Abimbola Adelakun: Mr. President, you cannot run from criticism in a new media era

by Abimbola Adelakun

The presidential media chat on Sunday was, not unexpectedly, pedestrian, to put it mildly. But interestingly, the President spoke on, among other things, social media and, the penchant by Nigerians to use the same to criticise his government. I counted this positive – he is not unaware of Nigerians’ disaffection towards his administration’s perceived slackness. But he ruined it when he implied that the criticisms were coming from one source and were being replicated to orchestrate the perception that Nigerians were disillusioned at his government.

Obviously, I find this a recalcitrant mode of thinking, and the solo-source claim very disingenuous. Is this not the same President who claimed he reversed the football ban on the nation’s football teams from international competitions in 2010 because Nigerians begged him on Facebook? The man who stole the shine from his rival’s presidential declaration when he ambushed him on Facebook? The man who usually called for ideas on social media suddenly finds same problematic?

Shortly before the chat, I came across an article in New York Times, The Rise of Popularism, in which the writer, Thomas Friedman, raised questions about social networking media and democracy.

He said, “The wiring of the world through social media and web-enabled cellphones is changing the nature of conversations between leaders and the led everywhere. We’re going from largely one-way conversations — top-down — to overwhelmingly two-way conversations — bottom-up and top-down. This has many upsides: more participation, more innovation and more transparency. But can there be such a thing as too much participation — leaders listening to so many voices all the time and tracking the trends that they become prisoners of them?”

While I found the article interesting, I disagreed with its overriding assertion. Like President Goodluck Jonathan, Friedman missed the gist of the age we are now. Thanks to those social media sites, there is more “power to the people”. Unlike the Peoples Democratic Party sloganeering which comes out of their mouths as a crude joke and a mockery of political systems, the social media empowers political dialogue. Communication is largely uncensored and not guided as they are wont to be even on a live media chat.

And nowhere is this truer than a perusal of Jonathan’s Facebook account. Two years ago, when the President invited Nigerians to enter into dialogue with him on Facebook, he had some 19,000 friends. Today, that figure has risen by more than 700,000. And herein springs the charge of abuse by replication!

In an article I wrote then on Nigeria’s democracy and Facebook, I noted the “Amen, sir” syndrome pervading his wall. Virtually all the young Nigerians who swamped on that page then had a verse of Scripture to share with him and, most of them saying “Sir, sir” in a nauseating way.

Today, things have largely improved. Reality has forced Nigerians to be more critical and the level of surveillance is higher. During the fuel subsidy debate, the discussions were very robust (and this can only increase with time). I note all these ripening of Nigerians with excitement.

Imagine how different things would have been if there had been social media in the days of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha!

Today, world leaders are seeing the power of the voices of the people in a post-technology world; even countries like Nigeria which have yet to arrive properly at modernity gate are forced to confront questions that their stage of social evolution has yet to prepare them for. We know what role social media played in the Arab Spring. Oppressive leaders of the world have learnt their lessons, hopefully though; unfortunately, in the case of Syria, Bashar al-Assad has become more brutal. It’s no coincidence that Saudi Arabia — a country that restricts women from driving for some embarrassingly mundane reasons — in the wake of the Arab Spring, shifted grounds on women’s voting rights and is sending female athletes to the Olympics this year. Former Philippines President, Joseph Estrada, blamed his ouster on the SMS. In countries like India, corruption is being challenged with the power of the web.

So if Jonathan chooses to see the power of voices on the social media as negative, it’s probably because he still expects people to act docile to be model citizens. In January, he said in an interview that he was not easily swayed by public opinion because the majority could be wrong. Well, true, but the people feel the pinch and it is in their leader’s interest to pay attention. It’s a post-modernistic age and communication between the leader and the led is evolving and this manifests in various ways. Let him pay a visit to Barack Obama’s Facebook wall, if he has yet to do so, the people are as critical. The comments range from the fawning to the overtly racist. Obama dares not complain. It is democracy playing out as the conceivers of it intended: power to the people. You cannot pretend you know more than them without turning despotic.

And this is what I think: the Nigerian government needs to embrace the social reality the social media is engendering and reach out to people. Jonathan needs to stop seeing criticisms as a disadvantage.

People want to participate actively in government without the chain of command mediating them. One way to foster this is to get rid of the “media chat” system. It is too mediated and is as analogue as the two telephone numbers displayed on the screen. A one person interviewer is better as it allows a more fluid flow of follow-up questions. For instance, when he said Nigerians would begin to see changes in 2013, I expected the interviewers to grill him on the specifics: what are the indices that suggest this will be so? When he spoke on railway and agricultural revolution, he was vague. A lot of his gaffes were allowed to go unchallenged.

And rather than pretending to wait for telephone lines that are not meant to work (and whoever thought up that cheap trick should be fired and paraded along with Kabiru Sokoto), they should have taken questions from the social media.

I am saying this because, the truth is, the President cannot, like the Biblical Cain, always run from public criticism of him and his government. If he keeps running, he’ll land on the alternative highway – the al-Zaidi route. Muntadhar al-Zaidi, remember him? He was a journalist who tried to speak to President George Bush. When words failed, he removed his shoes and hauled same at Bush’s head during a press conference in Iraq some years ago.

*This was first published in The Punch

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