By Fredrick Nwabufo
Nigeria’s ministry of information used to be the preserve of processed, patriotic, and disciplined minds. It used to be a place for rational public servants like Chukwuemeka Chikelu, the late Dora Akunyili, and Frank Nweke Jr – and not propagandists.
I recall vividly the bold undertakings of the ministry under Chikelu, “the debonair and cool-ruling minister”. At the time, Nigeria was just five years out of the clutch of the military with foreign perception liabilities. The country had chalked up a binder of negative depictions. The minister saddled up to the exigency of the situation; he applied himself to re-imaging Nigeria. Though his quest elicited some skepticism, it was a sorely needed intervention at a time the country was seeking debt forgiveness from Paris Club and the like.
Chikelu also deployed himself to enhancing the promotion of broadcast on HIV/AIDS prevention and control by asking media executives to cut down charges on health-related broadcast messaging. He was also committed to the campaign against female genital mutilation, asking journalists that they “should make it a covenant to write at least a story on the evils of the practice”. But I think he is most remembered for his effort in re-portraying Nigeria.
I also recall the hefty exploits of Akunyili as minister of information with her “Re-branding Nigeria” campaign. She said the campaign was to emend the “faulty perception and assault on the reputation of the ordinary Nigerian”. The late minister was concerned about how Nigerians were fixed on abroad for abuse. Nweke did his bit as well – bringing poise and charisma to the office of the spokesman of the federal republic.
Among these three ministers, you could see their genuine commitment to the country. Their campaigns were never targeted at Nigerians but at redressing the challenges faced by citizens owing to the soiled image of the country.
But what is Lai Mohammed’s game? Since Lai became minister of information five years ago, he has been on an offensive against citizens. He has applied himself more as Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propagandist, than as a spokesman of the federal republic. Like Goebbels, he appears dutiful in virulently clamping down on alternative voices.
Again, since he became minister, his campaign has been to conscript the media into a regiment and to effectuate a holocaust of independent voices. Unlike his predecessors, Lai’s docket as minister is zeroed in on propaganda, agency espionage, and citizen gag for the state.
He started with his duplicitous “change begins with me” campaign – a furtive attempt to absolve the government of blame over its gypped “change” agenda. The Buhari administration rode to power on the Pegasus of change. But after it took the mantle, it cast overboard every pretension, and asked citizens to seek the change themselves in their unlit homes, decrepit hospitals and perilous roads.
After his “change campaign” suffered an unintended abortion – obviously for being integrity challenged – Lai deployed himself robustly to gagging citizens and the media. Though he said social media will be “regulated and sanitized”, it appears this is an adventure too unwieldy for the minister to see through. But he is still on the prance to “sanitize” social platforms. By the way, social media is the only citizen agency that has not been functionally annexed by the very irritable Buhari government. Lai took his artifices to the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). He summarily amended the broadcasting code, laying mines in the new canon for broadcasting.
Broadcast industry stakeholders have faulted the new code which is essentially a gag code. Speaking on the issue, Tonnie Iredia, a former director-general of the NTA, said the NBC code, which “was supposed to be a professional guide and masterpiece that promotes professional excellence in broadcasting is now filled with sanctions and what you will do and not do”. He also asked why the minister, who is a politician and never practised in the industry, was spearheading the process which naturally should be midwifed by professionals.
In the same vein, Ikra Aliyu Bilbis, chairman of the NBC board, said Lai amended the broadcasting code “unilaterally”. In Bilbis’ words: “Instead of studying and following the law, relevant rules and regulations, and direct the appropriate authorities as stipulated by the law to act on, he (Lai Mohammed) erroneously embarked on the review alone.”
In the new code, the fine for so-called “hate speech” was jacked up from N500,000 to N5 million. This is ultimately to menace broadcast stations and to force them into a regiment of compliance and fear where only broadcast favourable to the administration will air. Nigeria Info, 99.3 FM, Abuja, which the NBC just fined N5 million for interviewing Obadiah Mailafia, former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), who alleged that a northern governor is the leader of Boko Haram, is the first casualty of Lai’s Goebbelian pursuit.
A memo by the NBC warning broadcast stations of sanctions against insult on the president, governors and members of the national assembly by their guests “because it is not in our culture” to insult elders, surfaced online on Thursday. This further accents Lai’s desperate agenda to garrison the media.
At this point, it is either “hell or the lake of fire” (all the same). The broadcast industry and the Nigeria media must rise against the new Goebbels and most dangerous minister in Buhari’s cabinet. They have only their chains to lose.
Fredrick Nwabufo is a writer and journalist