In Search of the Real Buhari: Conversation with Femi Adesina, the former president’s spokesman     

In Search of the Real Buhari: Conversation with Femi Adesina, the former president’s spokesman     

Thursday, February 22, 2024 6:18 pm

Femi Adesina and Toyin Akinosho. Photos in this story by Olusegun Olaleye

Femi Adesina and Toyin Akinosho. Photos in this story by Olusegun Olayeye

  By Nehru Odeh

Mr Femi Adesina easily comes across as a loyal fan of former President Muhammadu Buhari. His loyalty is indeed not debatable and non-negotiable. Not only does he mouth it, his actions prove it and also his visage, his signature dimples which are etched on his round face whenever he smiles and talks confidently about the president also show it.

And for eight years, between May 29 2015 and May 29 2023, he not only showed that uncommon loyalty when he served as Special Adviser to Buhari on Media and Publicity by defending his policies, even though often times swimming against the tide of public opinion, he was so close to the president as a dependent and trusted ally in the time of war.

Dependent and trusted ally in the time of war? Sure. And for the eight years Buhari was in power on his second coming. it seemed indeed Nigeria was at war, even though not waging a conventional battle on the war front but fighting wars on many fronts, both visible and invisible, physical and psychological, economic and existential.

Yet the intriguing thing about Adesina’s loyalty to the former president is that he had held on unflaggingly to him like a school boy would hold his mentor’s  trousers both in good and bad times, in fair and foul times, right from December 31 1983 when the Daura-born spartan General first tasted political power till date.

Still, Adesina is not done with his loyalty to the former president. Perhaps this explains why immediately he won the 2015 elections, he (Adesina) was one of the first persons the retired general put a call through to. This also explains why the  former president, also legendary for his loyalty to friends and paying back good turns, also appointed him as his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity.

It is also due to his unfailing loyalty to the former president so much so that not quite long after leaving Aso Rock, that Adesina published a memoir about the eight years he had spent with the president entitled “Working with Buhari: Reflections of a Special Adviser, Media and Publicity (2015-2023)” in order, according to him, to delineate the kind of person Buhari really is. Yet the question that dots the book as well as dominates discourse is who really is Muhammadu Buhari?

This attempt to unveil the real Buhari as one different from the perception Nigerians have about him, this attempt to unmask him, is also similar to the Herculean job Adesina did while in office trying to convince Nigerians that the so-called Jubril from Sudan was not his cloned principal.

Femi Adesina autographing his book

Femi Adesina autographing his book

Though Jubril had been laid to rest, it has resurrected in another form, in the sense that, as Adesina is saying in his book, many don’t know who Buhari really is. The issue now is no longer corporeal but behavioural; it is no longer whether Buhari is Jubril or not but whether there is another undiscovered Buhari other than the one Nigerians saw, heard, felt and touched for eight years.

It was also because of this very revealing book that writers, journalists, scholars and activists converged on Roving Heights at Victoria Island, Lagos to attend the Book Trek organised by Committee for Relevant Art, CORA, on Friday 16 February, 2024. The Book Trek is one of the interventions of CORA through which authors engage with audiences and also an avenue to spread the joys of reading.

It was indeed an evening of intellectual discourse, of memories and of laughter. It was also an evening of fireworks as Adesina, whom a guest described as a spin doctor, fielded questions upon questions.

Not only did Adesina, who graced the occasion with his wife, read excerpts from the book, he was in conversation with the Secretary-General, the Committee for Relevant Art, Mr Toyin Akinosho.

The conversation, which was heavy on Buhari, spilled over to other socio-political and economic issues which affected Nigeria while he was in power – the decisions he took and did not take as well as his reticence, some pertinent issues such as Nnamdi Kanu, the WAEC certificate saga, terrorism and banditry, the Plateau crisis, EndSARS, the arrest and rearrest of Omoyele Sowore, the 2015 Presidential election and the role some Christian leaders played in that election.

Still, the most pertinent question, the answer to which tended to be elusive and which dragged throughout the discourse was: Who is President Muhammadu  Buhari?

That of course was what Adesina tried to prove and the reason he wrote his book. Adesina tried to paint what he regards as the ‘real’ picture of the former president, his software and not his hardware as he calls it in his book, different from the negative perception many Nigerians have about him.

