By Chioma Okezii-Okeh
Presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, became a household name at the then Weekend Concord long before 2002 when he was invited to be part of the formidable team that formed The Sun Newspapers, of which he was pioneer editor. He rose to become the Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of the company as well as President, Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE). In 2015, he was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari as his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity.
In a chat with Saturday Sun, he shares his experience as the presidential spokesman in the last seven years.
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How was life like before the presidential appointment?
I was just a typical Nigerian journalist. I had been in journalism since I left school. I graduated in 1986 and entered journalism immediately and I was there till 2015 when I went to work for government. Right from secondary school, my teachers had always said, you will either become a journalist or a lawyer. I don’t know what they saw, maybe journalism because I was good in writing. But lawyer? I don’t know. So eventually, I became a journalist.
Was there any form of opposition from your family when you announced your decision to be a journalist?
In fact my parents appreciated the fact that I became a journalist because they were both educationists. My father was a school principal and my mother was a classroom teacher and they knew the value of journalism.
I grew up around newspapers and books, and fortunately God spared their lives till a time they saw me rise in the profession. I am sure they did not have any regrets seeing me go into journalism.
How was your growing up like compared to what is obtainable in raising a child in this generation?
I grew up in a strict home. My father was a principal who ran the school with iron and steel and he used the method at home. I remember that people who studied in the school over 50 years ago, when they see me now, they will scream as soon as they discover that I am the son of Mr. Adesina, the man who beat the hell out of them when they were in school. They would ask how we survived at home.
He was a very strict man. We were five boys and two girls. You know how a house can be with five boys; uncontrollable, unless the father was strict. We always had a refuge in our mother; she was the softer one. When we got beaten up, we would run to her. It did not mean she spoilt us. She had her own style and we were closer to her in that regards.
We used to say that our father was wicked, but fortunately we grew to appreciate him before he died. We knew that all he did was for our own good.
For me as a parent, there is a paradigm shift in parenthood compared to when we were growing up. You find that children and parents are much closer today. When we were growing up, we couldn’t sit with my father. When you were walking and saw him ahead, you would change your route immediately. You dared not meet him on the way; it didn’t happen in our time.
One thing that I imbibed from my own upbringing was the strictness. I have also been very strict with my children, and today they are the better for it. But they can talk to me. They can sit with me. Me and my children are friends but they are very disciplined. I am happy how they turned out.
How did your journalism career start?
Straight from school, I served at the Lagos State Television at the Current Affairs Department, Mr. Kunle Oloke was the Head of Current Affairs then. He gave me an assignment and when he looked at the script, he looked up and said, you write very well. That was my first assignment out of school and it was also a revelation to me. I didn’t think I would write something that would be so striking. I will say that was where my career began. After that, he gave me more assignments. Then the service year ended and because there was opening at the radio services, I got a job. The then head was Jide Adekusibe of blessed memory.
He was my father’s student. When he saw me, he said, ‘you are Mr. Adesina son. He did not only beat the hell out of me, he expelled me!’ (Laughs)
When I went home to my father, I told him the name of the head of radio services. He said Jide Adekusibe? He was a rascal. His father was a lawyer and the family came to plead for him.
Adekusibe gave me a job which I held for two years. But I wanted more active writing. I was at the current affairs desk, writing news talks and analyses, covering events from the current affairs end. I wanted more active writing experience, so I went to Vanguard Newspapers in 1989. I was employed as a Features Writer, and they put me in supplements unit to write supplements that would go with advertorials and do some reporting like covering International trade fairs in Lagos, Kaduna, Enugu. I did that for another two years and from there, I went to Concord Newspapers, Weekend Concord to be precise, where Mr Mike Awoyinfa was the Editor. There, I began to do what I really liked, the reporting in which you can express yourself in writing. I did that from 1991 to 1995 and then I was made the Features Editor of the daily newspaper. I became the deputy editor, and eventually the editor. That was what I did till the Concord went down in 2001.
The publisher was in military detention and there was not enough money to run the company. After that, I went to Nigerian Tribune as a visiting member of the Editorial Board. I was there for 18 months when Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe sent for me. They asked if I was still interested in full time journalism and I said why not? They said, ‘we are setting up The Sun Newspapers for Orji Uzor Kalu.’ So I joined the team. That was how we started The Sun in 2003 and I was the founding Editor of Daily Sun. We started with the Saturday paper, added the Sunday paper and by June that year, we started Daily Sun.
I edited that for five years and to the glory of God, Daily Sun became the highest selling newspaper in the country. At a point it was printing 100,000 copies. I did that for five years and became Executive Director, Publications, became Deputy Managing Director and Managing Director in 2013.
In 2015, I was invited by President Muhammadu Buhari to be his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity.
What was your experience like as a journalist during the military era?
We were fairly junior under the military. Those who suffered under the military were the editors. We were just like senior writers and senior correspondents. If they were going to grab anybody, we were not the ones.
The only thing I recall was the day they came to close Concord Press, after the 1993 presidential election was annulled. You needed to see the number of armed men who stormed Concord Press that night. We were producing. They came, chased all of us out. They searched our drawers and ordered everyone out. And Concord was locked for several months before it was eventually reopened.
In terms of being the target of bad treatment individually, it did not happen to me till 1999 when the military left. By then, I was Deputy Editor of the National Concord.
