Does Bayo Onanuga Live Amongst Us?

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POLSCOPE with Eddy Odivwri, Email: eddy.odivwri@thisdaylive.com, SMS:  08053069356

The joke is often cracked about a certain fiery democracy activist in the military days who was indeed a thorn in the flesh of government and pro-government characters. The said activist was so unsparing of government and its foibles that he became “notoriously famous” both in the civil society community and even in government circles. His torment and attacks on government were so poignant that it came to be that the fear of what he would say began to curtail and guide government’s actions and inactions.

Soon, the harassment became unbearable and the government decided to find a way around his “standing menace” by offering him an appointment. The critic not only accepted the appointment but also began to speak less and less about government’s activities let alone criticizing it. And at the first anniversary of his appointment, some reporters drew his attention to the sudden quietness around him, how his voice is no longer heard on the wrong actions and policies of government. And his hilarious response was that, “table manner teaches that when you are eating, you don’t talk!” Everybody laughed and backslapped one another.

I am not certain if that is the case with the Managing Director of News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), Mr Bayo Onanuga. It hardly will be the case because Onanuga who had been silent since he was appointed barely four months ago has started speaking, breaking the “table etiquette.”

But the problem is not that he is talking while he is eating, he is saying the very wrong things to the pain and chagrin of those who have had nothing to eat.
Onanuga was quoted as saying that the “so-called hardship” in Nigeria is mere propaganda orchestrated by the media.

This is how he put it on his Facebook post: “Are the media and bloggers really painting a correct image of our country? It’s time for the media to objectively conduct a reality check about our reports, whether we are not over sensationalising so-called hardship that we talked about.”

The respected journalist, in an attempt to justify his post cited three examples: one, his daughter’s flight aboard Virgin Atlantic from Lagos to London, whereupon his daughter had claimed in a text message to him, that the flight was full. Two, Onanuga was in Bauchi and Jos over the weekend and his plate of food in the hotel was N700. And thirdly, he claims that even in Abuja, he is able to make a full pot of vegetable soup with just N1,400, so he really wonders if indeed there is suffering or hunger in the land.

He thus blamed the media for blowing the “so-called hardship” in Nigeria out of proportion, maintaining that it is all an exaggeration to make the Buhari administration look really very bad, just as he added that the hardship has been politicized.

Okay, let us deconstruct Onanuga’s arguments.
First, we are not sure if indeed the daughter’s report of the number of passengers in that plane was correct. But even if it was, does the mere fact that a plane’s cabin is full of passengers a fact that a country is not suffering? The summer holidays are almost over. So, it can hardly be holiday makers who have filled the plane. They could be passengers returning to their countries of residence, they could be people going for medicals, they could be students going to resume school, etc. That the plane is full therefore does not negate the fact that there is hardship in the land. Mr Onanuga can do a better research by tracking the volume of passengers airlifted by the foreign airlines from Nigeria during the summer holidays compared to what it used to be. He should not depend on the possibly subjective report of his daughter.

Can Mr Onanuga who heads a major news agency in Nigeria be doubting the hardship in the land when his agency recently reported the suspension of operation of two airlines (Aero Contractors and First Nation) within two days? What was it that forced the two airlines out of the sky? Were they going on holidays?

Does he understand the groan airline operators are releasing in order to stay in service? Did he not hear of Innoson Motors, Onitsha, threatening to shut down production if the harsh economic condition persists? Are all these victims of the economy also exaggerating the situation?

Onanuga is a government official. He drives a government car(s). He probably lives in a free government house. He gets free medical service. His clothes are probably dry-cleaned at government’s expenses. His domestic staff are paid by government. He gets sundry accouterments of office, all of which help to blind him from the brute realities hitting Nigerians from every angle.
As Chinua Achebe would write, “Those whose kernels were cracked by benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble.”

And finally on this: that he is able to afford an international flight for his daughter at a time Nigerians are wailing of hunger bespeaks of his distance from the reality facing the masses.

Argument Two: A plate of food in a Jos hotel was N700. Therefore life is yet cheap as food is affordable. There is no better example of a wonky argument. First, Onanuga may have been on official trip to the said Jos and Bauchi. So his expenses: feeding, flight or road transport, including hotel accommodation and even out-of-station allowance, are all borne by the tax payers’ money. So he cannot feel the pinch, as government is bearing it all. But assuming he is paying from his pocket, that means he will be expending N2,100 or more a day on food.

