Without conducting a poll or a content analysis, Dr Goodluck Jonathan has declared himself the most criticized president in the world. That I guess is what he is being told by some favour-seeking politicians and ‘media consultants’. But from experience I know why the people who peddle those tales to the president do so: one, to make
his media managers look bad; two, to bring in their own men if possible; and three, to make money. Before I however conclude on what President Jonathan’s real problem is, I want to share my experience with the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua on this same issue.
In my first year working for him, I was aware that many people were telling my late principal how his efforts were not appreciated by Nigerians because of media opposition. Both the Minister of Information, Mr John Odey, and myself were blamed for this situation. These were, however, mere whispering campaigns until the day I got a document from the president directing me and Odey to read before meeting with him to discuss it. The document in question was a media strategy paper from one of the aides retained from the President Olusegun Obasanjo era. Even though the man wrote that it was strictly a secret paper, the president forwarded copies to myself and Odey.
The paper brought to the fore the challenges I faced and which I think any serious journalist in government would face. My understanding of an effective media strategy was for government to address the issues critics were raising and that was the approach I adopted which my late principal appreciated even though there was also pressure on him that by not “fighting back”, I was not showing enough commitment to his administration. This was the same argument advanced in the ten-page paper which the author apparently never imagined would come back to me.
The “foundation” to the submission, according to the man, centered on the fact that “Nigeria is today being led by a visionary, self-less and committed leader but how many Nigerians know about him or his vision? Whereas government has done so much and achieved positive results in so short a time, most of the achievements are not known to the public and other critical constituencies, largely because of the barrage of negative press coming out of the Nigerian and international media—both in hardcopies of Nigerian newspapers and other internet media.”
According to the official who incidentally was brought to the villa by Obasanjo, and is a Yorubaman, a good media manager should be able to sell Yar’Adua’s “gentle mien and approach (dialogue and consensus building) in contrasts to President Obasanjo’s aggressive and combative approach” aside Yar’Adua’s “personal integrity and simplicity which Nigerian masses can identify with and the ambitious vision 20-20-20 can be positively projected for maximum redefining.”
After the long preamble, the official now recommended a Media and Information Management Team which would require “co-option of good writers drawn from editors of Nigerian newspapers” to be domiciled in his office! There were other recommendations that would require huge capital outlay for both domestic and international propaganda.
When I got a copy of this paper with a directive that myself, Odey and the man should meet with him (Yar’Adua) four days later, I could not contain my anger as I sent a memo back to the president that same day. I am reproducing excerpts from my memo which underscores my own understanding of what I consider to be the role of a journalist in government.
“I have received an invitation to a meeting with Your Excellency on Monday with an accompanying document on ‘Media and Information Management’ and I hasten to say that the meeting is not only unnecessary, the motive behind it is unfortunate. I wish to inform Your Excellency that the so-called strategy paper is a rehash of an eight million Dollar proposal from a consultant promoted by…to me upon assuming office last year but which I turned down because I believed then, and even more so now, that that is not the way to go.
“While I will in a separate paper counter each of the false assumptions which inform the conclusion that there is information management deficit, I wish to reiterate my stand that on balance, this government and indeed President Yar’Adua has a relatively fair media image. While it can be better, the approach being proposed is unnecessary, wasteful and will at the end be counterproductive.
“This ridiculous idea of selective newspaper cuttings (of negative media news reports or articles) to the president has a purpose: either to portray me as incompetent or create the image of a media siege so that some consultants (and necessarily huge resources) can be deployed to combat this exaggerated problem. While some people can bring in ‘experts’ who they assume have the magic wand to ensure that the media begin to celebrate the president and the government without any criticism, the problem is that the only beneficiaries of such self-deluding enterprise are the consultants and their promoters, not the president or the government.
“Your Excellency, I scan the Nigerian media everyday and I also do same for American and British media and I am aware our media is not as cynical and contemptuous of their government and the man in power as the British or American media. While some people have issues with the style of government, there is still a general perception that the president is a man of integrity and has his plan but rather slow in his approach. Because some key issues like power emergency/Niger Delta Summit/Infrastructure are yet to be resolved, I am aware of current media challenge. But I also know that this can be an advantage because when the media create low expectations, as they do now, results will be easy to see and appreciate as it would ultimately happen in this instance. On the other hand, when you pump the people up with expensive media propaganda, then you create problem when results don’t match expectations…”
After reading my memo, President Yar’Adua cancelled the meeting earlier called and just directed that myself, Odey and the man should iron out the issue. Not surprisingly, the man felt so small at our meeting chaired by Odey and three weeks later, he was sacked by the president. But it would not be the end of the intrigues I would survive in the villa nor of the constant bombardment of the president with insinuation that the media was his problem.
Now that President Jonathan is also facing a barrage of criticism, he has promised to be “the most praised president” by 2013. If I understand that statement clearly, what it means is that the critics are justified because the president has not met their expectations and that by next year, his performance would have been such that they would begin to sing his praise. But we all know that is not what President Jonathan meant to convey. He feels he is being unfairly attacked by the media.
That, however, is not true. The fact is that the conventional media is not more critical of President Jonathan than his predecessors. The real problem this president is facing is from his social media “friends”, the crowd he carefully cultivated and set out to please as the first “Nigerian Facebook President”. Unfortunately, he ought to have been warned that the social media can cut both ways. So if he in 2010 enjoyed public adulation at the expense of the “Yar’Adua cabal”, it is naïve not to understand that he is playing in a jungle where rumour peddling, hate mongering, bitter retorts, malicious gossips and innuendoes are also fair games.
It is, however, patently dishonest for his handlers to argue that those who criticize or hurl personal abuse at the president do so because he is from Niger Delta (or whatever other ridiculous reasons being invented). No, it is because he is the president of Nigeria while his implacable traducers even enjoy attacking him for the simple reason that he has made them to know that they are getting to him.
What makes the situation so pathetic is that those close to the president refuse to locate when the real problem began, especially with regards to genuine supporters who now feel disappointed. It all started in January following the sudden withdrawal of fuel subsidy on the first day of the year. Not only was the timing inauspicious (with many still in their villages) there was also the question of trust since government officials had announced that the policy (which by the way I wholeheartedly endorse) would not commence until the second quarter of the year.
To compound the situation, revelations began to come from the probe of fuel subsidy payments in 2011 of how billions (in Dollar) of public funds were practically shared by some unscrupulous marketers and their government collaborators, all under President Jonathan’s watch. Then, on a rare interview on national television which was watched by many Nigerians (at home and in the Diaspora), he angrily proclaimed that he doesn’t give a damn about what people feel on his refusal to publicly declare his assets. With all these, the president frittered away enormous goodwill though there is still time to make amends not with the critics but with the silent majority of Nigerians who only desire good leadership and appreciate genuine efforts.
What Dr Goodluck Jonathan must, however, come to terms with is that presidents don’t crave momentary applause as he seems to be doing; they target history. To his credit, the power situation has improved significantly but the things that would earn him enduring legacy in the sector (or in any other sector for that matter) are not necessarily decisions that would provoke instant praise. The way things are in Nigeria today, the president is like a man charged with leading an orchestra. To succeed, he must learn to back the crowd.
But here is the greater lesson for President Jonathan: Asked on Monday how he took actor Clint Eastwood’s bizarre attack on him (characterised by an empty chair) at the Republican Convention, President Barack Obama said: “One thing about being president or running for president—if you’re easily offended, you should probably choose another profession.”