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Ministerial retreat: A missing aspect

By Tonnie Iredia

Nigeria’s latest ministers have been sworn-in with a charge to raise the tempo of service delivery in governance. From the media coverage of a retreat which preceded the swearing-in ceremony, it can be argued that almost everything that needed to be said to the ministers, may have been said. It is therefore not irrational to assume that by now, the ministers are sufficiently sensitized on the need for them to pay special attention to issues such as a sound national economy, reduction of poverty, the fight against corruption and the need to ensure that their activities are in line with the ruling party’s political manifesto (We hope they know the manifesto).

Shortly, a number of activities would have been organized in the hope that our nation which has been restless for quite some time now, may find some respite. However, considering a few omissions in the agenda of the retreat, an increase in government projects and programmes may not reduce the subsisting high degree of grumbling and cynicism across the nation.

One of such issues is the failure to harp on the expedience of effective communication in government. In fairness to President Buhari, he did tell the minister that working as a team demands that each of them knows what the other is doing. According to him, “You must open communication with your colleagues. Lack of communication leads to lack of cooperation and sub-optimal performance.” But the statements needed far more emphasis because the passing reference to communication at the retreat is inadequate. Our ministers need to be told now and again that Nigeria must learn to be a communicating nation. There ought to have been a session on it, to be followed by constant reminders at council meetings because research findings over the years have confirmed that communication flow in a typical public organization in our country is quite poor; making it difficult for public policy actors to fully comprehend what is to be done as well as who is to do what, where, when and how about most policies.

Painfully, the practice in our ministries of mundane talks and hate speech by public officers may not change. First, probably to compensate loyal aids who greatly assisted ministers during political campaigns, some of them are brought on board. The latter then spend ample time bombarding a minister with stories purportedly making the rounds of plans by the minister of state (where there is one) to upstage the minister, or where the latter has allegedly sworn to relegate the minister of state. In the circumstance, the affected ministers are likely to forget the President’s admonition in favour of self-survival. In other cases, officials of the ministries are usually rendered redundant by the so-called trusted hands who take over established schedules of duty in the ministries. This appears to explain why silent in-fighting usually characterizes work in many ministries.

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The problem of faulty or inadequate communication is more disastrous in the relationship between the ministries and the outside world. In Nigeria, the reality has been that the people have little or no faith in government and its organs as well as its policies, projects and programmes. Anything positive about government is doubted while everything negative about it is believed. Thus, the credibility of any public body in the nation is quite fragile not necessarily because of its performance but on account of a convention by which people in the third world have little faith in Government.  To undertake pro-people policies, as good as that may seem, is thus not enough; concerted efforts will also have to be made to change the anti-establishment posture of the people through an effective public enlightenment on every aspect of public policies particularly their merits. Indeed, the centrality of communication in societal development is that it virtually divides human existence into two parts; namely, a) actions and b) the awareness by people of such actions. The real difference between both parts is communication. Societal development is often premised not just on the implementation of what is planned to be done but making what is done known to the people. For example, not much is known about what the NAFDAC does these days not necessarily because it is not working; but because it has jettisoned the proactive communicating strategy which the bubbling Dora Akunyili used to make Nigerians take ownership of the organization

Nigeria must evolve a communication policy which places public enlightenment in the front burner of its development process. Such a policy ought to detail the following: i) what is expected to be done; ii) what has been done; iii) what remains to be done; and iv) the strategies put in place to facilitate the actualization of the policy including the role of citizens in the process. To make a policy statement such as that the current government has so far spent N1.3trillion on education will hardly excite the people. The same is true of when government is permanently defensive rather than taking the lead in providing information to the people as and when due. In May 2018, our President in an interview with the Voice of America stated that the achievements of his administration are under-reported. Taking an example from the agriculture sector, he said “we have had two successful farming seasons, people went to farm and did very well, but no one is talking about that; only insults.” Whereas this may have been true, the said successes didn’t stick. What stuck was that sundry government officials in uniform have continued to extort money from vendors bringing food to the cities along the highway thereby encouraging increases in food prices which then distort the gains of an otherwise bumper harvest.

In Nigeria, government officials are always talking about politics or politicizing every other subject.  Worse still, officials such as ministers often take Nigerians for granted. For instance, when a minister is asked about a project under his ministry, he says “no comment” without considering the interpretation which the people and the media would give to such escapist and evasive approach. Whereas the friendliest people may see the comment as a polite way of saying the government has abandoned the project, the majority of the citizens especially critics and opposition politicians would conclude that the budget for the project has been embezzled.  This exemplifies the adverse consequence of not letting the people know what government has done or is doing.

Again, fitful communication efforts are concentrated in urban centres leaving the vast majority of Nigerians in rural areas in the dark about the existence of government. Except this is reversed, all that government may have done or is doing would remain unknown thereby making the government unpopular and seen as non-performing. At the same time, poor communication would also deprive government of being well apprised of the exact preferences of the people. So, why not prioritize communication?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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