(THE CREST Exclusive)
By Shola Oshunkeye
To him, and most of his colleagues in the business of selling government policies, and projecting their principals in good light before their various publics, the social media could be a very effective tool for mass dissemination of information. And they often use it to maximum advantage.
But, it could also be a huge irritant especially when their audience not only refuse to see things from their perspective but also rain raw insults on them.
It could even be worse when they encounter people with an obsession to use the anonymity of some social media platforms to inflict pain. Did you say cyber bullies? Regardless of the nomenclature, many government spokesmen suffer insomnia and, sometimes, spikes in blood pressure from social media attacks.
Which explains why, when Femi Adesina, Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, fielded questions from The Crest recently in Abuja, one of the pressing questions fired at him was: how does he sleep when people bombard him with unsavoury comments, or abuse daylight out of him?
Does Adesina sleep easy when the cacophony hits such ear-tearing decibel that a first time visitor to the country may think the nation is at the edge of war?
Without mincing words, and without any disregard to public opinion, the Special Adviser shoots straight as he answers you with three words: “I even snore”.
He predicates that unusual confidence on his belief that those who hit hardest at him or his principal or the government they represent constitute a tiny minority that neither have voter’s card nor vote.
That is just the starter. Please, enjoy the main menu:
Like I said, when you watch television, listen to radio stations, read newspapers, and read the threads of discussions on social media, how do you sleep? Do you sleep easy?
I even snore. (General laughter)
With all the name-calling? With people hurling abuses at you and the president, and others?
It is the vocal minority that does it. And because they are so vocal, you think they are in majority. But the truth is they are in the minority.
But their voices matter.
It does matter. Even if they are just 10 people, it matters. But then, the larger majority of Nigerians are hopeful and they are cooperative; and they know that the government is out to serve them and it will make a change in their lives. Those strident voices are in the vocal minority.
Don’t you think that is too simplistic?
Well, it happens to be the truth and the last election shows that. Before that election, we did a survey which told us that the social media will account for just between 9 and 11 per cent of the electorate. The poll showed that all the noise you saw and heard on the social media that you think that APC may lose will account for less than 11 per cent of the electorate. And that is what happened. You know why? Despite all the noise, most people on social media do not vote. They don’t even have voter’s card. If you had used the social media as your barometer for the last elections, you would say: ‘Ah! APC is gone’. But see what happened-11 million to 14 million, and three solid million is the gap.
Even though that is being contested at the Election Petitions Tribunal…
Yes, it is part of the democratic rights of people who are going to court.
I don’t think it is fair for me to ask you how optimistic you are that President Buhari will continue after the court has decided.
Yes, a fair conscience fears nothing because the election was not manipulated. The election was free and fair. APC lost several states. How come it is when APC won that elections were manipulated? The election was not manipulated where APC lost. And APC lost minimum of six states. So, there were no manipulations in those places. To answer your question directly, we lose no sleep over the tribunal case at all.
Can I advise that you don’t dismiss the social media with a wave of the hand because of the experience in America?
No, no. The 9 to 11 percent will matter. They will matter. But the entire 9 to11 percent does not belong to the opposition. You will also have your fair share. Out of that 11 percent, APC had. It is not that the entire 11 percent belongs to the opposition.
MEDIA MUST SELF-RESTRAIN
Recently, there was this pronouncement that the government will begin to take more than passing interest in what goes on in social media. But people construed that to mean a gag of freedom of expression?
There is no absolute freedom anywhere. Licentious freedom is not recommended anywhere; it will hurt that society. It will hurt that country that allows licentious freedom. There must be checks and balances. And I was happy when the DSS came out (recently) to say that it had begun to look out for those who post hate on social media; and they will be pulling them in. It is good. You don’t allow the fabric of your country to be destroyed.
You said you were happy when the DSS made that pronouncement…
Yes, as a media person, I will never support muzzling of free press. But then, I will also not support liberty for license in which you can say almost anything, including treasonable comments, and you get away with it. There must be law and order in a country.
Definitely, there must be self-censorship and self-restraint. If you refuse to self-censor, censorship will come up in another form. So, it is better to have self-censorship so that the other kinds of censorship will not come. We find a lot of irresponsible comments everywhere now and a nation cannot afford to go on in that way.
I remember a couple of years back, we were in Abu Dhabi. Somebody in that country was telling me that if you post anything irresponsible on social media in that country, within five minutes you are under arrest. We know Abu Dhabi is a smaller country compared to Nigeria. Nigeria’s size is another problem; and you know that social media does not even have boundaries. Somebody may stay in America and be posting fake news against Nigeria. But there must be some form of control.
You used a word that got me worried-censorship.
