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Lai Mohammed, government image making and matters arising

On Nov. 11, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari swore Alhaji Lai Mohammed in as the Minister of Information and Culture to, among others, communicate government policies and programmes, build a positive image for the country and promote national consciousness.

He is also charged with the responsibilities of promoting the nation’s rich and diverse cultural heritage to stimulate its tourism sector.

Lai Mohammed
Minister for Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed briefing journalists on the prosciption of all activities of the Independent People of Biafra at the Presidential villa, Abuja. Photo by Abayomi Adehsida

More than three years into this strategic assignments and as Buhari’s first tenure winds to a close, concerned Nigerians are eager to know how effective and efficient has the ministry and the delivered on the mandate.

Buhari’s administration, in a bid to reduce the number of ministries as part of strategic plan to reduce cost of governance, improve service delivery and ensure overall efficiency in public sector management, merged the erstwhile Federal Ministry of Information and the Federal Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation.

As a minister in charge of such duties, the public expectations are high, including whether or not Mohammed would sustain the ease, effectiveness and efficiency at which he had carried out his tasks as spokesperson of the All Progressives Congress (APC) prior to the 2015 elections.

Some Nigerians believe that the zeal and vigour with which Mohammed performed his duty as APC spokesperson — opposition to Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) then — contributed to the victory of the party.

Upon assumption of office and in line with the electoral promise of the administration to fight insurgency and bring the Boko Haram terrorists their knees, the minister, on Dec. 5, 2015, embarked on a visit to Maiduguri, travelling by road to Bama, through Konduga and Kaure.

The essence of the visit to the epicentre of the insurgency with about 40 local and international journalists, according to the minister, was to reflect the massive progress by the military in a short while and change the narrative on Boko Haram insurgency.

“We did not meet a single vehicle along the road that stretched about 87 kilometres, skirting the Sambisa forest at many points. The visit was an eye opener.

“In Bama, with more than 6,000 building, none was standing intact, signs in Arabic were visible everywhere, it was no longer a speculation that our troops were winning the war and we were armed with empirical evidence.

“We were able to return and tell Nigerians what we saw, with pictures and video to back it up and this went a long way in helping to change the narrative about Boko Haram insurgency.

“We were able to convince Nigerians that the territories captured and occupied by the insurgents have been taken back, that indeed our military are winning the war and needed the support of the compatriots,’’ Mohammed reported after the visit.

The visit was followed with the inauguration of the National Sensitisation Campaign on Insecurity and engagements with critical stakeholders in the information sector.

The narrative from the visit and engagements which brought about the conclusion by the minister that “Boko Haram terrorists have been technically defeated” did not, however go down well with some sections of the society.

They branded the minister as “an instrument of cheap propaganda and disinformation’’ while some called in “Liar Mohammed’’, demanding his removal.

Buhari rather backed up the claim that Boko Haram insurgents had been technically defeated and their occasional attacks on soft targets were like the last kicks of a dying horse.

In an interview with the BBC, the president was quoted as saying: “Boko Haram has reverted to using improvised explosive devices.

“They have now been reduced to that. But articulated conventional attacks on centres of communication and populations, they are no longer capable of doing that effectively.

“So, I think technically, we have won the war because people are going back into their neighbourhoods. Boko Haram as an organised fighting force, I assure you that we have dealt with them.’’

Similarly, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff, insisited that Nigerian soldiers had technically defeated Boko Haram terrorist group in the country.

He assured Nigerians that the military would do everything possible to flush out the remaining Boko Haram terrorists and other criminal elements from the country.

Buratai, however, noted that the activities of armed militias had become prominent, especially in areas of kidnapping, farmers/herders clashes, cattle rustling and general criminality.

Not minding the critics, the minister embarked on a tour of media establishments across the country to engage indigenous language newspapers as platform to take the government messages to the grassroots.

In one of those media engagements, particularly on African Independent Television (AIT), the minister was confronted with the question on how he feels about calling him “Lie Mohammed’’.

“People just have a mindset that whatever Lai Mohammed says cannot be true, but nobody has ever come out to say that I said `Y’ and it was `Z’ that happened.

“For me, I will remain focused because it is a price you pay for serving your country.

“I also see this as a deliberate strategy to whittle me down, but I must remain focused and will not be distracted,’’ he responded to the question.

Also, following constant demands by the “Bring Back Our Girls’’(BBOG) Group to know what the administration was doing to rescue the missing Chibok school girls, the minister and his counterpart in Defence, retired Brig.-Gen. Mansur Dan-Ali, took some of their members to Yola.