Sam Omatseye2

Sam Omatseye

Distinguished personalities present at the event included Jahman Anikulapo, Sam Omatseye, Shola Oshunkeye, Jide Bello, and Dolapo Olufawo. And they all did justice to the thrust of the conversation.

However, Akinosho set the ball rolling when in a brief speech he bemoaned the lack of intellectual spaces where books can be discussed in the country compared to the beehive of other cultural activities that dot the country. He also explained why CORA organizes the Book Trek as well as set up the CORA Library Center at Freedom Park in Lagos.

“The idea is to spread the joy of reading. I don’t want to say that books that are discussed here are in any way different. Books are books. But Mr Femi Adesina’s book is about a tenure in Nigeria’s own White House in Aso Rock.

“For whatever it is worth, no matter what its content is, it is a very important narrative. It’s basically much about engaging the national development in that period, the last eight years of Nigerian life. And we thank him very much for agreeing to come and engage with our audiences,” Akinosho maintained.

Akinosho then threw the first salvo at Adesina when he asked him why he is so passionate about Buhari and why he wrote the book. The former president’s spokesman for his part responded by reading the preface of the book which according to him best answers the question about why he wrote the book.

“What then is this volume about? My service to the Mai Gaskiya (The Honest Man) from Daura, Katsina State, the kind of person he is, what motivates and actuates him, his thoughts and intents about Nigeria, some, just some, of his achievements in eight years, his soft and humane side, and other such human interests.

“I pray it rightly profiles the man Muhammad u Buhari to those who have imbibed wrong notions and opinions about him..

“It is the Buhari story from the perspective of someone who served him from the very first day in office, to the last (May 2015-May 2023). It is an eyewitness report,  a story-behind -the story. It is about Buhari software, not the hardware,” Adesina read.

Jahman Anikulapo2

Jahman Anikulapo

He then went on to say: “My intention is for the reader to know who the true Buhari is. Because as Mr Akinosho said, he came into international limelight in December 1983, lasted 30 months. Nigerians had formed their impressions about him. He went away and thirty years later came back to win elections as a democratically elected President.  And he served in that position for eight years. So the intention is know the true Buhari as opposed to the myth, as opposed to the narrative that had been conjured and conjectured about him.”

Adesina later read excerpts from Chapter 5 of the book, which talks about the WAEC certificate saga – the heat and tension it generated in Nigeria and the part where Dr Uyi Uwadiae,  the WAEC registrar called from Ghana, saying that he could arrange for a copy of  the president’s hotly contested certificate to be presented to him on his request, since WAEC would not issue a certificate twice.

“Before the 2015 elections, there was a mortal fearof candidate Buhari, particularly from  those in power.  They felt the only credible opposition they would  have in the election was Buhari.  So they did all they could to ‘demarket’ him. And to perhaps ensure that he would not run, And one of their capers was that ‘Oh he doesn’t  have the minimum educational qualification, which is a secondary school certificate. You would recall that there was a lot of hoopla about whether he had that certificate or not.

“So that’s the saga of the certificate, pre-election, post-election, during government, even after WAEC came to present, they still didn’t believe.There is a saying that for those who believe, no explanation is necessary, but for those who don’t believe, no explanation is possible. That’s Nigeria,” Adesina said.

The audience

The audience

Adesina, who read excerpts from Chapter 6, entitled “Buhari and a part of the Church”, also said as part of the build-up to the 2015 elections, some Christian leaders openly opposed Buhari’s candidature because he was not a Christian. They preferred and therefore supported former president Goodluck Jonathan simply because he was a Christian. Adesina said it was a grudge election because of the primordial sentiments that many pandered to.

“Because I situated the opposition, not just opposition, antagonism that came Buhari’s way  back to the nature of the 2015 election. It was a grudge election, grudge because Jonathan had said publicly that he was going to do one term and he would not seek another term. It was on record. He reneged.  It was a grudge election because the north felt  they had an uncompleted term in Yar Adua who died.  Well, you can’t fault the constitution, which says the Vice President must step in. And he stepped in. But they felt aggrieved that they didn’t finish  what was supposed to be their term.

“And there was also the grudge of a Muslim  coming to knock out a Christian from the budge. And you know that religion was used to the ultimate, as a build-up to that 2015 election. We saw Jonathan churched up (laughs). There was no  big congregation he didn’t attend. While he was not asking for votes, we knew what was happening. It was few months to the election and he was going to all the big congregations.

