Buhari: In Search of Masters of Propaganda or Public Communicators?
By Taju Tijani
Doyin Okupe tried! Reuben Abati tried! Reno Omokri tried! In their capacities as media hounds for President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan they all raised dust and hell in the execution of their communication remits. As these troika vacate their offices for President Mohammadu Buhari’s public communication team, the public is anxiously waiting to see who will front as presidential spokespersons for Africa’s largest democracy. The president public communication ecology is a critical unit of government.
In retrospect, the duo of Reuben Abati and Doyin Okupe failed to bring any freshness and new thinking into the job of fronting for the president as his public communicators. They made mistakes, committed communication suicides and failed in their communication handling of a weak, unpopular and vulnerable President Jonathan. Even the last minute injection of scandal politics-cum-communication by Raymond Dokpesi’s AIT failed in its obsession with vulgar and distasteful servings of damaging stories of President Buhari. What became obvious was the fact that AIT became a notorious and unrestraint defender of the Jonathan’s government.
What the AIT’s experience illustrates is the emergence of a close set of relations between politicians, businessmen and the media that leads to a routine blurring of fairness, objectivity and public decency. In the AIT post-election analysis, what is clear is that there is no distinction between negative political messages, political marketing, demonisation, defamation, character assassination, party political broadcast, class and financial interest. What is not in conflict is Dokpesi’s overriding business and financial interests to follow survival logic and stay on the side of power no matter the consequences.
In the days of campaign hustling, President Mohammadu Buhari was exposed to damaging and vulnerable innuendoes. As a president he comes with his own imperfections in public eloquence. He has no sweet, audible and powerful microphone voice. He is handsome, tall, experienced, respected, gallant and presidential in appearance. These strange juxtapositions of weaknesses and strengths, attitude and character will no doubt present some complex challenges to his public media handlers as his presidential style unfolds.
Who then should serve a president like this? Where are the public communication geniuses that will compliment a president who rode into power on a cusp of popularity, integrity and abiding passion to sanitise Nigeria from cultural, moral, social, economic and political anomie? What is the job description of Buhari’s set of presidential public communicators?
Should the new faces be tenderised souls or hawks with the strength to strike hard like a doped bull? Is President Buhari ready for no-nonsense media rascals with palette of skills and experiences as moderators, proactive press officers, lobbyists, political journalists, damage reduction strategists, enfant terrible, provocateurs, devil’s advocates, challengers, cross carriers, propagandists, public relations experts, polemicists and to add a bit of brashness to the pedigree, formidable mischief makers?
What are their attributes? Aside from the job description above, Buhari’s new public communicators are expected to be omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent media match makers. Would the president try and test old and savvy practitioners like columnists, public commentators, bloggers, pundits, public intellectuals, writers, digital warriors, publishers, broadcasters, university teachers or plain gifted novices who are ready to carve their niches in the public arena?
The remit of the new players should be akin to that of media radar perpetually roaming the media savannah in search of damaging stories to shoot down. They must be great innovators and damage limitation experts who could simultaneously handle negative twitter feed, press conference, be able to write on-your-face, on-the-spot blog, handle and refute Facebook abuse, ability to explain, clarify, educate and maintain smooth relationship between the print, digital, broadcast and televisual professionals.
In addition, President Buhari will be needing media strategists who will be straddling talk show studios in order to engage in key debates about government policies before they become problematised in Cyberia. Also we may need hunters who will be hunting down planted and incendiary opinions that would not be published or aired by mainstream media but may enjoy wide negative publicity in the social media. The centre ground must always be seized by the presidential media team rather than the public. In a rapidly mediating political culture, perceived opponents should not be allowed to set the agenda.
To make the team compact, mobile and focused, the president needs engaging, principled men and women of the moment. A team of rapid, responsive, proactive, blustering and highly dedicated spin doctors as opposed to dour and colourless trio of Abati, Okupe and Omokri who have no effective presence in the info-democratic community of such powerful social platforms like YouTube, twitter and the freeloading Facebook site.
The battle for the Buhari’s presidency was fought and partly won through activities on the Internet. The Internet has morphed into a gigantic, out-of-control and empowering hub where diverse ideas are peddle minutely across the world. From America to Zimbabwe, social media as both rational and irrational political sounding board is not in doubt.
