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Abati and the burden of public conversation

By Pat Utomi on 13/01/2014

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If I knew Reuben Abati’s voyage into Government would lead to my constantly dealing with the passions of those who want explanations from his old associates, I probably would have negotiated with him a portion of his salary. I find myself spending so much time either defending why I am not criticizing his performance on the job or explaining why I do not have a duty to account for his style.

My slight irritation with the persistence of asking me about what I say to the Patito’s Gang alumnus is not because I want to play Cain, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’, or because I think discussing how best to play the role of spokesman to a public official is not worth discussing, but because some of the gladiators on the matter do not seem to understand well my sense for a market place of ideas and the import of personal freedom. Another important truth is that I am significantly ignorant on some of the matters. It is not a justification, but I doubt that I have actually come across more than two statements by Dr. Abati.

In admitting that shame of not being on top of those kinds of matters, with the plethora of issues on my plate, I am conceding that I should make more of an effort in that direction, but I recognise the challenge of prioritising and for some reason that the way I get information on what is going on in government is not much dependent on pronouncements of the media spokespersons. Having said this, I think some commentary on the challenge of how press secretary’s or media aides manage the process can add something to the conversation, and so I shall do some here.

In opening with how I should have negotiated a portion of the Abati pay package I neglected to indicate that I actually could not get a chance for that as I was unaware of the invitation until after most Nigerians had heard of the appointment and that when months later I got the chance for the only conversation, on telephone, Reuben and I have had since the job offer, I was alarmed that Reuben had not read me well because he taught I would object to his accepting the job. That was not a good reading of my disposition. I hold strong views but I am fortunate for the gifting of recognising that other ways are not necessarily invalid, and some could prove, with benefit of time, to be superior to the one I cling to, based on my convictions and information available to me. I certainly would not have objected to his accepting the job, and would even have quietly provided counsel on how to do the job better, even if I may not have accepted such an offer, given the context of my own circumstances.

I am therefore at loss that people think I should declare Abati a lost cause just for becoming more establishment in orientation. In my view, there is a difference between the critic as an ideological iconoclast and the critic as a person who seeks a different path and welcomes a chance to change things from within. He does not necessarily betray the cause by going in. The trouble with going inside is being sure it will lead to greater good. As I have said often, I have nothing against the establishment which I believe largely does ill because of the ignorance of many in it – not so much for greed as many think. To go on with such a culture requires gauging several things for me.

This is most evident in the context of the corporatist state in post-colonial Africa. In this phenomenon, troubling voices of dissent are incorporated into the government and silenced either through compromising them or so soaking them in groupthink that they lose credibility.

It is as such that I have often asked those who have invited me into government for either a certain critical mass of change agents or public commitment to a certain thrust of public policy.
But that is different for the spokesman role. The spokesman can provide private counsel and may be enormously influential but his main reason for being is to ensure his principal is clearly heard. Given the nature of the communication process, that is no mean task.

I see three main problems with the style and effectiveness of the spokesman function. The first is the capacity of the principal to understand and evaluate the good job, the second is preparation of the media aide, and the third is the professionalism of the aide.

Many media aides in Nigeria are oriented towards the arena as a war zone, or territory without decorum, or descent sense for what they do, by their principals. Where, either from point of job security, the aide is not easily able to walk away from the job, they end up marching to the tune of the piper, sometimes in ways that suit the temperament of the principal but may hurt both principal and agent in the long term.

In the context of Nigerian politics many principals lacking the savvy necessary for competitive contestation of ideas, see media aides as coordinators of missions of sling catapulting of abuse and response to abuse. To them, like Hitler, the arena of the political space is for verbal warfare, propaganda. Jacques Ellul whose book on propaganda was graduate school essential in Media Studies 30 years ago, would have been fascinated with the press agentry of Nigeria’s political space.

The challenge of preparation of media aides is also the tendency to confuse journalism proficiency or writing skills with capacity for communication process management. The skilled writer suddenly in a communication management role acts like the carpenter who sees all problems as nails and hammer. Training of the aide or headhunting equipped to find the appropriately trained, who is behaviourally aligned to the context, is key here.

Then comes the issue of professionalism. When the boss or his top associates think the verbal effectiveness in terms of verbal warfare, the professionalism guides the aide in educating the principal to the optional approach for achieving the goals of the principal. Here several good examples exist to show that it is possible to do that job.

Emeka Chikelu as minister of information managed it so well I sent a note to his successor, Frank Nweke Jnr, to draw lessons from how Chikelu managed the assignment. My friend Chief Duro Onabule and Igwe Alex Nwokedi also managed their bosses to set a different tone, indeed the point that extreme partisanship verbal warfare does not always do more for the boss, even if Goebbels got Hitler his notoriety, is Yemi Ogunbiyi’s management of Daily Times. Making the Daily Times less partisan increased its credibility and actually enabled him serve Babangida better. I have always wondered when those who run NTA will get that message.

To return to the Abati specifics, I still think it unfair to muscle individuals from the freedom to rethink their approach, in different circumstances. The person involved, it seems to me, must weigh the cost of material shift in views, putting forward the new information that informed shift, otherwise there is a cost on the credibility axis but people like Segun Adeniyi managed that fairly well. Finally, may be my brother’s keeper, the non-Cain, but it is not right to ask me to ask that my brother’s exercise of his freedom be curtailed. The spokesman job is always going to be a challenge based on the popularity of the one spoken for. It is best to wait for the verdict of history, therefore, for judgment is best left to the Great Judge who sees all things visible and invisible. This is why I prefer to deal with issues and not persons lest the log in my eye prevents me from seeing the speck in my brother’s eye.

•This piece originally appeared on the Facebook page of Prof Utomi late yesterday. Utomi (shown in photo) is a Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship based in Lagos. He is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.

Source News Express

Posted 13/01/2014 5:44:44 PM


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