In an article published on December 8, 2013, Garba Shehu, also opened up about his relationship with the ex-VP for whom he had ran a media office reputed to be the biggest and most effective of any publicity team maintained by any Nigerian politician.
Here are exerpts from the chat;
Since you left active journalism, not many Nigerians know you with any other job except as media adviser to former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar. This suggests you have been with the former vice president for a long time. How long have you been in his media team and how did you meet him in the first place?
When I left my job at the Triumph newspapers in Kano, I went to the Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria, ALSCON, Ikot-Abasi as the Pioneer DGM (Public Relations). It was from there that I joined the Vice President as Special Assistant Media. That was in 2003.
How did I meet him?
I first met His Excellency Atiku Abubakar in the year 2000. That was in the aftermath of two landmark events affecting the political landscape of the country. The 19 Northern Governors had hosted him to a hugely successful rally/event tagged “Reception 2000,” at which event, the political North said to him: “you are our leader, we are all behind you.” President Obasanjo’s courtiers were to seize upon this and rattle the President that his V.P was scheming for power. I think, this was the beginning of the mistrust that led to all those conflicts that followed between the two.
Two, the wind of the so-called “political shari’ah” had blown across the North and by then, nine states had adopted it, one after other, extending its jurisdiction to cover criminal cases.
On the heels of this legal reform, the Vice President at that time chose to side with his boss, declaring Shari’ah in those states as political, and asked for its reversal. Atiku, not Obasanjo, asked the Shari’ah states to revert to “status quo ante.” The Vice President ran into a heavy storm of criticism in the North. It was very clear at that time that he was politically in trouble.
My senior brother and mentor, Alhaji Wada Maida, the then Managing Director of the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, called me to a meeting of a media strategy group under the National Democratic Project, NDP, an office set up by the Political Adviser to the VP, Dr. Usman Bugaje. When he met us, the VP did not mince his words in telling us that he had a problem and said he needed us to assist him. These words, “please help me” touched me deeply and made me to make an instant buy-in.
Atiku is arguably the only Nigerian politician maintaining a functional media office whether in or out of office. Why? And can you share with us how the media office operates?
The media office is hierarchically structured but is operationally run like your regular newsroom. Decisions here are made horizontally. The media operations staff sit around a conference table for daily editorial meetings. We review the print and electronic press and the new media that is now making huge in-roads. Anything touching on Atiku is of interest to us. We discuss all the stories and determine our lines of action. We do pro-active plans and we carry them out as well.
The retention of Atiku Media Office didn’t happen by accident. The principal foresaw it and planned for it. When President Obasanjo fired me six months into my appointment as the V.P’s Spokesman, Atiku’s reaction was that this was better for us. “It is better you operate from outside the government.” At that time, he had an excellent media team in his office – certainly better than what the President had – Chris Mammah, Dr. Ojo Onukaba, Dr. Adeolu Akande and myself but the structures of government posed a peculiar operational challenge that we could not do our best for the Turaki. When I started this office, it never occurred to me that it would come this far.
From the feedbacks we are getting, this experiment, though costly, is very successful. At some point, you might be tempted to think where the Turaki would have been without the media office.
Nigerian politics owes this precedent to the Turaki. It is clear by now that no politician aspiring for any serious office would contemplate doing so without the consideration of a media office. Several have come here asking questions and we oblige them. We are not stingy with ideas so we freely impart them to whoever has asked for the know-how.
How much does it cost him to maintain the media office?
How much does it cost? It costs a lot of money and I won’t pretend to you about that. Our monthly salary even in a more or less low activity period as we are now in is itself a big sum. Most of us here are paid higher than our counterparts in the public service. A security man or gardener here earns higher than the start-up salary for university graduates in the civil service.
Media consultants like you are often saddled with managing media crises. Looking at your journey so far with Atiku, which of the crises would you consider more difficult in handling?
Turaki, like every other politician, is bound to attract the good and the bad in terms of public attention. Dealing with him in particular, you are doubly challenged because he is a man who shoots from the hip. He is not a pretender. He speaks his mind as he deems fit and you know yourself that truth and politics don’t always mix. There are times he speaks and you literally have to put your heart in your mouth. There is always tension with us because Turaki will depart from the written script at public events and tell you what is on his mind. In that respect, he is not an easy politician to manage.
Has the former vice president ever threatened you with sack? Has he ever rejected any of your work, maybe speech or something?
Those who know Turaki’s modus operandi will say that he is not a man who bandies about sack threats. There was never such an incident. What I find most fulfilling in the work I am doing for him is in the fact that he is trusting and has respect for my professional judgment. He respects my professional decisions all the time, in the same way I respect him as a guru politician. Politics is his specialty and I give the hats to him.
One wonders if your long stay with Atiku has forced you to join politics. Have you also become a politician?
I am not cut out for politics and I will not join. I enjoy being around them however, offering professional advice whenever I am requested to do. I see myself helping to promote the cause of democracy. Without democracy, a diverse country like Nigeria will not achieve development.