By Abimbola Adelakun
Even the most ardent supporter of the President, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) must be happy to see him pack his nuisance and return to Daura (or Niger, wherever) come Monday. If there is a regime in this world on which the sun cannot set fast enough, it is Buhari’s. He rode into the presidency in 2015 with his babariga pockets filled with tokens of goodwill and high expectations of renewal. Eight years later, he had bankrupted everything with his sadism and indolence. He came into power in a blaze of glory but his departure will be accompanied with deep sighs of “good riddance.” One good thing about his sociopathic nature is that he will not even be moved to care how much he has let down everyone who once took him seriously.
As much as the buck stops at his table, he could not have been the kind of failure he was without his enablers. They are many, but the most vociferous of these minions was his media team. For a collective that never advanced an original thought or devised any meaningful strategy of public engagement, they had a larger-than-life reach. From buffering Buhari from reasonable public opinion to obfuscating serious issues, they enabled his apathetic stance while the nation faltered under his watch. If they had summoned their will to a higher moral resolve, perhaps Buhari would not be leaving so much wreckage and carnage behind.
If there was something that quickly defined the Goebbelsian ethos of the Buhari regime at its inception, it was the number of media aides recruited. For a man who would not even appoint his federal ministers, he was rather quick to inaugurate a whole nest of media howlers. Close to hand, he had people like Femi Adesina, Garba Shehu, Bashir Ahmed, Tolu Ogunlesi, and Lauretta Onochie. Some of them were accomplished professionals before they took up the job of image laundering for the presidency, but you can hardly look back at key moments during their term and cite instances when they had a shining moment of professional management of public relations and communication. By May 29, when the sun sets on their time, they would all have been indistinguishably diminished by the multi-dimensional failings of the government they served.
At the back end, the administration also maintained a troll farm. There, they had tucked the rabble-rousers, whose job was to loiter around the highways and byways of the internet, defending Buhari against every reasonability and generally darkening counsel with words without knowledge. Partly due to the redundancy of these associates and perhaps too, because of the lack of any apparent strategic thought that went into planning the information management aspect of the Buhari presidency, what the bloated media team ended up delivering was eight years of cacophonous public communication. On his own, Buhari is sure to fail at any leadership role. With the choir he appointed, his shortcomings got more loudly amplified.
To be fair, media managers in the new media age face a peculiar dilemma in managing public relations and communication. Now that virtually anyone for whom the odds align can sidestep the traditional media gatekeepers and reach an indeterminate public directly, responding to the public can be vertiginous. Media aides to non-performing politicians like Buhari have it far worse—for good reasons. They must confront and control public perceptions and sentiments that can be so powerful they trump objective reality. Also, considering how more easily information can be released into the public sphere to stir mischief these days, media aides to politicians find themselves working in a permanent crisis zone where they are putting out either series of small fires or a conflagration (or both at the same time). Continuously being in a self-defence mode can do things to one’s cerebral capacities, and the frequent misspeaks and missteps that typified these aides’ jobs since 2015 is proof that the aides’ wit became addled over the years of managing Buhari’s crisis-prone government. The highest they achieved was a raucous and rancorous engagement with Nigerians whom—judging from their frequent putdowns—they passionately despise.
Yes, one must admit that being a media aide to a Nigerian politician is unenviable responsibility. We live in a polity where poverty is endemic, political promises are aplenty, and people confront their leaders with a sense of urgency that can be incompatible with the slow-paced nature of democratic deliberations. You cannot blame people jaded by the persistent failures of leadership for wanting quick-fire solutions. Sadly, the cohort of mostly myopic leaders that Nigeria is plagued with can hardly envision solutions to what bedevils us. Consequently, our interactions with them cannot but be defined by antagonisms, bitter exchanges, and mutual frustrations. That is why media aides to politicians turned their social media handles into workstations where they engage the public in crass and classless exchange of clap backs and other claptrap.
When leaders have nothing to show as solid achievements, their media aides must justify their existence by becoming one-trick ponies whose expertise begins and ends with fighting random people online. Aides managing a truant boss like Buhari have had it really hard. They spent the eight years inventing stories, deflecting questions bordering on accountability to the public, punching down at political opponents and their supporters, pandering to their current paymasters while putting up a grand show for prospective ones, and generally maintaining a facade of government functionality. While it must have been exhausting work for them, many of those activities are ultimately useless because neither their approach nor the substance of their communication advanced the course of democracy (or even our national values).
Our relationship with our leaders has ontologically been acrimonious, and they lack the political savviness to redefine it meaningfully. Our leaders probably cannot function without antagonising Nigerians, and their public relations managers too cannot act outside that frame. The conception of their professional responsibility is locked into that debilitating cycle such that they can hardly imagine public interaction without slap downs and punch downs. Even if they discern that the irascibility some people display online is borne of frustration with a polity where nothing ever happens, they still cannot demonstrate empathy. They must necessarily antagonise their fellow citizens. Once behind the high walls of Aso Rock, they can no longer afford to see humans whose survival is threatened by the cluelessness of their employers and who have every reason—and right—to make demands on the government. All they see are pesky irritants who will not let them eat in peace. Their revert is duplicity, deceit, and the shallow-mindedness that suffuses every part of their communication.
Looking at the spin they put out during those times Buhari was hospitalised outside of the country, you saw people in whom there is no truth. You assess how they dragged the presidency on social media like a rag cloth, and you see professional misfits. You consider the childishness of those who classified a section of Nigerians that refuses to drool before them into “wailers,” and what you see are small-minded bigots in high places. When you recall how these people poorly responded to the serious issues of insecurity that imperilled many Nigerian lives, you see people drained of their humanity. When you evaluate their double-fanged responses to the problems of corruption and its consequent denudation of the Nigerian value system, you see a bunch of frauds who add a lack of reflexivity to their hypocrisy. When your measure their dismissive attitude toward the economic hardship that Nigerians suffered under the watch of their inhumane principal, you see people shorn of their capacity to be reasonable humans.
On Monday, they will exit their respective offices (save for those lucky to be reabsorbed by the incoming administration). We will not miss them. Goodbye to their játijàti!