When Chikelu was Minister

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By Okey ikechukwu

If, as the constitution says, the primary purpose of government is to cater for the welfare and security of the people, then it must be said that we are faced with a situation wherein government epitomises the absence of its raison d’etre. If the primary business of anyone in public office is to focus on everything that would strengthen the welfare of the people and ensure a more secure nation, then it must also be said that many have held, and are still holding, public office for the wrong reasons in Nigeria. The nation is not doing well on all fronts; and this is not about the Buhari government, or the one before it. It is about a leadership elite that has been so unintelligent and incompetent, even from the angle of enlightened self-interest, that it is now the primary target of all crimes. After 20 years of democracy, we have only harvested bad roads we cannot ply because of kidnappers and robbers. We have also enthroned consumption, the cheerful squandering of humongous wealth, unpaid salaries and poverty among other markers of our democracy.

That is why the Abuja-Kaduna rail route is over now subscribed, especially by the high and mighty who have become too scared to travel by road. The criminals are young Nigerians who will not have had to resort to crime today if the nation had invested in the their development as national assets. Just as the Abuja-Kaduna federal highway and many other roads in the country have been taken over by kidnappers and a motley collection of small and big time criminals, the people of Uzo-Uwani community in Enugu State now live in the full glare of their powerlessness, before an occupation army of marauding herdsmen. It was the same way that Isiadu Ibeku in Abia State was saddled with a near-curfew for months last year, for the same reason. The story is the similar in every state of the South-east, as a helpless and not sufficiently equipped police force is confronted with a problem it is not designed to handle. Marauders, who wield banned assault rifles in broad light in our villages and cities, outnumber and outgun our policemen.
The foregoing were the precipitating factors at a recent round table, put together to dwell on the crisis of leadership in Nigeria. That was how the name of the Former Minister of Information and National Orientation, Chief Chukwuemeka Chikelu, came up with nostalgic reference and acclaim. As his former Special Assistant and Chief of Staff, I found myself in the rather uncomfortable situation of having to give an impromptu account of the man and what propelled him to serve Nigeria the way he did as a minister.

Chikelu came into office determined not to allow the melodrama of “authority” to becloud the fact that the only reason he was reporting to work as a minister was to serve the people and the national interest. He clearly separated his person from the frills of office, lived in his own house, drove in his own car and ensured that the personal expenses of his aides were not borne by the ministry, or government. He was a methodical young man, with very pronounced personal preference for orderliness, clear targets and easily measurable results. For every proposal from civil servants on any issue, he always summon me for us to address four questions: (1) how will this benefit the people and the nation?, (2) how do we measure the results?, (3) can we work out how what is being proposed can cost less than the figures put forward?, and (4) would we like to do this if our money was involved and we are being asked to do this for your family? He was that thorough.

At no point during his watch in the Ministry of Information and national orientation did he approve anything that violated any clear policy framework guiding such actions. He took a clear position on public “events”, ceremonies and “programmes”, making it clear that these are often excuses for wasting public funds. Any expensive programme designed without any real value to the nation was seen as a dishonest way of pretending to be working when you are no and shot down. Of course there was consternation, irritation and subtle protest from some functionaries around him. But Chikelu always insisted that records of expenditure should not be mistaken for development, or benefit to the people in whose name the money was being spent. Some objected to “a serious Minister” looking into the routine “chop and let others chop” in government, as if his father’s money was involved.

The ministry got a totally new approach to a lot of things under him. He explained that it was an efficient information machinery, and not the high visibility of government ministers, that made the US, UK, use behind the scenes efficiency to maintain effective global communication. He redefined the role of the Resident Information Officers (Chief Press Secretaries), pointing out that the nearly-defunct Federal Information Centres and other arteries of the national information network, are the real engines of national communication and not necessarily the minister. The neglect and dearth of training of information officers in the ministry over the decades was proof of his position on this matter.

While admitting that robust personal interventions by government information managers are important and critical for effective government communication, he maintained that when this is overdone and abused, preoccupation with political visibility undermined the information machinery and authentic communication. Generalisations and threadbare pronouncements, usually designed to satisfy political office holders, would then take the place of truth, political mobilisation and information management. He always said that government credibility suffers when the job of Information Minister is defined solely, or at least largely, in terms of appearances on the print and electronic media at every possible and impossible opportunity; to say something and show that he is working for government. He must keep his mouth open at all times, so that whoever accused him of not talking will be quickly countered with: “I was talking but you didn’t hear, can’t you see that my mouth is open?”

Chikelu would argue that if there were Best Practices in all human affairs, including information management and public communication. Modern nations build, develop and sustain government communication as part of the overall social process. That is why he brought into the very idea of the job of Information Minister an agenda for national reorientation on what to expect from, and demand of, that office and other institutions of state. He also was averse to the view that every critic of the government, or was automatically an enemy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Once government communication tries to please itself, it becomes conspiratorial, declarative, impatient and unable to present the thread that runs through the diverse activities of the state as a focused mission. That is why we have now developed a new generation of leaders, bred on a political diet of purposeless speech making and executive arbitrariness. For them, the word “authority” means ‘the right to misbehave and not be challenged’. Expertise, for them, is nothing more than facilitated upward movement, with or without ability. Capital consumption is their philosophy of leadership and most “prominent” Nigerians have been fed on this nihilistic philosophy of management for four decades.

Three problems confronted Chikelu on the job, namely; (a) procuring authentic information and using credible platforms to present it; (b) separating what is useful from what is useless; and (c) making the information available to his various publics in such a way that even if he did not win them over he would, at least, not swell the ranks of those who would not bother to listen at all. In this regard, his concern was more with (i) developing personnel skills and strengthening structures and processes in the ministry; (ii) restoring the government’s institutional capacity for distilling useful information; (iii) synchronising the activities, programmes and projections of the information and related agencies for unity of purpose and to avoid duplications and wastages; (iv) and showing that public office holders have a duty to insist on the right paradigms and not play to the gallery, even if uninformed public opinion wanted it otherwise.

Rounding up our roundtable engagement, the issues agreed upon with regard to the out-going-in-coming Buhari government was that we had cause to discuss Chikelu because of his performance while in office. We agreed that Buhari should: (1) abolish security votes, since the armed forces, police and security agencies have their budgets, (2) use his party’s strength in the national assembly to cut down the pay of lawmakers, if he loves the nation, (3) be more honest in addressing the herdsmen issue, (4) forbid his new ministers from organising “Summits” and use extant records from previous summits to address the problems of their respective ministries.