Home OPINION INTERVIEW I Tried To Avoid Attacking My Former Boss, Atiku, While Serving Buhari...

I Tried To Avoid Attacking My Former Boss, Atiku, While Serving Buhari —Garba Shehu

Mallam Garba Shehu

Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity for nearly eight years, Garba Shehu, shared his key experiences in government with our Abuja Bureau Chief, LEON USIGBE. Read on:

How would you describe your experience in your almost eight years in office as a spokesperson to the President?
Okay, let me start by saying that you know how we came here, I had worked, up to the 2015 primary, with former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. I led his media campaign, and we lost the primary. And you know, upon his emergence as candidate, the then, General Muhammadu Buhari, welcomed all of those that he defeated, and they in turn donated all their assets, campaign assets, including media to him. So, in effect, then we were all donated to candidate Muhammadu Buhari to work for his success in the 2015 election.
So, candidate Muhammadu Buhari had the grace to pick me and make me his director of the media campaign. And we ran a good campaign, we won. And in 2015, he appointed me as one of his media aides along with Femi (Adesina) , my colleague. So, it’s been nearly eight years now, it’s been quite an interesting journey and a journey of discovery because we have come to know at close range now and to understand the essential Muhammadu Buhari and to then appreciate so much about him. In the first instance, if you’re into marketing, communication, you have products to sell. At all times, your job is made a lot easier by the success, by the efficacy of that product. If it is a good product, there’s less trouble, you have to try to market because testimonials will come.
And for us in the media, you probably will be able to sleep longer nights. You’re not likely to be woken from sleep every hour by journalists from across the globe because Nigeria is a global brand, of global interest, having to ask you about this or that. And in doing this job, perhaps the most troublesome questions would be having to deal with the scandals. So, if you’re dealing with a boss who is above scandal, I think half of your job is done.
And you’re also having a leader who reposes confidence in people he puts in positions. He doesn’t meddle. If President Buhari chooses to do a job, he gives you 100% space to do it.
We’ve had testimonials from key ministers, whether it’s finance, works or whatever, that, never for a day, the President had never called to say, ‘issue this contract or that contract or take away from this one and give to that person.’ And it is the same with us in the media space. You go to him with what you think should be said in the given situation and 98-99% of the time, he will tell you, ‘It’s your job, you know it. Go and do it the way you think it should be professionally done.’ So, it gives you that latitude of freedom to also discover yourself, to exercise yourself and do what you think is a good job.
We make mistakes. It’s not as if we don’t. But again, the thing about him is that there is never a public rebuke by him before everyone, to call you and say, ‘Look, why did you say this. Why didn’t you say that?’ Maybe on a one on one. And then, you also have been dealing with a president who has a large appetite for news. It amazes me that for the most part, this is the quality of the president that a lot of Nigerians have not discovered up to this time now that we’re even getting out. When we started, we were doing morning briefings for him, go to him and say, ‘Well, this is what the television networks are saying this morning. This is what the newspapers are reading this morning.’ I tell you for the most part, you will find that he has read far more than you have read yourself. He reads paper from cover to cover. And so therefore, you realize by 10 o’clock when you ask to brief him, you’re bringing nothing new to him.
I’ve always said this about Nigerians that if they know how President Buhari does these things, they’d realize that the quickest way to get his attention on any given issue, whether it’s a flood situation or disaster or some trouble that is brewing somewhere, put it in the newspaper. He will read it before maybe, you know, says Niger Delta, the minister, director in the field does a memo to ministry headquarters, ministry headquarters forwards a letter to President through Office of Chief of Staff and all of that, the President reads the press, and he watches TV. That’s why he’s always on top of the situation and well ahead of you for the most part. So, this is it.
What else is there to say? It’s a good ride, it’s been a good ride and we’re grateful to him. Because when you look back at all of those who were here before us, the longest time media advisers in this position stayed was two years, three years. They were either sacked, or they resigned, went under or they died. Here we are, eight years on and about to leave at the same time with the President. So, it’s been quite an exciting opportunity and we don’t take it for granted.
Now, some people see your role as maybe the specialist in public affairs as far as issues concerning the President are concerned. They tend to see you as the spin doctor in the President’s media team. Do you see yourself as a spin doctor for President Muhammadu Buhari in your time as his spokesman?
I think that spin doctoring has a negative connotation. I’ve read the book of the one they call the spin doctor to Prime Minister Tony Blair – Allistair Campbell. He came from the BBC, and he was asked this question once and they said whether he would define the truth. He wrote a book, which I read. I think they call it Spin Control or something like that. He said that when he was with the BBC, the facts were manifested by the truth. When he worked for the Prime Minister, the truth was manifested by the Prime Minister. So, I’m trying to say that really, spin doctoring is something akin to telling lies. I don’t want to own up to that. But in this work, I and Femi Adesina, the special adviser to the President, have come a long way, even before we were in this office, we had been friends, we had met, even at family levels, we had interacted.
