INTERVIEW: Why I’m stuck with Atiku – Garba Shehu

Garba Shehu

Garba Shehu speaks about his relationship with former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and the the future of journalism in Nigeria.

Garba Shehu, a journalist, and Public Relations Consultant, is a media adviser to former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, he speaks about his relationship with the former number two man for whom he now runs a media office reputed to be the biggest and most effective of any publicity team maintained by any Nigerian politician.

He also speaks about his challenges, the future of journalism in Nigeria and other sundry issues.


PREMIUM TIMES: Since you left active journalism, not many Nigerians know you with any other job except as  media adviser to former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar. This suggests you have been with the former vice president for a long time. How long have you been in his media team and how did you meet him in the first place?

GARBA SHEHU: When I left my job at the Triumph newspapers in Kano, I went to the Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria, ALSCON, Ikot-Abasi as the Pioneer DGM (Public Relations). It was from there that I joined the Vice President as Special Assistant Media. That was in 2003.

How did I meet him?

I first met His Excellency Atiku Abubakar in the year 2000. That was in the aftermath of two landmark events affecting the political landscape of the country. The 19 Northern Governors had hosted him to a hugely successful rally/event tagged “Reception 2000,” at which event, the political North said to him: “you are our leader, we are all behind you.” President Obasanjo’s courtiers were to seize upon this and rattle the President that his V.P was scheming for power. I think, this was the beginning of the mistrust that led to all those conflicts that followed between the two.

Two, the wind of the so-called “political shari’ah” had blown across the North and by then, nine states had adopted it, one after other, extending its jurisdiction to cover criminal cases.

On the heels of this legal reform, the Vice President at that time chose to side with his boss, declaring Shari’ah in those states as political, and asked for its reversal. Atiku, not Obasanjo, asked the Shari’ah states to revert to “status quo ante.” The Vice President ran into a heavy storm of criticism in the North. It was very clear at that time that he was politically in trouble.

My senior brother and mentor, Alhaji Wada Maida, the then Managing Director of the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, called me to a meeting of a media strategy group under the National Democratic Project, NDP, an office set up by the Political Adviser to the VP, Dr. Usman Bugaje. When he met us, the VP did not mince his words in telling us that he had a problem and said he needed us to assist him. These words, “please help me” touched me deeply and made me to make an instant buy-in.

PREMIUM TIMES: Atiku is arguably the only Nigerian politician maintaining a functional media office whether in or out of office. Why? And can you share with us how the media office operates?

GARBA SHEHU: The media office is hierarchically structured but is operationally run like your regular newsroom. Decisions here are made horizontally. The media operations staff sit around a conference table for daily editorial meetings. We review the print and electronic press and the new media that is now making huge in-roads. Anything touching on Atiku is of interest to us. We discuss all the stories and determine our lines of action. We do pro-active plans and we carry them out as well.

The retention of Atiku Media Office didn’t happen by accident. The principal foresaw it and planned for it. When President Obasanjo fired me six months into my appointment as the V.P’s Spokesman, Atiku’s reaction was that this was better for us. “It is better you operate from outside the government.” At that time, he had an excellent media team in his office – certainly better than what the President had – Chris Mammah, Dr. Ojo Onukaba, Dr. Adeolu Akande and myself but the structures of government posed a peculiar operational challenge that we could not do our best for the Turaki. When I started this office, it never occurred to me that it would come this far.

From the feedbacks we are getting, this experiment, though costly, is very successful. At some point, you might be tempted to think where the Turaki would have been without the media office.

Nigerian politics owes this precedent to the Turaki. It is clear by now that no politician aspiring for any serious office would contemplate doing so without the consideration of a media office. Several have come here asking questions and we oblige them. We are not stingy with ideas so we freely impart them to whoever has asked for the know-how.

PREMIUM TIMES: How much does it cost him to maintain the media office?

GARBA SHEHU: How much does it cost? It costs a lot of money and I won’t pretend to you about that. Our monthly salary even in a more or less low activity period as we are now in is itself a big sum. Most of us here are paid higher than our counterparts in the public service. A security man or gardener here earns higher than the start-up salary for university graduates in the civil service.

