21 November 2012

Nigeria: Once Upon a Media Chat

Photo: Leadership
President Goodluck Jonathan


After watching the exiting Presidential debates that preceded the US Elections, I had preferred to read what the newspapers would write of President Goodluck Jonathan's Media Chat. America has got class.

There is no subservience to the President, no condescension, and no patronage from the interview panel. Of course behind the Candy Crawleys, and we do not seem to know so here, is an array of resource persons and on line gadgetry, constantly fact checking, and prompting electronically generated riders to answered questions. It was easy to elect not to bore oneself in frustration that the standards here are short of what we saw in the US experience. In our case, all the interviewers carried a wad of notes, while the subject, Mr President was bare handed, and to my surprise, relaxed.

But there were nagging issues which newspapers had published as their own question to ask the president that forced me to get first hand brief "from the horse's mouth" so to speak.

Were the interviewers in any straightjackets working with pre-submitted questions? It seemed so because the chat lacked that chat element, where any of the interviewers could interject with a rider that sought to pin down the President to a specific policy. But they overcame by going back and forth across subjects, from politics, to the economy. It did not confuse viewers dealing as they did, with general positions on issues such that did not tax the President's grasp of the different sectors. In this regard, President Jonathan came off very well by speaking sincerely and frankly, even as a matter of his personal opinion of personal issues.

If President Jonathan has any interest in specific provisions in the on-going review of the Nigerian Constitution, President Jonathan answered quite adroitly; he would keep quiet on the constitutional review, while Nigerians speak their minds, noting that after-all, it was to his table the draft would come, and there would then be ample time and opportunity to make his input. You could see from the President's comfiture that needed to be cautious about being misunderstood to infer that he would input his interests. He emphasized that he, with his team would take decisions in the end, in the interest of Nigeria.

In this lies how Nigerians should hear and judge the President - the complication is in the simplicity - the same one with which he tells the nation, he was a non-believer in poverty reduction. "I never promised to reduce poverty. I promised to create wealth", said President Jonathan matter-of-factly, leaving us wondering whether we have heard him say that. A quick fact check, backed by the right type of equipment would have enabled us review past statement to see if we could pin the President down on that issue. In the US Presidential debates, we saw how Mitt Romney charged at President Obama on whether he described the attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi as an act of terror or not, and Candy Crawly quickly checkmated the challenger Romney, with the correct position. Of course in our case, we were all agape, and unsure of what President Jonathan ever said about poverty reduction or wealth creation. Could we not ask what the difference was between half full and half empty?

A sitting President that is being criticized publicly by a former, hardly engages in verbal reply, and it is because of the enormity of the powers of the incumbency. But when former President Obasanjo publicly took on Goodluck Jonathan on the latter's shortcomings, it was indicative that the two have not been talking, both formally, and informally. Formally would be in the National Council of State with all former Presidents, and in this gathering, confidences on State matters could be shared. A question to ask the President was what was implied by the stone throwing from this predecessor who not long ago, vacated the glass house. But the interviewer shot straight demanding that President Goodluck give Boko Haram the Odi Treatment. "What's Odi?" asked Mr. President as if he did not know, and caught us pants down! What's Odi? Again with simple common sense, President Jonathan dropped the one liner that I know will become famous if the issue gets contentious as it just might. "The attack on Odili never solved a militancy problem", Jonathan asserted

I have since learned to paraphrase President Goodluck Jonathan, not by what he says the way he says it, but by what he means the way I understand it. In this wise, he came off very well at the last media chat, and left me as journalist, ill prepared and well beaten. For once, it seemed we had a President who was willing to come clean to the nation. I even thought he was angered about his perception, and was anxious to correct matters. He may not articulate the English language; it is not his, anyway!

"There is no dialogue going on anywhere with Boko Haram" is articulate enough, now let us remember - who said there was dialogue anywhere with Boko Haram? We live I'm a country that creates its own news, for the story had taken a life of its own, that talks were going on with Boko Haram. Sure the President must know that Boko Haram made overtures to speak with the Government, even naming its panellists, but it was put in typical Goodluck Jonathan simplicity. The entire hullabaloo about strongman General Muhammadu Buhari to be or not to be on the talks was simply unworthy of the hair splitting. If I attempt a paraphrasing of what the President said, some questions are bound to have been asked, was Government contacted by the group? If yes, who did they contact? If no, did we reach out to anybody? Are we saying that all this while, we have gained no technical leads to the Boko Haram network?

You then begin to piece it together. The bombs have been quiet for a while. Attacks with the Boko Haram signature have tended to be far and in between, indicative of strides being made by the security apparatus. What of the sponsors? Has any intelligence been useful from the arrests? And the release of Commissioner of Police Ibrahim Biu! All these unfolding without a dialogue? Is the Government winning? It is not enough to hear the president; you must also read the body language.

Nowhere was body language watching so fundamentally meaningful as when the President addressed the issue of Senate President David Mark and former Speaker of the House of Representatives 'Dimeji Bankole, having acquired their official residences, and the Halliburton and Siemens bribery scandals. Methinks President Jonathan avoided the matter, leaving it to body language.

There is a lot to be read in the president's avoidance of 1. The Halliburton and the Siemens bribery scandals, and the monetization of the official residence of Senate President David Mark. The reading I get is that the matter could become weapons for future destruction of political obstacles. The President knows that he can make monetization of those houses so unpopular as to reverse the deal. Alternatively, use it to monetize Aso Rock Villa.

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