PUNCH State House correspondent, Olalekan Adetayo, in this interview by OLALEYE ALUKO, responds to the Chief Security Officer, Bashir Abubakar’s leaked memo and other related issues
How did you feel after your encounter with the CSO?
I felt very bad. I felt humiliated that my professionalism was called to question in a very unjustifiable way.
The CSO claimed you said your editors wrote the story. Did you actually say that?
I could not have said that. I think in the process of talking, he made reference to the lead story ofSunday PUNCH on anxieties as regards the President’s health status. The story came with three riders. One of them was a call made by the Arewa Consultative Forum, advising the President’s wife not to allow a cabal to mismanage her husband’s health. Arewa youths also made a claim that the President had been kidnapped from Nigerians. The third rider was a reaction from the Presidency. So in the process of talking, the CSO picked on the one attributed to the ACF and said I claimed that I spoke with the ACF.
He said, ‘I will call the ACF man now and he will tell me if he spoke with you.’ I then told him that the story had a joint byline and I do not cover the ACF. I told him that somebody else wrote the ACF part.
That was what I told him. I reminded him that the story contained the President’s spokesperson’s (Femi Adesina) reaction. Adesina had said that the President was recuperating and that was what I told the CSO. I never said my editors wrote the story.
How would you describe the meeting that the CSO held with journalists?
I was not at the said meeting. I did not attend.
Is it true that journalists at the meeting reached an agreement with the CSO regarding how the president/presidency should be covered?
I do not know about an agreement but I know some colleagues told me that it was like a journalism class, whatever that means.
Was that the first time that the CSO would meet with journalists?
Yes, to the best of my knowledge. That was the first time since he became the CSO.
What made you to write about the President’s health?
My responsibility is to cover the activities of the President, the Vice-President and even their immediate family members. I resume at the Villa every morning and I do not leave there until late in the evening every day, except perhaps during the weekends. The President, as we very well know, returned to this country on March 10 after his medical vacation. And since then, there has been relatively no activity in the villa. The questions on the lips of many is: where is the President? Where is he? Is he okay?
And since I cover the Presidency, it is one of my responsibilities to attempt to provide answers to these questions. And that was what informed that story.
Did you have any encounter with the CSO prior to this incident?
Yes, I had an encounter with him the first time on one of the stories mentioned in his memo. It had to do with the “accidental discharge” in the Villa.
Like he did on Monday, he summoned my colleague from the Daily Trust, Isiaka Wakil, and I to his office. He said he was bitter that we wrote that kind of story. Throughout the conversation, he did not say that the report was wrong.
That particular incident of “accidental discharge” was reported by almost all the national newspapers in this country. At that point when we left, I told my colleague that I suspected foul play because the CSO invited only two of us to his office.
What were specific allegations he levelled against you?
His bitterness was; why did we write that kind of story? But the story was reported by all the national newspapers.
Do you think his understanding of journalism is sufficient for him to usurp the roles of the President’s media aides?
I doubt it. I doubt that he has an understanding of journalism. For example, when he complained about the “accidental discharge” story, he went on to say that the story was even used as the lead story for the newspaper.
He kept repeating that point. I expected him to know if he understood journalism that my responsibility as a reporter ends when I send a story. Whether it is the lead or inside or anywhere is the responsibility of the editors.
You’ve read the CSO’s memo, on what points do you agree or disagree with him?
I read his memo and I disagree with him on many points. I expected him, for instance, as far as the questions he raised about the Saturday column was concerned, to mention instances where events held in the places I reported that there had been no events.
The thrust of that column on (that) Saturday was that I listed some places in the Villa where activities were holding before, but since the President returned on March 10, nothing had been done in those places in the Villa.
Except for the Council Chambers where the Federal Executive Council meetings normally hold, I expected him to come out with his position that on this day, this event was held inside this hall you mentioned and the President attended and so on. But he did not do that. He made sweeping statements.
During my discussion, with him, he even tactically agreed with me that events did not hold in those places when he said that the President was at liberty to hold his meetings or events wherever he wanted. Those were the CSO’s words.
At a point, he said I was sponsored. That is to show you that the CSO does not understand the concept behind my Saturday column. It is a soft column that talks about things that will not necessarily go into everyday news.
I once wrote a piece, same column, listing those same places as bubbling with events. I described them then as places in the Villa, where decisions about Nigeria were taken. So, I wonder why the CSO got angry.
The CSO claimed that you apologized to him…
Thank you. Wisdom is the principal thing. The CSO invited me into his office; into his comfort zone. Two of his men were interjecting as he was talking with me. My first instinct in that kind of situation was how to leave that place; not only alive but with a sound mind.
I needed to leave that place, and alive to tell my story. At a point, he even threatened, saying, “If you don’t answer some of the questions I will raise now, you will not go home today.”
Therefore yes, at a point, I begged him. Not that I said that the story I wrote was wrong, but for me to get a leverage to leave that place. And it worked. Because I guessed that was why he decided to release me to go and make a statement. I followed one of his men out.
As I was going with that man, I saw some of my colleagues standing in the corridor where we normally stood. I used that opportunity to hint them about what was happening in case anything untoward happened.
You must have read in his memo that I did not put any apology inside the statement I wrote. I wrote in my statement that I did not have any ulterior motive in writing those two pieces.