PREMIUM TIMES: Journalists often applaud the statements emanating from your media office. I have heard some journalists say your office makes their job easier as they do not need to put in much effort reworking your statements to suit their house styles. How do you do this?

GARBA SHEHU: Without meaning to be boastful about anything, this is how a PR statement ought to be like. It should be written in a way to make it difficult for the news editor to water it down or even intervene in it all. There is training behind it. Even those who don’t like him say the Turaki does not compromise on quality. He has a knack for identifying good staff. In line with this tradition, we hire only good hands. With Turaki, quality is always the number one issue.

PREMIUM TIMES: Media consultants like you are often saddled with managing media crises. Looking at your journey so far with Atiku, which of the crises would you consider more difficult in handling?

GARBA SHEHU: Turaki, like every other politician, is bound to attract the good and the bad in terms of public attention. Dealing with him in particular, you are doubly challenged because he is a man who shoots from the hip. He is not a pretender. He speaks his mind as he deems fit and you know yourself that truth and politics don’t always mix. There are times he speaks and you literally have to put your heart in your mouth. There is always tension with us because Turaki will depart from the written script at public events and tell you what is on his mind. In that respect, he is not an easy politician to manage.

What are/were the most challenging crises?

I would say the most challenging of them were also the most exciting and I will cite only two. One was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI’s sting operation and the subsequent corruption trial of Congressman William Jefferson in the United States. Jefferson was a liar and a name-dropper imposed on the Vice President for a meeting by the Nigerian embassy in Washington. The details of what happened with that sting operation are fairly well-known. The man used Atiku’s name to extort money from a prospective investor in Nigeria, Lori Mody of USD100,000. Atiku’s family home was broken into and searched but nothing of the marked money was found, only to be discovered later in a foil paper in a deep freezer in the Congressman’s home.

Jefferson was put to trial and the Jury convicted him on all counts on which he was charged except those in which Atiku was cited. In dealing with that crisis, you know that the government, in which the Turaki was Vice President was complicit in all the conspiracies, including the authorization for the private residence of Vice President, normally considered a diplomatic compound, to be broken into and searched. His own government was fuelling this case and their hands were all over the place. The fact that we won at the end was most satisfying.

The second case I wish to cite, which is also linked to the first is the Petroleum Trust Development Fund, PTDF matter. The reader may recall how Obasanjo set up a kangaroo panel under his Attorney-General, which tried and convicted the former Vice President of improper conduct within 48hours, without giving him the benefit of being heard. Of course the courts of law had absolutely no difficulty in quashing that so-called indictment. Before the court verdict nullifying the so-called indictment by the administrative panel, the President mischievously sent it to the Senate with the intention of instigating an impeachment process. There too he lost because he had lost the support of both chambers of the parliament. Public opinion was equally 100 percent behind the Turaki and Obasanjo, not us, came out the loser.

It was an amazing story of a vindictive President who sought to use the financial transactions in the campaign account that he and the Vice President operated, to tarnish his deputy using facts selectively. Obasanjo’s mistake was to assume that Atiku kept no records or that he was careless with details. The President had his hands burnt.

PREMIUM TIMES: Has the former vice president ever threatened you with sack? Has he ever rejected any of your work, maybe speech or something?

GARBA SHEHU: Those who know Turaki’s modus operandi will say that he is not a man who bandies about sack threats. There was never such an incident. What I find most fulfilling in the work I am doing for him is in the fact that he is trusting and has respect for my professional judgment. He respects my professional decisions all the time, in the same way I respect him as a guru politician. Politics is his specialty and I give the hats to him.

PREMIUM TIMES: It was speculated at a time that he almost fired all of you after he read his speech at the 2011 National Convention of the PDP. In that speech, Atiku suggested that President Goodluck Jonathan could not be trusted. Who wrote that speech and is it true you were almost fired?

GARBA SHEHU: The speech at the 2011 PDP convention was a masterpiece. It was equally prophetic. It was put together by the top crop of the campaign. He, as he usually did, wrote some aspects of the speech. Those who disagree with it said it was rather harsh and the platform inauspicious. Now, the critics of the speech have all made a u-turn. Jonathan is as dumb as a rock and they are now coming to the Turaki to say, “You foresaw this; you were right and they were wrong? Turaki foresaw it, he told the nation. At that time, he was not believed.

