Femi Adesina: I Thought of Deleting All My Social Media Accounts After Leaving Office

Femi Adesina: I Thought of Deleting All My Social Media Accounts After Leaving Office

Femi Adesina, who was Special Adviser Media to former President Muhammadu Buhari, in this interview speaks on his service to a man he admires, respects, and why he thinks his principal left Nigeria better than he met it. Adedayo Adejobi provides the excerpts:

What was it like working with the President as his Special Adviser, Media?

It was the experience of a lifetime. Then I was a Nigerian journalist just like you, and then I got picked.

But you were the President, Nigeria Guild of Editors, Managing Director of a newspaper and a senior journalist?

 I was at your level at the time. I grew in the profession to the glory of God, and you will also grow.  So there I was, practicing and enjoying my profession and then I got invited to serve the President. If you get invited out of 200 million Nigerians to serve your country and your president, it can only be a good thing. Even though I was not inclined to serve in government, I didn’t think I wanted it and neither did I think it would happen. But when the invitation came, I had no objection and no other option than to accept it. Because, if I didn’t, I would not have been selling candidate Muhammadu Buhari since 2003 when he began to run for President. Then he won in 2015. If I had said no, that meant I had been selling a fake product. So, I had to come into government to support a man I had always believed in. Eight years after, I still believe in him and I will believe in him till the end of time.

 Since May 29, 2023, you have engaged less. Why? 

I was busy writing my memoir, and it was recently released to the public. It is titled, Working with Buhari. Reflections of a Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, 2015-2023. I’ve been a private person since May 29 last year when we left government. And I’m satisfied with it. If I had my way, I would even delete all my social media accounts. I used all those platforms to serve my principal. I’ve not said I will do it, but I may. I know one of our Ministers, a former Governor. They opened fire on him on social media for about five days. When I saw him, I asked him if he saw all they were writing against him. He said, ‘for where, I have deleted all my social media accounts.’ So, I may end up copying that former Governor and Minister, if it continues to be a mad house.

What would you call highs and lows of being the Special Adviser, media to the President?

 There is nothing you get involved with in life that would not have its upsides, downsides, high points, and low points. If I want to say it was all rosy in the eight years, then I’ll be telling you lies. There were downsides and upsides. But I would say the high points were more than the low points. For me, the low points would be when there were trenchant criticisms of the former president and I know that they are not correct. But the critics will never listen. For me, it constituted a low point. There were also periods of personal attacks. They would say we can’t get to the President, but we can get to his aide, so they called me all sorts of names and threw all sorts of things at me. Once in a while, I threw some back, and once in a while, I absorbed them. Peter Tosh in his song said, if you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones, and if you can’t take blows, don’t throw blows. Some people throw stones and don’t want any stone thrown back at them. Once in a while, I threw stones at them, and they began to shout. Anybody that threw stones at me and I thought deserved stones to be thrown back at them, I did, which was not my usual style. Once in a while, I did. So, I had no regrets about that.

Talking of the high points, I served a man I truly admire, respect and love. The Bible says love covers multitude of sins. For me, the opportunity to serve Nigeria and President Buhari was chance of a lifetime.  I’m glad the opportunity came and I took it. Though I wasn’t inclined to it, I’m glad I took it and I have no regrets.

 You held a sensitive position for years; in defence of your principal, you threw brickbats at those who attacked or questioned the integrity of your principal. How do we reconcile your position that it is not in your nature to go on the offensive or are you saying you have been misunderstood?

 No. Anybody that occupied the kind of position I held would be deliberately misunderstood. There would be a deliberate effort to cast them in the wrong mould and turn them into an enemy of the public. I have experienced this, so I know what I’m saying. I remember when the President had his health challenge in 2017, he travelled in January and was away till August with intermittent returns to the country. There was nothing people didn’t say, to try to cast me as a liar, including you, some of my colleagues. I watched an Editor. I was Editor before him, but we were contemporaries in a way. I watched him on television that morning and he was trying so hard to make viewers believe I was lying to the country. I just pitied him. In fact, I saw him as a miserable fellow, and I just shook my head. So, there was a deliberate effort to cast me as a liar before the country. For those who asked me directly, I challenged them to tell me a single lie I have told to Nigerians, and they looked like fools when I confronted them because they wouldn’t be able to say this was the lie I told. I didn’t tell any lie to Nigerians, in the eight years I served the president. And more so, President Buhari does not expect you to lie for him.  I tell you, lie for him, and one day he would tell the truth and you will be seen as a liar. President Buhari did not expect you to lie for him, because anything he did or said, he was ready to stand by it. During the period of his ill health, the President who started recovering called me from London and said, ‘’I want to thank you for standing up to the mischief makers. I follow everything.”

