Professor Lai Oso is the National President of the Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria (ACSPN). In this interview, he reviews the processes and structures of the government communication and information policies while offering better strategies to be adopted in order to accomplish the desired goals.
What is your assessment of the performance of the government media and information architecture, particularly the Federal Ministry of Information as well as Media and Publicity arm of the Presidency in the last four years?
Well, if you look at the complexity of the Nigerian polity, one would appreciate that those managers of these structures are more or less fighting a reactive battle. Things happened and they would be forced to react.
Sometimes, you get the feeling that they are not proactive in their media engagement. One would also note that their main principal is not a very easy person to manage in terms of his media engagement. President Muhammadu Buhari appears not to be a very warm person when it comes to media engagement. You can compare him to somebody like General Ibrahim Babangida who, on his own, could engage the media and get positive publicity out of it.
That creates a lot of problems for them. Also, you discover that there were lots of self injuries from the federal government. For instance, the issue of slow reaction to events – insecurity especially – by the presidency. Automatically, this kind of disposition will give the opposition an opportunity to seize the initiative, and therefore, the government machinery trying to react! That is a major challenge which characterized the performance of the media and information machinery of the government in the past four years.
Could that serve as the fruits of lack of appreciation of media institutions as soft power assets?
Yes! One has a feeling that President Buhari does not really appreciate the importance of public communication in his approach and attitude to governance. In many parts of the world, look at the President of the United States of America (USA), Donald Trump, you may like him or not, but he is very active, particularly on social media. He has seized the initiative on twitter from his opponents. But you do not get that in Nigeria. Our leaders, here, believe in what former governor of Borno State, Ali Madu Sheriff said some years back that, ‘he could do anything as his people do not read newspapers.’ That attitude remains with our politicians thinking that the media may not be important. Really, public communication has been recognized as the soft power of governance. You need to be in charge of that power. You need to seize the initiative. You need to be in the forefront. But that has not be the case with this government. And many state governors too are not really engaging the media in terms of what they are doing, getting the people to be informed about their activities, policies and programmes.
What is the impact of this attitude on the public perception of the government policies?
The impact is clear! You can’t talk about public perception without talking about media engagement and information dissemination. If people have a lukewarm attitude to government policies, it is because of the way government issues and policies, achievements and challenges are communicated. People do not really get the full information of what is going on, thus, people form their own opinion, create their own impression… you can work in a vacuum, once there is that gap, something will come in to fill it: rumours, misinformation, disinformation and junks will come in to fill the gap. And once that mental image is created, it becomes so difficult to dispel that.
What is the place of trust in all this?
The issue of trust or what some people have called social capital is a worldwide thing. The citizens are losing trust in government all over the world. This is because the governments have failed to really meet the expectations of the people. For instance, the elections in the European Union, the established party lost. People are looking for salvation from the so-called fringe parties that they feel can satisfy their expectations. This is a major problem. When it comes to media, one is not privy to know the inner workings of the communication architecture of the government. But the off-record briefings that should regularly take place between the government and the media are not there. So, the media do not have an understanding of the inner working of government in terms of policy challenges. The little information they have is what they work with, and that create a lot of mistrust. There is also occasional encounter with the security agencies that aggravate the situation.
What do you think is responsible for President Buhari talking to Nigerians from outside? For instance, the comment about ‘Nigerian youths are lazy’ and the clarification on ‘Jibrin from Sudan’
This is not just about the President… look at the Nigerian media, anything that comes from CNN, The Economist, the media will just pick it up as the gospel truth. It is a mentality that is common with us. Anything from the foreign media, we tend to take it as something very important. It is like the government is reacting to that mentality too. Just like saying ‘if Nigerian media organizations and journalists are ready to believe in whatever comes from the CNN, The Economist, London Times…., let us go there too and pass the message across.’
