A toast to Reuben Abati @ 50, by Toni Kan

Ex-Presidential Media Adviser, Dr. Reuben Abati
Ex-Presidential Media Adviser, Dr. Reuben Abati

The first car Dr. Reuben Abati bought was a Datsun or some Nissan product.

Back then, when a popular actor or musician or, especially a journalist bought a car, it was news and I am talking about a second hand, tokunbo car.

Things were a lot different in the 90s. We had Abacha but we didn’t have MTN or Glo or Airtel showering money on musical artistes the way they do now. Nigerian Breweries hadn’t even thought up Star Trek.

So, when a star musician or actor bought a car and when I say star musician I mean Ras Kimono, Oris Wiliki, kind of stars, the magazines of the day like Fame, HINTS or Prime People would report it.

So, when Reuben Abati, star columnist, bought his first car, it was big news and then he lost it.

He had gone to Niteshift to let his hair down and when he came out the next morning; the car was gone, as in, disappeared. Dr. Abati was so distraught he was searching for his car inside the refuse bin.

I have told this story to show how far Dr. Abati has come from the 26 year old PhD holder who started off lecturing at Ogun state University before becoming a nationally celebrated columnist and then cabinet member of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

That morning, when he came out and saw that his car was gone, Reuben Abati must have felt devastated in way words cannot even describe. That car, which must mean nothing to him now, must have felt to him like the sum of his wealth, the circumference of his big boy-ness.

Did he realize that The Guardian would offer him a brand new car as official car in his capacity as Editorial Board Chairman? Did he realize that he would one day own over 5 cars in his garage? Did he even imagine that one day he would hold a cabinet level position?

The story of Reuben Abati’s rise from grass to grace is a story that must inspire and motivate because it shows how one can pull himself up literally by the bootstraps and achieve beyond his wildest dreams.

I met Dr. Abati in 1992, after his friend, Kayode Ajala, who was editor of Hints magazine offered me a job at Hints while I was still a sophomore at the University of Jos following an introduction by my friend and roommate Ralph Bruce.

Dr Reuben Abati soon became a mentor and big brother, encouraging my writing, offering words of advice and supporting my career as referee to all the jobs I ever applied for. He even helped pay for the printing of my friend, Helon Habila’s first book.

In the year 2000, when I took 3rd prize at the MUSON poetry festival, (Helon Habila was first and Tade Ipadeola was 2nd) the art journalist Mike Jimoh did a lovely piece in Thisday which he called “Bards of the same feather.”

Hours after the piece appeared, Dr. Abati wrote me a lovely letter congratulating me and I still have a framed copy.

I saw Dr. Abati morph from just a brilliant young man with a gift for writing into an accomplished man of letters who became without a doubt the most read and respected columnist in contemporary Nigeria.

Until GEJ happened to him.

But first allow me two stories:

At about the time that I became editor of Hints magazine, Reuben Abati came to live in Ojodu estate right behind the expansive Hints magazine compound and I used to go to his house to drink brandy and shoot the breeze with our conversations ranging from literature to politics and many things in between (and he had an uncanny facility for drinking, conversing and writing his column at the same time.)

One afternoon, we were having a drink when his younger brother came in breathless with excitement.

He had gone for an interview at a big multinational, he said, and the moment they saw his name they asked whether he was related to Reuben Abati. When he answered yes, they told him the job was his. JUST LIKE THAT!

Did his name as referee on my CV help me get jobs? I don’t know, but I was glad to have him as a referee.

I remember another incident when I realized that my egbon was no longer just Reuben o but a bonafide public intellectual and national figure.

Many years ago, billionaire business man Razaq Okoya had a party at his Lekki redoubt. It was such a huge party that it left the whole road blocked for hours causing untold hardship for commuters.

Reuben Abati addressed the issue in his column the next week and ended with a call on Razaq Okoya to apologize. The billionaire subsequently took out a full page advert to apologize.

There was no Nigerian columnist with Reuben Abati’s talent or facility with the language or sagacity or all round swag. To think about his writing is to recall the best of Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu and Olatunji Dare at the height of their powers. I recall that many people who usually didn’t buy newspapers bought The Guardian on Fridays and Sundays just to read his columns.

Then the GEJ appointment happened and Reuben Abati lost his mojo. He lost that trenchant tone, that elegant prose, that scathing wit, it was as if government dulled his ardor, left him shorn of his talent like a denuded sheep.

He was vilified, cursed, blamed, and then flayed on social media. Like many friends complained, Dr. Abati did not take my calls too while at Aso Rock but do I hold a grudge? No. And the reason is simple, I have known him for 23 years and he was with GEJ for about four years. So, if I bitch on account of four years where do I chuck the goodwill of 19 long years?

The GEJ era is over and my mentor, Dr. Reuben Abati, is back on Civilian Street. But this piece is not about GEJ and what Dr. Abati’s time in government did or did not do to him. This piece is about celebrating a great man at 50, a wonderful mentor and encourager.

Dr. Reuben Abati, aka Awodi Oke, (the eagle that soars high) I wish you a happy 50th birthday. I wish you many years of accomplishments. I wish you long life, I wish you good health and I look forward to reading your columns again.

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