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What went through your mind when you got that call to become the presidential spokesman?
I had always loved President Buhari, right from when he was the military Head of State because he was strict. I told you I grew up under a very strict father. When I see discipline, I appreciate it.
The way he and Babatunde Idiagbon, his deputy, were leading the country, I knew it would be good for Nigeria, so I loved him. The day he was overthrown in August 1985 was possibly the worst day of my life. I knew it was bad for Nigeria, I knew Nigeria was being set backwards, IBB regime lasted for eight years. If it was Buhari that lasted half of that time, Nigeria would have been a lot better. I knew the overthrow was a big mistake, a national blunder.
When he entered partisan politics in 2002, I began to support him. I was writing a column in The Sun and I would write about him. Somewhere along the line, he began to call me. Our phone numbers were there on the column. It was one Saturday; I had written an article about him and my phone rang and he said, this is Muhammadu Buhari. I was so excited. We discussed the article and we laughed and had a good time. This was how he started calling me regularly and the relationship grew.
He ran in 2003, I supported him. He ran in 2007, I supported him. He also tried in 2011 and I supported him. He was said not to have won all those years. You know in 2011, he said that he would not run again, I was one of those who wrote that he was not bound by that promise. I said he could run if he wanted. I am glad that he came back and finally won.
He is almost ending his second tenure in office. You know that election was on March 29, 2015 and on March 31 which was the day the last results came, it was apparent that he had won, but not declared by INEC yet.
Then I was MD of The Sun and I was in the office till about 10pm. I closed, got home and followed the rest of the result. At exactly 10 minutes after 12 midnight, my phone rang.
The voice said please hold on for the President-Elect. He came on the line, and said ‘Adesina, I want to say thank you for all your support since 2003. There are many that would have paid you millions of naira for your support but you did not follow them. You did not get a bottle of coke from me, but you followed me.’
I thanked and congratulated him. I told my wife that since the man was calling me at such time, I hoped he was not going to tell me to come and work for him.
I was the MD of The Sun and President, Nigerian Guild of Editors. I was enjoying what I was doing. I was at the peak of my profession and I felt I could do it for a number of years more before going to do something else. I had never worked in government and did not think that I wanted to.
From that March 31 to May 29, when he was inaugurated, I deliberately didn’t get in touch with him, thinking maybe he would forget me.
But on the evening of May 31, a call came and said that “we are announcing you as Special Adviser to the President tonight. Should we go ahead?” I said please go ahead. I agreed because I had had enough time to evaluate it. If I had supported him all these years and if he asked me to come and work for him and I said no, then I would be a hypocrite.
The next day June 1, I flew to Abuja to see him. He was still at the Defence House; he hadn’t moved to the Villa. I thanked him for the appointment, but because I had a job, I asked for a week to disengage.
I met the publisher and he said ‘President Buhari will not know the sacrifice I am making by letting you go, because you have run my business honestly. This company has never made the kind of profit that it has made under you, since it was established.’ And he said he would give me a leave of absence to go and serve in government.
What changed in your family, social and personal life after the appointment?
The Femi Adesina that you knew before, and now, is the same person. In terms of sacrifice, serving in government is a heavy one. By the time I came to serve in 2015, I had been married for about 25 years, I had never lived apart from my family. As a journalist, I could travel, but I would come back. I couldn’t move the family because my son was already a pilot and my daughter was in the third year in the university. I couldn’t then move the family to Abuja.
I used to visit them every month, sometimes two weekends in a month, till COVID 19 came. From January 2020 to about September of that year, I did not visit my family in Lagos because the entire country was on lockdown. Imagine being separated from your family for that long. It’s a big sacrifice and if not for the man I came to serve. I would not have made that kind of sacrifice.
My private life is still the same; you will rarely see me outside. My life used to be work, church, the house and that was what I’ve maintained in Abuja.
How do you manage to remain sane after reading so many verbal attacks especially on social media?
I ignore most of them. During ENDSARS, they put my mobile phone numbers online and I couldn’t use my phone for three days until somebody now told me about an application that would shut out all lines that are not registered on one’s phone. I took all calls before then. So, if your number is not registered on my phone now, you will not get me except you send me a text message. That is the price the public has had to pay for what they did to me during ENDSARS.
I am not too much of an outdoor person. I watch football. I watch all EPL (English Premier League) matches.
I don’t read all those things that they write about me. People that I thought were friends have written negative things about me. They will think they have hurt me, but I don’t read them. Once I see the headline, read the opening paragraph and see the bile, I discontinue. Some do it out of ignorance, others mischief, others envy and malice. It’s a combination of factors.
What are your plans after 2023?
I will never contest for any position, even if it is as councillor. In 2013 when Mr Gbenga Adefaye of Vanguard was finishing his tenure as Nigerian Guild of Editors president, there were some people in the guild who came to meet me. They said you would be a good president; we would support you. I told my son and he said he couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘daddy, you running for anything? I can’t believe it.’ Those were his words. But I was encouraged by my colleagues, and won by a wide margin. For me to occupy any political position again, they will have to come and carry me from the house. But I will always be in the media. It’s my first passion.
The other possibility is that I want to be a farmer but if I go into Agric, it does not stop me from practising journalism. My father, after he retired, went into farming and he prospered at it. I will like to go into Agric.