Building Up Civic Confidence: Towards A Better Information Management By The Government; By Ogbu, Blessing Ekpere
On Tuesday, 26th August, 2014, the nation woke up to the shocking news that Boko Haram insurgents overpowered Nigerian troops and pursued them in a triumphal chase that saw our dear soldiers scampering like frightened rodents into Cameroon. According to the various news reports, the Cameroonian authorities assembled our hightailing troops, disarmed them, and camped them on the grounds of a secondary school in the Cameroonian town of Maroua, about 80 kilometres across the Nigerian border. That should have been the end of the story, and Nigerians would have commended the gallantry of the troops who have been compelled to engage the unseen enemy in what has since turned out to be an asymmetric warfare – except that, contrary to the underlying principle behind asymmetric warfare, the insurgents appeared to be better armed than the Nigerian military.
In history, formal militaries that have been caught in the attritional throes of unconventional warfare have never found it easy against foes which deploy strategies that go against the spirit of military doctrine to offset their deficiency in men and in materiel. Whether one cares to consider the methodology employed by the settlers against the British Crown in the American Revolutionary War that culminated in the American independence; or if one is inclined to examine the dynamics of the Second Boer War where a force of about thirty thousand Boer commandoes successfully engaged the British in a protracted warfare, and were defeated only when the British committed four hundred and fifty thousand troops into the conflict; or if regard is had to the defeat of the massive German force by a whimpering Red Army at Stalingrad during the Second World War – a battle that decisively turned the tide of the war against Nazi Germany; or if the American involvement in the Vietnam War is revisited, the exploits of the Mujahedeen against the Red Army during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan explicated and the tale of the Nicaraguan Contras retold in all its graphic details; the recurring theme will remain that no formal military, given the choice, would readily engage a guerrilla outfit in a conflict. Viewed against the backdrop of Nigeria’s socio-cultural and geographical peculiarities –especially the particularities of the North-Eastern States of Borno and Yobe, – the increased operational hazard of our military can be appreciated.
And, indeed, discerning Nigerians appreciate the sizzling cauldron in which the troops are stewing, and are willing to express their empathies. But, the Defence headquarters would rather engage in a propaganda frolic that would make Joseph Goebbels wonder why he did not raise the ante high enough. Thus, while Nigerians would have called for increased budgetary allocation for Defence, even when the least news-conscious of them knows that Defence Budget has been expanding at a geometric rate since 2010, the Defence Headquarters through its spokesman, Brigadier-General Chris Olukolade announced that the troops were not overpowered, but only strayed into Cameroon in the process of tactical manoeuvring. The national outrage that followed this explanation was understandable. It must be noted here that it was the same Brigadier Chris Olukolade who, less than one week after their abduction, gleefully informed a bewildered nation that the Chibok girls had been rescued by local hunters. The rest, they say, is history.
This is not to say that the military must, or should divulge their plans, strategies, tactical operational details, or even the source of their information to the general public. Nigerians, at least the intelligent ones, know that most military information are strictly issued on need-to-know basis. But, Nigerians also have a right to demand that their sensibilities be not assaulted and insulted by information manifestly intended to deceive and not to inform. Such information, it is submitted, possesses the same utilitarian value as a stick of cigarette stuck to the quavering lips of a dying soldier on a blood-soaked front. It is understandable, and far respectable if the military brass withhold sensitive information from the public; but it is sheer propaganda where false information is served as a substitute. There is no greater conflagration than that which emanates from the irascibly combustible mix of military action and propaganda. And it is counter-productive where the people for whom the delicacy of falsehood is prepared know the truth of the matter.
Nor is the matter a malady afflicting the military. Nigerians will recall how, at the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) several months ago, long before it crossed the border in the anatomy of the late but now much-vilified Patrick Sawyer, the Honourable Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku in a blustery display of verbal haemorrhage unbecoming of a public officer of such a high and strategic standing proclaimed that Nigerians had no cause to fear the dreaded EVD as the Nigerian government had warehouses full of the vaccine to combat and defeat the virus should it make its impudent entry into the country. At that time ZMAPP had not been developed and there was no known cure, prophylactic or antidote against the dreaded disease. Today, whenever he speaks, Nigerians take his words with a huge dose of scepticism. This conditioned popular response is antithetical to the purpose of his office. The logical corollary is the erosion of public confidence in the information dissemination network of the government. No doubt, when, on Tuesday, the 26th day of August, 2014, the Honourable Minister of Health announced at a Press Conference that Nigeria was winning the war against the dreaded EVD, and that only one case was still outstanding, not a few Nigerians, including this writer desperately wanted to believe him.
It is minimally expected that the job of a government spokesperson should follow globally accepted standards and rules of operation. What this means is that all information available for release must be clear, concise, confirmed and approved by appropriate authority before release to the media or public. The appropriate authority owes a duty to the populace not to release unconfirmed information or to speculate. Information, which is not confidential, would not hamper an investigation or jeopardize the rights and safety of an individual can and should be released. Though it is the responsibility of such spokespersons to address public concerns, assuage assaulted sensibilities and to reduce tension within the body polity, the least effective means of achieving this objective is through the release of patently false information. In the long run what deliberate disinformation creates is a leadership that inadvertently turns itself into a joke in the eyes of the followership. The spokespersons should always be conscious of the fact that the Nigerian public, unlike the animals in George Orwell’s classic, ANIMAL FARM, perennially manipulated by the pigs through Squealer, their Public Relations Officer, will always remember. Even if the human memory does not, modern information storage and retrieval system makes it possible for Nigerians to remember always information they received in the past.
How, then, can the Government hope to reach out across the gulf to build and instil civic confidence in the citizenry? It is humbly submitted here that such efforts can be kick-started by avoiding certain obvious information management landmines. The first landmine to avoid is actually the obvious. Lies. Most Spokespersons for government agencies believe that their primary responsibility is to defend their agencies at whatever cost and by whatever means. While such defence is at the heart of their assignment, duty and honour demand that the means to achieve effectuate this assignment should not result in a public backlash. Lies do exactly the opposite. So also are speculations and hypotheticals, though to a lesser degree. Further, it is not advisable to issue press releases unless such press releases are newsworthy and have a focal relevance to the topical issue in perspective. In other words, press releases should be released just to serve some politically expedient purposes. Importantly, press releases should be released, not flippantly, but with the utmost sense of responsibility. It is counterproductive where the public views government policy statements and explications through the prism of mental rejection as a consequence of the glib responses of the information managers of the agency in question.
It therefore becomes imperative that the Government agencies overhaul their information management techniques with a view to garnering and entrenching civic confidence in the government. A government that bungles critical information delivery is lending itself gratuitously to be disbelieved by the citizenry. Such style of information management does not only alienate the citizenry and induces apathy; it also cultivates civic antagonism. It is no surprise that government agencies complain always of the public’s lack of trust and confidence in their activities. It is, thus, contrary to the ideals of government and, indeed, self-defeating of its objectives, where the citizens begins to look for external authentication of every information disseminated by the official mouthpieces of the government. As the nation grapples with the myriads of its challenges, alienating the citizenry is one poisoned chalice of a luxury the Government cannot afford. This trend must be reversed.
Ogbu Blessing Ekpere Esq., a Legal Practitioner in Abuja sends this piece.
Do not hesitate to leave your opinion in the comment section below.
To contact Abusidiqu.com for Article Submission and Advertisement or General inquiry, send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org