It was one of the Lady Presenters on Arise TV’s Morning Show who, the other day, referred to Dr. Reuben Abati as “someone who writes columns”. Not sure now if it was Ojideka Okpe or Tundun Abiola. That was in wanting comments from Abati on that Sam Omatseye article on Mr Peter Obi.
The Lady was not being demeaning or disrespectful, even if it somehow managed to come across as quite off-handed. In any case, Reuben got the point, and as has been the case with attempts to deny him of honours due to him, he promptly made a clarification.
He is not just someone who writes columns, he was Chairman of the Editorial Board and Editorial Page Editor of The Guardian for over 10 years, Reuben emphasised.
Some might ask if that was necessary, just as they queried the appropriateness of his discomfort with another Lady Reporter on the Channel making a song of his first name. But I got Dr Reuben Abati in that first instance, just as I got him the second time. The context was not lost on me and I think it is not situating both in the cultural, interpersonal and historical contexts that might lead one into assuming a different intent or meaning to Abati’s pushback.
I will argue that the clarification made by Abati or more importantly, the significance or context of it, might be lost in transmission or interpretation to the younger generations and/or the recently emerged Commentariat whose frame of reference is limited, restricted within the facade of the social media era, oblivious or unmindful that indeed there was a life of robust public commentary before the age of social media.
Indeed there is a world of difference between someone who writes columns and an Abati whose record in the trade is in a completely different class.
In as much as columning, even with national newspapers, has almost become an all-comers affair, added with the fact that social media platforms now make anyone who can string two sentences together, an Opinionator, Reuben Abati surely stands out from everyone else in terms of history and resume.
His trajectory in the public space runs deep into the era of relative exclusivity in the Club of Columnists. He started out at a time when opinion-writing was reserved for mostly the deep, the brightest and best minds, with those in the academy dominating the space.
Reuben, I think, became a Columnist and member of the prestigious Editorial Board of The Guardian about 30 years ago. A no mean feat, at the time and even now, given what The Guardian was like at the time. He was in his twenties then, and that was at a time the Editorial Board and the Guardian itself revolved around a long list of renowned intellectuals and icons.
He might have been one of the first celebrity-intellectuals of his generation, but it was not just because he had a healthy social life, but for the fecundity and originality of his pen and tone. He would become Chairman of the Editorial Board at The Guardian at a relatively young age, serving for over 10 years in that position, maintaining 2 columns a week for years, which, I tell you, is no easy stunt.
There is this thing with us. People write off ‘Journalists’ as some backbenchers who are just barely there in terms of intellect or grasp of issues. They are seen as ‘Boys’. The best they think they can or should aspire to be is Press Secretary who is to sit outside, by the door, while important discussions are being held, waiting to be told what to say, how to say and when to say it. Of course, Journalists have themselves contributed to a reinforcement of that erroneous assumption and misrepresentation of the place of the Journalist.
A look back would tell those who don’t know of the robust intersection between Journalism (Journalists) and political leadership pre and post-Independence. Even in more recent times, we had Lateef Jakande, Bisi Onabanjo and Segun Osoba making the transition from Journalism to political leadership, with good records as Governors in their States.
It was amusing seeing Governor Wike trying to pan Dr Reuben Abati, assuming onto himself a richer public profile than that of Abati. Afterall, Abati is only a Journalist, a TV. Presenter. Error.
We have become victims of an abridged version of the journey. Not many know where the journey started. Only a few know who is who.
We had heard Reuben Abati before meeting him in the 90s. He was a prodigy who had bagged a First Class Honours degree in Theatre Arts (Some say he was the first Nigerian to do that. At the age of 25, he already had his PhD. That before he would make a detour from the University to Journalism. He would later earn another degree in Law. He would, over the years, broaden his knowledge base, making him one of the most knowledgeable minds around.
So, when he is taking on policy, governance and other issues, he is doing so from a place of considerable understanding and experience. It does not mean that he cannot be wrong. But more importantly, he is not one of the ‘Boys’ that can be pushed around. People here tend to assume that the only place for the big man in the media is behind and not in front of the Camera. Wrong.That wrong assumption is what has pushed our best hands off active practice in the media (Print and Broadcasting).
Abati and his co-Presenters, to a lesser extent though, have enriched conversations and elevated the level of discourse around sundry issues on account of their more diligent commitment to proper preparation, backgrounding, contextualisation and research of matters brought to the table. They might have missed their ways a few times. They might not always get it right. But placed side by side with what passes as interviews or submissions by other TV Presenters, especially around politics, the Abati team sits in a different column.
Reuben Abati can be described as an institution in the media in Nigeria on account of his contribution over the years. He has paid his dues. He is not just another one of the boys. He is Dr. Reuben Abati.
Happy Birthday, Dr. Abati.