EDIFYING ELUCIDATIONS BY OKEY IKECHUKWU
Some of the most important conclusions of participants at the Non-Partisan RoundTable on pressing national issues, which was organized by Development Specs Academy , and which held last Thursday at the Nigerian Army Resource Centre in Abuja, were: (1) Increased productivity is a critical success factor for any nation that wants a strong and stable national currency, (2) Consumption patterns and product preferences have a direct impact on a nation’s Balance of trade, especially with regards to deficits, (3) The Nigerian State, and the citizenry, must consume mostly what they produce and produce mostly what they consume, or retain some of the economic debilities on the table at the moment, (4) the public is only interested in measuring the value of every economic intervention against the background of impact, (5) The operating environment, in our own case an environment where insecurity that readily threatens national productivity in the area of agriculture and food security, can undermine the best policy initiatives and economic intervention programmes. The foregoing is only a few of the far-reaching conclusions, observations and suggestions of stakeholders at the event.
On the State of the Nation, the RoundTable pointed out that our security forces are overstretched, not quite well equipped and hamstrung by a largely apathetic citizenry. It linked the perceived suboptimal performance of the police, the armed forces and the security agencies to often avoidable facility, operational and capacity inadequacies. It pointed out that our soldiers and security agents are not magicians; that they need supporting intelligence from locals. Since no soldier, or agent of state, can claim to know a place better than the residents, indigenes, local leaders, et al, it behooves the people to understand that they are in a better position to detect and report strange persons and movements. The RoundTable, in making the above points, also admitted that the interpenetration of insurgents, as they are now embedded in many communities, is also a problem.
Seated or standing, no one wanted to leave the venue of the RoundTable before the event was over. Some one hundred and forty-three people, including advocacy groups, thought leaders, active youth platforms, print, electronic and social media organizations, special interest groups, producers of pungent skits and media and group influencers were the major partners and participants. The participants were also drawn from related organizations, the public and their affiliates. They all came together for a simple reason: To drive informed national discourse in an objective, penetrating and non-partisan manner. The RoundTable set itself the goal of approaching all conversations on touchy national issues as matters on which Nigerians can have civilized conversations with the sole aim of walking away with rational conclusions, devoid of name-calling.
The broad Conceptual Framework of the RoundTable, which shall henceforth be a monthly event, is to promote solutions-based national conversations on important national issues. The purpose of such conversations is to figure out, design and propose specific, and readily implementable, solutions to identified problems at the end of the day. It shall not be a platform for lamentations and the enumeration of problems. All exchanges in every edition of the RoundTable, as was evident in this maiden edition of last week, rest on Chatham House Rules.
The RoundTable also took up the matter of growing citizen apathy and the need for government, NGOs, FBOs and CBOs to incorporate narratives that strengthen inclusivity; and which also project paradigms that promote national and group cohesion. They were all urged to look out for the results, and expected outcomes, of all their interventions instead of focusing on the number of interventions only. The same suggestion was also made to state and federal governments: To stop mistaking budgetary announcements, allocations and contracts for proof of impact on the welfare of citizens.
On national security and the fight against insurgency, the RoundTable urged the government to pay close attention to the actual condition of our fighting forces. The announcements about new equipment, the cost of new war equipment, or the resolve of the Federal Government to end insurgency, do not remove the fact that the public is largely skeptical and suspicious because of the continued activities of terrorists and insurgents in Nigeria.
The RoundTable took a long and hard look at the presidential aspirant of our various political parties. It noted that every aspirant to a political office has the right to his aspirations in a democracy. It also noted that only one of the many aspirants from each party will ultimately emerge as candidates for any elective office.
The only concerns raised by the RoundTable with regards to the 2023 elections were these: (1) Change of headship of the Nigerian State, and replacement of persons holding various elective offices at various levels, will deliver nothing good if those who will conduct the primaries do not have the interest of the nation and the people at heart, (2) The cost of forms for contesting various political offices is too high, (3) Practically all the processes and procedures leading up to the elections in the various political parties appear unacceptably elitist, exclusivist and designed to ensure that only individuals and groups with heavy financial capabilities can now contest for political offices in Nigeria.