 I did a piece on our conversation and his gradual recovery. Do you know that someone went to put a comment there saying, ‘you liar, which president? Is it the one that is dead, and buried?’’. That is the country we live in. But by and large, I would say I have had an opportunity of a lifetime and used it to the best of my ability. I may not have done it perfectly, but I did it to the best of my ability.

 What kind of person is President Buhari?

Simple, easy-going, strict, a man of few words. Man of integrity, accountability and a genial fellow if you get to know him. But, some people see him in another light. They think he’s a man of iron and steel, unsmiling; he never jokes or sees the lighter and brighter side of life. But he’s just like the man next door.

 Why didn’t he address the nation in the heat of so much pandemonium?

It’s a matter of personal style. For instance, during the COVID-19 lockdown, I recall the President made three different broadcasts- when the shutdown came, he made another one about two weeks later and a third one. I was watching television and heard people say, he must come and talk to us. After three major broadcasts on this issue, what else do they want?  President Buhari is not talkative, but not talking didn’t make him less efficient. He ran the country to the best of his ability.

Most indices point to your principal as taking “Nigeria from top to bottom.” Can you discountenance that with a superior argument?

No, when he talked of Nigeria from top to bottom, he spoke of it in political terms. Top to bottom means, vote APC from President to the lowest position, which could be Councilor. Anybody that tries to input another meaning into that is just being mischievous. Top to bottom is a lingo he used in political perspective.

 In good conscience, would you say your principal left Nigeria better than he met it?

Far better than he met it. When you want to assess a man, you rate him based on the things he has promised to do. Here was a man who came in 2015, and he said he would secure the country, revive the economy, and fight corruption. The three pillars are Security, Economy, and Anti-corruption (SEA). Not all of us have selective amnesia. When he came in 2015, recall that bombs went off in three to five places in a day in the country. Bombing and carnage everywhere. He began to attack that insecurity gradually. By the time he left, in all sincerity would you say Nigeria was the same way in terms of insecurity? During religious public holidays, we knew the carnage that used to happen everywhere.

On the contrary, but the carnage and attacks increased?

Then you were not living in Nigeria.  During his last Sallah and Christmas in office, did you hear of Boko Haram anywhere, unlike years before then?

 But during his tenure, there were heightened terrorist attacks on trains, carnage in churches and kidnap for ransom hit the roof?

There are many dimensions of insecurity, the one he met was insurgency and which had taken control of the country.  It started in the North-east, went to North-west, came into North Central, Abuja was involved. It was in Kogi and headed to the South-west. He fought that insurgency and drove the terrorists out of Adamawa, Yobe, Borno and they got circumscribed within Sambisa Forest, from where they made forays into cities at times. If you say that the insurgency was the same as 2015, then you had not been living in Nigeria. We went to Yobe and Adamawa some months before the administration wounded down, we heard the people talk of what they went through. At the Palace of the Emir of Damaturu, the story was told of how the Emir, his family and everybody in the palace had fled due to Boko Haram takeover. In fact, Governor Mai Mala Buni said, if you put one billion dollars on the table in that palace and asked anyone to go and take it, nobody would have shown up, because insurgents were already using the palace. We know how many Emirs and local government chairmen had fled their palaces and offices courtesy Boko Haram. A minimum of 17 local governments were under the firm control of Boko Haram by the time the Buhari administration came. By the time President Buhari was leaving, it didn’t happen at that scale again. So, anybody that wants to say that the security situation wasn’t better before President Buhari left office, is a liar. The job wasn’t completely done, but it was far better than it was when he came in. Now, that insecurity became variegated at a time. The main problem when President Buhari came was insurgency. Suddenly, banditry came into the picture. That insecurity mutated into many forms- kidnapping, banditry, cult killings, oil thefts, secessionists’ bids, and all were being done by Nigerians. Would you then blame a single man for not combating all those things when we were the ones doing it to ourselves? How much could a country withstand under one administration? The one he inherited had been terribly dealt with. It wasn’t completely over, but it was thoroughly decimated. 