In Nigeria, for example, there is active participation and presence of majority of the educated elites on the social media. The Internet has unbound the innate talents of majority of Nigerians as rational discussants on major political anxieties of the day. During the campaign there were chemically induced polemical interrogations of President Buhari’s feared antecedent as a Jihadist on the social media which nearly damaged his reputation. Now is the time to work on a positive public media template of the real Mohammadu Buhari as opposed to the feared ISIS-incarnate from the wastelands of Daura.
The old anxious wait for information is gone forever. Social fetters and cultural barriers to knowledge have all collapsed to the sweeping revolution of the Internet. With a single click, events in distant regions of the world pop out in nanosecond and in words and graphic images.
That aside, politics and politicians are now embracing technology and harvesting democracy dividends all the way. Majority of Buhari’s supporters contributed to campaign fund using the Internet. For example the #Bring Back Our Girls issue became a celebrated case of social media triumph which generated international interest and condemnation of the Nigeria government in the handling of the abducted school children.
Politicians now employ old hacks as ‘spin doctors’ in order to influence public opinion. Old journalist are turning into political gurus and lobbyists and many of them are being hired to assist sitting leaders to fight elections through the multiplicity of social media devices.
In the UK, online petitions and signature gathering are now permissible through technology. The emergence of a new era of teledemocracy is enabling open discussion and a far more responsive political system than before. That is, elected leaders now use the Internet to engage with their constituencies and justify each action they take on their behalf.
Today we are all digitalised animals scavenging for the next apps in a netizen world of techno junkies. I can safely say that technology is moving faster than society as we know it. But in a way we are all doubling our steps to catch the next inventions from the Silicon Valley. Alarm clock is now an old relic of bedside accessory. What now sits silently beside our bedside when we knock off is the ever faithful mobile phone.
At sun up what digital junkies in my rural Omi Adio, Lagos, Mumbai, Jakarta, Rio and the Amazonian jungle turn on when the sun kisses their drowsy faces is the slim Samsung or Iphone on charge all night. IPad, Facebook and twitter have both changed the culture of communication across oceans. For instance, my 12 years old daughter has her own mobile phone and IPad. She now communicates with her friend through Facetime on IPad. She is being allowed to create her own world and be much more involved socially. This is a demonstration of Frank Webster’s assertion that, “contemporary culture is manifestly more heavily information laden than any of its predecessors”. What Castells labels as ” the culture of real virtuality”.
Spatial barriers have given way as the Internet allows people to connect with family, friends, and work colleagues from across the globe at the push of a button. Communication options have literally exploded in the instant avenues of text and video based chat as well as the near instantaneous method of email.
Gone are the days where one had to post a letter and wait a week or more for a response and long distance phone calls are unnecessary for anyone with a computer, a webcam and a speedy Internet connection.
With the emergence of democratic renewal in Nigeria, the government has come to realise that the twin engines of telecommunication infrastructures and information technology are necessary accessories for the promotion of deeper democratic participation, economic development, employment, international connectivity, national security and sadly the promotion of selfish interest.
In Nigeria, most media houses (radio, print, television stations) are either own by serving politicians, past politicians or would be politicians. It is a legacy handed down immediately after the departure of the colonial masters. Each region had its own newspapers and broadcasting stations. Politicians then hijacked these media institutions to fan into reality their differing political ambitions most of which were parochial and selfish.
That legacy has not changed till date. Historically, media institutions in Nigeria are mostly government control. But the digital hurricane of the early 90’s opened Nigeria to a tsunami of media plurality. Politicians who stole from public fund began to establish newspaper houses and radio stations which subsequently became sounding boards for their political relevance. The problem of divergent social meanings now become problematic especially for any ruling government which must view independent media ownership as threat to their existence.
The Nigerian online community has over 48 million internet users among which are 6.6 million Facebook fans, an aggressive twitter community and rapidly, these growing social media users, have, over time, metamorphosed into the country’s most formidable silent political opposition to unpopular government.
Internet penetration, alongside social media usage in Nigeria is surging and driving political, social and cultural shift and empowering our nascent democracy. However, in Nigeria, the desire of the political class is to subject their citizen to ignorance, muzzle social media and kill the light of rational discourse through over-regulation and protection of politicians over and above the public interest.
In view of the panoramic assessment of Nigeria’s media ecology, what President Buhari requires include out-of-the-box talents either old or young, professional or starters that can handle the complexities of media image of a digitalised President Mohammadu Buhari in the 21st century.
*Tijani is the Europe and Middle East Coordinator for Global Intelligentsia for Buhari