By Tonnie Iredia
Every Nigerian public authority or agency usually attributes its failure to achieve its goals and objectives to challenges such as inadequate funding, shortage of expertise, personnel inertia, lack of political will, policy inconsistency etc. It would be strange to hear anyone adding the role of communication to the challenges; yet, the country’s most intractable problem is poor communication. In a typical Nigerian organization, communication is generally taken for granted. The usual assumption is that people know or ought to know a number of things while no effort is made to ascertain whether such things have been made known to them or whether those who may have been informed even understood the information. Consequently, when different public policy actors in the country operate at cross purposes with one another, it is simply a reflection that Nigeria is not a communicating nation.
Almost half a century ago, the United Nation’s Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the 1970s, the decade of communication and encouraged every country to embrace communication for development. It took Nigeria no less than 17years after the prescribed decade to think about the subject. She set up several panels at different times to work on it but as at the time of this piece, Nigeria is yet to evolve a communication policy and strategy with which to drive her national development objectives leaving the country’s communication system in the realm of experimentation. Consequently, instead of sharing basic information, Nigerian state actors are left to sing discordant tunes. The other day, many were left confused when the police disputed the story that their own dreaded SARS had reportedly arrested the killers of the daughter of Afenifere’s leader.
Poor communication as a problem has been quite observable during the current COVID 19 crisis. Although Boss Mustapha, Secretary to the government of the federation (SGF) claimed he was quoted out of contest when he revealed his lack knowledge of the exact state of affairs in the country’s health sector, our people clearly understood him. In our mundane communication environment, he could never have known the truth about our hospitals. Since independence, the general disposition in government has been for anyone in charge of anything to say all is well. To do otherwise is akin to treason, hence some Nigerians criticized our First Lady Aisha Buhari for disclosing the status of the Villa Hospital as one without basic drugs. We all knew that her critics were merely living in denial
Another rationale for poor communication is that facts and statistics that should inform what is to be said are often muddled up. For example, why do Nigerians need new biometrics for every endeavour such as International Passport, National Identity Card, Driver’s Licence, Voter’s Card, Census, BVM etc.? Is it not because of distrust among Nigerian agencies that information is not shared notwithstanding that the information different bodies extract from citizens are the same? So, those in charge of sharing the palliatives provided for the COVID 19 pandemic developed their own data that could divert the items to only members of the ruling party. The truth is that many people who are victims of selective hearing prefer to understand what they like about any public statement no matter the subject. They always succeed because many citizens choose to be silent, being citizens of a country that does not prioritize the gains of effective communication.
Not many know the true meaning and nature of communication. Whereas some think it refers to information dissemination, the true position is that it refers to the sharing of ideas where the sender and receiver of an information have the same meaning for the message sent. Otherwise, different receivers would act the way they understand the message. Hence, Nigerians differently understood the invitation by their government to China to lend a helping hand to Nigeria at this critical period of what some call the china virus. In truth, the invitation was not couched to allay the fears of Nigerians about international perception of China. Was China itself out of the woods? What about the report that the UK had turned down some Chinese products as harmful? How come government did not bother to get at least the technical stakeholders – medical workers to understand the message? The public rejection of the invitation by the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) underscored our failure to communicate effectively.
Similarly, failure to communicate with the government of Rivers state led to the recent avoidable controversy between Governor Wike and the Minister of Aviation. To some analysts, the issues at stake were constitutional and legal but to us it was a matter of poor communication. It appears a grave error for aviation authorities to have authorized flights into Port Harcourt without a word to the governor. This is because the destination will not end in an airport but beyond there into the Rivers state territory which is not on the acclaimed exclusive list. Such passengers whose health status are not known could end up as a threat to the people at this critical period of the coronavirus pandemic. As we saw during the week, the Kaduna state deputy governor stopped all entries into the state. In the case of Cross River, we hear the governor relocated to the boundary for the same reason. Is it because the case of Rivers is air and not land that the governor cannot do likewise? The point to be made is that communication should have been used as a tool to foster collaborative federalism in a democracy.
If Nigerians did not take the stay at home directives on COVID 19 pandemic seriously, it is not only because many people had to go in search of livelihood, rather it was also because no one saw sufficient seriousness in the directives. To start with, there were too many exemptions which created several loopholes for breaches. Those sharing palliatives for instance, did not obey social distancing. State governments did not demonstrate any signs of uniformity to the pandemic as some inadvertently legitimized the erroneous belief that the virus could not affect Africa the way it was devastating the western world. From nowhere, some of our governors suddenly decided to relax the lockdown in their states for prayers on Friday and the Easter season. Although we know they have powerful forces who usually alert them of coming events, this time, no predictions were in the public domain thereby making it appear that the lockdown directives were a matter of trial and error. Indeed, because the said directives did not really reach the rural areas, some people assumed that the pandemic was an elite phenomenon. So, it was poor communication all the way.
Communication empowers society when properly used while it destroys when poorly handled. Those who accused people of timidity over their fears with 5G didn’t poorly communicate. They may have converted some people if they had said 5G has nothing to do with COVID 19 because Lesotho which has been 5G compliant since 2018 was yet to have anyone that is positive for the virus. Let’s learn to communicate effectively.