Now that the dust over the corporeal status of President Muhammadu Buhari has settled, an attempt to put it all in perspective should make good sense, I think.
Before now, tempers had been on the loose. The Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, was so infuriated; he got unusually caustic and suggested that Nigerians were people of ill-will.
In the fleeting frustration that visited operatives of this administration following rumours that the President might have passed on in London, Mohammed let out an unforgiveable misjudgment of what Nigerians generally represent.
A statement issued by his Special Assistant on Media, Segun Adeyemi, said, inter alia: “It’s only in this part of the world that you wake up in the morning and you say the President of the country is dead…”
Mohammed got it wrong. Nigerians actually, generally belong to a class of people whose attachment to tradition and religion constrains from wishing death on others.
So if any circumstance suggests that people of this country ventilate death wishes about anyone, those concerned should embark on some introspection in search of a rational explanation for the aberration.
But self-righteous fellows, who abound in the Buhari-led government, are mostly more solipsistic than reflective. A disposition which always breeds error. This is why they do not see what government itself contributed to the infuriating rumour. It is also why there may soon be another cycle of this dull drama
To start with, the President wakes up one beautiful Thursday morning and dispatch a letter to the Senate indicating his sudden decision to embark on vacation. The vacation will be for 10 days within which he also plans to visit his physicians for routine examinations. In his absence, the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, who was at the time away on official assignment in Davos, Switzerland, will act as President. Buhari then jets out the same day ahead of the arrival of the man designated to hold the forte for him!
For the next three days or so, no one hears from the President. Unlike his previous visits when we were regaled with pictures of arrivals and visitations, where interviewers fell upon one another to have a dig at the leader of the most populous black nation in the world, not one word dropped from Mr. President throughout that weekend. And we expect people not to speculate?
It is like a father who summons his children to tell them of the need for him to take an urgent trip just two hours after their mother left for the market to buy foodstuffs for the family.
He tells them this trip is so urgent he wouldn’t even be able to wait for their mother’s return from the market. However, they should rest assured that their needs will be met by the mother he couldn’t even wait to pass a handover note to.
He leaves in that hurry and for three days, not even the mother could provide information to the children about their father, who is ordinarily in the habit of staying in touch with his family. Those children are bound to fear that the worst may have happened to their dad. And it would be Herculean to rule speculations out in this household and its neighbourhood.
One can push this argument further to suggest that all men, be they white, yellow or black, are likely to react to this situation with a measure of agitated uncertainty and the tendency that rumours would soon begin to fly, when found in this situation are predictable.
Truth is, the minds of men are too endowed for the redundancy that Mohammed suggests. This is more so in the absence of credible and verifiable information, let alone a situation where there is no information at all, as seen in the scenario painted above. The President’s movement cuts the image of an emergency, further given credit by the information blackout of the following 48 hours or so.
But how did this death rumour emerge and can they really pass as death wishes for the President? A report with the headline: “Fact check: Buhari dead? Attempts suicide? Fake news is booming!” published by thecable.ng indicated that the rumours were first published by poor mimics of Metro newspaper of the United Kingdom and Huffington Post of the United States.
The Cable identified an assortment of errors starting with the faulty Uniform Resource Locator (URL) for both sites, the fact that both sites are operated by the same company and the unpardonable factual and grammatical gaffes in the two stories!
This investigation raises a few questions about the position held by the Information minister who threatened that anyone arrested in connection to the rumour would be dealt with.
The first question is do the originators of the story really want President Buhari dead? Most likely, no. Everyone who has some access to the Internet these days explores the opportunity to make a quick buck, become popular or even just cause some mischief. It is too early for us to forget the flourish of fake news during electioneering in the US last year. How do we imagine that our country can be insulated from this?
A corollary to the above is that these people do not necessarily have to be natives of Nigeria neither do they have to reside in the country. This, most certainly, is why government has still not found any culprit in spite of the threats.
Government further worsened the case by its uncoordinated responses to questions that have arisen especially after the extension of the President’s vacation. From “the President is hale, hearty” and chatty, you have had solicitation for prayers for the quick recovery of the same man who is said to be in good health. All of these send feelers of an intentional plan to shut Nigerians out and this invariably breeds speculations.
Have the pictures of visitations to the President released by his media team helped matters? I think not and here is why.
Rather than show the well-planned crisis management acumen of the President’s managers, these pictures only reflect the unprepared, reactive tendencies of the media machinery.
The prevailing motive seems to be something like: “Nigerians claim that he was sitting lame in the first picture they saw, so we got one in which he was having a meal with a governor. When Nigerians punctured the authenticity of that, we got him to walk his visitors to the door so they will see that he walks!” Not even the telephone conversation with President Donald Trump would lay the conjectures to rest as Nigerians are now asking the President to grant an interview to a broadcast medium or even address the nation via Skype. Nothing tells more about a people’s distrust of those running their affairs.
But how much of this drama would we have been able to cut off if Nigerians officially learnt about the health status of the President. Rather than speculate, wouldn’t we have had armies of prayer warriors of all faith self-enlisting in divine solicitation for the President’s good health?
And if the President is truly not unwell, his failure to speak with Nigerians these past three weeks is nothing but the arrogance of office. This is where the media management team of the President has to come off its high horse and get their boss to communicate with those who elected him. In countries where government has any iota of respect for the people; the President would be in a hurry to reassure his people.
But government officials in Nigeria already see the people as adversaries who only deserve token information. That is why people like the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, kinsmen and loyalists of the President are either handing imaginary rumour mongers over to God or sending the “death wish” back to them in torrents of curses, lately. A totally needed venture if things had been handled well.
What we have seen in the result of a tardy management of the information process. This spurs distrusts between government and the governed and at the end of it all, those who are in office lose their reputation and love of the people.
Essential to good governance is the effective management of information, of issues and of crises when they surface. The bungling of these accounts for the breakdown of confidence between Nigerians and their leaders. Unless handlers of our leaders understand that nothing takes care of a reputational crisis like total openness, they will continue to get frustrated by what would be the standard reaction of all normal human beings. We should learn a lesson from this unnecessary fiasco.