So, from day one, we made it clear to one another that this job will not divide us, it will not destroy that relationship we built over a long time. So, my own attitude to it, then, had been, because by the pecking order, the Special Adviser to the President is above the Senior Special Assistant. So, I yield the forecourt to him, I yield the foreground to him. And whatever he decides that he wants to do, I don’t stand in the way. Whatever he leaves undone, or whatever the President or Presidency asks me to do, then I will do. So, in this way, we have avoided conflict completely.
I remember when we started, we were about to start, (ex-Ekiti) Governor (Kayode) Fayemi called the two of us to his suite in Hilton and was concerned that there’ll be fighting between the two of us in doing the job. I said no, we won’t fight. We’re friends, we have come a long way. And today, here we are. That’s the way it is.
Now, let me say between the two of you, the public perception is that you are more controversial. A lot of people took exception to what you say, maybe your characterization of political opponents. Do you think you were fair to Buhari’s political opponents in what you put out in public space?
Well, let me say that maybe what marks my work assignment slightly different from that of Femi is that Femi came here straight from the newsroom. And for me, I had left the newsroom for a while, and I had jockeyed with the politicians for some time before I found myself here. Yes, I had imbibed a bit of nuances in politics. And so therefore, yes, I think it is not wrong to think that I think politically some of the time. But this is the game. President Buhari as far as the media is concerned, if you like, you can call him a distant person. He stays away from the dogfights. Maybe because he had his own history, you know, that relationship abuse, his own personal relationship with the media coming from the days of Decree 4 and all of that. And so therefore, he keeps his place. And he sees the media as our own turf – ‘you guys, it’s your space, handle it.’ And I respect him for that.
The opposition has been mostly unkind to him, and they have attacked him and attacked him on matters that he ought not to be treated in that kind of way. Those of us around him have the duty to stand up for him to say that these are the facts. So, in doing this, obviously, you’re walking on eggs, some eggs will break. But on the overall, my view is that we’ve been very fair in the way we handled the opposition, drawing from the spirit of the President himself who strongly believes as a convert, democratic convert, that people should have the right to say what they want so long as they’re not in breach of the law.
Thank God, also, from the training we have brought to the job, where we’re coming from, from the media, you as a journalist, every one of us criticize people every day in our lives. We bring information to the public space, that can build people, that can destroy people, in the belief that it’s professionally right to do so. If we find ourselves in a place like this, where we are the objects of criticism, subject of criticism, how can we say that others have no right to criticize or attack us? So, we’re not aggressive. We’re not fighters. We’ve chosen to live with it. And I think, at the end of it, history will be written. We have never said DSS, police go and arrest Dr Leon Usigbe of Tribune. You know that you have written in a manner that is so aggressive some of the time. But we allow it to go.
That’s fair enough. In 2019, when Atiku Abubakar became the presidential candidate of the PDP, of course, he became the major opponent of your principal, the President. I was just wondering; did you not find it awkward that you were pitted against your long-term principal, Atiku Abubakar? Didn’t you find it awkward that you were now in the middle of your former principal and your present principal? How did you deal with that situation?
No, it wasn’t, it wasn’t uncomfortable for me at all. And I will tell you two things. One is that it is not possible for a man to serve two bosses at the same time, if there is sincerity, especially when they are pitted against each other. When Atiku Abubakar surrendered us as a team, his own media team, to candidate Muhammadu Buhari, I believe at the time he did, he didn’t in any way assume that we would sit on the fence. And one would be very insincere to President Muhammadu Buhari to take his job and to not serve him. And my own sense was that even Atiku Abubakar would be happy with me that I wasn’t working the two sides of the road.
Again, if you see how I have run my own engagement here, I had focused on delivering President Muhammadu Buhari to the Nigerian public doing assigned duty as faithfully as one could do so. He never called to say, ‘you are the attack dog, go after Mr. A., Mr. B or even Atiku.’ So, that’s the decency in President Muhammadu Buhari.
And two, for whatever reason, and let me say this, maybe for the first time, and, may God bless the soul of Duro Onabule because he called me as soon as these things were unfolding and said to me, ‘Garba, never you publicly attack Atiku. He is your former boss.’ And when you look back, you will see that the late Duro Onabule was Chief Press Secretary to President Babangida at the time when they annulled the June 12 election. Duro Onabule came from MKO Abiola’s media empire. For one day, there was never a day Duro Onabule attacked Abiola even when the military and Abiola were in the ring. I thought it was an important lesson for me.
