Why I wrote a book on former President Jonathan - Bolaji Abdullahi
Bolaji Abdullahi, a former Minister of Youths and Sports Development under the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, last year launched a book, On a Platter of Gold: How Jonathan Won and Lost Nigeria. The book has been criticised by some political opponents. In this interview, Abdullahi explained his views about the former president.
Why did you write a book on former President Jonathan?
I wrote the book because I believed that what happened in 2015 was pivotal in the history of Nigeria. It was the first time the opposition party came to power in our history and the first time an incumbent president lost election. It was such a defining moment that I felt it was too important to be allowed to evaporate.
Of course I was more positioned to write the book because I served in the Jonathan government. I was in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) before I joined the All Progressives Congress (APC), so I straddled both worlds. I also have a significant access to many of the key players of both sides at that time, so I felt it was a huge opportunity that shouldn't be wasted.
Since the book launch, you have come under attack by the PDP, especially the Jonathan guys, claiming that you fabricated stories in the book. In their words, the book is a 'tissue of lies.' What's your take on this?
I wouldnít say I came under attack by the PDP, but rather, some of the Jonathan guys. These guys were also not really Jonathan guys because I know them. The individual that had been the most vocal about this was Reno Omokri, who was an SA to the late Oronto Doughlas. So he was not even close to the vicinity of all that happened. Secondly, at the point he was dismissing the book the way he did, it had not even come out of the print. He hadn't read it. What I released in form of snippets was what he lagged onto. Where he said I misplaced the sequence of events, I said I did not claim that my book was a Bible or Qurían. It was a human endeavour after all. But to take the slip in the sequence of events to dismiss a whole book the way he did was not right. As I said, none of the individuals mentioned to have played those roles at the period has come out to deny those roles mentioned in the book. They are all here or in Lagos, they are all alive and I know many of them have read the book because they have spoken to me. Not a single one of them has come out to say he did not attend that meeting. The only person that decided to say he did not play the role I said he played in the book and had threatened to go to court was the former governor of Ondo State, Olusegun Mimiko. But the individual I said he pressured to prosecute Buhari at the time of the certificate forgery had come out to say he actually pressured him.
It is normal and understandable that many of these people did not expect the stories to come out. As far as they were concerned, it has happened and it's gone. But that's why it is important for us to keep history alive. Maybe I shouldn't have done that.
Would you say your action was justified?
The only reason the former governor of Ondo State would want to deny his role is probably because he wasn't proud of the action he took. If he was proud of it, he wouldnít come out to try and deny it. What I'm saying is that it was a role he played in the context of history and an evolving event. It's just like how people talk about Jonathan sacking me as his minister. That was the right thing for Jonathan to do at that time because he needed a politician to help him fight Saraki in Kwara and I was not in a position to do that. That was nothing to regret. I don't think we should try to do a wholesale disclaimer of ourselves. If we played certain roles, we should own up to it. We should ask if our actions were justified in that context. An action justified in a particular context could be unjustified in a totally different context. Context is important, so we shouldn't be ashamed of our actions.
You were involved in a lot of political campaigns in the Jonathan administration. Many say if you had been retained as minister you wouldnít have written the book. Is this true?
I don't know about that. But I think I would still have written the book even if I was retained as minister. People saying this have not read the book. The reason they are saying that is because they are under the assumption that this book was written to attack Jonathan. If they had read the book, they would see that there was no attack on Jonathan whatsoever. The reason they are saying I wouldn't have written the book if Jonathan had retained me as minister is because they think it is from a wrong narrative.
Many people who have actually read the book were pleasantly surprised that rather than attack Jonathan, I actually tried to explain some things that happened at the time to portray him better. For example, one of the major narratives of the oppositionís campaign was that Jonathan was very tolerant of corruption. In my book, I tried to explain that he was not tolerant of corruption, but there were factors that wired him in a particular way, and he himself said it. He tried to remain loyal to friendship. If you were Jonathan's friend, he would try not to hurt you. He is a good man. That is one problem, and sometimes in politics, we don't need a good man. He didnít want to hurt people he considered to be friends.
Secondly, Jonathan was vice president at a point and he saw things. For example, a former minister of health was arraigned for corruption under Yar'adua. She was humiliated and sacked, but eventually, the court did not find her guilty; but she had already been disgraced. She was one of the finest minds in this country. Thatís why Jonathan would always say that those who shout loudest about corruption are actually the most corrupt. Maybe he took it too far, and that again led to paralysis, such that when he ought to take certain actions, he could not.
Also, he had a personal experience of people writing that he did things when he knew he didn't do any of such. So when you told him that a person was corrupt, why wouldn't he think that it's the same treatment being meted out on him? This made him very reluctant and willing to stay on the side of the accused, and that was interpreted as him condoling corruption. So it wasnít a book about him sacking me, it had nothing to do with that.
After the book launch, has former President Jonathan gotten in touch with you? If he did, what was his take on it?
No, he didn't call me. But we spoke before I finished the book. I tried to interview him, but I think the experience of his earlier engagements with my friend, Olusegun Adeniyi deterred him. When Adeniyi's book came out, he didn't like the way it presented him (Jonathan) even though I don't see anything wrong in Olusegun's book. So I think that coloured his relationship with me in terms of whether he should grant me an interview or not. He was disposed to it, but eventually, maybe some people convinced him that he couldn't trust me and my intentions. Since the book was launched he has not talked to me, but he is still my boss.
Which people have reached out to you concerning the book?
Many of them have called me to say if any person denies what is in the book, they will testify. But if you read the book carefully, you would see that where I could avoid anybodyís name, I did. This is because it is still a very recent event and many people still want to keep their relationship in politics naturally. So a lot of the information I used, I did without identifying the sources although I have my sources and notes. I knew that this book was bound to generate controversy, but every single thing I claimed here, I can back it up.