It is not just the government, the media also must change their mentality about what comes from some of these foreign media. They are not doing anything special by carrying stories about Nigeria, they have their own agenda too, but sometimes, it is worrisome when I see Nigerian media people taking whatever they get from these foreign media platform as truth. Look at the way The Economist was dishing prediction and counter prediction concerning the just held 2019 election. They were never sure of anything, but our media would immediately pick it up, ‘The Economist has said this, Buhari will lose’. Then, two or three weeks after, the narrative changed to ‘Oh Atiku can’t win’ and the stuff like that polluting the media landscape.
What is your assessment of media policies generally?
The media landscape has changed a lot. This has posed a major challenge for the government and also, the corporate bodies. You can never be too sure that because you have control over one million organizations, then, you have control over the communication system in the country. Some many outlets now out there you can have control over and they can put up anything. The social media platform has become major challenge for the government. So, talking about policy that is going to regulate the media is tantamount to an exercise in futility. For instance, if somebody decides to sit down in Seychelles, create a blog and run stories on Nigeria, how do you control such a person? It is anarchic communication ecology that we are in now… the important thing is that the government should be very much proactive. As you are trying to get across through the traditional media, your social media engagement must also be very active. You must make sure your presence is felt on social media, every minute, every hour, you are putting out something good and concrete that people can lay their hands on.
What is the state of communication scholarship now in Nigeria? Are we responding appropriately to global trend and expectations?
The communication challenges and problems that the European scholars are trying to address are not the same challenges and problems that we face in Nigeria. For instance, how many American scholars are really bothered about the press freedom now or the persistent altercation between journalists and security operatives? When they talk about this, it isn’t at the level that we talk about it. We still have that challenge! When Nigerians do research and they talk about the press freedom and things like that, you discover that it is not at same level American and British scholars would engage the issue. They take them for granted! So, the challenges are different. The problems are different. This point should be appreciated when we talk about global scholarship. What we should be looking at is the standard of our research. If we measure up to standard, that is okay. Certainly, the subject that we examine shouldn’t be the same subject as what the western scholars are examining or discussing. You go to some conferences in Europe and you find out that the focus of discussion is far removed from what you, as a Nigerian scholar, face at home. In fact, when you discuss some papers, they start asking you ‘is that so?’ ‘Do you still have that kind of the problem? Then, you start wondering whether you are at the same level! We are not?
What values does communication scholarship add to Nigeria development and nation building?
We have to relate the values to the role the media have played in the development of the country. I am sure, nobody would deny the contributions of the Nigerian media. That, in a way, reflects the contribution of communication scholarship in terms of training, capacity building, research to feed into policies. It has done a lot in creating the human capital for media and communication practice in the country.
What is your assessment of the ‘Change Begins With Me’ campaign as a communication policy designed to drive inclusiveness and public participation in social and economic obligations?
Is still on? I think the campaign is dead! It was something that took off without proper planning and research. It is a reflection of the problem of campaign in this country. To me, the campaign had gone the way of its numerous predecessors. Lofty ideas! No result came out of it because it was based on premises that had no facts. It goes beyond development of slogans, put them across on radio and television! No one will believe you! To start with, you need to know the kind of people you are talking to. What are their challenges? What are their problems? What are the appropriate methods to tackle the problems? Research will give you answers to all these. ‘Change Begins With Me’ did not really start off well.
How could it have been handled differently?
The starting point is to have a national data base. Nigerians are not the same. We are a different people with different challenges across the country. The way we see the country is different, so, we need a very rich data base which can only come from a well conducted research, survey and all kinds of research instruments to really get deeply into the different publics. Thereafter, you design the messages; what are the media to use? What are the behavioural objectives are we aiming to achieve? I am not sure I came across details that show the objectives this campaign set out to achieve. We need some specific measurable objectives for any campaign to deliver on its goals.
What about the measures designed to tackle the menace of fake news and hate speech?
I wouldn’t say yes or no, because I do not have the facts. But the important point is that the government and the people must continue to speak out against fake news and hate speech. This is because at the end of the day nobody benefits from such practices. They create problems for the country. Create problems for communities, setting one community against the other; creating panic where there shouldn’t be any. So, we need to really speak out against hate speech and fake news. It is very dangerous.