You have never found me going out to attack Atiku. He was my boss at some point. And it is common sense. If I had, you know, because I’ve moved to Buhari and then begun to launch attacks on Atiku, what would Buhari think of me himself? He obviously would know that his day is going to come, that one day I will move to another boss and launch open attacks on him. It’s a matter of decency. So, this is how I’ve managed it and have not found any conflict in my mind because I know what I have done.
You didn’t have any situation where you feared being accused of betrayal because your former boss is your present boss’ main opponent?
When you serve with sincerity as I’ve tried to do, and as I said, in this work, Femi and I complemented one another. And you go back and check the records. There are also people whose names I will not mention who despite whatever they had said against Buhari, you find that Femi had gone after them with the greatest politeness that you will ever find, or never at all. Once I see a situation like that, I move in. I think that it is so much also that Femi had done so much and did so well that we never allowed anyone, you know, to have to take cheap shots at Muhammadu Buhari. So, we have covered for one another.
So, what’s your relationship with Atiku Abubakar right now?
You know, that’s a difficult one because if you visit him all the time and he’s also covered by the Secret Service over there, as the President is covered by the Secret Service, they obviously will assume that you are carrying stories, peddling tales from one camp to another. So, you must choose your movement. When there are big things that affect him say, condolences, when there is loss in family, or also major happenings, I go to him. I would usually go to President Muhammadu Buhari and say, ‘Well, Mr. President, I’m going to former Vice President Atiku, this is happening in his family and that I want to go’ and…he himself would usually say, ‘when you go, tell him that I sympathize with him, or this is my message to him,’ so that you don’t leave any window for mischief makers or secret service to say, you are seen. Because if you leave immediately, and there is a press conference about that, and they make some nasty revelations, they will say, ‘Ah, this man was here.’ So, you have to just be that careful.
Earlier, you said in the course of the job, you people make mistakes, and the President doesn’t openly publicly scold you. But are there things that you look back to and regret saying in the course of your job?
Yes, of course, there must be. There were two incidents that I feel sad about and one is the incident in Maiduguri in which about 40 or so farmers were killed by Boko Haram. And the other one was the incident of the kidnapping of Kankara (Katsina) students, about 300 of them. In both cases, I still feel the regrets that you are dealing with top military figures who know the facts. And it feels sad that even in this position where we are, news sources can mislead you into saying things that ought not to be said. I mean, as a reporter, you are trained to be on your guard. You know, you are trained to check and cross check facts before you publish. So, if I was a reporter and somebody tries to use me to establish wrongful information, facts that are not factual, facts that are not true, I can understand. There are many people out there who want to use journalists for their own ends. But to sit here as a spokesman for the President, and for the top military official, knowing full well that we’re not allowed to make mistakes in this job and then they give you numbers that are misleading, maybe because they want to cover up, maybe their own shortcomings, and then you go out there and make a pronouncement. That I feel I’ve been abused. I still regret it. I’m sure that there are a lot of people who still look at you as ‘is that not the one who said less than 10 Kankara girls were stolen when there were 300?’ I could not have manufactured it. People who knew what was going on misled you. So, that is something to regret forever in one’s life.
You are leaving office as Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, what now? What will you be doing after you leave the office?
The first thing on my mind is maybe for a month or two to just go and decompress. So, when you do that, then you probably have the clarity of mind. To say what, I want to be honest with you, what is it that you want to do going forward? I have no clear idea as to what it is. The first thing is, we get out of the Villa and decompress. And then have the clarity of thought, then you decide what you will do. I have a farm, I have some animals, although they’re very few. But I’m also planting a lot of economic trees. Is it farming?
I wrote a column for the Nigerian Tribune before I came here. Do I want to resume as a columnist? Mr. (Nduka) Obaigbena, the President of the Nigerian Press Organisation, had always wanted that…in fact, at some point, he even offered me foreign posting. He said, ‘we’ll take you out, give you a house, give you a car’ then. So, there are a lot of things that one could do, but I haven’t decided on what I want to do.
But to be honest with you, it’s been an enormous privilege being here eight years as I said from the beginning. Whether it’s the late Mrs. (Remi) Oyo, Reuben (Abati) or Segun Adeniyi, all of them, if you look at them, how long did they serve? Two, three years, they’re off. So, we thank God, we’ve been there eight years. I think there’s hardly anything to look forward to. Maybe some other challenges. But I think we have come here; we have seen and it’s for the people to determine whether we have conquered or have been conquered.

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Source: Tribune online.

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