Having dealt with banditry for instance, what is happening in Zamfara and other parts of the northeast, they’re paying a heavy price for it daily. In the total picture, President Buhari accomplished a lot. In Mauritania, he spoke about acquiring weapons for $1 million to tackle insecurity. By the time he came, the military had no weaponry. They had old and outdated weapons that got jammed in the middle of battle. He trained, encouraged, boosted and equipped the military more than any other government before him. In fact, governments after him, will have very minimal additions to do. President Buhari retrieved the country from destabilisation. Like he said in Mauritania, he suspected that those behind Boko Haram and ISWAP just wanted to destroy the country.

On the promise to revive the economy, the economy in 2015 was primed to go into recession, and truly it went into recession. But it stayed less than a year there. He set to work with other members of the team and brought the economy out of it. Again in 2020 due to Covid-19, the economy went into recession. It stayed less than two quarters because the President went to work and brought it out of recession. Our GDP used to be almost 90 per cent of crude oil.  As at 2014 or thereabouts, crude oil price went up to $145 per barrel, then dropped to $27 per barrel for a number of reasons. Oil prices fell in the international market, there was trouble in the Niger-delta and they were sabotaging pipelines and other oil installations. But the President was determined to diversify the economy. In the concluding two years of his administration, oil accounted for less than ten per cent of our GDP. That meant agriculture, services, information technology and manufacturing, to a small extent, had been on the upswing. Therefore, Nigeria had a diversified economy. The economic indices were not nearly half as bad as the rest of the world. Some big economies were suffering badly, and Nigeria still survived. It could get better because they have said with our population, our economy must grow at 6% per year before it can touch the average Nigerian, but then the world is going through such economic travails that if the Buhari administration had not diversified our economy, it would have been terrible.

On Anti-corruption, the statistics released by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), showed convictions in 2010, 2014 and 2022 from hundreds to 3000. There was a time they told us in this country that stealing was not corruption. Stealing under President Buhari was corruption. Anybody that stole and got caught answered for it.

So, in those three areas, he did his best. Government is a continuum. It is for succeeding governments to continue where the previous left off.

President Buhari left N77 trillion debt for Nigeria. What do you have to say about this?

There is nothing wrong with borrowing. The wealthiest countries in the world borrow. What is wrong is borrowing and not repaying. In fact, the Bible says, “a wicked man borrows and doesn’t repay.” Once we borrow and can repay, there is nothing wrong. Those who give you those loans would not have given you if they had looked at the fundamentals of your economy and had seen that you wouldn’t be able to repay. But they had seen the resilience of the Nigerian economy. They knew that Nigeria could always repay. In fact, the Minister for Finance then, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, had said several times, that vis-à-vis GDP, Nigeria had not borrowed too much. Nigeria can pay, and will pay.

 How would you describe Obasanjo’s scathing remarks about Buhari’s performance?

 Ex-President Obasanjo is President Buhari’s superior, so it will not be for me to now assess the remarks the former President made. The first letter that President Obasanjo wrote against President Buhari in early 2019, we had the President of Equatorial Guinea visiting that afternoon.  During that visit, I went on the social media, saw the letter, and read it. As soon as the President saw off his guest, I went to meet him and gave him an account of what the letter contained. President Buhari said, ‘don’t respond.’ Later, he told me why he said I should not respond was that I am a Yoruba like Obasanjo, and we respect elders. And Obasanjo was also his superior in the military, So, we will not respond. He then allowed the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Muhhamed to respond by telling the country what we were doing and showing our successes. So, President Buhari still respected Obasanjo as a superior.

