Nigerians were afforded another rare opportunity to peer into the operational limitations of the presidential media office recently. Within the 50-day absence of President Muhammadu Buhari from office on what was initially dubbed a vacation in the United Kingdom, the whole media apparatus of the Federal Government and the presidency was subjected to the rigor of scrutiny over its relationship with the public.
Some salient facts have emerged from the interface of the presidential publicists with Nigerians within the interregnum. One incontrovertible thing that dawned on Nigerians was that the messages from the publicists were diametrically opposed to that which the President, who eventually arrived Nigeria on Friday, March 10, 2017 gave to the people on his arrival.
In attempts to stave off criticisms and insinuations that the President was possibly suffering from a life-threatening ailment which kept him from the country for so long, it was obvious that Nigerians were treated to contrasting, sometimes illogical and most times apparently untruthful statements from the office.
Whatever may be your differences with President Buhari and his style of rule, what you cannot take away from him is that he is a very down-to-earth man. That much was revealed in his address on arrival at the Aso Villa. Contrasting the narratives earlier dished out that he was “neither ill nor in hospital”, the President said, matter-of-factly, that he underwent a blood transfusion and that he had never been that ill in his life. How do we reconcile these very dissimilar narratives about one and same issue?
I have read Dr Reuben Abati’s piece entitled Buhari’s Return: Matters Arising and I could only agree with some tiny tissues of his arguments. In the piece, he had justified some of the shroudy statements about the state of health of the President as a major need to fulfill the security establishment’s desire for security needful in the management of the Commander-in-Chief.
The major limitation of that argument is that it takes the security of the President as akin to national security and fails to take cognizance of the fact that, Nigerians, being no part of the security apparatchik of the presidency, deserved to know the whole truth of the president’s health status but were treated to the converse. Even till now, no one can say for sure what ails the president and it is this mythification of his health that bred various gossipy prognosis of his ailment, including the anemia theory of a medical doctor that went viral.
The absolute truth of the narrative which Dr. Abati and the handlers of the President refused to reveal is that the presidential publicists and every publicist for that matter, especially of political office holders, are captives to some publics in office and they are just prisoners who are constrained by institutional barbs, institutional principalities, if you like.
For some publicists, they are prisoners of a familial public of power, in which case the wife and family of the principal seek to control them like marionettes; to some, it is the political public or some other publics. Femi Adesina, Garba Shehu and the man Nigerians have mischievously dubbed Lie Mohammed, an unfair twist of his first name, were merely reacting to the marionette-like prodding of those principalities in the Villa.
The first thing to note is that, many Nigerians, especially very educated people for that matter, make the costly mistake of assuming that publicists who most times vacate their journalism space for political offices are there as an extension of their, most times, activist journalism advocacies.
In other words, they expected the Abatis, the Adesinas to continue grilling the system in Aso Rock and reporting to them their findings on Aso Rock’s systemic dislocations. The truth is that, there is a wide gulf between journalism practice and the job description of a media adviser/press secretary/public relations officer to a political office holder. Indeed, what they do there is everything but journalism.
The only point of agreement could be that, like the journalist/reporter, the publicist dishes out information/news about their principal to the public, using the media of communication. Mind you, they are positive or positivised – pardon the coinage – information; in which case, if the information is not positive, they use their knowledge to make it positive, most times to the detriment of the public. The earlier the reading public realizes it has lost the erstwhile journalist to the political sharks who now control him, the better for its understanding of the equation.
The public, which the erstwhile journalist owed the need for report of truth, is immediately relegated to the second position in the equation of his assignment in office. Like Friedrich Nietzsche did in relegating the spatial province of God and replacing Him with the Superman in the Europe of the nineteenth century, the publicist unwittingly relegates the reading or electoral public and unwittingly proclaims the ascendancy of the Principal and his ancillary interests.
Most times, those interests are conflictual and are not exclusive. For instance, if the Principal collapses right in the front of the media adviser, in the estimation of the journalist, that surely is good news for the public which deserves to know details of the health of the top public office holder. When the adviser was a practicing journalist, that was a scoop that should lead the front page of his newspaper the second day but since he is the adviser to the political office holder now, that information must be kept under wraps from the public and most times, to its detriment.
