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There is something strikingly but embarrassingly similar between Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed and the former Iraqi Information Minister during the last days of Saddam Hussein. The man, Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, popularly known as “Comical Ali” and a host of other names, was a master of exaggeration. He was notorious for his theatrical statements on television about the state of affairs in Iraq, in particular how Iraqi troops were thrashing coalition forces who encircled Baghdad to flush out the Saddam Hussein administration.
Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf was an unavoidable irritant but he was also a great public entertainer although distrusted and caricatured by cartoonists across the world. He subscribed to the philosophy that lies repeatedly told would one day transform into unvarnished truth. Take, for instance, what he said during one press conference in which he said American forces who besieged Baghdad were being eliminated by Iraqi forces. He said: “We are bombarding them. We are chasing them. We are pushing them back. We are deciding the situation. Everything is under our control. We will defeat them. We will fight them till we clean our country from their dirts.”
If you needed a man who deserved to be decorated for standing by his leader (Saddam) and his country even in the face of adversity, the honour must go to this man. He was “Comical Ali”, the “World’s funniest man”, “Baghdad Bob”, and so many things the media heaped on him.
Many Nigerians see a connection between al-Sahaf’s performance as Information Minister in Iraq and Lai Mohammed’s current performance as Nigeria’s Information Minister. For one, Lai Mohammed has never seen anything good in opposition parties, not to mention the government of Goodluck Jonathan that has been blamed since 2015 for the inability of President Muhammadu Buhari’s government to achieve anything in two years. Worst still, Lai Mohammed believes the government he serves is the best that has served Nigeria and still has a bag full of miracles to perform to transform the country and the battered economy.
How could anyone say the Federal Government is performing wonders when citizens are suffering, biting dust, living the kind of vegetable existence induced by unprecedented suffering and hunger they never imagined when they stood in long queues to vote for this government that has turned their lives upside down.
When Lai Mohammed speaks, you get the feeling the man is still toasting the election victory by the All Progressives Congress (APC) nearly two years after the world has moved on, two years since ordinary citizens have been waiting for the government to fulfil the numerous promises it made during election campaigns. For this and other reasons, the Information Minister has been cast as a man to be seen but not to be believed.
When a minister speaks shiningly about the government and does not pause to take in the reality that mocks his words, you have to wonder how some people were constructed. An Information Minister seasoned in the art of hyperbole should be avoided rather than be believed.
Propaganda will not convert a sceptical public. Too many promises will not win for the government the support of the people. Things are so bad in the country but worse still is that no one in government or in the hierarchy of the APC is listening or showing empathy. It is like citizens are naive while government officials are the smart ones. Nothing lasts forever, you know. One day, the government will serve out its term and there will be another election in which the citizens will be called upon to elect their leaders. Everyone is waiting impatiently for the next election.
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was in power for 16 years and believed no one else mattered other than the party chiefs and their kith and kin. In 2015, everyone rose to say enough is enough. The party was booted out of office unceremoniously. Since that painful experience two years ago, the PDP has become a shadow of itself. The party is in disarray. It cannot even elect a chairperson. There are various factions. They are fighting themselves in high courts.
The Sun newspaper gave Lai Mohammed a unique opportunity to cleanse his deteriorating public image through an interview that was published in the paper last Saturday, 18 February 2017. The interview was fittingly titled “I’m not a liar, says Lai Mohammed”. Unfortunately for the minister, the more he denies that he is not a liar, the more people are compelled by their circumstances to perceive the minister as one. In the interview, the minister said he was worried by his diminishing public image that has become the butt of grave humour. In particular, he said, he was outraged that he was consistently depicted in mainstream and online media as a certified liar because of his role as the number one defender of the government.
Well, let me say this. The minister is not loathed merely because he is defending the government. The main reason the press and the people dislike him and why people don’t take him seriously is that what he says about the government, particularly the fantastic achievements of the government, the unprecedented accomplishments of his fellow ministers, the state of the economy, including his refusal to admit the government’s failure to rein in corruption are simply not in agreement with the reality in the country. In the first place, there is a huge gap between what everyone knows about the Buhari government and what Lai Mohammed says the government has achieved, particularly his view that the economic problems would disappear in a few months.
In the interview with The Sun, Lai Mohammed was asked how he managed to switch from his former role as an active spokesperson for the opposition party to a mouthpiece of the government. He implied the switch was not too much of a problem. He said: “Here, you have a responsibility to the entire country, to the government. And here you can’t afford to be negative, you can only be positive, while in the opposition party, you could more dwell on the negative aspect of governance. You’re always on the attack. But here, you are supposed to promote the good works of government and at the same time, disseminate to the people what the government is doing”.
Still Lai Mohammed insisted during the interview that in his role as the voice of the opposition party, he was always fair-minded. He said: “As a spokesperson for the opposition political party, I was always very factual, I was very objective, and I didn’t go personal. And I keep saying, that I challenge anybody to come out and say ‘this is one lie you told when you were spokesperson for the opposition”.
Many people will dispute this view but that is for another day. The only thing we can make of the views expressed by Lai Mohammed is that he exposed the duplicitous nature of his role in government compared to when he was in the opposition.
Asked by the interviewer whether he felt people who called him a liar were unfair to him, Lai Mohammed said: “…, they are the liars. Because I challenge them: ‘what lie have I told?’ And they have not come up with one yet.”
The interviewer also asked the minister pointedly whether he could look into the future and tell Nigerians when the current hardships would end. Rather than answer the question, the minister became ambiguous. His words: “You see this hardship, when the various policies the government has put in place start yielding the desired fruits. And what are these policies? These are investments in infrastructure. You can see the Minister of Power, Works and Housing travelling every day, inspecting or engaging contractors in the power sector. You can see the minister of transport also busy negotiating for loans or laying the foundation of rail systems. The Minister of Agriculture is also busy giving farm implements, inputs and advising people on what to grow and what not to grow. Last year, we had a bumper harvest. One bumper harvest is not enough to impact nationally. But I can assure you that in the next couple of months, Nigerians would begin to see clearly a turnaround in the economy.”
Quite frankly, this kind of vague response is an insult to the collective intelligence of Nigerian citizens. A hungry man or woman will not live on rhetoric. The minister achieved nothing by avoiding an important question.
I have heard people defend the minister by saying it is difficult for a man to criticise the government that pays his salary. That is a flawed argument. There are instances in various parts of the world where top ministers quit office on the ground that the governments they served violated their moral principles. In our environment in which many people would do anything for money, officials of the state play the role of the three monkeys that see no evil, hear no evil, and perceive no evil. It is a miserable and unconscionable role for anyone to undertake in the name of service to their fatherland.
There is definitely a battle of minds going on between an embattled government and a cynical public that sees nothing positive about the government. It is nearly two years since the government was inaugurated and all we have been hearing from officials and President Muhammadu Buhari is, “give us more time, give us more time and our achievements will manifest all over the country”. To this refrain, the citizens have retorted: “How much time do you need to start to make impact on our lives and how much longer do you want us to suspend our lives and wait for your elusive miracle therapy that will fix a battered economy?”