 What would you call the most significant personal or professional decision you had to make in your time as Special Adviser?

 It would be difficult to say this was the most significant because in a position like mine, I daily made decisions. If in eight years, my principal did not call me one day to say I got this wrong, that then therefore means that God helped me to make the right decisions. Because there was not a time he called to say I got it wrong. No, it never happened. It shows that most of the crucial decisions I had to take were also guided by a higher power, which is divine.

 What were your limitations?

My appointment was announced on May 31, 2015; on June 1, 2015, I flew in from Lagos to see the President to say I currently occupied the position of Managing Director/Editor in Chief of The Sun, Could he give me a week to go and disengage? So I went. When I resumed on 8th June 2015, he said, Adesina, one thing I like to tell you is that anytime you want to see me just come. He said in this kind of position, they can cage you. So, if he has given me that rain check, what is that thing which will be a limitation to me? And you know one thing he also said, he said that ‘’I want the truth from you at all times, because in this position people will not tell you the truth, but what you want to hear. But from you, I want the truth.’’

With that kind of rain check, what would then hinder you? Nothing. He kept to every word of his promise.  Every time I wanted to see him at the office or at home, I had access.

 Were there instances where you told him the truth and he disagreed with you?

Let me also add to what he told me that day. He said, when you tell me something and I argue, please argue with me. If you bring up a superior argument, I will agree.

 Eight years after your Principal’s administration, what do you feel, a sense of fulfilment or regret?

 No regrets. I would’ve preferred to stay at my job as Editor-in-Chief of a thriving Newspaper, and President, the Nigeria Guild of Editors. I just was satisfied with what I was doing. I didn’t want to leave it. I must have told you this before. On the morning I was to resume, I woke up at 5am and started crying. Knowing that I was going to turn in my resignation, I started crying because I didn’t know what I was going into and what I would see there. I knew what I was doing and I enjoyed it all my life. After graduation, I had not done anything aside journalism. I cried to my heart’s content then wrote my letter of resignation and came into government. Eight years down the line, no regret because I have served a man I admire and respect. I tell people, if what you want is a job and a livelihood, it’s not easy. If you don’t believe in your principal, it’s not an easy job to do. But, when you believe in the man you’re serving, that guides you through. It wasn’t a job, but what I called an assignment. If I wanted a job, I didn’t need a job as at the time this offer came. Do you know that I earned one-third of what I earned as Editor-in-Chief? So, you can calculate what I lost in terms of income in 8 years. But I’m happy. When I first came into government, I remember that my account officer who had managed my account for years said, Oga why did you take this kind of decision? I know what you used to earn, I know what you earn now. It was something I did voluntarily to serve the man I admire, and my country.

Looking back now, what would you do differently, if you had another chance?

There is nothing you do in life that, if you had the benefit of hindsight, you would not always say I could have done this better. Yes, if there are things like that that I have discovered, if the opportunity comes, of course, I would do it better. But in terms of, would I ever be Special Adviser, Media to anybody again, no I wouldn’t be. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime, which I’ve been given. I have done it, but I wouldn’t do it again.

 Many who serve in government see politics as the new goldmine. Any plans of going into politics fully or contesting elections in your state?

Never. The only position is to be the Head of my house, and I don’t have to contest for it. I already have it. No elective position. When I contested for the position of President, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, it was inadvertent. If you had asked me will you ever contest for anything, I would say never. But I got representation from respected Editors and members of our profession who said, this position would be vacant in six months and we think you can do it. Contest, we will support you. If not for that, I would never have stepped into the fray. I remember, that time, my son was training to be a pilot in South Africa, and I sent an email to say I was contesting to be President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE). He replied me saying, ‘’you, daddy, contesting for anything? I can’t believe it’’. He didn’t see me in the mould of anyone that would contest for any position, and he’s right. Left with me, I would never contest anything.

The last time I interviewed you in 2018, you said your daughter almost weeps over scathing remarks about you on social media, has all that changed now?

 I remember that was where you took your headline from. Things are a lot better. All those who thought they were going to browbeat us and run us out of town, with evil speeches saw that they had failed. They calmed down. I’m proud to say we also fought back in some ways.

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