The RoundTable’s proposed solution to this brewing anormally include (1) Outright reduction in the cost of forms, by over 95% and (2) Return of the balance to the Aspirants, except for those of them who may wish to donate such excess to the individual parties concerned. This is an unfortunate middle ground that should be precedent for future elections. It is so proposed because the INEC clearly shows that the parties will not have the time to start the process all over again.
The RoundTable invited participants and stakeholders to note the ease with which general communication, government efforts and even group initiatives can be easily distorted and misunderstood. In the case of government, it traced this to the public perception of integrity deficit, in the area of communication. The RoundTable observed that the government must reclaim its right to be believed, by giving clear, timely, honest and believable communication. Instances of deliberately misrepresented government action were brought up and examined. These included (1) Narratives around the COVID-19 palliatives and what government and stakeholders in civil should have done to regain public trust, (2) The CBN’s Anchor Borrowers Program, which nearly lost the chance to be understood as an initiative that created and capacitated several farmers’ cooperatives, enhanced their access to loans, created millions of jobs, took many youths off the crime path and rescued many local economies.
While emphasizing that only productivity-enhancing and economy-reflating activities, in addition to consuming what we produce and producing what we consume, the RoundTable noted that young entrepreneurs need further help in the areas of product quality and marketing. The call is for the government, stakeholders and new-found, (or fangled) entrepreneurs to take full inventory of what would lead to quick and sustainable success and ensure they have these in their kitty as the step into the dangerous waves of an inclement business environment. The RoundTable admitted that the youths face challenges at the levels of capacity, opportunities and wrong role models. Proposed solutions to some of the foregoing include (1) Tooling and retooling our youths for a 21st Century World, (2) Reopening of universities for the continuing education of university students, (3) Promotion of vocational skills and innovative entrepreneurship programmes, in addition to values Reorientation.
The element of values reorientation keyed into the RoundTable’s observations and submissions on fake news and how to deal with it. Because values create the right mindset for substantive citizenship, rather than nominal citizenship, the RoundTable held that the nation, advocacy groups and other stakeholders must work towards ensuring that we all imbibe the basic notions of “Confirm the source, determine its positive value, verify whether it is abridged, find out if the abridgment has led to a distortion, take responsibility and be ready to stand by it”.
The matter of fake news and ‘information distortion’ came up because of some audio recordings in circulation which were found to be deliberately modified in order to convey/suggest something not intended by the full message. This included five audio messages which gave modified versions of original conversations. They included a conversation between two young adults, part of which was changed in such a way as to suggest that the lady was soliciting her male counterpart. Another audio recording involved a responsible officer of the FRSC who stopped a driver. The exchange between them was apparently secretly recorded. Then it was edited in such a way as to suggest that the officer was asking for money, rather than the driving license of the driver. A third/fourth case had to do with two distorted audio recordings involving the CBN; one around 2019 and another, more recently, regarding “heart attack”. Comparing the advertised audio and the full length of the conversation from which they were extracted, it was easy to see how a new narrative can be generated by taking a limited section of a discussion and presenting it in such a way as to create new meanings and interpretations.
The RoundTable averred that fake news, unverified statements taken out of context, and the fact that technology has made everyone a reporter, editor and Editor-in-Chief, every Nigerian should be wary of misinformation and disinformation. The deliberate mischief of iconoclasts, the malevolent machinations of those who distort, misquote or misrepresent audio and video content for all manner of reasons now pose a real threat to intelligent conversation all around us.
As the RoundTable rose with a firm resolve to continue driving objective national discourse, informed commentary, commitment to Chatham House Rules, rejection of hearsay as knowledge and the determination to keep all discussions rancour-free, it also reaffirmed its commitment to a better society and a better future for Nigerian youths. This new approach to national conversations, sociopolitical education and citizen engagement will come up again, next month. It called on INEC not to relent on its public Enlightenment and political education programs. The RoundTable held that the information about replacement of card readers with a more efficient system, for Nigerians to know, for a fact, who or what delivers the “Final Accepted Results” from a polling station.