By Waziri Adio
The phone rang. I picked it up at the first beep.
“Waziri, how are you?”
“Fine sir. And you?”
“Have they called you?”
“These people! Don’t worry, I will sort it out.”
The conversation ended within thirty seconds. This was around noon on Tuesday, 23rd February 2016. I did not have to probe. I knew who should have called and why. The caller was Mallam Abba Kyari who less than six months earlier had been appointed the Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari.
The first time I met Kyari was in August 2011. That was at the inaugural meeting of the reconstituted editorial board of THISDAY newspaper. Kyari and I were members of that 22-member board, chaired by Olusegun Adeniyi, former editor of THISDAY and former spokesperson to late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
Prior to our meeting, I had known Kyari only faintly and by reputation: a former bank CEO with two degrees from the University of Cambridge. I got to know him better on the board, and we drew a bit closer. I was struck by his simple dress code of basic white babanriga and red cap, and hispro-poor take on issues. Both were at variance with expectations of a former bank CEO in Nigeria. We would exchange emails and phone calls outside of editorial board meetings. Sometimes, we would meet at a guest house or at a restaurant in Maitama either to catch up on political developments or for me to collect the latest books he had bought for Adeniyi and me from his trips abroad.
The visits became more regular in the lead up to the 2015 national elections when he was quietly doing some work for Candidate Buhari. After the elections, I asked him if he was going to play any role in the new government. Possibly, he said, adding that the President had told him to stay around because he had an assignment for him. On 27th August 2015, he called me to say his name would be announced as the Chief of Staff to the President that day. Before I could congratulate him, he asked me to inform “the other two”, Adeniyi and Simon Kolawole (former editor of THISDAY and publisher of TheCable, an online newspaper).
I was being considered for a position in government. But Kyari stopped communicating with me about a month before that brief call in February 2016.
However, he kept in touch through an intermediary. If he needed my resume or clarification on an issue, the go-between would call to get my CV or the information. The Thursday before that call, the go-between kept calling me, asking for a different thing each time. At some point, it was becoming tiring for me. I was wondering why Kyari couldn’t just call me himself as I believed he still had my number. The day after that, a Friday, the go-between called again, and I thought we were starting another series of many questions. But the moment I picked up, the go-between broke into a Christian hymn, which I later gathered is reserved for thanksgiving: “For this God is our God…”
I didn’t know what to make of it at that moment.
He eventually said: “Congrats, the deed has been done.”
He briefed me about their interactions the previous day and said the announcement would be made that same Friday or latest on Monday. Then the go-between added something that has stayed with me since.
“After our back and forth yesterday, AK (as we used to call him) told me he was going to have a crucial meeting with the President and some other people on your matter and that of another person.
“But something happened before he dropped the phone. He said: ‘Please, pray for me.’ I was surprised by his request. Today, he told me he succeeded only with yours. It must have been war.”
I closed early from work in my private office that Tuesday. I was driving home to Lugbe, on the outskirts of Abuja, when my phone started ringing off the hook. I couldn’t pick. After I parked the car in our compound, I saw dozens of missed calls, most of them from people I had not spoken to in a while. I was amazed at the deluge of calls and was praying that nothing bad had happened to anyone close to me.
I tried checking my email on my phone before entering the house but the internet decided to add to the suspense by being very slow. I tried checking my email on my laptop too with little luck. I had to switch to standard view in the email to make any progress. Then I saw a mail that refused to open but the subject-line gave away the reason for the fuss: “Buhari Appoints Adio…”
I told my wife that it seemed the appointment had been made. Customary hugs and prayers followed.
The announcement made it to the 7 pm broadcast news, to the online editions of traditional media and social media outlets. President Buhari had approved the reconstitution of the 15-member board of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI). The board, called the National Stakeholders Working Group (NSWG), would have as chairman Dr. Kayode Fayemi, then Minister of Solid Mineral Development. I was appointed the secretary of the board and the Executive Secretary of NEITI, with responsibility for the day-to-day running of the agency for a single term of five years.
