Of Public Opinions, Debates and Perception

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Venatius A. Ikem

At what point does private opinion matters in governmental affairs? There are a myriad of opinions expressed daily on sundry national issues, most of them unsolicited, through the media, including recently the most resented new media, Private memoranda, private advise etc. I am using “private opinion” as distinct from the opinion of those charged with the responsibility to advise government on sundry issues. Some are not so titled but from my experience and practice, every appointee of government, nay every public office holder, is an adviser of government.

There are people in government who do not see their responsibility in such broad terms but often restrict themselves to the narrow confines of their schedules. As far as they are concerned, anything outside their schedules is not their business. Others show interest in any and every aspect of governance, concerning themselves with the daily image, performance and overall perception by the public of the entire efforts of government and its output, measured of course, in terms of its deliverables, both tangible and intangible; the goodwill it generates and the satisfaction perception of many public commentators. All these are usually and mostly reported by the media as the most organised sector of mass information dissemination.

Some people often create the impression that negative criticism of a government is immaterial to and not reflective of its performance and so critics are often seen at best as interlopers. They are dismissed and sometimes even berated. It is not uncommon therefore to hear a senior public office holder boasts that he does not watch certain news channels or does not read newspapers. At its worst some just say, “don’t mind those press boys.”

You cannot be more wrong.
In today’s world, the new media has added a whole new dimension to this problem. Everybody is his/her own publisher. The good, the bad, the ugly assault our sensibilities with horrifying aggression and speed without pretence to decorum. Insults are hauled, abuses are thrown around unabashedly. Yet, if a public office holder of today is not on any these platforms to assimilate, guage and weigh opinion, he might just be living in a fool’s paradise. Even the Pope is very active in the social media. And not just for the “social” function of it, but for the purpose of dissemination of information as well as sampling of public opinion and gauging public reaction to his policies, projects and programmes.

I have heard many public office holders, including some in the more “civilised ” or if you like, advanced democracies like the USA even say the same when it suits them. Some say glibly that they do not take decisions based on media reports. Of course the media more accurately captures the public mood and perception than any other organisations that I can think of. So why the veiled discomfort, even contempt with its reports and what it represents?

A discomfort with the media is directly proportional to a public officer’s discomfort with criticism. The irony often times is that those who dislike criticism and the media the most, are often those who court the most publicity. As long as it is “good publicity “, meaning some ego massage of their imaginary achievements and attributes which are often either not true or exaggerated beyond recognition. That this tends to obfuscate true public perception and fail to reflect the reality, no matter how negative, but which can rather help in shaping and reshaping public policy and performance is immaterial.

I think generally, the problem is that government officials merely pay lip service to the notion of being “servants” of the people while living in the euphoria of their elevation as being a reflection of being above average persons by deserving their privileges of office! Nothing can be more wrong too. The idea of philosopher-kings never worked in practice in any democracy before now. The number of never-do-well students populating our legislative houses points clearly to this assertion, even as repulsive as it sounds.

Having said this, the media itself must be conscious of why some of its obvious positives‎ are largely ignored in preference for the odious. I believe that as a public office holder, if you pay attention to media reports of your performance or the lack of it, the direction or misdirection of your handling of your assigned schedules, advise on expectations of the public of you, marry it with the reality of available resources vis-a-vis, personal ingenuity in overcoming the problems you face daily, you may never fail. Indeed there is no better way to be on the side of the media than being seen to be responsive to public opinion, often reflected in media reports.

I am aware of the evolution of our media in the advent of the current democracy especially when the oil boom of this era injected so much cash into the system in such a hurry that governors hardly had the time to think of creative investments. Evidently, it has been argued that the introduction of the 13% derivation formula which gave the Niger Delta Governors more money than they could manage, contributed grossly to the monetisation of the media leading to very unsavory consequences to media reportage and by extension the low perception of the media practitioners in our society today.

The young Turks in the media suddenly realised not just the altruistic value of their trade, but the cash value as well. Armed with cash, they easily over ran their senior colleagues who had lived through more austere times, battling one dictatorial regime after another, without cash benefits to cushion their retirement. One after another, old and established media houses have been caving in under the weight of ideals and principles while newer ones funded by new money and new journalists have seen to the emergence of “new journalism” sustained by political patronage and ego massaging of the right people.

Whatever the shortcomings of some media practitioners, truth be told, the media has still lived up to its mandate as the watchdog of society. Regardless the omnipresent and often intrusive new media in its own way, it still battles to ‎share in some of the higher values that are admired and respected in a civilised society. Questions of integrity are routinely asked. Double standards are lampooned and public accountability is demanded constantly. Opinions are expressed freely and suggestions on alternative remedies are made regularly.

Are government officials ‎responding adequately? I hardly think so. The wife of the President said recently, maybe it is true, that the President did not know most of the people he appointed ministers well enough. But I do not believe intimate personal knowledge is critical for appointment to serve. On individual capacity, I hardly see many ministers who seem lacking from their public presentations at least, but there seems to be a lack of energy and drive, in the entire collection. Is it that the president’s disposition towards corruption is affecting his cabinet members? Some commentators have posited so and it seems to have credence. If a minister insinuates that his inability to perform has to do with his inability to award contracts, what is he saying?

The same goes for many heads of agencies, who are hardly heard of after swearing-in ceremonies. There was a time heads of government agencies like Prof. Dora Akunyili of NAFDAC, Professor Osintemehim of NACA, Nuhu Ribadu of EFCC, Obi Ezekwsili of Due Process, just to mention a few were the face of government. They were also the darlings of the media then. They defined their schedules with audacity and bestrode the political space with confidence. That should even be more so in a government harbouring revolutionary ambitions, like CHANGE!

Moving forward, I think PMB is in dire need of a salvaging retreat with his ministers on the CHANGE agenda and what it exactly means. I do not mean those perfunctory one day retreats that achieve nothing. I mean like one month schooling! It can be done without crippling governance by scheduling a couple of critical hours per day. The sacrifice will be worth the while. For now, the only minister I see with some energy for the CHANGE agenda is the Minister of Information. Don’t ask me my assessment because it is inborn as a practicing politician. I think Lai Mohammed stands out in his passion in defense of this administration and what it represents.

The warning shots coming from the inner chambers of the Presidential “kitchen, parlour and other room” are disturbing and time is of the essence. ‎Say what you might, if public opinion and perception means anything to this administration, Aisha Buhari is coming out as the voice of the voiceless masses and majority of APC supporters.

Ikem, former National Publicity Secretary of the PDP wrote in from Abuja