By Tonnie Iredia
The health status of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari was the obvious issue of the moment in the country in the last one month. Of course, being the nation’s number one citizen, whatever concerns the President ought to interest us all. Unfortunately, the posture of official information management on the subject generated a high level of cynicism among the people.
The original story was that the President was on vacation in London and decided to undergo a routine check-up there. Ordinarily, that should not give room to controversies except for another comment that he hurriedly departed and that the Vice President who was at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland was rushed back to stand-in.
Against the backdrop of the nation’s experience during the Presidency of Umaru Yar’Adua, all sorts of what may have happened or not dominated public space in the country. It was not only lay persons that became apprehensive, even the Nigerian Medical Association(NMA) demanded to know the current state of the President’s health adding that he does not have doctor-patient confidentiality which can deprive his people from knowing the sickness he was battling with.
Rather than an authoritative and well couched official statement, our information framework became defensive making more people ask more questions. For example, Minister Lai Mohammed told our people that considering that many ministers were up and doing, people ought to have known that nothing was wrong with the President.
When reminded that when the roles were reversed in the Yar’ Adua days he led the opposition to demand a daily update on the President’s health, he replied that whereas the late President was ill at the time, Buhari was hale and hearty. How can a people already apprehensive, appreciate a man reportedly hale and hearty, that doctors couldn’t discharge to return home? Lai forgot that the handlers of Yar’ Adua gave similar assurances that he too was well at that time.
In reality therefore, history has long conditioned Nigerians to be sceptical of any government statement. After all, we were told during Jonathan’s Presidency that our first lady, the famous mama peace suspected by some people to be ill was only on vacation until the lady returned to tell Nigerians to help her thank God for coming back to life after 7 surgeries!
In the case of Buhari, there were credible reports which suggested that he was fine. His only surviving elder sister, Hajiya Rakiya was reported by the News Agency of Nigeria to be on phone with him daily. Senate President, Bukola Saraki’s confirmation that he spoke with the President and that the latter was in good health also doused tension, so was that of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Yakubu Dogara.
But perhaps the best report was the visit to the President in London by his foremost party leaders, Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Bisi Akande. The photograph showing the two leaders with Mr President was quite helpful as it reflected the saying that power of “pictures don’t tell lies”. If it reinforced official statements that the President would be back sooner than Nigerians expected, our leading legislators managed to provoke Nigerians to begin to question the exact meaning of “soon” as the key term in our expectations.
Now, if the President would be back soon, why was it necessary for Saraki and Dogara with whom he had allegedly spoken to visit him in London? Was it because ‘soon’ was no longer feasible? Were they trying to show personal closeness to the President or was it just a new wave of collaborative federalism?
Whatever the motivation, it was a far cry from effective communication as a panacea for public distrust of government. Our leaders must begin to appreciate that public perceptions of issues are more readily dependent on body language, gestures and signs rather than what is actually said. Indeed, the recent controversy throws ample light on what traditionally goes wrong with our government, the tendency to embrace information dissemination in place of information management.
Government in this part of the world is fond of relying on those of us who are eloquent and argumentative instead of those who are adept in media management forgetting that information dissemination is no more than parroting which can quite often be irrational.
Although Akin Oyebode is an erudite law professor and not a media expert, he got it right on national television the other day when he called on President Buhari to also speak with Nigerians following his advertised telephone chat with US President Donald Trump. So, why is it that whenever the nation feels starved of information about their President, we often quench the thirst by hearing what the same President said to other people? When the late President Yar’ Adua was ill, someone organized for him to speak with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
The truth is that no President needs to speak to more than one source as his speech can be dubbed and shared to all sources. If our government suspects that because of what it has turned NTA into, people may not believe its programme content, why was the favoured Channels TV not used to beam a short message from our President to Nigerians? Why was public disenchantment wilfully encouraged?
The posture of the Buhari administration to governance is no doubt commendable. Anyone who is not satisfied with how it has tackled our hitherto pervasive insecurity is insincere. There is also hardly any public officer today who is not careful about how he handles public funds because of the anti-corruption stance of government.
This is therefore not an administration to be rubbished. Government must accordingly strive to embrace a robust information management style that can ensure effective public enlightenment and bridge the gap between government and the people. As past presidents of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, the two media aides of President Buhari are strong media professionals.
This makes one suspect that their presence in the villa not withstanding; stories on the health status of the President degenerated into a controversy because rather than relying on their expertise, some political actors were calling the shots on what to be said or not. Let’s leave experts to do their work.