Your book is seen as one of the most critical reviews of an administration in recent times. What did it take to write it?
More than anything else, when a journalist writes a book, it shows. One of the basic elements of our training is: don't be the story and don't make yourself a part of the story. And thatís why you can't find a single line that references me or refers to me in this book, even though I was an active participant in many of the events. By taking yourself out of the story, it gives you a vintage point. It enables you to also see things in 360 degrees without implicating your personal sentiment and all that, and therefore, try to achieve a level of objectivity, which is relatively high.
I think my background in journalism has helped me in writing the book. It was a tough assignment that took me to many countries because many of the individuals are no longer in Nigeria, so I had to chase them down to get their stories. If you check my book shelf, you can see piles of notebooks. Most of them are interviews I had to do and transcribe, so it was a lot of work. It took me two years to write this book; but in the end, I think itís about the reception. It's not a money-making thing, but I'm still hoping and praying and fasting that I'll make money out of it (chuckles).
So far, I think the reception is good, and the kind of feedback I get from people reading the book gives me great satisfaction.
I spent quite a lot of money, apart from the travels. The printing wasn't done in the country, if you look at the quality of the print. So it cost a lot of money because I wanted to produce a world class book. I don't think any amount of money can compensate the grueling work of writing. Nothing terrifies like a blank screen staring back at you, waiting to be filled. Sometimes I sit here for almost 14 hours, trying to finish a chapter. It's very difficult.
What were the challenges you faced? Did backing out ever cross your mind?
Interestingly, it did. I'm surprised you asked this question. After writing the first two chapters, I just wanted to give up because the story was not coming together the way I had hoped it would. I realised I had a lot of field work to do that would take my time, money and all that. I would meet people and they would say let's meet tomorrow. Don't forget that I'm no longer a young reporter. I was a former minister so it was difficult for me going to somebody's house and waiting at the gate.
But in-between, I wrote another book when I abandoned that one. I wrote a book for young adults, called Sweet Sixteen. Itís a fiction, so I didn't need to go looking for people. When I finished writing this book, I felt joy in my spirit when young people came to me and said they liked the book.
There was a day I visited my children in their school and some students came to me with their ragged copies of Sweet Sixteen and they said, "Thank you Mr. Bolaji for this book.Ē After seeing all that, and of course, after the initial excitement, I began to say I could do that one and finish it. Thatís how I went back to writing On A Platter of Gold.
Your use of language in the book is quite elevated. Many didn't have an idea you write so well. Who are your role models in the literary world?
Many of them are dead now. I think people who say they are surprised by the kind of language in the book probably didn't know my background as a writer. Even in journalism, Iím more of a writer than a reporter. I believe that how you say things is more important than what you say. Iím one of those people who practise what is called poetic prose. I believe that language can approximate sound and images. With language, you can convey sounds and images and make people see what they are reading in their heads. Using language to paint pictures is something I enjoy doing tremendously. Thatís why you spend hours polishing only one sentence to make it sound right and communicate what you want it to communicate.
I have read great writers who have mastered the use of language in a particular way. Of course, Wole Soyinka is my hero in terms of how his language is used. When I encounter people who say Soyinka is difficult to read, I donít understand what they are saying because for me, that's someone who has mastered the use of language in creating images. Ben Okri is another amazing human being. And in journalism, my heroes while growing up were Dan Agbese, Dele Momodu, Yakubu Mohammed, Ray Ekpu, Dele Giwa. These were people ahead of us and I looked up to them.
I actually think I'm better than some of them now. I always believed that the best way to learn how to write is to read. I think I benefitted from that tremendously.
Till this day, there are some people you read and you ask yourself how they did it. There's a guy called Edmond Burke, a South African writer. I can't remember the title of the book. He said, "Life is a sexually transmitted disease." I threw away that book because of how incredible it was.
What message do you want people to take away from this book?
The most important message I would like people to take away from my book is that we have come a long way as a country. We have done some things we shouldnít have done and we have also made progress. That is one important message I would like people to take away. Also, I would like people to understand and have the opportunity to view new events in the light of previous events. It helps to provide a context. Some things are happening now, and I wonder why those things are happening. Where will it lead to? You are trying to make sense out of some things that apparently appear senseless.
I want people to treat this as a book of history that can be used to provide a greater insight into all the events that happened at that time and use it to interpret unfolding events.
As a journalist, do you think the media has done enough to preserve history, especially when it comes to politics?
I think the first thing to do when you want to have a sense of history in any country is to look at the media because they record history in real time. They capture events as they occur. Unfortunately, many of us have also lost the sense of significance of our role in history, forgetting that where a journalist distorts information, it goes down as one of the back cloths of history. Future generations will look at that and take them as facts. Thatís how important the work journalists do is. I think Nigerian journalism has done so much in the promotion of Nigerian democracy. I think the struggle for democracy was kept alive by the Nigerian media, no matter who else wants to take the credit. Even the activists need the media to project their ideologies and activities to make the world see what is going on. I think the Nigerian media has come a long way and we should be proud of ourselves and the roles we are playing.
What have you been up to since the book was released?
Things are happening, whether you are a part of it or you are observing it. A woman who just came out of the labour room will tell you never again, but after a few weeks, she will start painting her face again and getting ready for the next baby. We are like that too. Writing is also a kind reproduction. When you try to squeeze a story out of yourself, you know it can be a painful process but not as bad as labour, obviously. It is the same feeling you get. Once you are done you tell yourself never ever again, but after a while you start telling yourself, "that's a good story," and you'd want to write again. So it depends on what we are doing next and the challenges life will throw at us.