It is a structural process that happens without the knowledge of the publicist and a transformation that he sometimes finds very hard to explain. Those who attempted to satisfy the interest of the public and relegate the interest of their principal have met their waterloo in office.
The office of the publicist/media adviser, as stated by Abati in the above referenced piece, is one of the riskiest offices ever. Many publicists never recovered from the bashings/stains that stick to their names in the name of working for their principal. Put succinctly, it is a job where you clean up messes.
This writer once had a principal who put the scope and briefs of the job so crudely but matter-of-factly thus: “I have just done so and so exercise… you may say I am wicked, that I don’t have blood running in my veins, but I have already done it. Your job, which I employed you for, is to clean me up, so go ahead and do just that.” This crudely captures the beat of the publicist: He is to clean up messes. How he does that is his cup of tea.
He blocks adversarial stories from coming to limelight and puts the interest of his principal ahead any other interest. At the risk of his reputation, name and integrity, he embarks on a clean-up exercise which sometimes becomes life-long stains on his own apparel. On the converse, if you are lucky to be the publicist of a man who did well while in office, you get bequeathed all the aroma of his good deeds thereafter.
The office also has elements of the Marxian notion of the opium or the elixir. There is also a process of recruitment and de-radicalization of the journalist who is bringing into the Government House all the idealist and sometimes revolutionary views about how society should be run. In most instances, the process of de-radicalization is overt and many times, the journalist/publicist finds out about his own transmutation by stealth, to his shock and chagrin.
By then, it is too late to backtrack. If his principal has an objectionable character that many people loath, the journalist/publicist is the first person to paper over it, lest it come to limelight; if he is seen as wicked, the new employee in Government House is the first to convey his virtue of meekness.
By the way, this conveyance of the character of the principal may be a false reading of his character but the moment he wins the publicist over, he has won over a pliable anvil who would go to any length to preach that false image. From that moment, the publicist becomes a prisoner of the principal.
The publicist is supposed to have an unfettered access to the Principal. The moment he does not, a large chunk of the tools of his job is denied him and he has on his hands a recipe for failure. In having access to the principal, he studies him, his body language, mannerism and sometimes, the way he talks and what his gestures convey.
The intricate process of access, sitting down to download the vision and witnessing the privations of the principal, constitute the opium which invariably acts as the elixir that fires his zeal, making him sometimes to go to the moon to harvest the cloud for the principal.
It is this that many times ensures that the publicist bites the bullet for his principal, making him do some things which ultimately make him the victim of power. Herein lies the knotty reason why some publicists engage in some acts that seem diametrically opposed to what they believe in.
On the whole however, very few politicians are worthy of the yeoman job that journalists who become publicists do in office. The risks involved to the name of the publicists are too many and the office, many times, becomes the graveyard of the integrity of the erstwhile reporter.
This is because, when the principal transmutes into the rogue in office, stealing, looting and becoming power-drunk, they most times don’t apprise the publicists of their image-damaging ride; when he becomes aware, it is too late to backtrack. Resignation? This also has its only dangers, making the job, immediately he accepts it, worse than a Hobson choice; indeed, a choice between the devil and the deep red sea.
With the above as a backcloth, this writer is of the opinion that the gaffe in the handling of the President’s 50-day medical vacation must have resulted from the operations of forces beyond the media office. The apparent fall-guy was the reading and electoral public which expected that what the media office managers, erstwhile media men, do in that office is to protect their interest. No. The interest that is paramount in the calculation of the media office is that of their principal.
As at the time when the decibel was high on the uncomfortable silence of the President who was far away in a foreign land, the narrative which sounded right to the power apparatchik in the Villa was what the media office dished out. For all you care, that narrative may be the personal opinion of a powerful man in power who was beside the President on his sick bed.
The media office right here in Nigeria must have been captive of that narrative. And since news is history in a hurry, woe betides the media office if it sought personal verification before going to press. That was why photographs of the President allegedly watching television and receiving guests, his exhilarating phone calls to Adesina and messages from the Moroccan President, became ready tools to advertise the wellness of the President.
* Dr Adedayo is on the Tribune editorial board