I do not know how far the outright incompetent communication at Nigeria’s Presidency would get before the people speak up to its inappropriateness.
I agree that it ordinarily should not be the people’s responsibility to complain about those who speak for the President; that should, in fact, be the prerogative of the one who hired them. However, this can only happen when the one who should make the call understands his own communication needs. Where he does not, as is the case here, and now, the citizens have a right to protest. They, after all, pay these people, their principal and the whole machinery of government. And more importantly, every form of mis-communication or no communication at all, brings a measure of ridicule on us all.
Take Monday’s offering of the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, Mallam Shehu Garba, that his principal would not function from his office for three months because rodents had taken residence of the apartment in the President’s absence.
Every one with a modicum of intelligence would wonder what this is all about. Is the President’s office at the Aso Rock Villa part of a huge deserted space that no one had visited since Buhari travelled in May? Where did his chief of staff and ancillary staff, which includes Garba himself, ply the comedy that they regard as presidential spokesmanship when the “big man” was away? Did they share the space with these rodents or were the rodents big enough to have taken over from men?
Even if rodents took over, what happened to those who had foreknowledge of Buhari’s return that they could not quickly prepare the office ahead? Why in the world does it take three months to clear rodents?
That infantile proposition, which suggests that those who were listening were incapable of fathoming the awkwardness of it all came from the same place from which they told us half-truths and insulted our sensibilities in the past two years or so. Obvious incompetence that Nigerians have condoned and justified all this while.
But most of those who explain these thing away do not understand the basics of effective public communications and what it entails, so we may excuse their ignorant enthusiasm. However, citizens in a democracy must also realise that information is a major instrument of national emancipation and when they do not know, it is better to avoid speaking. But I shall return to this shortly.
Garba and his friends in the media office go about their job without requisite skills and we need to let them realise that communication for public office holders especially the President of a nation, transcends media purposes into a more robust public relations configuration with the understanding of the people at its centre. Without this, the purpose of a communications office for a person of a President’s stature is totally needless.
And here it should be stated that public relations is neither lie nor spin. In fact, a basic tenet of the discipline is that you must tell the truth all the time and at the right time. A delay in coming out with what is true could be as fatal to retaining the trust of the public as being caught at telling a lie. Let those who speak for the President know this and stop bringing shame unto us as a nation forthwith. These men should tarry a bit, drop their impulsive reactions to issues and employ the tools of public relations in doing their job.
By the agreement reached at the World Assembly of Public Relations in 1978, Public Relations “is the art and social science of analysing trends, predicting their consequences, counselling organisational leaders and implementing programmes of action which will serve both the organisation’s and the public interest.”
These are the men who should counsel the Nigerian leader on what is expedient for him to say on his arrival from a three-month medical vacation such that he does not end up saying the exact thing that should have been unsaid. There could be arguments that the President is so cut in his ways that he possibly would not have condoned suggestions to show a little bit of more appreciation to Nigerians and respect their rights to react to the evident structural imbalance.
If they dared to analyse trends, predict their consequences as is expected of practitioners in the offices that they occupy, they would be able to tell their principal that the nation needed nothing more than the empathetic words which would help him recover the prospect for a united country that he met in 2015 but lost shortly after.
Nigerians will recall the tension that gripped this country ahead of the 2015 elections and certain unverified predictions that the country might fail. Not a few of our compatriots fled the country at this time.
But contrary to all expectations, the 2015 elections ended the way a majority of Nigerians wanted and then President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat. Before our eyes, the cloud of fear which permeated the land dissipated like smoke from dead fire. Peace descended on Nigeria like a dove and confidence in the survival of the country rose to an all-time high.
Expectations were that President Buhari, being a retired General and a one-time head of state, who was in the middle of the bitter civil war that the country fought over 40 years ago, would build on this moment and encourage national cohesion and integration. But what did we see? Nigeria has not been more sectionalised than now. The country haemorrhages from the action and inaction of the Buhari government and there is a need to tackle these issues head-on in the interest of the nation.
An analysis of the communication of the Presidency would show that they have contributed in no small measure to the situation at hand. It started with the President when, during one of his trips to the United States, he indicated that those who voted for him five per cent should not expect to get the same treatment with those who voted for him 97 per cent. This presidential gaffe received widespread condemnation from the southern part of Nigeria although his supporters drew all sorts of alibis for him. He went ahead to threaten to bring war to the Niger Delta militants and things took a nosedive which nearly paralysed the economy.
Were we blessed with a communication team sure of its onions, the presidential speech on Monday, August 21, should have come with an analysis of where we were coming from, how we got here and what the people really desired. One thing we can tell them for free for instance is that no ethnic nationality is really serious about leaving this country. Not even the theatrics of Nnamdi Kanu should be so seriously taken as the ultimate separatist intent if we were in a country where communication has any pride of place.
However, the Nigerian citizen has himself condoned this incompetence for too long and he still does. For instance, the impression one gets from all the triumphalism and pettiness that reigned on the Nigerian social media space over Buhari’s return is that Nigerians have learnt no lessons from the handling of the President’s health situation since the beginning of the year.
The implication of not learning these lessons is that the same mistakes and lack of regard for the feelings of the people will continue to remain the modus operandi of the government and its communicators.
And we cannot deny citizens of a free country the liberty of expression. And when those charged with the responsibility to win the confidence of the citizenry are bereft of the very basic requirements of effective communication, these liberties literarily snap and become licences which lead to reckless conjectures that help nobody but are a natural consequence of a lacuna in communication.
What is wrong with telling the people the correct situation of President Buhari’s health? What is wrong with owning up that the President had chosen to work from home to complete his healing process? What is wrong with passionately seeking the support and understanding of Nigerians about the illness of a 74-year-old man who means well for the country and is trying to prove the point? Did rodents inspire the calling off of the Federal Executive Council meeting on Wednesday as well?
In case anyone is under some illusion, it is a great tragedy that a government that swam in the sea of goodwill just two years back is now the object of ridicule across the world. And that an essentially predictable function as communications plays a significant role in diminishing that brand equity. It is in fact, unforgivable.