“So if you see the antagonism that came from a section of the Christian population for eight years, that was the background. They preferred a Jonathan who by name was a Christian so that they could continue to enjoy certain favours they were enjoying,” Adesina averred.

However. Akinosho said it wasn’t just religious sentiments that were at play at the time but also there was large anti-Fulani sentiments, what with a whole lot of stories about Fulani attacks here and there. “I don’t think that has anything to do with the pastors,” he said. Still, Adesina’s response was that attacks by Fulani herdsmen were not peculiar to the Buhari administration, adding that more than nine months after his principal left office, there are still attacks.

“If you fast forward a bit, Buhari has left for more than nine months. They are still killings around the country. And some still ascribe it to Fulani. Is a Fulani still the president? No. So it was just like calling the dog a bad name in order to hang it. Before Buhari, Tafawa Balewa was a Fulani, Murtala Muhammed was a Fulani, Shehu Shagari from Sokoto, was a pure Fulani. All these Fulani had ruled this country. But they didn’t generate all this hatred towards them. It was just the animus, the antipathy they had towards the person Muhammadu Buhari,” he said.

Omatseye, for his part, said though he always felt that talks about Buhari being a Fulani hegemony is often exaggerated “but there are moments you have to ask questions whether he encouraged it.” He referenced the battle over Amotekun and the constitutional issue it generated, which according to him Adesina never issued any release on.

Sola Oshunkeye, second right, and other guests

Sola Oshunkeye, second right, and other guests

“I was saying what was Femi thinking about when Garba Shehu came out with a release about the fact that federalism did not support Amotekun and all of that. There was this outcry of separatism, and nationalism, regionalism going on. There was a case of the Defence Minister making a statement about the cattle right of way across the country. I wonder whether you took time to ask Buhari about all these things that were going on or Patami, the Communications Minister’s statement.

“But there were moments that we thought these things portray Buhari as a Fulani bigot and so on. That he didn’t do anything to really kind of mediate opinions. Those were the things, those were moments, flashpoints, we thought that he would intervene and say ‘Look, I don’t stand with this.’

“We never saw any moment throughout his eight years, where he stood like that. I read a very incisive piece written by somebody who interacted with him and said these herdsmen were actually angry that Buhari was not giving them enough power  to operate. So there were these tensions going on. And these kind of contradictions were common during jis time. So I would like you to comment on that,” Omatseye opined.

Of course, a very important aspect of the former president’s character that dominated discourse that evening was his reticence, his aloofness, his loud silence when he was supposed to speak concerning certain issues, the unfeeling he showed when he was supposed to show empathy, which many interpreted as nonchalance and lack of ideas and solution on his part. However, Adesina defended the former president by saying he was not given to speaking too much because that trait is peculiar to the Fulani.

“I think being reticent about certain things, I may be wrong, is peculiar to the Fulani. They watch, they wait and they know what they want to do.

“Sam would recall, years back, El Rufai held a meeting with us at the Sheraton in Lagos. It was on a Sunday afternoon like this. He said, ‘We Fulani  when you do something to us, we just keep quite. We just wait. We either sell your mother or we avenge in another way when you don’t expect,’ (laughs).I never forgot that.

“So that is the way they are. It doesn’t make them evil. You are the way you are. President Buhari a number of times said this, but people choose to believe what they want to believe. He said, ‘One, I am a Fulani. I can’t deny it. I was born by a Fulani father but raised by a Hausa mother.’ His father died early. He doesn’t even speak Fulfude.  He understands it. But to people, he is the archetypal Fulani. They don’t know he doesn’t even speak it.

“Now he said, ‘I look like them, so there is no way I would convince anybody that I am not the one supporting them to do what they are doing.’ Not once, not twice, he gave instructions. He said,  ‘Ak-47 is a controlled weapon. If you see anybody with an AK-47, gun him down.’  But Nigerians just hear what they want to hear. People just want to believe what they want to believe in Nigeria.

“So these are all the things that happen in the background that a lot of Nigerians don’t know, which I have put in this book so they can understand who this man was. There is no president that would love to see his country men and women to be wiped out,” Adesina stated.

