O.J. Abuah, a reporter’s tribute

MR Justin Onuorah Abuah died at the weekend in Abuja after a brief illness. He was until that time the Director of Information in the State House and therefore was at the heart of the media machinery of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency. He was a regular topic of discussion among State House corespondents, yet not many knew the full names of a workaholic simply referred to as O.J.

A native of Asaba in Oshimili South Local Government Area of  Delta State, he was born on January 29, 1959. O.J is survived by his wife, Loretta and three children (Chinedum, Chike and Amaechi). While his burial arrangements are yet to be announced, President Buhari has already condoled with the family he left behind.

Joining the presidency from the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in 1986, in his long years of service at the presidency, O.J worked with seven Nigerian leaders and was an encyclopedia of presidential media intrigues.  As the Director of Information, he was the most senior civil servant in the media division of the presidential villa and essentially, its technical head. He reported directly to the political head, the Special Adviser (media and publicity) to the president and was responsible for many presidential statements and speeches. His news releases were exquisite and tailor-made for publication. They were flawless and gave no trouble at all to reporters always in a hurry to beat deadlines.

He was a stickler for performance. In essence, he had no regard for lazy and unproductive reporters and was never shy to voice it. Because of this, he tended not to be very popular with many State House corespondents who have the wrong notion that their deployment to the presidency was to enable their bread to be buttered even while lacking in commensurate competence. But he was quick to recognize those who knew their onions and could get results. He would want to involve them for the overall goal of creating a positive image for the president.

In a previous dispensation, I witnessed him overruling his boss, the Special Adviser (media and publicity), on a reporter to take on a trip with the president. As the Director of Media, he would normally nominate media-related persons to accompany the president on trips outside Abuja, whether local or foreign, for the approval by the Special Adviser. On this occasion, he forwarded some names and the Special Adviser at the time thought somebody else should be on the list. That person had apparently lobbied to be included even when he had not much value to add to the assignment. O.J’s response was short and definite: “what for?” The list stayed the way he planned it.  I learnt that he was able to do that frequently and stuck to his guns because he did not believe presidential trips should necessarily be a means for dispensing patronage.

I was particularly very impressed with him because I saw him as not being the overzealous media manager who would want to gag independent-minded reporters for the sake of protecting his principals. O.J read most publications on the presidency and if there was any one he found uncomplimentary to the president, rather than chastise the author, when he met him/her, he would simply say “I read that your report” and would laugh it off rancorously. That would be the end of the matter.

As an experienced reporter himself, he was constantly trying to mould reporters working with him, to be better professionals and I believe that was why he would never interfere with how reports out of the presidency were shaped. He was not frivolous and never given to idle talks. In fact, many people including those who worked closely with him were unable to fully understand his personality. He was the type that spent only a brief period exchanging pleasantries with friends and associates before moving ahead to face his official assignments. As a result of this, many believed he was not easily accessible.

Despite that, nobody could fault his efficiency and his organizational ability. Outside Abuja, he made things easy for presidential reporters, making sure they secured comfortable accommodation and all relevant documents to enhance their reports.

O.J would have loved to be alive today, but like all mere mortals, there was nothing he could do to stop his journey to the great beyond. No wonder Friedrich Nietzsche observed: “We can take precautions against all sorts of things, but so far as death is concerned, we, all of us, live like inhabitants of a defenceless citadel.” O.J is gone. He would be sorely missed.