I woke up last Friday to find on my handset messages with strange questions: Is it true that people bath with blood in Aso Rock? Are there demons in Aso Rock that make leaders take decisions that are not in the public interest? Did you ever notice anybody walking head to the ground at the villa? Is strange death a common phenomenon for people who work in Aso Rock? Can you still perform your bedroom functions as a husband? The questions, which I considered rather weird and ridiculous, kept coming in torrents; and even when a few made allusion to Dr. Reuben Abati, I honestly didn’t understand what the whole hoopla was all about. That was until I got a mail from my friend, Wale Adebanwi, an associate professor at the University of California, Davis, United States.
Wale’s mail read: “Hi Sege, I trust that all is well. I am sure you’ve read Reuben Abati’s latest piece making the rounds about his experience when in office. Do you think there is a pattern to this that fits your own experience? As a student of power in Nigeria, I am wondering whether these are “isolated” experiences, even if meaningful, or if they constituted a consistent pattern of experiences over the long term; and, of course, the implications for public rule and governance. Did you “notice” similar “evil” during your time in the Villa? (I know you’re a deacon, so maybe you “rebuked them in Jesus name”!) It was Wale’s mail that gave me a clue and I went to read Reuben. I can say very quickly that his experience was different from mine; even when I will not discountenance his narrative. But before going further, I need to respond to some of the specific questions. One, it is public knowledge that my boss died in office even though I have always attributed the fate that befell him to medical reasons; having confirmed that the illness being managed at the period was of a terminal nature and it started long before he was elected president. Two, to the glory of God, I lost no member of my family while in Aso Rock and none of my staff died. Three, I had three children before I went into Aso Rock and I still have three children today. But that is not because I “cannot get it up” after leaving the Villa. That last explanation is particularly important given what transpired last Sunday afternoon. I was at Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja for the Open Day of my children when I got a call from the editor of THISDAY, Ms Ijeoma Nwogwugwu who asked “Shegs, are you okay?” It was an unusual question to which I responded in the affirmative. But the moment she mentioned Reuben and started giggling, I knew what Ijeoma was driving at. I simply passed the mobile handset to my wife who happened to be sitting by my side at the time. It must have been an interesting conversation between the duo given the way my wife kept laughing. When she was done, she narrated the exchange to me. Ijeoma was not content with the fact that my “instrument” is still working, she asked my wife to compare and contrast, in full details, my “performance” before Aso Rock and now! While it will be an interesting research topic to ascertain what happens “down below” to people who go to Aso Rock and return to tell their stories, it is important to deal with more substantive issues: Did I make mistakes as presidential spokesman? For sure, I did and I accept responsibility for them. Did my late boss take some decisions that turned out to be wrong in the course of his illness-punctuated stewardship? Yes, of course. But so did practically all former heads of state, state governors and even school principals. Would I attribute such decisions to witchcraft and demons lurking within the precincts of the Villa—where, by the way, I stayed with my family in a two-bedroom apartment? I will not.
Interestingly, Basil Enwegbara, in dismissing Reuben’s thesis, added his own theory by locating the “problem” at the doorsteps of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA): “Rather than some so-called evil spirits, it’s electromagnetic fences that discharge miraculous microwaves that turned the Presidential Villa into what it is today: a kind of psychiatric warehouse. The CIA has since built what’s known as electromagnetic fences around Nigeria’s Presidential Villa and by beaming the ‘right’ electromagnetic microwaves on those living and working there, with particular emphasis on one or more persons of critical interest, they are able to change their behavioural patterns by blocking specific brain circuits with the goal of creating those neurological discharges that lead to anti-masses and anti-patriotism and anti-development personality behaviours,” he wrote. It is possible those CIA “fences” were built after my tour of duty at the Villa!
By sheer coincidence, Reuben’s piece was published on the same day Mrs Aisha Buhari joined Nigeria’s growing army of “wailing wailers” by publicly criticising her husband in a BBC Hausa Service interview which prompted the president to issue a chauvinistic counter in Germany that his wife’s business does not extend beyond his kitchen and “the other room”. Since no wife of a Nigerian president has ever publicly criticised her husband before, and Mrs Buhari would be the last you would ordinarily expect to do such thing, it was convenient to attribute her action to the demons Reuben wrote about. And in a way, people who think like that may not be too far wrong. At the presidential villa, the biggest “deity” has always been the wife of the president. Almost everybody worships “the mother of the nation”! Even those who are old enough to be her father would stoop before the First Lady whenever they are looking for patronage from the president. In Nigeria, careers are made and unmade in “the other room” where critical issues of governance are often decided by the disposition of the occupant and public interest is usually the last consideration in such matters. Any dispassionate reader of Mrs. Buhari’s interview cannot but notice that her anger is not about her husband’s insensitivity to gender issues or the hunger in the land but rather about the politics of patronage and entitlement within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) on which she has taken sides. She also took pot-shot at some shadowy figures around the president who appropriate the kind of powers she evidently covets. That, I must add, is not a problem peculiar to her, only that some of her predecessors found their ways of handling such situations without necessarily calling out their husbands in public.
There is an interesting aside here. While it is obvious from the interview that the president has been able to rein in his wife on official matters, this has not translated to good governance for the country. So, it is also possible that Mrs Buhari may be genuinely concerned about the exclusion of those who helped her husband to power (including herself) and the possibility of a political revolt–as it happened the last time, though we are in a different era. Since the president once said publicly that his main obligation is not necessarily to all Nigerians but rather to sections of the country where he got the huge chunks of his vote at the 2015 election, the wrath of those same harbingers of “Change” who have been left practically stranded could be what worries his wife.
