By Tonnie Iredia
Mutual distrust and suspicion between local communities and herdsmen is probably Nigeria’s most recent internal security challenge. To specifically address the subject, the Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase has developed a strategic initiative of convening town hall meetings throughout the country to enhance the process of reassurance policing and the need for peaceful coexistence and sensitivity of each community’s value, space and interest. The goal is to utilize all Police formations in their respective locations to counter misinformation, anxiety and animosity being generated in relation to the challenge. If police operatives that are deployed in every locality in the nation purposefully follow the directive, so much can be achieved. It is thus no doubt a well thought-out design of public enlightenment which many state governors have also been patronizing. For instance, both at Abesan on October 06, 2015 and at the City Council Hall on January 19, 2016, Governor Ambode of Lagos used the strategy to get many Lagosians to appreciate his administration. It is gratifying that our Information Minister, Lai Mohammed has also joined the group.
Last Tuesday, Lai organized in Kaduna, a second town hall meeting in one month to enlighten Nigerians on government policies, programmes and projects as well as their challenges. The first in the series of the meetings was held in Lagos on April 25, 2016. With the gap between government and people still quite wide, the town hall meetings could not have come at a better time. There was so much to take-away from the LIVE broadcast of the meeting. It was an interactive session of people from different areas, occupations and thought processes. The ministers were fluent just as their messages were simple and clear. Indeed, it brought out the best of government and as one analyst concluded, no one ever knew that Interior Minister, Abdurahman Dambazzau was that knowledgeable and conversant with his schedule. More importantly was Oil minister, Ibe Kachukwu’s humane presentation which began with an apology to the nation on the pains citizens were going through particularly with fuel scarcity. Rotimi Amaechi (Transportation) and Babatunde Fashola, (Power, Works and Housing) were similarly applauded at the earlier Lagos meeting.
However, the design can be better handled. Contents of town hall meetings cannot get to a sizeable percentage of the people. To start with, the halls take only a few people making it obvious that government probably expects that those who hear will tell others. Such a posture premised on the 2-step flow theory in mass communication cannot guarantee overwhelming awareness to large audiences. Besides, quite often, what attendees retain is neither all that was said nor is it always what was exactly said. We also need to remember that we are all not equally endowed and that sometimes some people genuinely understand the opposite meaning of a message. In other cases, some people understand a message only after hearing it several times which suggests that public enlightenment is not a touch and go affair. It is a subject which is best handled by professional mobilizers and not top government officials who execute the policies. As a result, Lai Mohammed’s town hall meetings are good as a take-off point but they must be re-echoed, repackaged and represented in different languages and different fora such as palaces, village squares, markets and most importantly from house to house. This is an area where the National Orientation Agency (NOA) which has an office in every local government area nation-wide is comparatively advantaged.
If our information minister is truly desirous of attracting attention to development communication which focuses on national development rather than adversarial journalism, he must appropriately empower the relevant information agencies. This would enable a body like NOA which is professionally trained on grassroots mobilization to take over at the end of the geopolitical zonal meetings and take the messages to all nooks and crannies. One obvious reason why NOA is better positioned to do the assignment is that opposition political parties can easily controvert and thwart the ministers’ efforts. It was for this reason that the law setting up the NOA provided that politicians were not to be allowed in the service of the Agency even at the policy level of its chairman or Director General. But successive governments have continued to foist on the Agency, their party loyalists and political campaign operatives thereby adversely affecting the Agency’s credibility. If allowed to function as envisaged by its founding fathers to which this writer belongs, NOA will be an asset to government in bridging the gap between it and the people.
While disseminating government information, the Agency is expected to speak to the people not in Queen’s English but in the language they understand. In Kaduna last week it was announced that arrangements were being made to translate to the people what ministers have to say in future town hall meetings. This is in earnest an admission that the current mode of communication is not the ideal. With NOA, the officials are not translators, they are indigenes known to the people and believed by them. In addition, the officials are mandated to carry the messages from house to house, just as they are obliged to summarize the reactions of the people along with highlights of happenings in each locality to government every week in what is officially known as “the mood of the nation” report. In my time, this assignment qualified the Director General of the Agency to become a member of the Federal Government’s Joint Intelligence Board (JIB)
Government must however not make the mistake of seeking to publicise only what it has done or is doing; the role which the people can play to make public policy succeed must always be similarly emphasized. For example, at the Kaduna meeting, the revelation that over 5million Nigerians were engaged in illegal mining was quite instructive more so as the minister of Solid Mineral resources, Kayode Fayemi affirmed that his ministry was ready to formalise the sector as well as register and organise the miners into cooperative societies for easy financing. Unknown to Fayemi he was an instant winner of converts for national development. In all, we must give kudos to Lai Mohammed’s posture on public enlightenment.