In December 2001, I collided with Reuben Abati on the pages of The Guardian newspapers. In a piece titled, “Lessons from London and America” he went on sternly to asseverate that most Nigerians abroad are illegal immigrants. Hear his clanger: “I was told that many Nigerians in diaspora live under assumed names and with false passports”. His fatuous categorisation of Diaspora-based Nigerians as paperless immigrants got me into a brawl with his silly innuendo.
In my piece titled “Nigerians in the Diaspora”, I responded by poking at his ill-informed bubble. “Abati pretended to know the lives of Nigerians abroad beyond his credential as occasional tourist. How else could Abati demonstrate his special knowledge of his kinsmen abroad than make wild generalisation and baseless assertion? Why would Abati make offensive and incendiary statements about Nigerians abroad and regard many of us as illegal immigrants? What is the connection of his piece and the immigration status of Nigerians abroad?” Then, his less than percipient observation of Nigerians abroad provided me with a discomforting reminder that in spite of his Socratic wisdom, Abati could slip into error of judgment.
Today, Reuben Abati has morphed into an apostle of public good, accountability, probity, integrity and resourcefulness. He is the guardian of public morality and weekly in his discursive prose he plays the role of a martinet who impugns on our aberrations as a nation. He mocks the corruption of high office with the fabulous sweep of his profound intellection while projecting his own hugely-imposing moral standards.
To dredge the poison of corruption in our polity, Abati worships on the altar of Gani Fawenhinminian virtues of political transparency, moral uprightness and plain, common humanity. Sometimes, his moral guardianship flounders under a fundamentally unsound and illusory standard of the public good. Why? The stringent ambit of his demand is hinged on rigid parameters. Though with him, there is felicity and elegance in his approach without any obfuscatory logorrhoea and gobbedy-gook or rabble-rousing emptiness which confuses more than enlightens.
And he reaps a harvest through the cultic worship of his literary heroism. That equally explains why his teeming readers readily feast on any printed word of his with astonishing avidity because Abati writes like an angel, no like a devil, like one whose literary connection between thought, ideas and reasoning is almost absolutely engaging.
But Abati whose sepulchral home is atop the rocky Mount Public Morality is about to tumble spectacularly to earth. Clearly, I can state from personal knowledge of man, his sin and his guilt, that haughty indifference gives the strongest offence especially when your disbelieving acolytes are waiting for moral clarification.
Why is Abati enraging his admirers? In one sentence, Sahara Reporters alleged and screamed that Reuben Abati, the deified priest of our moral grove, is involved in a land heist in Abuja. The charge sheet states that on 24 September 2008, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) doled out lands to Farida Waziri and 23 others including leading scribblers like Reuben Abati of The Guardian newspapers, Bayo Onanuga of The News, Bala Dan Abu of Newswatch, Director Osa of Insider Weekly, Comfort Obi of The Source, Ibrahim Sheme of Leadership and Garba Deen Muhammad of the Weekly Trust.
And to protect the dignity of public intellection, Abati keeps a dignified silence on the land acquisition. That has turned out to be an expensive risk. Every turn of another day, there is revolting innuendoes and nauseating accusations that a dreadful myth is about to unravel. Is Abati unravelling then? Why are we all gobsmacked by the paralysis of his silence? Why is he smothering the possibilities of live debate through snobbery? Why is he retreating from his old chivalrous antecedent into a cowardly scholarship? How do we then split the atom of his presumed arrogance and provocative silence?
Reuben Abati’s no comment dilemma demonstrates a weird human paradox which disgustingly exemplifies the hopeless chiasmal symmetry between informed public adulation and unrestrained affection for our famous public figures. We may all wish to have Abati as our bedmate, but have we checked to see if he has clay feet that may soil our bedsheet?
Over the years, he has proved his worth, relevance and significance in Nigeria’s public space. Arguably, he is the most lauded and deified opinion shaper of modern Nigeria. He is the sort of journalist every Governor, Minister, Senator and Legislator wants to befriend.