Whatever may be her real motivation, Mrs Buhari’s intervention seems to have attracted more applause than condemnation from a broad section of the Nigerian public who feel disappointed by how Buhari has frittered away the enormous goodwill that brought him to power. How the president and his wife eventually settle their differences remains their problem. But to the extent that the message from “the other room” resonates, there is need for course correction by the president whose ardent supporters and implacable opponents now find common grounds on several issues concerning his stewardship.
However, it may also be useful to expand briefly on the demon thesis. When people seek power in Nigeria, whether in the political or spiritual realms, not a few of them go for diabolical means. For instance, in January this year, some shallow graves were unearthed under the foundation of a popular church in Enugu. Following the shock find, it was discovered that the three deceased persons were members of the Tricycle Riders Association in the state, who had earlier been declared missing. What was the pastor looking for? Power, money and fame!
Two years ago in Ilorin, an Islamic cleric was arrested by the police after being caught while performing rituals with the placenta of a baby whose naming rite he had conducted a few days earlier. On searching his house, they found several human parts and a boy who confessed that the cleric asked him to exhume the placenta to prepare charms. What could the Imam possibly be looking for? Power, money and fame!
The question then is: why do we expect anything different in the political environment, especially in a country where people are desperate for ill-gotten money and power to serve self? In any case, a simple Google search on rituals and politicians in Nigeria will come up with photographs of those having bloodbath or performing naked oath at the dead of night in public places, just to get or maintain power. So, the fact that I never witnessed any such rituals inside Aso Rock does not mean it may not have happened. But even if it did, is that enough justification to jettison the premises to build another one? I would not advocate that. Because, if we do that, and the demons relocate to the new edifice, what do we do: Abandon it to build another one?
For me, the real problem in Nigeria is that we run a system with little accountability and because of that, we have elevated people in positions of public trust to the status of “demons”. That is why we deify them and those who peddle influence around them: from domestic servants (cooks, stewards etc) to personal aides to some powerful concubines and then to the occupants of “the other room”. But this is not only a problem restricted to Abuja; it is replicated in the government houses in all the 36 states.
In our country today, when we elect people into public offices, it doesn’t take long before they become something of a deity. We worship and glorify their foibles and even idiocy. Once so elevated beyond the realistic realm, they also begin to assume the attitude of some little gods. The attendant insecurity that follows breeds a dependence on some external forms of security which they seek in the realm of invisible forces. For a society that glorifies the supernatural, the physical abode of the ruler also becomes a haunted edifice. And with that, it becomes rather convenient to attribute wrong decisions and actions taken by ordinarily rational beings to inscrutable diabolical forces.
I have read the amplification of Reuben’s thesis by former Aviation Minister, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode which catalogued those who have held political offices in Nigeria, at different times and in both federal and state level, whose families encountered one tragedy or another, mostly about death. As revealing as the piece is, I still fail to see the connection. In any case, there are such stories all over the world, the most famous being that of the Kennedys in the United States on which several books have been written.
It is indeed very instructive that I am writing this at a period of deep personal loss and agony with the death on Tuesday in London of a friend, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jnr, who also worked with me at the Villa. Ken was in my office a few weeks ago as we reflected on a wide range of national issues so it is difficult to accept he would die like that. As the narrator in the awarding winning documentary, “Nowhere to Run: Nigeria’s Climate and Environmental Crisis”, produced by the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, he left a lasting memorial. To those who would attribute his death to his service at the villa, I remember what my late boss said in his Financial Times interview of 20th May 2008 which I used as a quote in my book on the Yar’Adua years: “I am a normal human being who can fall sick; who can recover, who can die.” The same goes for everyone, whether we work in Aso Rock or Central Bank or perhaps even at Wuse market!
It is true that we remain predominantly a traditional society in our thought and belief systems. But we have set up a nation with modern institutions requiring the urgent need for us to abandon the domain of assorted prophets and spiritualists. To elevate superstition to the level of a directive principle of state policy and an instrument of national governance is to risk becoming too consumed in the primordial relics of a society in transition. What we need to dismantle in our country today are not physical structures like Aso Rock but the mindset that creates the “demons” that haunt the nation at all levels.
The greater challenge is that even the modern religions that we have embraced are being exploited to serve the politics of patronage. For instance, on several occasions between June 2007 and late 2009, I was always being invited to worship at the Aso Rock Chapel, which by the way I still don’t know how it looks from inside. I couldn’t worship there because, as I explained to those extending the invitation from then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan’s office, I had responsibility in my church. At that period, only few people were worshipping at the chapel.
However, the moment Dr. Jonathan became acting president in February 2010, I was amazed by the sheer number of prominent Nigerians who were calling to ask how I could get them to attend service at Aso Rock chapel. And when my boss eventually died and Jonathan became substantive president, you would imagine that access to the chapel was a passport to heaven given the desperation to worship there. I would not be surprised if some were actually going there with charms!
Incidentally, what used to happen at the Aso Rock Chapel under Jonathan has been transferred to the Aso Rock Mosque under Buhari as I wrote in my 23rd June 2016 piece on this page, where I explained the political dimension to faith profession in the Nigerian public space. That is why I would not want to locate the solution to our problem within the spiritual realm. Building monuments and dedicating them to the glory of the Living God is good. But applying ourselves to the task of rebuilding our country, as most other societies have done, is much more productive as that will be to the glory of both the Living God and our nationals.
Meanwhile, I have uploaded eight new offerings from 2004 on my web portal, olusegunadeniyi.com for the enjoyment of interested readers.