In the entourage were local and international journalists who from Yola embedded them with the Nigerian Air force which flew them on search sorties over the Sambisa forest for two days.

The BBOG members in their reports concluded that “they can confirm that the air component of the counterinsurgency war is being prosecuted by a highly professional, capable, motivated and committed team of Nigerian Air Force (NAF).

“We were provided data and imagery evidence to show that the search of our Chibok girls and other abducted citizens is a daily activity by NAF’’.

Similarly, in the wake of the abduction of the Dapchi school girls, the minister quickly took control of the narrative ditching out regular updates to keep the people informed of the efforts of government.

The regular update helped to puncture the conspiracy theories around the kidnap and negative stories planted on the release of the girls.

Realising the need to constantly bridge the communication gap between the government and citizenry, the minister inaugurated the Town Hall Meeting series.

The meeting provided a platform for the government to directly interact with a cross section of the citizenry.

So far, 15 of such meetings had been held including one that was held in an indigenous Hausa language in Kano.

Many Nigerians have commended the conduct of the meetings which allowed ministers to give their scorecards while the citizens, unrestrained, give feedback to the government.

However, some critics of the meetings allege that greater part of it was used to blame the past administration for unfulfilled promises of the APC government.

Lai Mohammed, nevertheless, stressed that the achievements of the administration were not based on lies and propaganda and they were there for Nigerians to see.

“We are delivering in the broad areas that formed the plank of our policies; security, fight against corruption and the economy, which includes the massive provision of infrastructure, ease of doing business and agriculture, just to mention a few,’’ he said.

To restore the nation’s time tested values of honesty, integrity, diligence, timeliness, hard work, good neighbourliness and abhorrence of corruption, the ministry introduced a national reorientation programme; “Change Begins With Me’’ inaugurated by the president.

The programme has since been adopted by many agencies of government, especially the military and the police while some states such as Kano, has adopted it to tackle many intractable social ills.

The ministry also, in partnership with the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment carried out a national reorientation campaign on the patronage of “Made-in-Nigeria’’ products.

Against the background that Nigeria had twice missed the deadline for the migration from analogue to digital broadcasting; the ministry re-launched the whole digital transition process.

The pilot inauguration was in Jos in April 26, 2016 and since then; Digital Switch Over (DSO) programme had been inaugurated in Abuja, Kwara, Kaduna, Enugu and Osun states.

Apart from creating jobs, the DSO is bringing the digital revolution to all Nigerians and enhancing information flow between the government and the people.

The ministry, also in partnership with a private start-up firm, inaugurated FGNIAPP that gives real time and authentic information about government activities to anyone with a hand held device, including telephones that download the application.

To stem the growing tide of disinformation and fake news, the minister inaugurated the National Awareness Campaign Against Fake News which brought the issue to the forefront of national discourse.

The minister took the campaign to various media houses soliciting their support and stressing the position of government not to gag the press but appealing to their consciousness on the danger of fake news and hate speech.

The campaign was also taken to Nigerian Embassy staff in Washington and Germany during the mini town hall meetings organised in the countries.

Similarly, the minister introduced a media tour of Federal Government infrastructural projects across the country to showcase the achievements of the administration in the provision of infrastructure.

The minister started the projects inspections with the ongoing construction of the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge railway along with the Minister of Transportation, Mr Rotimi Amaechi.

Lai Mohammed and the media team also inspected the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, the Oyo-Ogbomosho expressway, the ongoing construction of the Second Niger Bridge, and the four sections of the Enugu-Port-Harcourt expressway.

Also inspected were the completed Ilorin-Jebba-Mokwa road, Abuja light railway, the Sabke, Dutsi and Mashi Water projects and the erosion control channelisation project in Osogbo, Osun.

Beyond this, the minister embarked on a campaign of the Anchor Borrowers’ Programmes aimed at cutting rice import by 90 per cent.

The campaign started in Kebbi, where the minister took over 30 journalists in a tour of burgeoning rice farms and rice mills for three days.

The minister also spearheaded the campaign to keep Nigerians informed during the urgent work to reconstruct the only runway of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja in March and April 2017.

Lai Mohammed also inaugurated a campaign to rally the support of Nigerians for the military, especially in the fight against insurgency.

The campaign entails the production and airing of special television jingles on national television and radio stations for Nigerians to appreciate the risks the men and women in uniform are taking, including paying the supreme sacrifice to keep the people safe.

