Buhari and Public Information Managenent

Buhari and Public Information Managenent

Monday, April 13, 2020 7:49 am

Dotun Adekanmbi

By Dotun Adekanmbi

There is something about the President Muhammadu Buhari government that I just do not understand. For some strange reasons, its principal officers almost always seem to be under some spell to engage the reverse gear each time the administration is expected to press forward to gain some traction for change. I just don’t get this government’s romance with always snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

You need examples? Forget it, everything about PMB and his team is an example. And they stretch from Lagos to Kaura Namoda in Zamfara State before bursting at the seams to extend from Sambisa Forest to Ogbia in Bayelsa State. Curiously, the problems have a single organic root: a discernible lack of cohesion in the running of government.

A friend told me the other day that the greatest favour Elections 2015 and 2019 did for Nigeria was to demystify President Muhammadu Buhari. For my friend, it was unconscionable for a man who came into office with intimidating credentials to keep struggling with governance to the extent that his body language, five years post-election, still needs to be interpreted for citizens to ‘see’ the good he is doing.

Of course, being a closet Buharist/APC sympathiser, I disagreed. For me, the rot of so many years could just not be wished away with executive fiat in a democracy that requires consensus building to have your enemy be at peace with you. How, I asked, could Buhari have placated a Bukola Saraki who had ambition far bigger than the globe and is far too tactless, some may say too arrogant, to admit that you don’t expend all your bullets taking pot shots at a moving target. But I digress.

My quarrel with this administration is how it trips over simple issues that ordinarily require no ‘long grammar.’ We don’t have to look far to situate the problem within the context of the administration’s poor management of perception and reality.

Take the management of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, for instance. Reality check says the administration is trying its best to contain the spread of the virus. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), God knows, is trying its utmost to turn the situation around, working with infrastructure in a healthcare delivery system that military coupists of the 1980s and 1990 described as no better than ‘mere consulting clinics.’ Without doubt, the efforts of the NCDC encouraged private sector organisations to rush in money to prop up a dysfunctional system. But what narratives did government allow to dominate public discourse?

First was the goof by the Secretary of the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, to the effect that: “I never knew that our entire healthcare infrastructure was in the state in which it is until I was appointed to do this work (as Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19).” His bio did not indicate that he was born or that he lived in Outer Mongolia prior to his appointment as SGF in October 2017. But he clearly validated citizens’ belief, well captured in the late Michael Jackson’s song that “they (in this case, leaders of Nigeria) don’t really care about us.” Strike one against government.

When the nation’s army of billionaires rolled out the tanks to protect Nigeria(ns) against COVID-19, a lot of Nigerians were naturally sceptical. First, they believed we were being served ‘audio’ (phantom) donations by people who merely used ‘Abu’s money to host Abu’. The people were also convinced that the billions of Naira would be ‘privatised’ i.e. end up in the private pockets of politicians and civil servants. Like the proverbial Alfa, hardly had the reservations been expressed than there was a roll of thunder that made the Alfa say matter of factly: ‘ah, the heavens have affirmed my words!’ When the headquarters of the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation (OAGF) went up in flames, citizens readily said: ‘but we told you so!’ Strike two for another dent on government’s reputation.

Even Mr. President’s assurance on COVID-19 did not escape controversy. How on earth could Oga have said that school feeding would continue even when all beneficiaries had been sent home as part of preliminary actions towards a lockdown of the country? No explanations on the modalities of implementation were given. Did the speechwriter consider the temperament of the average Nigerian who would distrust his/her mother when the disbursement of money is a key issue? Whoever wrote in that contentious paragraph in the speech of a President whose silence is louder than his talk did him a disservice. Somebody should have reckoned that Nigerians would be hard put to understand the ‘joke’ about the benevolence of Mr. President who finally managed to talk to citizens at a time that ‘ordinary sorry’ at the ‘right time’ would have been a soothing balm to heal a lot of wounds. Strike three for the mismanagement of public trust in government.

Now, what does one make of the recent post-humous ‘pardon’ granted Nigeria’s former Information Minister, the late Chief Anthony Enahoro? Pardoned or re-pardoned for what? Any new born baby of Nigerian history knows the story of Enahoro by rote. Why did this government choose to court needless controversy by discountenancing rigour when a simple explanatory one-liner at the time of the announcement could have squelched any controversy on the why or why not of the President’s gesture? Haba! Now, the Villa will have to scramble all spokespersons to aggregate all manner of spin and abuses to clarify Mr President’s blooper. As my people would say: E no fit better for the person wey do dis government like dis, wallahi!

To think that we have cited examples from just two major contemporary issues. What is clear to me is that so much work remains to be done in respect of the management of public information. There are too many senior cooks in the government’s kitchen, none of whom seems ready to be properly guided on the ethics of public communication. Worse is that all fingers point to the fact that the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has a poor performance scorecard. He, not Buhari’s media advisers – Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu – manages the Federal Government’s information portfolio and he’s doing a shoddy job of it.

Truth be told, he does not have the temperament or disposition to manage a serious central government’s information desk at a time like we are in. Give it to him, he did ‘fantastically well’ as Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC). In that position, the ability to demonise opposition is a handy qualification. The position of a government’s spokesperson, on the other hand, demands a calmer, fact-based, proactive approach to carrying citizens along. After nearly five years on the job, he naturally should have grown into it. Or sought counsel from his predecessors in office, from people like Frank Nweke Jr. or Chukwuemeka Chikelu. If Oga Lai is in any doubt, he should submit himself to a dispassionate public opinion poll on his performance. Or better still, narrow down the poll to public reactions to his ambition to rejig the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) to enhance its competitiveness.

Again, truth is: Oga Lai needs to step back a bit to re-appraise himself so he can help redeem this government a bit, even if his principal has no plans to conduct a serious performance appraisal of his appointees. Failing this, the perception that PMB’s government will continue to ‘wobble and fumble’ until it leaves office in 2023 will be its reality. Anyone with a focus on the judgment of history will heed this stay at home-induced piece of advice. Except, as my Warri brothers will say, ‘dem swear for am.”

*Dotun Adekanmbi, journalist and Publuc Relations Cobsultant, writes from Lagos

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