Hi hits with kid gloves and most of his prodigious output are soft, cuddly and plainly preachy. Now he is about to enact a Greek tragedy by turning into the most detested and vilified writer in living memory. What has come to clearly highlight his crime is the graveyard silence over his land ownership in Abuja. One camp of his admirers wishes to prove through extreme reaction his right to be silent. Another camp finds his silence damaging, unjustified and insulting.
The two camps are currently under a neurotic crisis of determining the transparency of his integrity. Was the land a privileged allocation or on merit? Where did he get the money to purchase a piece of land in Abuja? Or was the land given free or bought? Both his closet and public integrity are closely tied to the answers he proffers to these questions.
My own views on this resourceful, lanky and well lacquered creature who bestrides our discussion forum like a colossus is that he is as materially ambitious as any Nigerian can be. For the record, he has a right to be financially and materially ambitious. Also, if his financial essentialism is to reverse century of poverty trap, he has my support. Nigeria is a monstrous graveyard for the proletariat and as such most of us are closet oligarchs waiting for his day.
Aside from the sheer arrogance and impoliteness of his dogged silence, it is equally banal for his detractors to be mad-eyed and apoplectic with rage over a mere piece of land. Pray if Abati got a loan from the bank to purchase the land, is that a crime? What are we trying to impose on him? Saintly, self-righteousness? His silence is the proof of his disqualification as a saint and his unrighteousness.
Yes, he may be alienating his readers by preferring a plot of land in Abuja to the sentiment of satisfying the moral requirement of faceless, faithful but hypocritical admirers whose feet are mired in clay as his. In one breadth, I can relate to our ungovernable fury over his action but the appalling catastrophe would have been to see our hero end in the doghouse of poverty in defending a false, public moral persona. There is nothing bowel-shatteringly annoying about his right to acquire a piece of jewel in Abuja. What infuriates, I mean what really incenses us is the nugatory and trivial manner Abati opts to view his own mediated land ownership.
Whatever moral or ethical deduction his action may have exerted, I swear that Abati like many of us is part of a growing band of educated pragmatists who are willing to use awesome personal influence to amass material comfort regardless of any screaming, baying howls from transparency crusaders.
Abati has answered through his silence but his critics could not read his body language. Any prosaic public explanation, apart from irritating his benefactors in Abuja, may also lead to a permanent closure of future deals. Of a truth, this man does not pretend to work for a socialist newspaper with a rigid oath of poverty and probity. Rather, he works in Rutam House owned by the Ibrus, a family of buccaneering capitalists of the first order.
In addition, Reuben Abati is a positive journalism brand name. It is a name that could unlock the door to any privilege in Nigeria. And if after over decades of public service to intelligent Nigerians, he now wishes to reap the privilege of his unique brand, why this general moan? Abati is indirectly teaching us Pragmatism 101! A compulsory course in how to survive in Nigeria!
Above all, we still love our Abati. He is one of the leading lights of libertarian journalism of this generation. We love him just as much as Nigerians love their pepper soup or as Shakespeare’s Cordelia loved Lear. Restlessly, relentlessly and religiously he has been pouring out the fecundity of his imagination into the serious and the frivolous passage of our history as it unfolds.
Whether we tremble with rage or give a thumb up for his ability to plan for his future, there are many noble things to applaud about this egba man of reasoned engagement.
In ending, what my wife said about Abati’s land conundrum could offer an insight into the wholesome state of hypocrisy among our high flying journalists. A hardnosed realist, she asks, “How many journalists of Abati’s calibre in Nigeria are poor?” What she seems to be saying is that Abati, Onanuga, Abu, Osa, Obi, Sheme and Muhammad are heavyweight journalists whose inducement is no longer the brown envelopes but land distribution. Ray Ekpu’s old argot that journalism in Nigeria was in chain is now a dead cliché. Journalists like politicians have now shown that given the right reward, they are shifty and morally relativistic wimps.