Showcasing the achievements of the administration, Mohammed organised “Testimonies of Change,’’ which covers social investment programmes, N-Power, Trader Moni, Market Moni.

These were conceptualised into 25 mini-films and aired on major television and radio stations across the country.

Besides, the minister has been engaging with the international media and think-tanks with a view to projecting the achievements of the administration, educating them on its policies and programmes and correcting misrepresentations.

Some of the engagements included his trips to UK and U.S. between 2017 and 2019 to shape international opinions on key issues of security, economy and anti corruption.

Contrary to the opinion of the stakeholders in Culture and Tourism, the achievements recorded by the ministry in the sector were not less when compared to the information sector.

Upon assumption of office and following consultation with stakeholders, the ministry organised a national summit on Culture and Tourism in Abuja in 2016.

The summit, which brought all stakeholders in the sector together, charted a new course for the creative industry which were being carried out by an implementation committee.

Some of the reforms included the revival of the Presidential Council on Tourism, resuscitation of Tourism Master Plan and setting up of a Task Force on creative industry.

Similarly, the ministry organised two other conferences to fast track the transforming of creative industry to a creative economy.

To fast track the growth of the industry, the ministry engaged in partnership by signing Memorandum of Understanding with the Tony Elumelu Foundation and the British Council for training of festival manager among others.

Further to that, Nigeria was accepted back into the fold of the global tourism developmental body, United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) after more than two decades of non-participation in its activities.

The UN agency agreed to work with the ministry in the efforts to take tourism in Nigeria to a higher level by deploying a team of experts to the country to assist in resuscitating the nation’s Tourism Master Plan.

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Some of the positive developments from Nigeria re-engaging with the UNWTO are the election of the minister as the Vice President (Africa) of the organisation and the hosting of the UNWTO-CAF meeting in Abuja and Lagos in 2018.

The hosting of the UNWTO-CAF was used to sell the country as a preferred tourist’s destination and the unveiling of the Eko Atlantic City under construction to the world.

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The minister also used the occasion to showcase Nigeria’s huge cultural and tourism attractions to the world treating the visitors from across the globe to the sound, sight and bites of Nigeria.

To further showcase the nation’s historical and heritage sites to the global community, the ministry partnered with the Latin America Motorcycles Association (LAMA) for a project which brought LAMA members to Nigeria.

For two weeks, the bikers toured the nation’s cultural and historical sites across Niger, Kogi, Enugu State, Cross Rivers, Rivers, Edo, Oyo State, Lagos State and the FCT.

To encourage domestic tourism, the minister kick started visits to tourism sites across the country including the Owu Waterfall in Kwara and the Rock Painting in Birnin-Kudu, Jigawa.

The minister also supported and attended a number of cultural festivals across the country as parts of the efforts to put them on the national cultural calendar.

Lai Mohammed hosted the Creative Nigeria Summit which culminated into securing a pioneer status for the creative industry to enable investors in the sector benefit incentives such as tax holiday and withholding tax on dividends.

Also, to stimulate the growth of the industry the Central Bank of Nigeria initiated Creative Industry Financing Initiative

The initiative allows investors in fashion, movie, music and information technology to access loan at single digit interest repayable in three to 10 year.

Similarly, the National Council for Arts and Culture, a parastatal under the ministry signed a N300-million Memorandum of Understanding with the Bank of Industry with the endorsement of the Ministry.

The achievements recorded by the minister will be incomplete without the 2019 Kwara politics and the “O to ge’’ (Enough is Enough) movement which ended decades of the perceived political hegemony of a self-imposed dynasty in Kwara”

Lai Mohammed as the leader of APC in Kwara galvanised the people towards a clean sweep of the Presidential, National Assembly, Governorship and the state Assembly elections.

The general elections in the state have been described as an upset and a death knell for the Senate President Bukola Saraki and PDP in Kwara politics.

In the polls, PDP, unprecedentedly, lost the presidential, the three Senatorial and six House of Representatives seats, Governorship and the entire state assembly seats to the APC

The major upset was the defeat of the senate president in his stronghold, Kwara Central Senatorial zone by the APC candidate, Dr. Ibrahim Oloriegbe.

Analysts note that for his outstanding performances and for keying into the administration’s agenda, Lai Mohammed ranked among the ministers that may be retained in the incoming administration.

Lai Mohammed believes that with improved funding, the ministry will do more in keeping the citizenry better informed.(NANFeatures by Rotimi Ijikanmi)


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