I learnt something unbelievably soul lifting penultimate week from someone who came to visit me when I was down with malaria, (I doubt if I can ever overcome malaria). My visitor told me a story, a portion of which was about something really, really strategic for the future of this country which Pius Anyim Pius had accomplished with their pressure. It is not the kind of thing one would associate with this regime at all. But I am told it has been done.
As a communications person, I asked myself if is possible that part of the trouble with the Jonathan regime is that the government is not communicating politics. Before I go on, let me clarify that my notion of communication of politics or of power embraces but it is not really about the presumed failures over which critics are mauling Dr. Reuben Abati and which Segun Adeniyi compounded last week by reducing the whole thing to intrigue to undermine Abati. It is perhaps understandable for Adeniyi to generalize from his own experience but it is not possible that everyone who comes along with a proposal on information management to the president is on a mission of intrigue to undermine an incumbent SA, Media Affairs.
The job of the SA Media to the president is not the same as the job of say, the Chief Security Officer to the president. Very few people will contemplate, much less carry a gun with intent to attack a president, bringing him or her face to face with the Chief Security Officer and his boys. But the president is assassinated almost every other minute nowadays on the social media, newspapers, radio and television channels and what have you. And it is an SA Media’s job to aggregate these assassins and subdue them with superior analytical force and the power of details which his office and proximity to the president avails him or her.
Within the context of the multiplicity of any president’s assassins in the media, the management of the image of a president or any major politician is not a job for one person whatever his or her title might be. It must benefit from a pool of ideas and sources provided the SA Media is the clearing house as long as s/he bears the title. This is more so that the SA Media to the president of Nigeria is addressing the world each time s/he speaks and there should be no iota of doubt about who is quotable on the Nigerian or any president or head of any significant organisation for that matter at any given time. To that extent, the Nigerian idea of alternative SA Media, whether called attack dog or attack lion is simply a misnomer. It is just like having alternative COAS or alternative IGP, for whatever reasons. Only one person can speak for the president of Nigeria at a time and any other person there is his or her resource persons or aides. Otherwise, a situation could arise when two different spokesmen could be saying two different things about the president of Nigeria.
What Segun Adeniyi could have said is that the problem of most SAs Media is what some principals do with such surreptitious proposals and the logic of having an SA Media. A principal would determine whether simple, innocent proposal on image management from wherever can become a source of bad blood, with disruptive impacts on the coherence of publicity messages. My model in responding to this kind of situation is Chief Duro Onabule. But, of course, it is not every SA Media whose principal has IBB’s suavity in these matters. Some other principals can be so disruptive to a level that leaves any self respecting SA Media with little or no option than to resign or risk becoming what they call the groundnut chief in Idoma language.
From the look of things, Dr Abati is having problems and my theory is that he is most likely to continue to have problems as long as he didn’t know the president before he became his SA Media and as long as his conception of the job suffers from the limitations of liberal pragmatism. The point about the two not knowing each before they became one in office risks being contested but the question is what is president Jonathan’s agenda of power and Dr. Abati’s own and where do the two agendas meet as for one to defend the other with the creativity and dexterity of a cadre, complete with the discursive template? The two are just companions on a journey. Nothing here suggests that president Jonathan or Dr. Abati did anything new or unusual. It is the Nigerian way of doing things but the SA Media is not just a political appointee in the Information Age when the mass media is the ultimate instrument for hegemony building or power. There is an ideological and cognitive dimension to it. So much for the digression!
This takes us back to the communication of power analogy which I think is the bigger problem and in which Abati’s own problems must be located. Power is something that must be rationalized, defended and expanded. Otherwise, it shrinks very badly and evaporates mysteriously. In other words, the first duty is the declaration of the stream of consciousness by which a government would be accepted in popular psychology. This is so important that even military regimes first rationalize their intervention by tagging the regime either corrective or a child of necessity or something like that. They know what they are doing by prioritising and coming out with that discourse. It is nothing but sophisticated propaganda, whether one understands propaganda in its original sense or as falsehood but it is primary because force is not as useful in consolidating power as much as consent or legitimacy.
One of the problems with the Jonathan regime is that it has no such self justification. It has no discourse of itself. The president has a fantastic organising concept of power in the ideology of the transformation agenda but it has been operationalized in breach. Clearly, it is either the president casually got the concept from someone whom he never bothered to ask to explain what it means or was merely interested in using it to get Nigerians to vote for him. Without an explicit self-justification or discourse of power, the president himself who embodies the government has been a failure in the communication of politics.
Barrack Obama has not performed as much as the hopes he raised with his hysterical sign tune in 2008: Yes, We Can”. But he has considerably mitigated the consequence with his communication of politics. His was a revitalization of politics to the extent of restoring faith in the public figure. As he glides through, he electrifies even his most dedicated opponent and enemies. This accords with the convention that a president doesn’t walk anyhow. If Obama could do it, Goodluck should also be able to do it because both are as plain as they come: neither came from any double barreled family nor came as a product of any political machine but when Obama finished, even the Colin Powels of this world were in tears of joy and fulfillment. Unfortunately, under Goodluck, Nigeria is dying from many things but, above all, from the dullness of politics which is a president’s job to animate. Being president is not just about awarding contracts running into billions every Wednesday. It is also about a Mandela stepping out in a ‘duet’ with Brenda Fassie or president Mahama of Ghana droning a Fela number recently on BBC Africa Service.
This does not appear to be part of president Jonathan’s politics because he has not been able to reduce his agenda in power to a phrase whose economic, social, cultural, political and strategic dimensions will be very clear to every actor in the system, from the president to the ordinary folks. That way, it would have been clear to the president that there will be a time he would have to dance, to shed tears, to give a damn or not to, when and how to withdrawl subsidy with the victims actually clapping for him, etc, etc. A regime without such a phrase is automatically a regime without ideologues and, by implication, without the drama, histrionics, rhetorical extravagance, grandiloquence, etc that communicates politics and inclusiveness.
Does it strike anybody that there is no debate in Nigeria today other than unproductive shouting matches between the North and the South? This is because politics has atrophied. If there is no politics as conciliation and reconciliation with the hope to produce order and in the process of which the president acts out the presidency, then what can an SA Media to the president do? There is a limit to trading what we call “News from nowhere”? This point cannot be overstressed. If there is no grand discourse reduced to some concrete take-off points, there is no way anyone can determine a flash of exceptionalism like the Anyim‘s intervention mentioned at the beginning of this piece from the many conspiracies against the people of Nigeria that governance has been reduced to in this day and age of seedy subsidy, privatisation and re-privatisation, etc.
I have a suggestion for the consideration of Mister president. That is for him to rent someone like Charles Soludo from Atiku Abubakar and inject him into the apparatchik so as to rescue the government from the menace of dumbness of power. At this point, the issue is not about who is with us or against us but about expertise. The diction of Soludo’s recent essay, “Restructuring for prosperity”, suggests to me he can single handedly help the regime out of its dumbness and the killing dullness of politics today by the elevated fireworks he can generate as opposed to commonsensical analysis. As for the substance of the essay, some of us will tackle Soludo when he is done.
Mr Onoja is a columnist with Abuja base Blueprint