PREMIUM TIMES: Was there any time when you felt like returning to journalism?

GARBA SHEHU: I have never really left journalism in the sense of cutting off from practice. I see myself as a professional journalist who merely has veered into PR practice. I still write stories officially and unofficially. I report anonymously for some online publications. Don’t forget that I have sustained a weekly column in the past in the Compass and now in Nigerian Tribune, the Peoples Daily and some online newspapers including your own, The Premium Times. I don’t want to forget how to write. It will be a shame for you to be called up to write later in your life and you say that you have forgotten how to write. My aspiration from here is to graduate from a journalist to an author. One book “The Atiku Media: The Wars, The Victories” is already published.

PREMIUM TIMES: You were at some point the Editor of Triumph Newspaper. Would you say journalism is still the same as it was in your days? Are there areas you think it could be improved upon?

GARBA SHEHU: From my days in the Triumph to the present, that is nearly seventeen years, a lot has changed. No, journalism cannot be static. Could anybody have foreseen the effect of seamless, wireless communication, the electronic mail, and the growing dominance of the online publications seventeen years ago? There is digital revolution that is sweeping across the world that has altered the whole gamut of communications, not just the media.

And that is where the future is pointing. All of us are now trying to do a catch up, learning the new technologies as the only way to survive. Now as I speak, I get most of news from online sources. The newspapers and TV are there alright. But they serve merely to support me with specialized features and opinions. The newspaper in particular is a habit and a tradition.

Look at the broadcast environment that we now have – substantially de-regulated and mostly under private ownership. With the digitalization of TV in the first quarter of next year and Radio coming shortly after, an explosion is about to happen in broadcasting in Nigeria that is bound to change the way many things happen. I love the diversity of the media because that is the only way that the truth can survive.

There are many areas requiring improvement in journalism practice in Nigeria. Training is important. Investment capital is important and the media should start looking in the direction of the capital market to finance their expansion and modernization.

PREMIUM TIMES: Does what is generally referred to as “cash and carry” journalism worry you?

GARBA SHEHU: So-called “Cash and Carry” journalism does not worry me because – let me tell you that any PR strategy that is based on paying journalists is bound to crash. The greatest asset of the PR man is the knowledge of journalists. You can always get across to others in a given medium and no journalist can hold you to ransom over a story. If you are an insider in the industry, you must know that the reporter is himself under enormous pressure to file stories. As a news source, he or she needs you. Reporters are fired for failing to file stories so you have to use this as a kind of power that you have. If news sources withhold the stories, what will the newspapers write tomorrow?

I don’t deny however that there is an ethical challenge facing the industry. If the publisher doesn’t pay his reporter, as the late M.K.O. Abiola used to say, other will pay him and he will work for them.

PREMIUM TIMES: You also served as President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, what is your impression about the organization now?

GARBA SHEHU: The Guild of Editors has grown so much in size from our time that soon, it may be difficult to bring them under one roof. One day, you might need a stadium to hold a convention of the Guild. That has its own challenges. Beside the balloon size, which needs to be checked with stricter registration requirements, I wish the guild will try and slightly detach much of itself from government.

PREMIUM TIMES: One wonders if your long stay with Atiku has forced you to join politics. Have you also become a politician?

GARBA SHEHU: I am not cut out for politics and I will not join. I enjoy being around them however, offering professional advice whenever I am requested to do. I see myself helping to promote the cause of democracy. Without democracy, a diverse country like Nigeria will not achieve development.

PREMIUM TIMES: Atiku said his associates converted PDM to a political party? It is believed that you are one of the associates. Can you defend this?

GARBA SHEHU: The PDM is a legacy party as they said. Its members have served as the back-bone of several past parties and have succeeded in making several Presidents. I think they are right now to say, why not be a political party, and possibly be President ourselves? PDM is the most disciplined political association this country has ever known and Nigerians will soon come to experience that.


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