It is no longer news that AIT is no longer barred from covering the daily activities of the President elect, General Mohammadu Buhari. The rationale for this has been articulated in a press release by the APC penultimate week, and need not be the subject of my missive. However, I thought it appropriate to write to teeming Nigerians who have engaged various news articles and social media posts to express their abhorrence for the General based a statement from the official spokesman for the Buhari Campaign Organisation that said that AIT reporters had been barred from covering his official activities pre-inauguration, based on “ethical and security” issues.
No sooner had Buhari’s position been made public, speculations began online that this decision was a payback for AIT’s broadcast of a damning documentary on the General and late members of his family. Some commentators on social media exaggerated that military decree 4, 1984 was in the offing. In 1984, Decree No 4 of 1984 also known as the Public Officers (Protection against False Accusation) Decree 1984 was introduced.
The decree made it an offence for a Newspaper or any Wireless Telegraphy Station in Nigeria to publish or transmit any message, rumour, report or statement which is false in particular that any Public Officer has in any manner corruptly enriched himself or any other person.The Decree also made any person found guilty of this offense to be liable to conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years without the option of fine.
You are all absolutely right to be outraged by any elected citizen barring media coverage of civic activities which his new status bestows on him. I too am appalled, and we are all embarrassed by the fact that it came from a leader within the president-elect’s media team – beneficiaries of a hitherto free and fair election!
However, I want to engage citizens on the inherent assumptions of such spurious allegations. Some of the responses I read on social media were perfectly legitimate, reflecting outrage, as they should, within the boundaries of civilised discourse and a non-partisan secular state. Nevertheless, there were some that I believe reflected the very hateful censure that they were condemning. Some responses included the unacceptable use of words such as ‘tyrant’ and “Islamic jihadist”. Some included opinions about the new majority party, the APC and its propensity to be corrupt, tribalist and with an Islamic agenda. Some glorified the Jonathan regime and lamented its loss at the just concluded elections. Then there were others who reminded General Buhari that it was the same hateful documentary that swayed principled Nigerians to vote him into the highest office in the land. Some opined that he should have been an embodiment of forgiveness and reconciliation, embracing like Jesus, the same people who tried to assassinate his character.These responses provoked their own political responses, spinning into a never-ending cycle of tribalism.
I dare say that I found all these name-calling as offensive as that ill-mannered documentary which, however vile, did not justify the tirade of tribalistic conclusions that they provoked and in fact seemed to expose the dirty underbelly of tribalism that many of us subtly or unsubtly share. Some of my Facebook friends of Igbo extraction claimed one of the hallmarks of the new Buhari regime would be the subtle persecution of the SS and SE zones of the country which voted en mass for his opponent, the incumbent President.
A myriad problems abound in Nigeria today and it is legitimate for us to be critical, as many in the media fraternity have been for years. But contemporary Nigeria is not wholly defined by corruption, tribalism or sectionalism. It is also marked by new opportunities for a teeming army of youth entrepreneurs and creative industry professionals , a robust corporate class, a critical digital media, and by patriotic citizens many of whom defied terror threats, political thugs and wanton insecurity to cast their vote. What else could epitomize the Nigerian spirit than the free-for-all cross country hikes over spell-binding distances by Nigerians elated over the victory of General Buhari at the just concluded polls -even an armed robber reportedly donated money to the first citizen bold enough to venture the “Star Trek” from Lagos to Abuja!
It is important to warn the incoming government that press freedom in Nigeria will not be negotiated, it is a fundamental part of our national contract, embodied in our very pledge; Unity, Faith, Peace and Progress. Enter the age of information where citizen reporters and micro-bloggers hold sway. An organization’s reputation can be damaged in minutes following a toxic upload of just 160 characters. The recent xenophobic killings in South Africa serve as a befitting analogy. I happened to be on ground through the whole episode and can testify that the viral impact of a few disturbances in Durban & Johannesburg brought the nation to its knees. The diplomatic fires spread across the continent are still being put out.
In addition, it must be said that like in my analogy above, the incoming government must be hands on when it comes to managing crises communications. The press release clarifying the facts came rather late, allowing a lot of confusion, fear and misrepresentation of the ideals of the incoming government in the eyes of its employers. Crafting an efficient communications policy, keeping the media arm of the presidency lean, professional and non-partisan must be top priority for the incoming government. The era of appointing glorified sycophants and multiple spokespersons to launder the government’s image and attack well meaning citizens offering constructive criticism is over. General Buhari’s government must understand that his reforms are as good as they are communicated. He must ensure that his government feels the pulse of the nation, with scheduled town hall meetings nationwide, and that there is an open communication channel for concerned citizens and whistleblowers to reach him with verifiable information on their welfare and security. In the Post-Apartheid era, the South African Presidency setup a call centre, email & social media accounts to enable direct communication between its people and its chief executive, manned by seasoned professionals. This helped to reduce crime drastically and state corruption. The average man on the streets, hopes the president-elect’s Twitter account would not become a ghost account after his swearing in as career politicians are wont to do.
I am throwing up these issues because I believe that too often we propagate hate speech against others and fail to look inwards. It is imperative that we censor our own inherent assumptions and that we do not allow our national dialogue to be dominated by destructive agendas and tribal sentiments on all sides, and allow it to spiral into a never-ending cycle of fascism, tribalism, and religious fundamentalism which our country, let alone continent, can ill afford. It is also important to call out our own when they begin to engage in tribalist diatribes or hate speech.
This has been a disappointing episode for all of us. We trust that lessons have been learnt and that the incoming government will spend its days and nights building needed infrastructure and institutional reforms instead of putting out fires or pitting itself against the opposition. It has been embarrassing that one of General Buhari’s media aides could have reflected the very intolerance that our nation has stood against for all of its history. However, it may be a blessing in disguise as it presents us an opportunity to reform our national communication policy and put in place international best practices within an efficient ombudsman with enabling laws.
Ndiana-Abasi Matthew is the former Regional Director, West Africa of IC Publications UK Ltd, and Director, Palm3 Strategic Communications Pty Ltd based in Lagos and Johannesburg. He tweets from @ndiana and can be emailed at [email protected]
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.