Pray, in an economy where about 4.58 million have lost their jobs in one year, how many people can afford N2,100 a day on food? If he thinks the stories about hunger in the land are fake or exaggerated or creations of the media, let him go to Sabon-gari in Kano or Oshodi in Lagos and he will see naked effigies of hunger dancing on the streets. Has Onanuga heard of how some desperate parents have started dropping off their children as collateral in order to get food stuff? What does he think is fuelling the menace of kidnapping and other strange crimes in the land? Out of hunger and frustration, a man recently committed suicide in Akwa-Ibom State. Did NAN not publish the story?

When 24 out of 36 states are unable to pay their state workers, capital projects are not really taking place, government contractors are not being paid, public and private spendings have shrunk, businesses are folding up etc, how are Nigerians supposed to have reinforced purchasing power? Onanuga’s boss himself, President Mohammadu Buhari had severally acknowledged the pain Nigerians are going through and pleaded for patience and understanding. But Onanuga seeks to be more Catholic than the Pope, by choosing to live in self denial about an economy literally squeezing everybody alike.

Mr Onanuga does not have to be an economist to understand these basic issues. Let him ask those in business. He will hear true tales of hardship and brute economy. Until his appointment last May, he had appeared to always be on the side of the hapless masses. But just four months after he got the appointment, he does not believe the hardship everybody is talking about is not a media propaganda. I wonder what his mindset about the masses will be one year after his appointment. He will probably, like late Umaru Dikko, argue that since Nigerian are not eating from dustbin, they are neither hungry nor are they suffering.

And before I end this argument, it would be better Onanuga churns out his own statistics different from the one the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics(NBS) released eleven days ago declaring that we are now in recession, with all the frightening details of our decrepit economy. Is hardship, inflation and hunger not integral parts of an economy on recess? How can Onanuga dismiss the NBS? Or is the NBS a PDP-funded agency?
And thirdly, Onanuga claims that he is able to make a pot of vegetable soup with N1,400 even in Abuja.

Really? What kind of soup is he talking about? And for how many people and how many meals? I do not know the culinary adeptness of Onanuga, but if what I hear my wife and many other women lament about the roof-top prices of commodities and food stuff is anything to go by, then Onanuga is painting a very deceptive picture of the situation.

If inflation has risen to 17.1 per cent as at the end of July this year, Onanuga’s pot of soup at N1,400, will either be a lesson on how to prepare recession soup (let him release the ingredients and condiments used) or a type of soup fit only for hopeless refugees.
Worse still, does the NAN MD know that even getting the so-called N1,400 could be a challenge to some families? In just four months, Onanuga couldn’t have climbed so far up the ladder of fortune as to forget the rhythms and narratives of the poor.

Did Onanuga have to talk and defend a bad economy? Is that his job? Is he in touch with his people in the village? Does he have ordinary neighbours in his ensconced (?) Abuja abode? What does he hear from them? What about his staff members at NAN? They are not complaining? Or he is simply deaf to the grumblings below?
With the likes of Onanuga around Mr President, we would fear that it is morning yet on creation day.

Sadder still is that for a personality that had earned a place in the public domain as a defender and advocate of propriety and better life, the Facebook post of Onanuga does violence to his pedigree.
He would have probably become the Nigerian Goebbel if he was the spokesman either for government or Mr President.

Many were shocked and even doubtful that it is the same Onanuga, a burnished activist, that made the comment. In fact, somebody tweeted that Onanuga should be alerted that somebody had hacked into his Facebook account; implying that the real and known Onanuga could not have swiftly done a 360 degree in just four months. Little wonder that Malcom X had asked: “why do otherwise wise men become foolish when they join government?”
But Onanuga not only confirmed to Premium Times that he authored the post, he went on to claim that he was merely asking a question, believing also that the “so-called hardship” has been politicized.

Pray, Mr Onanuga, what political party does hunger belong to? The NAN boss must be told his arguments are not only specious and misleading, they are capable of crashing the shares of NAN if the organization was a publicly quoted company.

All said, I guess the time-tested etiquette of keeping quiet while eating should be adhered to by all, including Onanuga. This will not only prevent pepper from going the wrong way, it will ensure that the wrong things are not said out of sheer buffet-effect, so the hungry bystanders do not rise up in arms against those lucky to be at a table.