By Sonala Olumhense
On August 1, 2015, two months after President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office, I reflected on the need for a vibrant communication strategy that would best serve his mission.
“I invite him to multiply his intended harvest and make his prospects and gains not only bigger than himself, but impenetrable to any negative or unpatriotic elements that may arrive after him,” I wrote in “For Buhari: A Winning Communication Strategy.”
“All Buhari has to do is to communicate to Nigeria his journey, including his shortcomings and mistakes, in full and as routine, making the flags of transparency and accountability an ally rather than a burden. If he accepts this principle, he would set a standard so high it would be non-retractable in four years, and virtually impossible for anyone to diminish in the future.”
In the belief he would hunt for food, dig for water and build for shelter; walk with on the side of the poor and measure by the light of history, I encouraged his government to report to the people not in occasional announcements, but as routine, with the president himself taking the lead.
I recommended, in particular, that his spokespersons “appear before the press in scheduled media briefings throughout the work week and on special occasions that are broadcast on live television and streamed to the Internet.”
This, I believed, would demonstrate the transparency of the government, as well as its confidence in getting things done.
Of equal importance, I observed: “This strategy would enable the public to identify patriotic Nigerians with actual leadership potential; people who will grow as they report on their missions and challenges over time. When it comes time to choose new leaders, the public will resist being sold idiots just because they have powerful godfathers.”
As the administration has evolved, it has become sadly clear it has a different journey in mind.
Providing profound evidence last week was Farooq Kperogi, Nigeria’s brilliant and energetic journalism teacher who is currently in the US. On his Facebook page on February 11, he published a photocopy of an Aso Rock letter of appointment of one Rabi’u Aliyu (Biyora) as “Media Assistant 1, Social Media to PA Broadcast.”
The unprofessionally-written letter, set on a State House Abuja letterhead and bearing no Reference Number, was signed by the PA Broadcast Media to Buhari: Sha’aban Ibrahim Sharada.
The indefatigable Mr. Kperogi, curious about the implications of the letter and presumably Buhari’s network of media aides, set to work. He found, to his alarm, that the president has not two or three or four, but NINE such personnel, each with his own aides.
The professor also discovered a Buhari Media Centre in Abuja of about 40 bloggers, journalists, media analysts and commentators, each earning between N200,000 and N250,000 per month, using fictitious names “…to react to all media content critical of the president, write favorable news items for the president, and attack/demonize/smear people critical of the president …”
Mr. Kperogi published that report on February 12, one week ago. Nobody in the government has denied it. If you look at recent stories online that are uncomplimentary of the government, including an interview he granted to Premium Times that same weekend, it is curious to observe how heavily critics are being called names, probably by the same ghosts or others yet to be unmasked. They confirm Mr. Kperogi’s point.
It is significant that it took a patriot who lives on another continent to uncover some of the skeletons in the cupboard of this government. No government focused on performance needs an army of in-house information manipulators, let alone a squad of masked hitmen—at taxpayers’ expense—roaming the media looking for a kill.
This is confirmation of Buhari’s claim to fame, the war against corruption, is floundering. How can you fight money-laundering, for instance, with image-laundering?
The government cannot succeed if it lacks the courage to name and shame corruption, if it persists in its disobedience of the court order to publish the loot recovery record dating from 1999, and if the President protects his appointees facing corruption allegations. An army, air force and navy of media aides and ghost executioners cannot change that.
And now, it gets worse: In an admixture of puzzling coincidences, former Delta State governor James Ibori has returned to Nigeria from the UK after his jail sentence for corruption just as Buhari is settling into his so-called medical vacation.
Once home, the ex-convict declared himself to be no thief at all, and blamed his travails on unnamed persecutors.
But that was not his narrative in April 2012 when he was convicted on 10 counts of money-laundering and conspiracy to defraud. He admitted plundering the Delta State treasury and laundering the money in London, and the prosecution labelled him a common “thief in government house.”
They demonstrated how he stole over $250m, including how he bought houses around the world, including one for £2.2 million and another mansion near the private school of his three daughters in southwest England.
He bought a $20 million Challenger jet. His luxury cars included a Range Rover, a Bentley and a Maybach 62.
Methodically, they prosecuted and jailed relatives and friends who benefitted from his looting: his wife, Theresa; his mistress, Udoamaka Okoronkwo; his lawyer, Bhadresh Gohil; his sister, Christine Ibori-Ibie; his financial advisers, Daniel McCann and Lambertus De Boer; and his brother-in-law, Rowland Nakanda, who in a famous story was caught on video trying to pay over £15,000 in cash in school fees for two of Ibori’s children.
Pleading guilty to being a thief, Ibori also became one of the world’s best-known money-launderers, his case now being studied by Interpol. In England, Global Witness and other NGOS demanded a thorough investigation of the roles of such heavyweight banks as HSBC, Barclays, Citibank and Abbey National in Ibori’s money-laundering extravaganza.
But once in Buhari’s Nigeria last week—just as he was in Umaru Yar’Adua’s—Ibori was changing the narrative. In Oghara, his hometown, they celebrated him as a “worthy” Urhobo son. Clearly, the corruption sub-structure he erected lives on.
Furthermore, he still believes he can manipulate justice in Nigeria, as in December 2009 when a Federal High Court judge, Marcel Awokulehin threw out all 170 charges of looting and abuse of office he faced.
That is evidence that despite the egotistical posturing, Buhari has not moved the anti-corruption needle, and the past is the present again. Given how the APC has proudly been gathering the dregs of other parties as defectors, Buhari may yet be Ibori’s state pardon as Goodluck Jonathan was to Dipreye Alamieyeseigha. Shadowy outfits such as the BMC could make it happen.
Still, it is possible Buhari does not know about the BMC at all, although that would not absolve him of guilt for it. But he has manufactured the multi-layered conglomerate of media aides, most of them with presidential privilege masquerading as work.
What is at stake—in case power makes it difficult to remember—is the re-engineering of Nigeria so that it restates our best values and multiplies equal opportunities for all, especially the honest and the hardworking, and dissuades the worst.
Around the world, they are not saying the Urhobo people are celebrating Ibori as a hero; they are saying Nigeria is celebrating his return. One thousand media aides and media centres cannot help with that.