Censorship in terms of self-restraint, in terms of self-control
People are already alluding to the fact that during President Buhari’s first coming as a military Head of State (December 31, 1983 to August 27, 1985), he gagged the press. This might be the beginning of a repeat.
No, no, no. It is not gagging of the press in that sense. Since he came in 2015, have you seen any tendency towards gagging the press? What I am saying is that those who also play in the public domain must restrain themselves. That is what I mean by self-censorship.
If you were not part of this government, if you were still the Managing Director of The Sun, still writing your column, would that be your position?
Even as president of the Guild of Editors, that was my position. The media is not above the law. That is what I always said as president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. If the media break the law, they can be called to answer questions, but don’t brutalize them. Don’t beat them. Don’t lock journalists up indefinitely, and all that. That has always been my position. Part of the duties of the government is to preserve the cohesion of the country’s peace and tranquillity to ensure protection of lives and properties. If we now find out that some people will rupture the peace in the land through careless utterances, we must not, on the altar of free expression, allow that to happen. We must balance free expression to responsible expression.
If you were on the other side, would you have written that in your column?
Yes. I have told you that even while I was on the other side, that was my position.
WHY THERE ARE TOO MANY ILLEGAL ARMS IN NIGERIA
There is also this issue of mopping up of arms. The police asked people to be surrendering their arms…
(Cuts in…) The police themselves denied that they didn’t give that instruction.
Then, what is this government doing about the proliferation of illegal arms?
It is not something that is just happening under this government. Remember the Obasanjo Government set up a committee headed by Justice Emmanuel Ayoola, who later became ICPC chairman. The committee was to look into illegal arms in the country and how they can be mopped up. That tells you that it is not just a current phenomenon.
Then, there is a U.N. report which states the number of illegal arms in Nigeria is so high because of the problem in the Sahel, particularly the fall of Muammar Ghadaffi, and the issues in Mali, in Burkina Faso. There are issues all over the Sahel which make illegal arms to proliferate in that area, and they just flow into Nigeria. It is a big problem. But that does not mean government will not look into it.
Can you confidently say that the government is on top of the situation?
It is a very complex situation but the duty of government is to protect lives and properties. And this government, particularly, will not be irresponsible in that area.
HOW BUHARI WILL FIX NIGERIA
What is the big step the president or the presidency is going to take towards taking 100 million Nigerians out of poverty?
There will be a blueprint.
Because it should go beyond mere mouthing it.
Definitely, there will be a blueprint that will be unfolded. The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment has said that in the next four years, it is going to create minimum of four million jobs. That is a big development. There will be blueprint everywhere. We have the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, ERGP. All these things will cumulate towards taking people out of poverty.
And restore hope?
Definitely, because when life is better, hope is always restored.
The reason I emphasized restoring of hope is because it reminds me of the late M.K.O. Abiola’s mantra in the build-up to the 1993 general elections-banishing poverty. Since the president decided to honour Abiola the way he did, why can’t he go the whole hog by studying his manifesto, ‘Farewell To Poverty’, and draw valuable inspiration from the man’s plan for an optimistic future for Nigeria?
Nigeria does not lack blueprints, it is the implementation of such blueprints that is the issue. I am sure Abiola’s blueprint is also part of what other people would have considered. Nigeria has a surfeit of blueprints but implementing those blueprints has been the challenge we face. This government is determined to make the difference.
Talking about making the difference, what are the things that might likely change in the next four years towards restoring hope?
It is clear. If you read the Next Level manual, they have been stated. The Next Level is going to be a level of infrastructure. It has started in the first term and it is going to be consolidated. Infrastructure will include road, power, rail, ports. You will see that all over the country. The Next Level is going to be a level of jobs. Jobs will be created in their millions and people will have opportunities. It is going to be a level in which power will be provided for Nigerians. The target is that by 2020, which is just about six months away, we will have a minimum of 10,000 megawatts. It is achievable.
And we are at 5000?
We had reached 7,000 before we dropped to 5,000
We don’t even have the capacity to distribute what we generate…
(Cuts in…) That will be tackled. But the target is that by 2020, we will have 10,000 megawatts and, incrementally, we will build on it like that. Then, the Next Level will be time in which the education curriculum is going to lay emphasis on science and technology. The curriculum is going to be changed. It has already stated. The Next Level is a level of inclusive governance. There will be more women, and more young people in governance. Then, people at the bottom-rung of the ladder will be taken care of through the establishment of what we call the People-Money Bank. The bank will be established to take care of the people at the bottom-rung of the ladder.
