessary spread, and the job would be done. Yes, I expected the 2015 victory, and it happened.
What gave you that strong hope?
Recall that Gen Buhari had said he was not going to run again after 2011. But those of us who passionately believed in him persuaded him to run again, because we believed that with a coalition built round him, he could win. That alliance, coupled with the determination of INEC led by Attahiru Jega, to do the right thing, gave a lot of hope.
Did you wish to get the job you got?
I never, ever thought I would serve in government. I didn’t wish it, didn’t think of it, and I just wanted to continue in my profession as a journalist. I was already at the peak, as Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief, and also President, Nigerian Guild of Editors. I just wanted to do it for a few more years, and then ask God: what’s next? Then the offer to serve in government came.
Did you envisage getting an adviser job when most journalists get CPS job?
I sure was not looking for a job when the offer came, I was in a comfort zone, in every sense of the word. But I didn’t reckon with the capacity of Gen Buhari never to forget a good turn. I had been writing to support him since 2003, when there was no scintilla of hope that he would ever become President. I stood with him through thick and thin, just as millions of other Nigerians did. He used to call me up when he read my columns, and we would discuss.
When Professor Tam David-West (God rest his soul) did a book on him in 2009, I was Master of Ceremonies at the launch in NIIA, Lagos. It was there I met the General at close up for the first time. When my mother passed on in 2013, I invited him to the commendation service in Lagos. He came, and attended a Christian service. That was a person that had been labeled a religious bigot.
Very wicked! On the night the final election results were announced in 2015, my phone rang at exactly 12. 20 a.m. The voice at the other end said, please hold on for the President-elect. Lo and behold, it was Gen Buhari. He thanked me for my support over the years, saying I did so without collecting a dime from him, not even a bottle of Coke. He said; ‘Adesina, thank you, thank you very much’.
I told my wife: this one that the President-elect has called me at this time, I hope…I couldn’t complete the thought, as it was not even a prospect I wanted to consider. But eventually, it happened. I believe some people spoke up for me, without my prompting. And it was also what Gen Buhari himself would love to do. And he did.
Do you think that your leadership positions both at the Concord, Sun and NGE prepared you for the job you are doing now?
Yes, you get prepared for certain positions in life, even if unwittingly. I had climbed almost all the rungs of the ladder in Journalism. Reporter, line editor, editor, administrator, everything. It was preparing me for higher challenges, which I consider my position as media adviser to the President to be.
The job of speaking for the president often carries with it heavy burdens of hatred by general public who feel that you are telling lies: do you feel this burden?
Shakespeare says to thineself be true, and it follows as night the day that thou canst be false to any man. Let people expect you to lie as presidential spokesman, but if you remain true to God and to yourself, then there is no cause for alarm. Another advantage I have is that my principal is one person who never expects you to lie. So he can’t demand such from you. Why then should I lie and damn my soul? I’ve not done it, and I won’t do it. If some people then still call you liar, it’s their cup of tea.
However, I know public service is almost a thankless job. But it need not be so, as there are people who still serve selflessly and faithfully. We need not see anybody in public service as someone awash with public funds, and who will help himself. We still remain accountable to man and God
What have been the biggest lessons or shocks for you in public service?
When we got into government in 2015, we met a badly vandalized country, with an economy inexorably primed for recession. Recall that the President himself said he almost bolted away, when he saw the state of things. But what kept me going was confidence in the man I had come to serve. If anybody could turn things round, he could, with hard work, honesty and integrity. And he did, and is still doing so.
A journalist is on his toes always trying to meet deadlines but this new routine must be terrific with minute by minute, hourly and daily deadlines: how have you coped?
I see what I do now as an extension of what I was doing in the media. Then, I was involved in the generation, the gathering, and the processing of news. Eventually, I managed the business side too. Now, I am involved in the generation of content about my principal, the President, for both national and international media.
I still must think and time myself like a media man, in order to get the best mileage for the man I serve. I must interface between him and the media, serve as a buffer, so to speak. It’s a tough, challenging schedule, but life is full of challenges, even in many other callings. But being a media person for 29 years before I came into government has served me in good stead.
Have you found yourself sleeping in the office like you did many times while producing many newspapers?
I may not sleep in the office as you would often need to do in the media, but I consider myself on duty round the clock. My phone rings almost by the minute, from all parts of the world, not considering different time zones. I have to respond. When it’s time for active politicking, and there are late night meetings, you are there, though you are not a politician in the true sense of the word. And amidst all that, you need to be conversant with what the media is saying, so you can do what is needful to all sides.
Have you lost or gained more friends by standing by PMB?
In life, you lose friends and gain some new ones. Yes, there are friends I used to have, whom we do not relate closely again, because of where each has pitched his tent, politically. If they begin to criticize my principal, to the extent of being rude and disrespectful, things cannot be the way they were. I give them a wide berth, and if God says the paradigm of the relationship will change again in future, so be it. But I have also made lots and lots of friends, genuine ones, I hope.
Of course, there are those interested only in the faults and foibles of government, and they magnify it, in a bid to turn the people against government. You will never get a perfect government, so the cooperation of the populace is needed for the sake of the country. When you sit permanently on the complaint counter, wailing at every twist and turn, you are undermining the country, not just the government. And it would affect you, your children, and posterity. So, why not team up, and let’s build a country we all can proudly call our own.
As the voice and adviser of the president, what does your job really entail,?
My assignment is to inform, educate the public about what the President does, expand on what he is doing, defend him when necessary, and generally make him look good, without coloring things. President Buhari is straightforward and it makes things easy.
In what ways has this government done well as different from the others past?
It’s in the public domain. The government is working hard to secure the country diversify the economy, fight corruption, and give Nigerians a future and a hope. And the larger number of people trust the government, which is not a usual thing in the country. President Buhari is widely trusted, and it makes a difference between him and those who had come before him.
Where has the government had the most problem?
I will say insecurity. It was inherited, but went several notches higher as it was being tackled. Hidden hostile hands, who mixed politics with security, did not help matters. But they are being beaten all the way, and will be completely worsted. Security challenges remain, but any honest person will also admit that the government is doing its level best. There’s no magic wand to wave, but good will eventually triumph over evil.
In all, what have you learnt in the few years of working for PMB?
I have learnt that if you love the people, serve them faithfully, hold power with simplicity, the people will reciprocate with goodwill.
Will these years of political services lead you to more contestable national service afterwards?
No partisan politics for me. I don’t see myself throwing my hat into the ring, and running for political office. You never say never, but I don’t see myself doing it. Not likely, as I don’t think I have what it takes to do it,
Will you love to talk more on the latest editorial by a national newspaper?
Trump banned CNN….will u ban any one?
This government does not intend to ban any media house. Freedom of the press is assured, within the bounds of the law.