Calls and the text messages kept pouring in till late into the night. You would think I had won the lottery. I decided to pick only a few of the calls that night. From those calls, two conversations stood out. One of the callers said he never knew I was in the running for that position, that the competition was stiff, that one of those interested was even raising a heavy war-chest to lobby for the position and that the last they heard was that another person had been approved for the job. He re-echoed a cryptic text message I had received from Senator Shehu Sani a day to the announcement: ‘Keen fight, but God is with you’. I had pressed the senator who had previously served as a board member of NEITI for more details, but he did not reply to my text messages and did not pick my calls.
The second conversation was with Dr. Fayemi, the newly appointed chairman.
“Congrats, Waz. Well deserved.”
“Thanks, Your Excellency.”
He told me that he knew about the appointment at the time the president gave the approval the previous week, but he wanted to wait for the official announcement before calling me. He said he looked forward to a fruitful working relationship and that I should always count on his support.
Dr. Fayemi and I go some way back. I knew of him from my days at the Tempo/TheNews stable, as far back as 1993/1994. We eventually met when I was the New York Bureau Chief of THISDAY and he was one of the foot-soldiers of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), which fought for democracy during the iron reign of late General Sani Abacha. We kept in touch during his days at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), and we are both members of a pan-Nigeria Google group put together by Mallam Mouftah Baba-Ahmed. When he became Director of Policy for the APC Presidential campaign, he put together a non-partisan policy support group, and invited me as one of the members.
During the call that Tuesday night, Fayemi asked me a question: “Waz, what did you do for Abba like that? How do you know him?”
He went on to tell me how the CoS (who unfortunately passed away in 2020) stubbornly pushed my candidacy while the other party pushed another person with equal fervour. The president then said that the proposed chairman be brought in. The president asked: “Do you know this Adio, and can you vouch for him?”
“‘Absolutely sir,’ I said. ‘He used to work there in NEITI. He also worked with us on the campaign. I believe that he has the educational background, the capacity and the character for the job sir,'” Fayemi told me.
“Since the chairman can vouch for him, the matter is settled,” the president reportedly said.
Much later, I got more bits of what transpired at that meeting. When the president was about to give his approval, someone who was against my candidacy allegedly raised an issue about both the chairman and the ES being from the southwest. President Buhari reportedly gave the person a stern look, asked what that statement meant and proceeded to give his approval. The date was 18th February 2016.
After the announcement of the appointment, I called Kyari to express my gratitude for his role and he replied with a line standard and typical to him: “Duty deserves no gratitude.”
As a kid and for much of my adult life, all I wanted in life was to be a journalist. The late Kunle Hamzat, a broadcast journalist in old Oyo State, inspired my choice. He was a news anchor and an interview host. I was in awe of his delivery style and his irreverent but clever line of questioning. He did both in a way that fired my childhood imagination. I wanted to be him, the guy who got you glued to the screen, who could get the high and the mighty to answer questions, and in his case, tough questions. This fascination led me to enquire about how to become a journalist and later informed my determination to study Mass Communication or nothing else.
With what I know now, I could have studied some other courses, graduated from the university much earlier and still become a journalist. Based on the limited information at my disposal then, I kept applying until I made the cut for my preferred course. At UNILAG, I opted for print and not broadcast journalism, partly because my fascination with the written word overrode the appeal of being on the screen and because hiding behind the by-line aligned more with my personality.
After my youth service at the programmes section of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria in Enugu, my dad gave me the address of an oil company that he said someone told him was recruiting. I didn’t bother to apply. Instead, I headed to Lagos in search of journalism jobs, and had to stay with the family of a friend I made during NYSC.
I started out my journalism career at a magazine called New Vision, and moved to Tempo, then to TNT, then to THISDAY. I worked at THISDAY for eight years, starting as an Assistant Editor in 1995. I was comfortable writing features and back-of-the-book stories, not hard news. I didn’t have a regular beat like sport, business, crime, politics etc., but I enjoyed the thrill and the freedom of writing about unusual people and places, about arts and entertainment, life and living. Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, the publisher of THISDAY, once spoke about moving me to the political desk to assist the then political editor, Mr. Eziuche Ubani. I declined.
