May 29: An End And A Beginning By Tolu Ogunlesi
There are a number of places you can turn to for a glimpse of power as it changes hands in Nigeria. This week, the fedora-festooned photographs of the PhD-wielding canoe-carver’s son will climb down from the thousands of walls they adorn – government offices, hotels, banking halls, etc – to be replaced by the cap-donning, stern-faced mien of the retired General turned rancher.
You can also glimpse the change in the fabric shops of Deira, Dubai. On a visit earlier this month, I realised that the name “Buhari” had joined “Jonathan” and “Atiku” on the walls of the shops – as colloquial designations for the fabric types most popular with Nigerians.
And then, there’s the Transcorp Hilton in Abuja, eminent barometer of the atmosphere of Nigeria’s high-stakes politics. The hotel’s lobby is a powerful lodestone not only for the country’s political and business elite, but also for the wannabes and hangers-on seeking the appropriate “connections”.
One or two people recently pointed out to me that the signature language in the lobby has changed recently, as has the sartorial outlook. There are now a lot more “babanrigas” and Hausa caps to be seen, and Hausa and Yoruba appear to have displaced “pidgin-English” as the most commonly peddled tongues. Nigeria hardly ever does half-measures with these things; it seems our penchant for half-heartedness is reserved for institutional reform and infrastructural ambition.
“The All Progressives Congress has taken over the hotel,” one hotel regular told me last week. No doubt, the Peoples Democratic Party’s loss of federal power will be keenly felt here, not merely in the language and fashion of the ground floor lobby but also in the character of the guest lists for the floors above. There was a time I used to hear that the hotel had been taken over by the ex-warlords and militants of the Niger Delta; the new breed class of political players that the Age of Goodluck Jonathan threw up. Today, there are new kids on the block, Today’s men changing places with Yesterday’s.
I was in Abuja to attend the APC policy summit, held to brainstorm ideas for the incoming government. I instinctively had the feeling, when I first learnt about the event, that it would make no sense to be absent from an event an incoming government is organising to shed some light on possible directions.
There were panels on oil and gas, agriculture, education, health care, security, foreign policy, public service, human rights, and sports, tourism and the creative industries. I sat in on a number of the panels, impressed by the quality of the crowd the party’s policy team managed to attract. Again, Dr. Kayode Fayemi’s strengths as an organiser – first nationally recognised when he led the presidential convention planning committee late last year – came to the fore.
I came away with the strong feeling that Nigeria’s problem has never been knowing what the right things to do are, but instead summoning the focus and political will required to implement. We are experts at creating reform committees but not at reforming; gifted in turning white paper reports into white elephants.
I’ll leave the details of the proceedings to the party to make public in their own time; I understand that the reports will be prepared into documents that will be made available as a take-off document to the new President and his cabinet. What I can say is that the oil and gas industry will be occupying a huge chunk of the incoming government’s time. Because it is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, and the primary determinant of just how much money all our governments will have to play or work with, it will in some way affect every other sector. The power sector is even more directly affected because a sizable part of our power generation woes are bound up in gas production, processing and transport.
There is definitely plenty of work to be done. All of the work will have to be supported by a robust communication plan. The success or failure of the new government will depend largely on the extent to which the communications game is played – shoddily and haphazardly or with skill and authenticity. I think there is a lot President Muhammadu Buhari could learn from the outgoing administration, in terms of what not to do regarding managing information and communication. The Jonathan communications structure was organised around disparate silos of activity, with little or no coordination happening among them, and, worst of all there seemed to be little or no oversight from the man for whom they were supposed to be working.
The Buhari government would be making a huge mistake if it decides to keep the dysfunctional Jonathan structure. It has to take steps to rethink it, and to create a single office to manage presidential communications, with clear lines of top-to-down responsibility, and one person at the top of the chain. This one person has to have direct access to the President and Commander-in-Chief. And the President has to take a direct interest in process and procedures of communicating with the country he’s leading. He should insist on keeping a tightly organised and collaborative team, with clear lines of reporting and clearly-defined job responsibilities. Presidential communication is too important for a president or Vice-President or governor to abandon to a team, no matter how competent that team might be.
Now, let’s be honest. From what we know of the President-elect, he is not a natural communicator; someone particularly adept at public speaking or communicating. The PDP capitalised on this by highlighting just how little time he spent speaking at his campaign rallies, as well as his party’s reluctance to submit him for a debate. It’s a weakness, no doubt, but weaknesses do not always have to be failings. They simply require a strategy that focuses, not necessarily on masking them, but on exploiting them in a way that neutralises the negatives and looks for ways to build positions of strength out of them. The man who is not a great speaker in front of large crowds will look for opportunities to increasingly engage (and shine) with smaller and more manageable crowds. You get the drift.
According to Martha Joynt Kumar, author of the book, “Managing the President’s Message – The White House Communications Operation”: “Communications operations reflect the president they serve. The White House Staff is not a complement to a President but a reflection of him. If a President is adept at communications, his apparatus reflects it. If he is interested in communications, that, too, will be reflected in the staff operation.” That would probably apply as much to the Villa as it does to the White House.
Social media also offers a great opportunity, if well-used. No one expects a President to spend a lot of their time tweeting or Facebooking – President Barack Obama only just got his own Twitter account last week, six years into his presidency – but the new President would be doing himself a lot of favour by dipping in from time to time to catch a glimpse of public sentiment, and to break away from the echo-chamber that the presidency inevitably imprisons its occupants in.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @toluogunlesi