President Muhammadu Buhari does not have an attack dog. At least, not from between his two official spokesmen. He has real spokespersons whose approge makers of the number one citizen is single-minded.
And this is one area of significant departure from the past by the Buhari-led government of the All Progressives Congress, where the only schedule of some media aides was to attach real and imaged political enemies of the President at will. In those days, it was a crime to offer advise to government whether constructive or not as that would quickly draw out the ire of the “attack dogs.” You were not safe either even if you decided to hold your peace. The only way to escape being insulted by the boys hired to do that was to learn to be a praise singer. Nobody cared if it was from the heart, but you just must praise-sing.
At their appointment, the public concern was how the two top-flight media experts could function in the same office and almost same capacity without friction. Mr Femi Adseina is President Buhari’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, while Malam Garba Shehu is Senior Special Assistant also on Media and Publicity.
They had both been managers of top media conglomerates and President of Nigerian Guild of Editors at different times. While nobody could fault their appointments as presidential spokesmen by whatever consideration, not many were positive that cramming both of them into the media and publicity portfolio was the best thinking was the best thinking by Buhari and his strategists. The reason for this not too positive position was hinged on the very likelihood of schedule and personality clashes, being humans with their egos and ambitions.
One year on, however, this fears has been taken care of and book makers proved wrong beyond all reasonable doubts as no single shot has been fired by anyone of them at each other either in the open or in secret places. It seems like a somewhat perfect, symbiotic relationship all through the rough one year of their occupation of the plum office. So good and inspiring that not even the rumour mill which some social media platforms have outdone had so far created any story of rivalry of any sort around them.
As some have noted, these gentlemen are pursuing the goals of their office with focused attention, casting aside every mundane distraction that could engender or promote unnecessary rivalry.
But the soft spoken aides both have a problem. A common problem. It is not a problem they create neither is it one they can solve very easily . It is one they may have to live with, like a terminal ailment, for as long as they wish to keep their jobs.
The problem became manifest with the appointment of ministers last year which came with much suspense and anxiety. The excercise took so long to be concluded. There was anxiety over who could make the list given President Buhari’s avowed resolve to cut down the size of cabinet coupled with his seeming search for “angels” who had not been soiled by the oil of corruption. Buhari had declared accordingly that he would not be able to assign all ministers with portfolios since he was just being forced by law to appoint more than the number he would have been comfortable with. This heightened the growing tension further. How would ministers be appointed without portfolios and how would that satisfy the constitutional provision that compels an appointment of a minister from each of the 36 states of the federation?, many had asked.
There was also the question of whether the decision by the President to leave some ministers portfolio-less would not injure the principle of equality of states as contemplated by the constitution.
Now, the President and Commander-n-Chief in whom Nigerians all trust had spoken but questions had continued to pour in like rain drops.
What would his spokesmen do? Keep quiet? Defend their principal’s intention against the myriad of doubts and suspicion that had been created? How?
Like a typical image maker, Shehu rose to the occasion to douse the growing fears of possible marginalization of some states in the assignment of portfolios. He told Nigerians not only what they wanted to hear but also what he was sure the President would do in the final analysis. “Every minister would be given a portfolio,” he had told some news hounds.
Having worked with President Buhari as his campaign spokesman with robust success and almost spotless and superlative performance, it would have been wrong to say that Shehu did not read the lips of his principal carefully well. Maybe! Maybe not!
There was, however, no doubt the following day when the news item went viral as newspaper headlines that Shehu and Buhari were not on the same page on the issue. The President while receiving some quests in his office re-emphasized that he would not go back on his decision to leave some minister, whose confirmation by the National Assembly he was awaiting, floating. He simply restated his position and disowned his media aide. In fact he was sarcastic about it.
But in the final analysis Buhari did exactly what Shehu had announced. Every minister, all the 36 of them, were assigned portfolios by the President even when he had cut the ministries from about 42 to 24.
That was the same scenario that played out recently before and after the President had embarked on a recent 10-day medical vacation to London.
The last minute cancellation of the President’s trips had fueled suspicion that something was amiss. More so because it was an unprecedented development, especially coming serially in quick succession. The President failed to appear in Lagos, Calabar and Ogoniland in Rivers State for events scheduled for him just when his hosts and everyone else were anxiously awaiting his arrival with presidential protocol already carefully put in place. He also did not show up in Senegal for an ECOWAS meeting he was billed to attend.
The matter soon became a subject of public debate in the build up to the one year anniversary celebration of the APC government. Media editors who were among the first set of privileged Nigerians to meet with him blew the news open the next day that President Buhari had a health challenge. They mentioned something like persistent or acute ear pain, claiming in a report that the President himself confirmed it.
Adesina, particularly following Buhari’s cancellation of his Senegal trip and scheduling of his London vacation trip almost immediately jumped into the fray. Despite his admission in a press statement he issued announcing the London vacation that Buhari had been advised by his physicians to see an ear disease expert in the course of the holiday, insisted that all was well with the health of Mr. President.
He was consistent on that position in all his media appearances until the President left the shores of the country to the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Buhari, as he was bidding farewell to his close aides and associates at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja on June 6th, admitted that he was actually going on medical vacation. Answering reporters’ questions shortly before his departure for London, he threw back a question to reporters if there was any human being that doesn’t fall sick.
The debate continued even in his absence. At the first meeting of the Federal Executive Council three days after his departure, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, David Babachir Lawal also gave the game away when he opened the session with a prayer for quick recovery of the President as well as some three indisposed ministers. Yet, Adesina did not shift his position. He insisted that until Buhari was unable to perform his duties as president, he would not be regarded as being ill.
And as if the President and his media aide were in a context over who would stick to his gun the more, Buhari upon his return to the country on Sunday, June 19th, told reporters at the airport that following the medical attention he received abroad he was well and strong enough, and challenged anyone who doubted his full recovery to come forth for a boxing or a wrestling bout.
The President was not done yet even as Adesina was still busy rationalizing the issue. On Wednesday, June 22 while addressing State House staff, who they said had come to welcome him back from his medical vacation, Buhari again confirmed that he was out to London for treatment.
His words: “I thank you for welcoming me from my health break. You are the judge. Perhaps I look healthier than when I left or I came back worse.” That was vintage Buhari!
It therefore stands to reason that for as long as the President talks on this issue, he would continue to admit that his health challenge was the reason for his recent trip to London, while his media aide would continue to speak from a contrary position.
But this does not suggest that Shehu and Adesina have come to the cross roads. Even their worst of foes will not contest the fact that they have delivered on their jobs with finesse and without unnecessary roughing of feathers.
Much ado about the London trip, you would say. [myad]