What communication strategy would you recommend to tackle the insecurity in the country?
We need to strengthen inter-cultural and inter-community dialogue, including all the institutional practices that can support that kind of interaction. We are not really talking to one another. We are talking at each other. That is the major problem. Nigerians do not understand themselves any more. Some of us grew in communities that were quite multi-cultural and we related very well. In the last few years, communal living and interaction is becoming extremely difficult. This is because the politicians think that they can benefit from creating this division. Some of these divisions were actually promoted by the politicians. But if there is any problem ultimately, the politicians will not also enjoy. Therefore, Nigerians must sit down to talk to ourselves. It is very important. Also, we should minimize media noise about our security challenges. As the late British Prime Minister said that the media provide the oxygen for the crises to spread. Tension therefore engulfs everywhere. Politicians need to be more patriotic while people need to interact more deeply.
How do we upgrade, even, the standards so as to connect our research findings with societal development?
There is a kind of disconnect between the government and research institutions including the universities. You do some of these studies and those in government do not care about your findings. They behave as if the findings are not their priority. Most time, they would have made up their mind on what they wanted to do. That is why there is no result from the series of public campaigns. This is because they are not doing these campaigns as they should be done by using the scholars to engage the process holistically. I read an opinion article in one of the dailies a few days ago and the argument was that in the old Western region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was using scholars in Ibadan and Ile-Ife to do policy research which feed into government activities and policies. There is nothing like that anymore! Politicians, since the days of the military, have the kind of wrong disposition to scholars. So, the scholars are doing their own thing just to get promotion.
The politicians are doing their own just to get re-elected! There is no meeting point! This is very dangerous for a nation that desires growth and development in all ramifications. Do we have think tank in Nigeria? The answer is no! Even, the research institute in the area like Agriculture…. I was reading something that the budget of the Ministry of Agriculture, the headquarters, is more than the total budget of all the research institutes under the ministry of Agriculture! What do you make of that? That is the kind of the society that we live in.
What is your advice for the newly inaugurated administration that is going to be piloting our affairs for the next four years?
When people talk about value orientation, we tend to think it is for the man on the street alone. Far from it! We need value orientation among the elite! We need it also for the people in government as well as in the corporate world. The value orientation that will make us to look inward, fund our educational institutions adequately, set targets and work towards achieving those targets. Those are the kind of the things we need. We have a national budget that Mr. President said would be difficult to implement. What does that mean? It means there are no targets! There are no objectives! We need to change that orientation of creating budget without corresponding commitment to actualize it. Otherwise, there will be no progress.
What is the future of communication practice, research and scholarship in Nigeria?
It is just like saying what is the future of education in Nigeria? We will continue to need education. We will continue to need communication. Journalism, Broadcasting, Public Relations and Advertising will continue to be relevant in our society. So, the future is still there. It is still good. But we need to really do more in terms of reinvestment, in terms of the kind of values that drive our practice, in terms of values that drive our scholarship.
In what way(s) is the Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria (ACSPN) leveraging on opportunities in the international arena to drive grassroots and national development?
The ACSPN is trying to collaborate with other bodies, nationally and internationally. For instance, we have initiated the ACSPN Diaspora Visiting Fellowship whereby some of our colleagues that are overseas will come home for short period of between two weeks and one month to give something back to the Nigerian educational system. Also, we are collaborating with a university in the United Kingdom for the Journal of Culture Communication (JCC). The first edition is out. The collaboration is to improve upon the standard. It is a pity that Nigeria does not have culture of endowment and foundation whereby money is given out for research. We are trying to get resources to fund research in various areas. We did one on the 2015 general election funded by the Ford Foundation. We are looking around for people and organizations that can fund that kind of research, especially the just concluded 2019 general elections. What that kind of research did for us is great. A lot of our young people participated and that built their capacity in terms of research, apart from the findings that are quite useful in terms of electoral campaign and the quest for political power.