Joe Abah Uncovered
He told the team lead/editor of The Guardian Life that he was going to be in for the interview and a photoshoot at 11 am last week Friday. A few minutes past that agreed time, he walked in dressed in an all-black ensemble.
When we spoke, his voice was just a notch above a whisper. There was no air about him. While the team tried to get the studio ready for the interview, he busied himself with reading, a bottle of water sitting pretty before him.
Earlier in the morning, I battled malaria. I was about to call in sick when I remembered I was scheduled to interview him for The Guardian Life. In the end, meeting Dr Joe Abah, one of Nigeria’s most respected figures on Twitter, was everything I thought it would be – engaging and enlightening. And there was a slightly hilarious photo session in the studio. Through it all, he did not show any sign of impatience or haughtiness. I got to know the reason for that later.
Ultimately for me, I was able to get him to talk about the Joe Abah that has been shielded from the public.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Joe Abah Uncovered.
Joe Abah’s publicly available biography is heavily curated to exclude his personal information. But when we sat down for the interview, I told him his career would not be the focus.
Growing up in a household that had more women (he is the only male among six children), Abah knew he had no excuse not to assist in doing chores (but the kitchen was a no-go area). His “not-so strict” parents set the boundaries for him – no late nights, education was a priority, no bad friends, and attendance in church, compulsory. Those rules shaped him into someone, Adegoke Elefiku, a former staffer of his said, “inspired” the best in him.
But Abah told me he is able to inspire others because his parents, especially his father whom he describes as ‘properly educated’, were good models.
“Even after I got my PhD, my dad was correcting my English. He will still tell you, ‘This is how to say it; this is the proper way to construct a sentence,” he told The Guardian Life in an exclusive interview.
His father, an engineer, was educated at Yaba College of Technology. He worked with Radio Nigeria in Lagos, and when the Nigerian Civil War broke out, he worked as a broadcaster with Biafra. He rejoined Radio Nigeria in Lagos after the war.
Left to the Abah Senior, his son would have become a medical doctor. But the fear of blood and weakness in mathematics pushed the younger Abah towards law.
A Toast To ‘Freedom’
Plenty of thanks to his brilliance and a little prompting by his parents, Abah, breezed through secondary school and was admitted to study Law at the University of Calabar at an age when most persons of his age were still in senior secondary school.
Young, shy and bereft of street smarts, and enjoying the freedom of this university environment, he tried his luck at getting a girlfriend for the first time. But his age was a major impediment: no one was ready to give an obvious daddy’s boy a shot at finding love.
“I went to university when I was very, very young; maybe too young. I was one of those whose parents pushed to get double promotion and all of that and at the time I got to the university which was the first opportunity to go and toast girls, you will toast girls and they’d say, ‘Yeah, you are very nice but come back when you are older.”
“I felt really bad that I was that young and I had to wait a year before I could talk to anybody.”
Banding together with the likes of Rueben Abati, a former spokesman to former President Goodluck Jonathan and Elis Abohor, who heads the legal department at Nigerian Agip Oil Company, who, like him, were juvenile, Abah tried to fit into the university culture regardless of his temporary disadvantage.
When he went to London Guildhall University for his Masters, Abah was not unlucky. In fact, the one he found took him only four hours to lockdown: his wife, Kemi. Two years later, Abah married Kemi with whom he has two girls – one 23, the other 14. Their marriage will be 27 years old by December.
His early introduction to the Law conditioned him to look at situations from logical points, including his relationship with his wife, not minding that love and logic aren’t exactly a good pair. Ten years into his marriage, he learned how to separate the two.
“It took me the first 10 years of my marriage and several fights to realise logic and emotion don’t mix. When you start reading law from the age of 15, you will always have a logical approach to everything,” he said.
“My wife will say, ‘You are not in the law court. This is what I don’t like. I don’t care whether it is logical or not.’”
Abah was appointed the director-general of the Bureau of Public Sector Reform in 2013 by former President Goodluck Jonathan. But after four years at the Bureau, Abah said he declined to serve as the DG for another four-year term.
Before his tenure at BPSR, Abah worked at the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in Nigeria, including the State Partnership for Accountability, Responsiveness and Capability.
When I asked him if he will accept a ministerial position if offered to him, the decision to accept, he said, will be his wife’s.
“Taking a ministerial position or any other position in government now will be my wife’s decision,” he replied quickly. And there is a reason his wife has to make that decision.”
Apart from his self confessed distaste for power, Abah took a 70 per cent pay cut to join BPSR. That 70% further plummeted to about 90% and his personal finances suffered. As the DG, he earned N895,000 monthly, allowances inclusive. He earned that low about 20 years ago, he said.
“We could no longer afford to live on a government salary,” Abah said.
“We got to a position when I was a DG; that for the first time in our marriage, I was writing letters to schools to enable me to pay school fees in instalments. That has never happened before.”
Nigerian Twitter Chief Priest
Abah may not be your favourite person on Twitter, but his over 200,000 followers on Twitter know that Ezemmuo is not one to run away from the gbas gbos of social media.
Being a former employee of the Nigerian government, Abah was, and is still, an easy target of anti-government critics, especially when he speaks well of certain government policies.
But not many know that his Ezemmuo alter ego was created to allow him to criticise the government from the inside without being outright antagonistic. Through that alter ego, given a life of its own in his Ebeano Chronicles, Abah is able to speak to power his own way.
His style, described as ‘fencist’ by some, has earned him criticisms. He told me he can live with such criticisms.
What bothers him, however, is the prevailing tribal sentiments and different forms of discriminations in the country.
“We are one of the most discriminatory people on earth,” he said.
“Nigerians discriminate against people from other ethnic groups. Within their ethnic groups, they discriminate. They discriminate against women. They discriminate against young people. They discriminate against elderly people. They discriminate against albinos. They discriminate against fat people, skinny people, tall and short people.”
He believes Nigeria will be a better place if people relate with others based on their characters instead of where they are from.
His being on Twitter was a child of necessity. As the DG of BPSR, he needed to champion the cause of the agency to the general public. With a paucity of funds staring him in the face, doing extensive media rounds were not an attractive proposition.
Between 2013, when he was appointed to lead BPSR, and 2019, Abah’s relevance continues to grow, despite his perceived fencist leaning.
“A lot of people are very political-minded. It does not matter what you say so long it is not favouring their political position. It does not matter how sensible it is, they will attack you for it.”
Angels At The Gate
Now the country director of DAI, an international development company, Abah’s earnings have undoubtedly improved. Regardless of his successes, he said his humble beginning and upbringing provides a moral compass for him. That’s why Phyno’s ‘Fada Fada’ resonates with him.
“That’s essentially my story. I came from nothing and I now have angels at my gate. All I can do is thank God.”