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Chukwuma Okonkwo: Lessons from President Buhari’s first #PresidentialMediaChat

By Chukwuma Okonkwo

On Wednesday, December 30, 2015, Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, hosted his maiden presidential media chat since his inauguration into office on May 29, 2015. Since the emergence of democracy in Nigeria in 1999, the presidential media chat has become a ritual through which the President in power engages with the Nigerian media and the public on the issues affecting the economy.

Prior to the presidential media chat, there were speculations that President Buhari was backing away from public discourse on the state of Nigeria’s economy. Perhaps to douse the pressure, President Buhari called for the media chat.

President Buhari’s administration was heralded by his inaugural speech. His assertion, “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody,” endeared him to many people across the world, and also set an optimistic tone for his administration. And that increased the expectation of Nigerians about his administration- the expectation that his government will live up to the philosophy of the change mantra that his party had bandied about during election campaigns.

However, with the myriads of economic crises that Nigeria is facing and coupled with the inability of President Buhari to keep Nigerians informed on the true state of the economy, it appears that the wheel of change on which President Buhari prides has become rusted.

Opinions are divided on President Buhari’s performance at the presidential media chat. Clearly, these opinions mirror the prejudicial tendencies that characterize public discussions in the country today. Once again, the opinions have shown how party affiliation can blur people’s sense of reasoning. No presidential media chat in the past was immune from public criticisms; hence no past president of Nigeria has had an un-criticized media chat. The former president Goodluck Jonathan received quite a large share of criticisms on every presidential media chat he gave in his tenure.

No doubt, in few weeks from now, the dust which the presidential media chat has raised will settle. And life will go on. But there are lessons to be learnt from the presidential media chat.

First, the presidential media chat reveals that President Buhari seems to be ill-informed about crucial policy issues in the country. On several occasions during the media chat, President Buhari shirked answering critical questions with rather uninspiring responses that he would seek information from the institutions the questions referred to. The ready examples were his responses to the questions on the CBN’s (Central Bank of Nigeria) restrictions on the use of Naira denominated ATM (automated teller machine) cards abroad; and NLNG’s (Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas) court feud with NIMASA (Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency) over levies imposed by the Nigerian government. These are national issues that the president should know at his fingertips.

Second, the presidential media chat reveals that the doctrine of separation of powers among the three arms of government- the executive, legislature and judiciary- is threatened under Buhari-led government. With strong-worded responses to the questions regarding the alleged cases of corrupt practices that are currently in courts, as well as the funding and running of the National Assembly, it behoves common sense to worry about the true applicability of the doctrine of separation of powers under President Buhari’s administration.

Third, the presidential media chat further reveals that, although, President Buhari lives in the skin of a progressive leader, he speaks from the mind of a dictator. From his rather strong-worded responses to the questions that raised concerns over the federal government’s continued disregard to the court orders issued in respect of the cases against Sambo Dasuki, Nnamdi Kanu and others, it appears that President Buhari has not fully imbibed the principles of rule of law, hence he is selective in his interpretation of democracy. With such responses, one wonders if there is any shred of hope in the notion of the independence of the judiciary under Buhari-led government.
Fourth, the presidential media chat also reveals that President Buhari seems to be in denial of the serious ethnic differences that exist in Nigeria. It is unfortunate that President Buhari failed to acknowledge that the current enchantment for the state of Biafra by some group in the south east has an undertone of ethnic differences.

Largely, this denial has continued to sabotage efforts towards building unity in the country. The logic is unclear as to how the government that preaches the unity of Nigeria will sustain that unity amid such denial.

Fifth, on the positive side, the presidential media chat reveals, to a great extent, President Buhari’s sense of purpose to his mission and commitments to fighting corrupt practices, which have distinguished him from the previous administrations. It is admirable to see a president, who remains tenacious to the principles of transparency and accountability. His insights and emphases on asset declaration and maintenance of probity in his cabinet speak volume of the positivism on which his personality prides.

Finally, the presidential media chat reveals (once again) the shabby panel discussion that has characterized Nigeria’s presidential media chats in the past. To a large extent, some panelists appeared unprepared with the main questions and follow-up questions, which, in overall, deprived the discussions of a robust engagement. At some point, it was difficult to distinguish whether the key role of the panelists was to ask questions, or to make comments on behalf of the president. It is unpardonable for professionals in media and journalism to appear intimidated by the mere presence of the president.
To conclude, it behoves the media and publicity team of President Buhari to look deeply into the flaws that have been identified on the part of the president in the recently concluded presidential media chat, in order to give the president a much better outcome in any future media conferences or interviews.

BIO:

The author writes from Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the prestigious (Young) Institute of Public Administration Australia. He maintains a personal blog: www.brutusgarley.blogspot.com.au where he writes on spectrum of social, economic and political issues.

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