By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
“If someone wants to roast you, you do not smear yourself with oil and sit by the fireside awaiting him.”- Nigerian proverb.
THE recent entry of Dr. Doyin Okupe into the image management team of President Goodluck Jonathan ought to have improved the manner the Presidency is perceived by Nigerians. Dr. Okupe brings an intimidating credential as a heavyweight with an intellect and a punch, and has been involved in many bruising battles in the corridors of power and on political streets.
This engagement of Dr. Okupe as aide on Public Affairs, reflects a growing concern that the image of the President (and his wife) are not being positively received. You have to feel for Dr. Reuben Abati, an accomplished professional who had all the credentials to make a success of managing the President’s media and public relations.
There is no spin you could put on the Okupe-Abati pairing that will mitigate the damage done to Dr. Abati’s standing as an experienced media person brought in to make a poor leadership look good. The space taken up by Dr. Okupe belongs to Dr. Abati, and what is left of Abati’s turf will now largely be a function of his ability to protect it, and the capacity of Dr. Okupe to operate in the stifling environment around President Jonathan.
Ordinarily, the combination of Drs. Abati and Okupe will intimidate any opposition, particularly the type represented by opposition parties these days. Dr. Abati’s extensive network in the media and Dr. Okupe’s arsenal of tricks and bricks will take on ACN’s Lai Mohammed, Babangida’s Afegbua or CPC’s Tony Momoh any day. They will be well-supported with resources and muscle, and government’s extensive machinery for propaganda in NTA, FRCN, NAN and many others.
They can counter fair and unfair criticism, and sell the President, his administration and his spouse so well that Nigerians will believe they are the best thing that happened to the nation.
So what is the problem? The problem is that Drs. Abati and Okupe have many rivals in the area of creating the right image for the President.
These rivals come in all forms, shapes and sizes. You have the godfather Chief E. Clark who shoots from the hips and offers no apologies. His job is to remind Nigerians that President Jonathan is a good President being harassed by northerners (and possibly a few of their friends in the West) who have sworn that he will never govern in peace.
His crime is that he is from the South-South, a member of a minority group who has offended those who believe that it is their destiny to govern Nigeria forever.
President Jonathan is being fought with the JASLIWAJ (Boko Haram) insurgency, and the people behind it are more or less known. All Nigerians (except northerners who will not condemn Boko Haram) should rally around the President who is transforming Nigeria. Nigerians should wait and see: if Jonathan ceases to be President (in 2015, or 2019, if he wants), Boko Haram will disappear.
There are also a few less prominent but equally vociferous defenders of the President. Asari Dokubo warns the North to put out the insurgency before it becomes a war, otherwise the south-south will obliterate the north with hunger and superior weapons.
Then you have the Ogoni Declaration of Independence and the flags and anthem of Bayelsa State, symbolic irritants that appear to suggest that the President is lax on his own people, but tough on communities in which the JASLIWAJ insurgency is prominent.
There are yet more rivals to the good Doctors in the utterances and actions of Pastor Oritsejafor, the National President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) who insist that the President, like all christians in the nation, is the victim of a grand Muslim conspiracy to Islamise or destroy the nation.
There is a motley of businessmen, pseudo-intellectuals, ex-militants who have billion-Naira contracts and career political crawlers who see every criticism of the President as a vindication of their suspicion that he has enemies who are envious of the excellent work he is doing.
To all these, add a government-owned media which has raised the basest form of propaganda into an art form. Finally, you have the PDP whose unwieldy machinery still manages to churn out a word or two to say nothing is wrong with the President or the nation.
With all their competitors selling the President, you have to feel sorry for Drs. Abati and Okupe, the Minister of Information, several Advisers and Senior Special Assistants when the verdict from Nigerians comes in to say we are not impressed.
Which is also the right point to ask what is really wrong, apart from the fact that the President’s side is overloaded with the wrong people? What is wrong is that the other side sees all these efforts to create a false image for the President, and they are even less impressed.
The President’s case is not helped by the zeal of security agents who tend to treat scathing criticism of his performance as a threat to national security. It is not helped by high profile exposure by his wife which does little justice to his office as the embodiment of propriety, decorum and decency.
It is not helped by institutional weaknesses which pitch him in bruising battles with the legislature over budget performance, over Oteh, over the P.I.B. It is not helped by dithering and delays over the prosecution of persons suspected in the subsidy scam.
It is not helped by insurgents who appear to strike at will, or the failure of the largest mobilisation of the nation’s security assets in towns and streets to contain them.
Making the President look good
But the job of making the President look good is also being made more difficult by critics who genuinely observe serious inadequacies in governance irrespective of the tribe or religion of President Jonathan.
These critics are moving away from the middle ground which was the comfort zone for those Nigerians who thought you took on the President only if you are a northern Muslim who did not want him to become President in the first place.
Increasingly, the Federal House of Representatives is becoming a major source of opposition, and it is likely that more responsible Nigerians will raise their voices in demand for improved performance.
The task of managing the image of President Jonathan’s performance is going to be increasingly more challenging as critical shortfalls in competence, in managing security and curbing corruption continue to be registered by his administration.
The best P.R for Jonathan is a radical improvement in his performance. His critics will not relent in criticising him, even at the risk of others defending him only because he is Ijaw from the South South. We will never be a nation where citizens sit and watch, or keep mute because security people say, shhhh!