Presidential spokesman, Abati, under pressure over past views on subsidy

Reuben Abati, Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan

Reuben Abati, the renowned fiery columnist, and opponent of petrol subsidy removal, who, as a media adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan, now backs subsidy scrapping, took the front row of officials facing stringent calls to resign Thursday.

It remained unclear what transpired at the presidential villa on the fifth day of public protest over government’s removal of subsidy, but by afternoon, an article published by Mr. Abati on the subject before taking office fuelled blistering criticisms with many calling for his ouster.

“I am still giving Reuben Abati an iota of the benefit of doubt. If he ever had a thread of integrity like I have always thought..he should resign,” a Tweeter user wrote.

The criticisms mounted after an earlier speculation that the president’s spokesman, had resigned purportedly in protest against the subsidy removal.

As the day progresses, Mr. Abati remained silent, and stayed put in his office, according to people present at the villa Thursday. He later told Premium Times the news was untrue. He said he will not leave.

The special adviser to the president on social media, Reno Omikiri, also tweeted that “there is no truth to the reports that Dr. Reuben Abati has resigned from his job.” He affirmed that “the entire media team are intact and behind the president.”

But for the most part, the write-up, dug up by online activists, provided a new platform for critics who have accused government officials of double standards, siding with the people only before assuming political positions.

Mr. Abati, a well-known opponent of the deregulation and now, as a spokesperson for the president, a backer of the policy, is seen as a face of that theory. And so is the Edo state Governor, Adams Oshiomole, a former ferocious labour leader who for years opposed removal of fuel subsidy, but who has now become one of its strongest advocates.

In the piece, written and published in 2009, Mr. Abati, then the head of Guardian’s Editorial board, branded as “joke” the move by the federal government under President Umar Yar’adua to deregulate the oil sector.

The late president had named a committee headed by the Bauchi state governor, Isa Yuguda, to work on the details of the proposed policy, a contentious issue that had haunted past administrations.

Quite strikingly, in a remark that will stand true to what obtains three years later in an administration Mr. Abati serves, he stated that, “The mischief and dishonesty are obvious: why set up a committee to seek the input of stakeholders when a final decision has already been taken?”

He further dismissed the logic bandied by the authorities then seeking the removal, as senseless logic “taken from the same textbooks that the economists have refused to update, the same ideas that led to the collapse of the global economy.”

“Other countries are making a U-turn and subjecting textbook knowledge to the test of reality, Nigerian policy makers are still holding on to old paradigms. One of these days, we shall start stoning the economists in official corridors,” he concluded.

The writings prompted brash comments online with one Tweeter user, fuming, “Reuben Abati is the king of flip-flop. Yesterday he was with the masses but today he dines with the slave owner.”

Another user, Iloydatiku, added “Please what has changed? The allowance? The employer? We hear he’s doing very well now.”

Since the subsidy controversy broke out, Mr. Abati has largely remained silent, after his initial comment in the early days of the crisis, affirming that the announcement made by the Petroleum Product Pricing Regulatory Agency, was the government’s position.

Asked if the government supported the announcement, he said the agency was a government agency and its position is the government’s position. “What more do people want,” he had asked.

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