The idea of town hall meetings is laudable, but the president should lead the team

The presidency has said it will soon commence a nationwide sensitisation tour to ensure that Nigerians are adequately informed about the efforts being made by President Muhammadu Buhari to tackle the challenges facing the country.

The senior special assistant on media and publicity to the president, Garba Shehu, who made the disclosure, said the sessions were expected to hold across the six zones in the country and would focus on the policies and achievements of the present administration as well as on how it was grappling with issues that affect the people.

To the extent that this government has hardly engaged the people since its inception almost one year ago, we believe the idea of town hall meetings is a good one. However, we hope that the sessions will be all embracing. Indeed, we think some of the sessions should take place on university campuses and other youth centres and should be conducted in an atmosphere that allows unfettered exchanges between the government and the people.

As the Buhari administration inches towards the anniversary of its first year in office, there can be no better time than now to reach out to the truly strategic and sensitive segments of our demographics so as to feel the pulse of the people and get vital feedback. It would therefore be fruitless to concentrate on rented crowds of political thugs and non-representative groups if the exercise is to make any meaning.

Also, the town hall meetings should not be left entirely to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo to handle as hinted by the administration’s spokesman. If these conversations are truly geared on harvesting ideas and feeling the pulse of the people, it is important for President Buhari to take ownership and be the one to interact directly with the people.

He is the one Nigerians want to engage; the one to whom they want to direct their questions about what has happened to the promise of “change”; the one to whom they want to vent their frustrations. Put simply, it is from the president that Nigerians need reassurance that there is indeed hope for them, despite the current challenges.

The timing even makes it compelling for President Buhari to lead the charge. Since these meetings will most likely take place around the first year anniversary of the administration, there should ordinarily be a few positive things to crow about. Unfortunately, we are not so sure whether Nigerians will brave fuel queues, lack of electricity and increasing hunger to listen to anyone from Abuja without venting their anger. That is why we implore those planning the town hall meetings to put on their thinking caps and anticipate, as well as prepare for different scenarios.

As things stand today, demonstrators from opposition groups, labour factions and civil society groups may be waiting outside the venues of such sessions. Other troublemakers may also not be too far away. Yet any attempt to disperse such crowds (even if some of them are sponsored) the Nigerian way with tear gas, live bullets, etc., could bring about unintended effects. The mismanagement of public anger in an economic downturn could make the whole exercise counter-productive.

Therefore, it is our hope that the organisers of the town hall meetings take into account the public mood in their planning while it is important that, if the sessions must hold, it is President Buhari that should engage the people of Nigeria.