By Ochereome Nnanna
Every newly-elected regime is entitled to a period of “honeymoon”: that moment of euphoria, high expectations and good wishes; people trying to curry favours, everybody entertaining the hope that the new kid on the block will wave the proverbial magic wand and all their problems will disappear. Quite evidently, Nigeria’s president-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari, has been enjoying his since President Goodluck Jonathan called to congratulate him for his victory.
My people say: “a toddler who will kill (the prestigious native) cow in honour of his father is usually known from the moment he takes his first steps”.
All the three presidents elected before Buhari since 1999 took first steps that sowed the seeds of hope and helped to lengthen their honeymoon periods. For instance, as soon as Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn-in, he retired ninety three politically-exposed military officers. It was the masterstroke he used to eliminate coups and give our democracy a chance. Some elements from the North cried blue murder, but it helped Obasanjo to become more acceptable in the South West, the only zone that totally rejected him at the polls.
In the same vein, the late President Umaru Yar’ Adua, who admitted his election was flawed, bought instant favour by offering himself as our “Servant Leader”. He followed it up by declaring his assets publicly. He was still enjoying his goodwill when he died. President Jonathan, apart from the romance of being a Minority from the Niger Delta standing him in good stead for his own honeymoon, also made himself at home when he appointed a battery of internationally tested technocrats into his cabinet. It was not until the attempt to remove the petroleum subsidy on January 1, 2012 that the honeymoon ended rather abruptly.
Buhari needed to be reminded of these so he doesn’t get carried away and feel his own honeymoon period is forever. The truth is, about half of the population of this country is watching him with great caution to see if he would re-launch some of the ugly attributes of his past as an elected president. His decision to “sideline” the Africa Independent Television (AIT) from covering his activities was a dangerous and ominous sign. More intriguing is the immediate step taken by his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) to countermand him.
Buhari’s security aides prevented the AIT crew from covering a courtesy visit to him by the Cuban envoy in Nigeria at the Defence House in Abuja. His media spokesman, Malam Garba Shehu, justified the action on “family” and “security” concerns. He added that AIT would be kept in the doghouse until issues of “standards” and “ethics” are sorted out, whatever that means.
Do AIT reporters go with guns, machetes or improvised explosive devices to cover events? Since when did an elected public officer determine his own standards of ethics with which to admit or gate the media in a democracy? The constitution (Section 22) makes it clear that the mass media have a sacred duty to hold every regime accountable for discharging the fundamental objectives of government. The rules of engagement between government officials and the media are well spelt out. So, if the AIT or any media house has offended Buhari and his party before, the law must be followed. Anything outside that is impunity.
The decision by Buhari to bar the AIT was a brazen impunity that reminded us ofhis days as a military head of state, when he rolled out draconian decrees to jail journalists and threaten media houses. It is a total negation of his undertaking at the Chatham House, London on 26th February, 2015 where he told the world he was now a converted democrat. Buhari needs to be told that as an elected president, his family issues must take the back seat. The only family that matters to us is the Nigerian family, and we hold Buhari to the laws and conventions that bind him to his Nigerian family. We respect his nuclear family, but they are not of public interest except when they bring their affairs to the public arena.
The decision of the APC to wade into the matter spoke volumes and left us with many things to speculate on. But it was a timely and patriotic intervention, not just for the sake of the Party but for the prestige and dignity of the impending Buhari presidency. The APC saved Buhari from himself. The APC has shown that it is indeed, media savvy; a major attribute that helped it to topple a political behemoth like the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Perhaps, we are moving into an era where the ruling Party will exert enough influence on the Presidency to prevent it from derailing. We watch to see if this trend will continue when Buhari assumes power. It will be a miracle if it does, because of the enormous powers of the Nigerian Presidency, and the unbending resolve of the Northerner to assert them to the max.
Garba Shehu, Buhari’s main media manager, is a tested and respected hand, both as a professional and political image maker. He will do well to advise his principal not to go into unnecessary loggerheads with the media, especially today’s media which now has an out-of-control component – the Social Media. War against the media is unwinnable, especially by the public official.
Obasanjo dealt with the media with nimble wisdom, despite his military past and personal traits. He simply grew thick skin to them. He even boasted he did not read Nigerian newspapers, a claim I am in a position to discredit as untrue. There is nothing in those features which Buhari describes as “hate” programmes run by AIT that is strange in campaigns anywhere in the world. Jonathan suffered worse, yet he smiled it all off. Tinubu deals with his media challenges by setting up his own counter-media and constructively engaging the fiercely independent-minded ones. The rest he ignores.
Management of media and civil society relations could be a major challenge for the Buhari administration.