He said: “Young man, let me be your coach and you be the star. Go and report politics. You will do well there. Besides, you should be interested in the politics of your society.”
“No thanks sir, I don’t like politics.” I insisted.
This wasn’t exactly true. Government was my best subject at both O’ Levels and A’ Levels. Also, I took some electives in political science in UNILAG and did very well in them. But I wasn’t a big fan of the politics of that time. One day in 1996, Obaigbena sauntered into the newsroom and asked me to follow him. He said the National Democratic Congress (NDC), the party of the incumbent President JJ Rawlings of Ghana, had nominated him to run for another term. He wanted me to go to Ghana to see if Rawlings, who by then had been in power for 16 years, stood a chance of re-election. THISDAY gave me some hefty sum by my standards. It was my first trip out of Nigeria. I spent two weeks in Ghana, and managed to interview everyone who should be interviewed, except President Rawlings. I returned with a bag full of stories, not just about the political lay of the land and the state of play for the election that pitched NDC against the opposition coalition called the Grand Alliance but also about life and living in Accra. In December that year, I returned to Ghana to cover the actual election, and because I knew my way around and I had met almost all the major actors a few months earlier, the coverage was a breeze for me.
Unknown to me, both trips were tests. I went to the office one day in late December 1996 to find my name on the notice board as the new Group Political Editor of THISDAY in one of the many reshuffles of those days. My earlier protest about not being interested in covering politics had been vetoed. I became political editor without covering politics for one single day. I had to learn the rudiments of the political landscape from the people I was supervising and from the editor of the daily newspaper, Mr. Victor Ifijeh, a veteran of the politics beat. There was indeed a lot to learn about the political actors, their tendencies and leanings, the processes, the parties, their histories.
This was the time of both the ‘five fingers of the same leprous hands,’ a line popularised by the late Chief Bola Ige, and the stern opposition by NADECO. The common cliché of the era was it was a time of intense struggle for the soul of Nigeria: the June 12 election had been annulled and its winner clamped into detention, General Abacha’s iron reign was in full bloom and he only had to contend with some resistance from the human rights community, the media and some opposition figures while the political actors were about executing a strange consensus of five parties adopting a single candidate. Editing the political pages and later going to New York as the bureau chief of THISDAY brought me into contact with most of the people and the tendencies that would shape Nigeria’s return to democracy. In 1998, I took one year off to study for a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York. I returned the day after my graduation to witness the return of democracy after almost 16 years of military rule.
A few weeks after my return, Obaigbena replaced the back-page analyses done by the political and business desks with back-page columns in THISDAY, another of Obaigbena’s many innovations that later became standard practice in Nigerian journalism. He made me one of the columnists. I was assigned the back page on Sunday. But after writing the column for two years, I began getting tired, disillusioned even. It felt too intense. I was getting burnt out too early, and I was beginning to question the power of journalism to change society. I took another break.
This time in 2001 to attend a one-year fellowship for journalists at Harvard University. Every year, the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University assembles mid-career journalists from the US and other parts of the world and gives the fellows and their spouses the opportunity to audit classes anywhere they want at Harvard, MIT, and Tuft University. I spent most of my time at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Though I was on a journalism fellowship, I was thinking more of public policy and governance. My research interest was on the intersection of press, politics, and public policy. I was inching toward the conclusion that it would be easier to effect change in society by being part of governance than by writing a weekly column and merely being commended as a bold or powerful writer. This was the turning point for me.
By the time I started writing again on my return to Nigeria in 2002, my focus had changed. My writing moved from criticism, which most readers loved, to exposition, which some found academic and boring. It seemed I had started writing for myself, not for the readers. My mind had shifted. I was in search of new challenges, but on my own terms. I mentioned this to a few people. It was only a matter of time before I would leave journalism. E
From the book THE ARC OF THE POSSIBLE by Waziri Adio. Published by CableBooks, an imprint of Cable Newspaper Ltd. Waziri Adio is the founder of Agora Policy and the former Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI).