Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu’s First Challenge, By Adagbo Onoja

Adagbo-OnojaThe key assumption here is still the notion that there is a Buhari Moment in Nigerian history in terms of the agency requirement for the structural change Nigeria is over-due for. In the context of scarcity of alternatives, this is a Moment to be nourished, not one to hold our hands akimbo and watch it make mistakes so that APC would be defeated in 2019. Whatever happens to this Moment, it is not Buhari who will be the loser but Nigeria. In that regard, the Buhari Moment should not be allowed to fall prey to any forces and interests that do not share the sense of urgency about resolving the leadership dimension of the Nigerian crisis, a crisis that has attained embarrassing dimension for not just the Nigerians but all Africans and Blacks.

In arguing this way, I know I open myself to charges of overdrive by putting so much emphasis on one individual or assuming that there is one Buhari essence when there are many contending interests pressurising, threatening, cajoling, persuading or begging him to do this or that. I would argue that I commit no such thing because I think the most crucial variable at work is Adamu Ciroma’s point about let’s try this man who has resisted the temptation most others have not. So, my claim about a Buhari Moment is in order. But even if the notion of a Buhari Moment is accepted, that’s still not a discourse but a description. Yet, a definitive discourse of the Buhari regime is an imperative for success given the nexus that demonstrably exists between discourse and power.

This is still a contentious claim but, if a coalition of powerful international NGOs can push a position into law against the wishes of even the great powers as in the case of the USA versus the International Criminal Court, (ICC), does anyone still doubt the power of discourse? Or, if insurgent groups are thumbing their nose against state power, using discourse to radicalise, recruit and invest themselves with a mystique as to, in many cases, force a negotiation of power relations, does it not tell us something about this claim? This is even more complicated in the global context of state power today, putting sovereignty under stress in both the powerful centres of the world as well as the ‘peripheries’ like Nigeria. What all these show is the way discourse defines power.

One can claim to be observing an effort to create a discourse of the Buhari regime although I think none has clicked yet. Someone might ask if ‘change’ is not a definitive discourse of the regime. But the question would be: change from what to what? Change from infrastructural decay to a surfeit or from corruption ridden to corruption free society? Yea, but from where did these symptoms come in the first place?

Throughout the campaigns, the reference to Buhari as a Messiah was strong. The Buhari or APC media or campaign intellectuals could have cautioned against this but they didn’t, although they knew or ought to know that it has political implications. Perhaps, the challenge of that contest worked against such a move but apart from the political implication, it adds no value whatsoever to refer to anybody as a Messiah in a republic. Because nobody distanced Buhari from Messianism, a crisis of too high an expectation index confronted the party immediately after the victory. In coming to grips with that expectation index, a further damage was inflicted in Buhari saying there would be no magic. And the reaction was: what? And that was understandable because a Messiah suggests a deliverer, something about a magic wand and so on. Up till now, the image of the Messiah hangs there, capable of creating a merciless and even over-critical assessment of the Buhari personality, family and presidency. What is then clear is that the Messiah identity is not only out of sync but also dangerous even to the regime.

A second example could be the attempt at creating a liberal democratic Buhari. One can take as an example of this Buhari’s title preference in which the military rank was thrown off, obviously because the military rank is seen as the anti-thesis of democracy. But the military rank was earned on strictly modernist terms. So, why throw off what ought to be an inspiring story of a successful movement of one person from one extreme end of public service to another? Meanwhile, even papers like the ‘International New York Times’ were privileging Buhari’s military background as his qualification for power. So, where is this understanding of democracy coming from? In Buhari, we are talking about reclaiming the state rather than any plastic sense of democracy. Why then subtract from the totality of the special qualities that advertises his suitability for this rescue mission?

It is against this background that crafting a definitive discourse of the regime should be Adesina and Shehu’s first challenge. The good thing is that the President has assembled a media team well heeled in these matters that make it look a meaningless exercise to try to advice. Ogbuagu Anikwe has assembled a profile of Garba Shehu that presented a much more experienced Shehu than previously known. Some of us rarely knew him, media wise, beyond a symbolic statement he made by deliberately striking a regional balance in constituting his media team as Corporate Affairs Manager of the defunct Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria, (ALSCON). Shehu was, subsequently, the main reason some of us sided with Atiku in his Third World War with OBJ between 2003 and 2007 without any invitation or inducement whatsoever, a gesture Shehu never reciprocated when I became a Lamido appointee in 2007. The Atiku Media Unit of which he was the head was relentless in attacking Lamido. It was simply too early as Lamido had just taken office then. Moreover, when one went into advocacy journalism on the OBJ-Atiku conflict, it couldn’t have been because Atiku was completely blameless. I, therefore, took a keen interest in Anikwe also nursing a grudge against Shehu.

But, like Anikwe demonstrated in his compilation, Shehu’s suitability for mediatising the Buhari essence is beyond interrogation. Unlike Anikwe, however, I do not put too much value on what appears a contradiction in making Shehu appear to be junior to Femi Adesina in the pecking order. My suspicion is that Buhari is sending a nation building message in that as well as recognising the originality of Adesina’s relationship with the Buhari essence. In other words, what is interesting in Adesina’s appointment is his identification with the Buhari standpoint long before the ruling class changed its mind and endorsed a Buhari presidency. Nigeria needs recognition of such originality as a critique of the startling rush to the APC immediately it won power, even by so-called founders of the PDP. How someone could hope to become a beneficiary of a party for which he or she did not work is part of the speculative or windfall mindedness that sits at the heart of the moral and political decay in Nigeria.

In spite of the credibility of this team, we must still recognise a persisting problem with how media advisers position governments in Nigeria. It is not a terrible thing to say that there has been an anaemic tradition in this regard. Media advisers in Nigeria are particularly averse to critically situating the offices they mediatise. Critical, of course, doesn’t mean criticising or being negative but looking at things in terms of their historical interconnectedness. In fact, much of media advisory has been about mere press statements and blocking so-called bad stories from the media. Notwithstanding some recent improvements such as Segun Adeniyi’s approach through a book, mediatising power in Nigeria is still so much of colourful graphics and pedantic narratives rather than critical celebration of power that makes the media adviser to be the fulcrum of power, particularly in a country like Nigeria where political office holders are, uniquely, the epicentre of national life. The question would be why is such the case? And what would be an exemplary model of mediatisation of the presidency in the Nigerian context, for example?

A tentative explanation could be the authority gap between principals and agents, especially under the cultural influence in that relationship in Nigeria. Let’s make this a short story. It is said that whenever Obasanjo complained that a speech was too long, there was one of his media advisers who would tell him to skip whichever portion of such speech he didn’t like when delivering it. Ordinarily, this is a rude statement and only someone who enjoyed a level of familiarity with Obasanjo much, much earlier than his appointment as an adviser could say this and get away with it from the scourge of power – those ‘entrepreneurs of interpretation’ who reserved for themselves the determination of what constitutes disloyalty, subversion and all such stuff which informs the dynamism of Government Houses.

This point illustrates a particular difficulty of media advisers. Between 2007 and 2011, there was the joke of a media assistant who would take visitors only very close to his principal’s office and say, that is the office there. The message is that he didn’t even have access to the governor. Luckily, the culture of appointing journalists of editor rank beginning from Babangida’s time seems to have solved this problem at the federal level but many a media adviser in the states suffer the indignity of authority gap. Most of the time, he or she doesn’t even know what is happening or lacks the professional and/or intellectual wherewithal to provide a critical perspective that may be discursive without, however, being ideological or propagandistic.

The second and deeper of the problematic is that most governments in Africa have no self- understanding which provides an overarching frame of reference which brings all the parts together. This problem is not of their own making but part of the African crisis in history. Governments and leaders in Africa are under the surveillance of metropolitan powers on the question of self-understanding. Ordinarily, the dire existential situation across the continent makes a case for the welfare state system. But that is frowned at by these powers. On the other hand, the moment the neoliberal programmes favoured by these powers are put in place, it automatically alienates these leaders from the people, turns the good leader into the bad leader. So, only very few African leaders are able to have a clear overarching frame of reference in which their media managers can locate them, domestically and globally. This leaves most media advisers in Africa defending retrenchment, devaluation and the whole gamut of ‘disciplinary neoliberalism’. Still, can the job be done without a definitive discourse of the regime?

Absolutely not! That is why it is graded as the first challenge of the duo. It is doubtful though that anyone would produce an answer easily. Perhaps the numerous APC intellectuals may need to think more on this. Should they chose to do so, they may look at the all time clinchers such as NEPU’s ‘Sawaba’ or ‘Freedom’; AG’s ‘Freedom for all, Life More Abundant’; NPN’s ‘One Nation, One Destiny’, China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ thesis or China’s ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’. These are all time clinchers not because we agree or disagree with them but for the power they pack.