Adesina also tried to showed another soft side of the former President when he read excerpts from Chapter 18 of his book entitled”We Did Nnamdi Kanu A favour By Bringing Him Home.”  That Chapter speaks about when a delegation of highly respected Igbo leaders led by First Republic Minister of Aviation Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, who was 93 years old then, paid Buhari a visit on November 21, 2021 in order to plead for the release of Nnamdi Kanu.

However, Buhari who welcomed the guests warmly and listened to them  calmly told them that his government had every opportunity to eliminate the IPOB leader but it chose not to do that. But the Buhari administration brought him home so that he could defend himself in court. “I think it is a very significant development,” Adesina maintained.

This portion of the book, which is very significant, reveals a vital information that had hitherto not been in the public domain. This is indeed one of the major strengths of the book: access to first-hand information that Adesina was privy to but which Nigerians never knew, while he was Buhari’s media aide amd image maker for eight years; and which he now reveals in his book. Omatseye also attested to that significance when he said: “This very part of Buhari was supposed to be released as a news story. That would have created a sense that there was much restraint on the part of government and that freedom of expression was even allowed at the expense of peace.”

However, Dolapo Olufawo, who was acerbic in his criticism of Buhari, was not carried away by what he regarded as Adesina’s whitewash of his principal. He said it is pretty difficult for anyone to convince majority of Nigerians to change their perceptions about him (Buhari), since his government was ineffective, ineffectual and insipid.

“There was really nothing to show that this man came for something. We all had the impression that he was there for his uncompleted military term. Everybody has to be retrospective about their own part in their perception. We look at him  through the image that he projected. I am glad that you are loyal to your friends. But we too have a memory. It will be an uphill task for you to actually clean the image of such a tarnished president. He wasn’t even tarnished, he was ineffective,” Olufawo maintained, adding that that Buhari doesn’t deserve him, given his affable personality.

Still, Adesina did not agree with Olufawo’s position. He responded thus:. “He said the 20 months of Buhari was ineffective. Why did they bring him back 30 Years later if it was ineffective? Why was there a yearning for him? Why was there a hankering and a thirsting for Buhari in 2015 if his 20 months were ineffective?

“That put a lie to his position. But he has a right to that. What I would tell you is that the 20 months that Buhari spent, Buhari and Idiagbon, came at a very difficult time  in the life of the country, just as the Tinubu government is having now at a very difficult time in the history of this country.

“But then it was truncated. So we never knew where it could have ended. And that was why 30 years later Nigerians brought him back. They said  what you were doing and they didn’t allow you to finish, come back and do it.  So people would have their opinion,” Adesina said

Femi Adesina

Femi Adesina

The former spokesman  buttressed his points by telling the audience how his book helped someone understand Buhari better. “I got a amessage from somebody I did not know who read this book. He sent a text message  to my public phone.  And he said, ‘Thank you for this book.  I am not a Buharist. But after reading this book,  I got to understand Buhari better.”

Omatseye, for his part, reiterated his earlier position about the aloofness that the former president displayed while he was in power for eight years. “The sense many people get of Buhari is that he is far removed from things. He has that air of ascetic distance which is true. And today all these things about the rot in the financial sector, in the economy. Unfortunately, he didn’t know about it.  And it is tragic that he didn’t know about it,” he said.

The conversation went on and on throwing up issues such as EndSARS, the arrest and re-arrest of Omoyele Sowore, terrorism and banditry, the arrest of the leader of Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu, Plateau killings, the twitter ban etc for discussion.

And the guests present fired several salvos at the former spokesman of the president, citing several instances where the president didn’t act when he was supposed to act, and his ominous silence when he was supposed to take a stand or speak out vociferously and condemn some certain actions.

Yet Adesina defended his principal all through, insisting that the perception that Nigerians have of the man he worked with for eight years is not the true picture.

“I tell you that in this country today, out of 200 million people, there would be 100 or more who would gladly lay down their lives for Buhari, even after eight years. So those who don’t like him, who don’t adore him, have a right to their opinions. But there are those who would gladly lay down their lives for him,” Adesina averred.

Still, the intellectually stimulating  conversation came to end when it was time for Adesina to autograph copies of the revelatory book and take photographs with guests.

As the guest writer was busy signing copies of the memoir, other guests had a nice time networking and rehashing what had been discussed, as they looked forward to attending the next CORA  Book Trek and of course having another date with an author.




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