We already have a social investment programme which is said to be the biggest in Africa. Already, millions of people have been affected by the social investment programmes. We have the N-Power, Conditional Cash Transfer, and so many other projects under that social investment programme. We also have the Entrepreneurs Bank which will take care of small and medium scale enterprises. There are many things designed to ensure that people are taken out of poverty and that Nigerians are better positioned to live wholesome lives. The Next Level is also the level of health. It is believed that healthy populace is needed to compete with the rest of the world. Therefore, health care is also going to be a focus in the Next Level.
IMMORTALISING ABIOLA: NO DRUMMER CAN PLEASE THE WHOLE DANCERS
Permit me to take you back to take you back to the inaugural Democracy Day celebration and the president’s pronouncements at the occasion. First, on the issue of the M.K.O. Abiola National Stadium, Abuja, many Nigerians applauded the president for this, just as they did when he declared June 12 as Nigeria’s new Democracy Day. But some people said: why not name another national monument after Abiola? Why name a stadium that appears rejected or abandoned?
There is a saying that no drummer can please the whole dancers. Never. You will still find those who will complain no matter how well you beat the drum. The fact that a stadium is disused temporarily, does it mean it will always be like that? Besides, it is the institution that Abiola was named after, not its current state. That stadium will continue to be an institution. So, there is nothing wrong in naming that stadium after M.K.O Abiola; remembering that he was the Pillar of Sports in Africa. For me, it is a befitting legacy for him.
More importantly, he is the symbolism of June 12 as our Democracy Day, which I think is far greater than any physical monument.
Democracy, which has been unbroken for 20 years, was actually built on the foundation of Abiola’s blood. Abiola stood resolutely against the annulment of the election, which he won, and that was what led to the exit of the military from governance. There would have been no democracy if Abiola hadn’t done what he did and he paid the ultimate price.
I am sure you must have read some headlines that suggested that past Nigerian heads of state abandoned the president during the June 12 celebration. That they didn’t participate. That they shunned the president. Were they invited?
I wouldn’t use the word ‘abandoned’ or ‘shunned’ because I am not privy to why they didn’t come. But we know why one of them didn’t come because he has taken a position against this administration; and that position he took, his side lost in the election. I understand why he didn’t come.
And who would that be?
You know it
I don’t. Could that be former President Jonathan?
Thou sayeth. Iwo wi i. On inauguration day, former President Yakubu Gowon was around. If he couldn’t come on June 12, there must have been a reason. I remember few days before June 12, General Abdulsalam Abubakar met the president at the lesser hajj. I am sure he must have explained why he may not be able to come. The ones that matter are just presidents under democracy and we have just two of them living. One is dead-President Umaru Yar’Adua. So, we have Presidents Obasanjo and Jonathan. President Buhari is the fourth under democracy.
As the president’s spokesperson, you don’t see it as a slight on your principal?
No, it was not a slight because they must have had their reasons for not being around. I didn’t have any negative reason. They must have their reasons. Yes, we understand with one who wouldn’t show up, because he used to consider himself the landlord of Nigeria, now the keys of the house have been taken away from him. You know him. For the others, they must have their reasons. And that didn’t detract from the celebration in any way. June 12 celebration was splendid; it was successful. It was still colourful. It’s like a saying: ‘The Oyingbo market does not know anybody has not come.’
Who could be this landlord you referenced? Could it be President Obasanjo?
If you say he is, then, he is.
UNLIKE 8th NASS, 9th NASS WILL BE AGENT OF COOPERATION
Moving on to the National Assembly, the President and the APC had their way with the election of the principal officers. Their anointed candidates won. How do you feel? I am sure you feel elated.
Judging from the experiences of the past four years in which the leadership of the legislature was like champions of the opposition, you can’t but applaud what happened. You saw that the leadership of the legislature then got in through artifice and trickery. Eventually, they became opposition to the government, slowed everything down, and then, they decamped. It was really, really a bad example of something to happen in a democracy. Now that the president showed his preference for some candidates, and those candidates are now in office, it is not going to be a rubber-stamp relationship. There will still be separation of power; but there will be mutual respect and collaboration.
The opposition insists that the APC members were coerced into affirming the principal officers, as it were.
They are the opposition; you won’t expect them to carry a flag in your support. Because they are opposition, they will always look for negative things to say.
Do you think that the pronouncement by the APC national chairman, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, that APC will not share any office with the opposition is democratic?
From the nature of the voting, you would have seen that it was a bi-partisan thing. The figures recorded couldn’t have been recorded without the other parties voting APC members. Democracy is give and take. It depends on the agreement they had struck. The party chairman is one person; he will have his opinion. But then, the final position will come from pronouncement by NEC (National Executive Committee) or NWC (National Working Committee).
(To be continued)
(C) THE CREST