Let me begin today’s discourse with a disclosure. My intention was to do a follow up to my article last week on late Dr. Alex Ekwueme; I had wanted to do a work on my 90-minute encounter with our former vice president in his residence at Enugu in 2011. It was an engagement that to some extent let me in into what the problem of leadership is in our nation. The other matter would have been about the recent interjections from some of our highly placed political leaders, situate them within the context of the need for the development of a sound political culture and finding answers to national questions.
All these will have to wait because I consider the topic of today not only very necessary but of great national significance. Let me make an observation before we proceed: I clearly see attempts to muzzle freedom of expression in the country. The frequent talk of hate speech and the level of emphasis or attention being devoted to it, is not only suspicious, it carries in it a great potential to instigate instability which those who wave the hate speech flag claim it can prevent. Today, organs of media control are operating at the highest level issuing threats, at another end public offices are producing circulars banning public officers from conversations on issues of public interest. I just read that one of them prohibited their staff from making contributions in the social media using their private phones.
This would seem like moving from the ridiculous to the absurd and I believe our nation does not need it. If politics is what I know and history is any thing to go by no creative government would require this style and strategy to survive and remain in power in the 21st century. It would rather create unnecessary tension were there was none or accentuate an existing one and make the atmosphere a bloody one. So we don’t need it, Nigeria with our level of development doesn’t need it. I believe we have gotten to a point where we can have governments, they run their tenures and are either retained or voted out based on performance and acceptance. I want to be emphatic on this: there was absolutely no need to have issued arrest order against General Babangida’s spokesman, Prince Kassim Afegbua, because he did not commit any crime. If he made any mistake at all it was against his principal and not the Nigerian state.
The topic today has been in my heart for a very long time but it became expedient to get to town with it today because of the outburst of one of the presidential spokespersons, Mr Shehu Garba, Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity against the Sun Newspaper, a leading media organization in our country today. Garba told the public that the newspaper was giving so much prominence to the Biafra agitation and the massive bloody killings by the Fulani Herdsmen. He also was not happy with the position of a columnist in the stable and so in his view the paper was not supporting the government. I read and listened to his statement in various news organs and I was lost in thought and to the point of writing this essay, I have not recovered. I am shocked that such a position could emanate from a government spokesman under a democracy and from a professional.
The issues of Biafra agitation and herdsmen menace across the nation are real, both are serious and at the heart of the national question. From what we see and hear, every of our leaders claim they want to see a solution to some of these problems. The question would then be if we could have sustainable solutions without a proper highlighting of the challenges? Would it be better to play the ostrich, bury our eyes and brain somewhere and pretend that as far as we are concerned nothing terrible is happening in our land? Wouldn’t such an altitude leave us with worst consequences than our hearts could imagine? If Garba was on his editorial seat in a newspaper house, what would be his editorial judgement? Would he see a good story and engage in self-censorship? Garba read Mass Communication and worked in a newspaper before his move into the political arena and came to public consciousness through his attachment to Alhaji Atiku Abubakar.
As media consultant to Atiku, Garba took on the government and Nigerians listened and even hailed him because most of the times from what they read from the media, many felt they had a good case. So it is ironic to see the same Garba trying to initiate media censorship with a strong public rebut of the Sun newspaper. It is even more surprising to note that a professional could not make a healthy distinction between views expressed in a column, which is strictly the writer’s personal opinion and editorial standpoint and policy of the media organization as a corporate entity.
Lysanda Spooner told me something before I wrote this piece. He said: “Those who are capable of tyranny, are capable of perjury to sustain it.” Garba’s style is unprofessional and poses a clear threat to press freedom. The job of a spokesman should be to win friends and not to create enemies. If even the Sun or any other media organization is presumed to be “hostile” to the spokesman’s boss or organization, it is part of the responsibility of the image manager to step forward and undertake constructive engagements to reverse the situation. Garba’s options show he is not loyal to his principal.
Garba’s disposition is not an isolated case. In fact it is becoming a phenomenon and it has grown to a point the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Nigerian Guild of Editors should take cognizance of the developing monsters and rise to find ways to nip them in the bud before they become matured and turn around to cause so much damage. I have been a spokesman to government for so many years and can make few critical observations. Journalists get into the public arena with poor psychology. There is this disposition that they have been called from suffering to plenty, so many of them see appointments as opportunity rather than service at the management level. Many believe you can only survive if you have the “house boy mentality.” This should not be. Journalists in public office have greater disdain for media organizations and colleagues than none journalism professionals in politics. I am of the view that time has come when the professional bodies I mentioned earlier should detect some of these anomalies and urgently work to rectify the situation. I am one of those who crave that information management at all levels should be in the hands of professionals. It is a noble desire but the truth is that the trend of having none professionals doing our jobs is likely to continue far longer than is necessary if we continue to have a situation where the few professionals we find in the public space fail to excel in public policy enunciation and direction. Let journalists who have found their way to the top act professionally and according to their management status not as errand boys.