The man who took my statement returned to him. I guess it was when he read the statement and saw that I did not apologise that he ordered that my pass be withdrawn and that I be escorted out of the Villa.
What role did the chairman of the State House Press Corps play?
In my first narrative of this incident, (my reporter’s diary), I deliberately left out the Chairman of the State House Press Corps, Mr. Ubale Musa, because I felt it would be petty to begin to drag names unnecessarily into my incident.
But since the CSO mentioned him specifically in his leaked memo, I will explain Ubale’s role. It was Ubale who called me on that day that the CSO wanted to see me.
I was at the VP’s wing of the Villa, monitoring the panel probing the suspended Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, when Ubale called that he was at the President’s wing and asked me to come over to see the CSO.
I told him this invitation was strange and it should have come from the presidential spokesmen.
I tried getting across to them. Garba Shehu was not in the office but I later got in touch with him on the telephone. I went to Femi Adesina’s office and informed him of the invitation. He asked me to go, and to keep updating him. Adesina asked me to tell Ubale to see him since I told him he was the one that called me to say we should see the CSO together.
When we got to the CSO, I thought after all, there were two journalists and three security officers. But I started having problems with Ubale’s “intervention” in the matter.
While “intervening”, Ubale told the CSO that even some of our colleagues had been complaining to him that the kind of stories I wrote made them get queries from their bosses in their offices. I was shocked because I heard that for the first time from Ubale and he told me that in the presence of the CSO.
It was Ubale again that said he felt I was under some pressure from the office and asked the CSO to probably look beyond me and look at the “larger picture of my office.”
The CSO then put the question to me and wanted me to say on record that I was under pressure. I told him there was no pressure that I could not handle. So this is the area that concerned Ubale.
Ubale Musa said you apologised. Your reaction?
Like I said earlier, I apologised, not for the content of the stories but when I discovered that my life was no longer safe in the office, I had to apologise to escape the situation.
The CSO accused you of ‘carrying mischievous…
The accusations have no basis. Anyone who reads PUNCH very well knows that we don’t write stories without getting the comments of all the people mentioned. With all humility, if the presidential spokesmen would be fair, they will rate me as one of the top five among the correspondents who call them regularly on a daily basis for one reaction or the other. That is The PUNCH’s style.
No story goes without being balanced. Now the CSO may not know this because he is not the spokesman. So, I could not have called him for reactions.
Can you speak on some of the stories that the CSO complained about?
On the Risk Caution Allowance: the security personnel were complaining in the Villa that the Presidency owed them a year backlog of allowances, since the President came in. These were people saddled with the responsibility of protecting the President; they were hungry and aggrieved. I am not a security expert but I know there is danger inherent in that.
If you read that story, I spoke with the presidential spokesmen, and one of them said the National Security Adviser was aware of the development and was already working on how to pay those personnel. To show you that I had no ulterior motive, the last story I did on that issue was “Buhari okays jumbo allowances for Villa security operatives,” published on October 25, 2016.
The operatives that I fought for did not even tell me when they were paid. But when my investigation confirmed that they had been paid, I went ahead with the report. The people concerned saw it and jokingly said I had exposed them and that people were now making financial demands from them.
But I told them that by not writing the story, I would not be fair to the government since I wrote when they were not paid. I had no personal interest in the matter.
On the accidental discharge, yes, there was a discharge at the administration reception point and a female caterer was injured. She spent days at the State House Medical Centre and we wrote that story.
The CSO did not say the incident did not happen. He only alleged in his memo that I championed the writing of that story, despite warnings from Ubale Musa and my colleagues.
I love that part of the memo because it is revealing. But the CSO should have gone ahead to mention the colleagues who asked me not to write the story the same way he mentioned Ubale specifically.
Ubale did tell us that we should not report that incident. He mentioned the Officer in Charge, SSS, as the person allegedly pleading that the story be avoided. I think someone in the press corps raised a point that, if such a request should be made at all, it should come from the presidential spokesmen. To be fair to the two of them (Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu), they had earlier made it clear to us that they would never ask us to drop any story but they would rather react to it.
In my contribution to my colleagues that day, I said it might be difficult not to do the story given that we are in the digital age. Anyone could have witnessed the incident or seen the woman in the hospital, and put it on online platforms such asFacebook.
A consensus was then reached that by evening, if there was nothing online, we would leave the report. But I later got a call from my office, saying they saw the story somewhere and I had not filed it. That was in the evening, after we had already left the Villa. Out of consideration, I started calling colleagues, especially those in the print media, one by one that in order to avoid trouble in their offices, they should decide whether to write the story or not, but I would write it since the story had reached them in my office.
The following day, the CSO summoned the Daily Trust reporter and I to his office. The CSO sent the OC SSS to bring the DailyTrust reporter and me. In the process, the OC SSS asked why only two of us wrote the story out of all journalists in the villa. The Daily Trust reporter had to correct the OC SSS that all the major newspapers did the report and it was not only two of us. The OC was surprised, but quickly said his boss would decide. That is to tell you that they had preconceived notions about PUNCH and Daily Trust as far as that story was concerned and that has been confirmed by his memo.
You were accused of trying to satisfy some subterranean interests…bent on undermining the government.
Those allegations are baseless. When people do not like a particular report, they come up with allegations that you have a sponsor. I can say it with all humility that I did those pieces, just in the line of duty and with no ulterior motive.