Of Government Spokesmen, Media Aides and Public Analysis

I was part of a discourse instigated by a satire on President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent blunders and seeming indecisions these past days. The author, Malam Jaafar Jaafar, a former media aide to Governor Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, employed as a subject of his commentary the President’s mispronouncing of German Chancellor’s name as Michelle instead of Merkel, misattribution of the designation “President” instead of “Chancellor” to her, and then reference to her territory as “West Germany” instead of Germany.
The essence of Jaafar’s method, quite simply, was to draw attention to the oversights of presidential aides in having the principal prepared for diplomatic engagements at which knowledge of, or reminders about, global current affairs are necessary, and the necessity of the President’s many travels. But, instead of a robust defence of the man’s travels and Freudian slips, Jaafar was not only pilloried, but his background as former media aide was cited by defenders of the President, in dreadful zombie mode, just to qualify him as “hypocritical” and, thus, morally unfit to criticise the political establishment. 

In defence, Jaafar was forced to educate the partisan tribe on the expectations and shade of his job. He wrote, in response to a misinterpreter of his satire: “I’ve not gone beyond the precinct of Public Relations practice to serve as (Governor Kwankawaso’s) image-maker. Drawing comparison between journalism and PR, Dr Anthony Curtis of Department of Mass Communication, University of North Carolina said, “Journalism and PR might be seen as two sides of the same coin. One side has news it wants to get out and the other side needs news to cover. It can be a symbiotic relationship”. I’ve never regretted practicing my profession – serving government as PR practitioner. You should note that my government job never stopped me from campaigning and raising funds . My job as publicist never stopped me from traversing local markets and participating in road shows to source funds for Buhari. I used the money I earned in government to buy Buhari donation cards and sell it people. Now I challenge you to show a single line I wrote in support of Kwankwaso’s aspiration before or after presidential primaries.”

But this excuse was dismissed as hollow by the tribe, in their cyber-bullying stunts, all because of their shallow interpretations of that art of tacit exaggerations and distortions intended to make a people reflect upon a topical issue amidst laughter or embarrassment.  

Jaafar’s satirical take on Buhari, a man already regarded as a political deity by supporters, of whom they always miss the writer too has been a supporter, is a contention that doesn’t exactly shock me. Our people are not just ignorant, unlearned and unteachable but the culture of “Ran ka ya dade”, a syndrome that entrenches deference to even erring elders and leaders, turning the people into malfunctioning robots, has made criticism of the establishment a form of disrespect, and the critics rebels with no cause. 

The Java-scripted reactions to critics of Buhari’s early days, if not countered and defied, may make the zealous supporter of former President Jonathan, described as “Jonathanian”, end up in our history books as actually tolerant partisans, noting the emergence of unbearably obnoxious successors now strutting to declare that a people’s democratically President is “too decent to be ridiculed”, “too old to be satirized”, “not sluggish”, “perfect”, and all that nonsense that shouldn’t be said of a democratically elected leader. 

We all love Buhari and we all pray he succeeds as promised, but asking critics to patronise the man who’s stopped being one of the followers from May 29, having joined the league of the demons the nation must blame to remain sane in this insane clime, is to say that democracy is a government of the idiots by the deities for the dumb. 

It hurts me badly that the most furious and indecorous critics of former President Goodluck Jonathan, who without evidences ridiculed the man as perpetually drunken, threw ethnophobic jibe at his “Ijaw accent”, dismissed him as incoherent speaker, said his PhD is fake, derided his wife’s speech impediment, charged him as funder of the Boko Haram, wove silly conspiracy theories to suppress facts, wished him death, and even made personalised and “insensitive” jokes about the first couple’s family and sex life and the woman’s “barrenness”, are the people forming an army and a police against any commentary and joke on Buhari’s accents, blunders and administrative indecisions. 

Even while some are gloating over the in-house squabble among Buharists now, it’s still misplaced to describe ours as “bad precedent” set from the Jonathan years. No, occupying the Seat of Power is volunteering to become a people’s subject of critical assessment, and satire is one of them. These assessments are a responsibility of all, and that media-savvy citizens dominate the vocation is simply as a result of the advantage of their trade.

Also, being a former government aide isn’t a basis for disqualification, moral or social, to assess the reality of a country or government in which the critic too is affected by policies implemented and decisions made. My favourite government spokesman was the unassailable Adagbo Onoja, who managed the image of Jigawa State’s former Governor Sule Lamido. Though he left before the principal’s tenure expired, settling down for an academic pursuit, first in Ibadan and then UK, his competence was never in doubt. I was a fan of his peculiar presentation and representation of his boss when he was in charge, and I got to tell him so when I bumped into him at an eatery here in Abuja sometime in 2013 or thereabouts.

Onoja’s peculiarity was his wisdom to draw the line between what he, as a person, believed in, and the ideals of his principal. Even though he discharged his duty as a media handler quite diligently, he wasn’t a sycophant. He was in control of his voice, which he amplified in commenting on national issues after leaving the service of Governor Lamido. 

Did Onoja criticise Lamido after leaving his office? Of course, he wasn’t hard on him, because there is a channel through which he can communicate with the man privately, but there’s a time, when a principal fails to heed one’s sincere advice, that a declaration of dissent has to be done publicly, for all to understand. 

This, Onoja did in the period running up to the last presidential election when his former boss took a clearly unpopular position, formed a weak force against the Buhari candidacy, by which Onoja was displeased. 

He wrote the man an open letter, a widely syndicated, read and discussed expression of disappointment in the politics of his former boss, and how he lost his tracks in his strategically doomed political race. It was one of the most heartwarming epistles ever written, ever read, but to me it is simply an evidence that loyalty to a government or politician as a head of his communication unit is not an oath. 

I think some people assume a media handler is a blood-bound sycophant who may forever dance to the tune of a principal. There’s a thick line between a man’s precept and his job, between conscience and service, and to say that it’s impossible to break loose and be independent is to be deliberately mischievous. May God save us from us!

By Gimba Kakanda 

@gimbakakanda on Twitter 

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