In February 2015, I received an unusual invitation to meet with the erstwhile President, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. Some of the president’s backers had arranged a ‘Townhall with Nigerian Youths’.
First, the President met a small group of about 100 youths, and right after, he engaged a larger audience of well over 2000 youths. I was honoured to be one of 100 youths invited to the first Townhall. And I must say that we had a fairly stimulating exchange with the Commander-in-Chief that fateful Sunday evening at Eko Hotel and Suites, Lagos.
I was particularly thrown by the President’s calm disposition. If he was grappled with any frustrations occasioned by the then imminent Presidential elections, he did a masterful job of concealing it.
Another surprise was that President Jonathan didn’t quite cut the uninspiring, aloof and dull picture the media often painted. No, he didn’t deflect tough questions on the economy to Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (who was not even at the session).
On the contrary, he offered crisp, clear and considered answers to the questions his young audience threw from all corners of the ornate room. I was impressed. It felt great to hear directly from the horse’s mouth. It was refreshing not to glean president’s views from press releases written and re-written by a coterie of clever communications aides.
It was nice to read his body language, hear his voice, and see the human side of Nigeria’s most powerful man. I even got a chance to take a selfie with the President that evening!
In my view, the townhall was a brilliant initiative (not because of the selfie, I promise). I just wished many more of such forums would be organized across the country. I wished more Nigerian youths would have the rare honour to meet the President, interact with him in person, and also pose hard hitting questions on the vast range of issues that affect Nigerian youths.
More importantly, such sessions would also give the President an opportunity to get first-hand, unvarnished feedback from Nigerian youths. I know he reads briefing notes on youth affairs from his Special Advisers on Youth Affairs and Senior Special Assistants on Teenage Heartbreaks (my creation), but these are hardly a substitute for unedited real-time feedback – sans footnotes and lengthy commentaries explaining what contributors actually meant.
But back to President Jonathan’s Townhall – although it was a brilliant initiative, although we had a great evening with the president, there was one glaring shortcoming- a flawed motive. The towhhall was hastily arranged just weeks before Presidential elections. Rattled by the prospect of a humiliating defeat at the polls, the president’s strategists were on panic mode.
The result was a string of hurriedly orchestrated engagement sessions. These contrived platforms aimed to convince Nigerians that indeed, President Jonathan was a man of the people. In hindsight those moves weren’t particularly fruitful. Nigerians were not sold. King Jonathan’s fate was sealed and his (political) death knell was a forgone conclusion. Not long after my encounter with the President, he suffered a bruising defeat at the polls.
That experience left me wondering why political office holders only deem it necessary to engage directly with citizens during electioneering campaigns. In the run up to elections, our politicians become adept communicators – they bombard our social media newsfeeds with video messages, quotable quotes and ruminations on the state of the country.
They travel from Sokoto to Bayelsa shaking hands, slapping backs, kissing babies and taking a swig from the common man’s bottle of Orijin amid friendly banters. They do not send representatives, neither do they cajole by proxy. But once results are announced and swearing in happens, ‘Berlin’ walls snap back into place. Facebook videos of the President or Governor dry up.
Then, army of Senior Spokesmen, Senior Special Advisers, Senior Special Assistants and Senior Personal Assistants to Senior Special Advisers emerges. It is from these courtiers we learn the King’s views. The President or Governor that charmed us with glossy pre-election posters (bearing his airbrushed picture with a disarming smile) suddenly becomes too busy attending to weighty matters of state.
To hear from him, we must wait for NTA’s “Presidential media chat” or national observances like Independence Day and Democracy day where he reads us lengthy speeches written by Senior Special Assistants.
Of course there are no Question and Answer sessions at these events. Once the speech is read, we say ‘amen’ and the King retreats to his padded luxury chair at the VIP stand for a ‘high level’ chit chat with the same persons he often meets at party meetings and executive council sessions.
Then, follows a march past. The king waves and smiles charitably. Closing prayers are then said by a Christian and Muslim, and the king is whisked away in his tinted limousine.
My hope is that President Buhari doesn’t act in line with this familiar playbook (the initial signs are not encouraging). Statements issued by spokesmen will never be a substitute for direct engagement. And direct engagement doesn’t have to be through face-to-face sessions (I understand that there are 170 million Nigerians).
But how about leveraging the social media, how about engaging with Nigerians through regular radio call in programmes and real time interactive sessions on social media. And yes periodic Townhalls (across the country) by the president won’t hurt. They shouldn’t only happen during electioneering campaigns! While the debate over the deregulation of the downstream sector raged, I expected a charm offensive by the President.
I expected him to sell his vision for the oil sector to Nigerians through a variety of platforms. Unfortunately that has not happened. To be fair, some of his aides weighed in (online videos from the Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr. Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu were enlightening), but it would have helped if Nigerians heard from the Commander-in-Chief himself. It would have helped if he was the “explainer-in-chief”.
In difficult times, it becomes even more crucial for leaders of nations to seek avenues to engage directly with citizens. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats and Winston Churchill’s uplifting speeches during the Second World War are classic examples.
With the social media, modern day Presidents even have an additional platform to engage, explain and inspire. Sadly, the lure of carefully worded press releases and burnished media statements seems too strong to resist. As for the King’s spokesmen, one only hopes that these human conduits who are paid to make the King look good, do not end up facilitating the King’s (political) death.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija
Opinion article written by Osita Abana