Travails of information ministers

Most past Nigerian ministers of information have tended to end their tour of duty on a sad note. This is precisely because successive Nigerian leaders, in an age when development in communication has rendered even multi-terminal communication channels obsolete, sadly still see communication as a two-way affair between the government and the governed. This perhaps also explains why even those that had genuine intention of serving their fatherland often ended up squandering the reputation and goodwill that took years to build as they, in the words of Alhaji Babatunde Jose, struggle ‘to walk the tight rope’.

Neither professional training, nor success in past endeavours has ever prepared a minister of information for the challenges of an office designed not only to block other channels of communication, but also label opposing views as treason. Communication, the nerves of government designed to help government measure the pulse of public opinion, is viewed as a tool for sedition. The failure of past successive Nigerian governments cannot be totally divorced from their penchant to listen only to themselves.

Either as elected leaders, or usurpers of political office through military coups, successive Nigerian leaders have often insisted that they and they alone, must determine the information the people get. For this reason, Balewa government in the first republic, exasperated by views of opposition, set up its own newspaper, appropriately regarded by Nigerians as ‘government views paper’. Murtala Mohammed/Obasanjo regime took over the Daily Times, a privately owned newspaper with independent views and the New Nigerian which mirrored the views of the northern establishment. Shagari tried unsuccessfully to appeal to journalists to mirror the views of his government which he deceitfully equated with that of the nation.

Buhari came up with an obnoxious Decree Four which made it an offence to report even the truth that ran contrary to the views of his regime. Babangida’s liberalization of ownership of radio and television was in the end self-serving. Obasanjo had such disdain for other views that he likened journalists to dogs.

Now Jonathan, a product of public opinion like many of his predecessors, has been agonising over his inability to use the awesome power of the presidency to stop criticism of his government’s handling of Nigerian problems which he rightly said were of no creations of his. He thinks the economic views of Dr Okonjo-Iweala which has only reduced our nation to one of the poorest nations of the world in spite of our limitless potentials, a system that has failed even in Europe and America where the mixture of capitalism and welfarism has produced something akin to communism, or those of Dr Doyin Okupe, the self styled ’attack lion’ who recently told half truth about the usage of $1000 bill in US, and those of CBN governor that has rendered thousands of once gainfully employed people jobless, are superior to those of other stake holders in the Nigerian project including former Heads of state.

The tragedy has been that those called upon to sell government vision are often some of the best products of our society. Tony Momoh, my ‘Oga’ at the Daily Times was a highly principled and successful editor. He was soon to discover all government wanted was not to share information, but force its views on the people. Following Dele Giwa’s assassination through a parcel bomb in October 1986, two days after he was accused of anti-government activities by State Security Services (SSS), Momoh had pledged a government probe of the incident only to back down later saying “a special probe would serve no useful purpose”. By 1987, he had started a government inspired crusade for the press to see itself as tools’ “for the promotion of national unity and integration” of the ruling elite. By 1988, if Momoh had his way, only radio sets that could disseminate only what the government wanted the people to hear would be available. Dismissing opposing views of those opposed to Babangida’s N1billion political party headquarters, Momoh had said no amount was too big to defend democracy since the alternative was dictatorship. As Babangida’s ‘transition without end’ took its tolls on Nigerians and its economy, Momoh resigned himself to writing ‘letters to my countrymen’ until Babangida replaced him with the humour master, and former custom officer, Alex Akinyele, as his information manager.

Yar’ Adua found in Dora Akunyili, a professor of Pharmacy and a former Director-General of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) an ideal information manager. She squandered all the goodwill she had acquired in her misadventure into the ministry of information. She passionately defended the views of the administration with all her might until she resigned from PDP government. Today apart from the ill-advised, failed re-branding of Nigeria project, she is remembered more as an accomplice in the historic vote theft in Ekiti State.

Labaran Maku was equally well-equipped for his current job. He had been President of University of Jos Students Union and officer of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). He had been a reporter, political editor, member of editorial board of two national newspapers and Deputy Editor-in-Chief during his career as journalist. To cap it all, he was once the commissioner for information and later the Deputy Governor of Nasarawa State from 2003 to 2007.

It is hard to see a man better prepared for the job than Maku. But despite this string of achievements, Maku has moved from one disaster to the other. His latest folly earned him tongue lashing by the Senate president. Maku, according to David Mark is “a careless talker. He talks very carelessly. He did not think properly. He is not an educator and we need to educate him. I hope the president cautions him and calls him to order.”

Maku who had said that “the National Assembly could not dictate to President Jonathan” was also reminded of the Doctrine of Necessity which was passed into resolutions by the Senate and House of Representatives in February 2010 on the strength of which and the then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan became Acting President.

Before them, Maku had in an attempt to defend President Jonathan’s alleged refusal to say “Amen” during a church service when prayers were being made against corruption, had stated that ‘it was because he is president of both the “rich and the poor, shoed and shoeless, corrupt and incorrupt.”

Maku also said that just as you cannot accuse God of being evil for sending sun and rain to both the good and bad, so you cannot accuse the president of being corrupt for “sending love and friendship to both the corrupt and the very corrupt.” Even Akinyele the master of humour couldn’t have done better.

On the general protest that followed the removal of fuel subsidy in January this year, Maku had said ‘the youths were just being used’, the same way he was used by big oil barons to mobilise students, as a student leader in the university. If he did not act out of conviction as a student leader, it is doubtful if a leopard will change its skin at old age, even as a minister.

Maku in particular seems to have always courted controversy. The enthusiasm which he has brought t o bear on his work as information minister is not markedly different from that of his student leadership almost three decades back. He talks without reflection but with such passion that tends to give the wrong impression that those who work as minister of information are necessarily hungry people.

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