I do not envy Presidential spokespersons. The way I see it, their job should rank as one of the most difficult jobs on earth. When the sea is calm, and the ship of state is cruising smoothly, and the citizens are enveloped in raptures of joy, some people would want their Captain, the President, to speak. The job falls squarely on the spokespersons’ lap. They blow the trumpet. When the ship of state encounters a sudden storm or turbulence, or sails straight into a strait laced with icebergs, and the Captain tries his level best to make the vessel stay on course, preventing it from becoming another Titanic, people still want to know how he rode the storm. It is the spokespersons that carry the can, and supply the details. They give the ‘wherefore’ and the ‘whereto’ of the story. After all, as they say, the beauty is in the details.
One of the pillars of popular democracy is the inalienable right of the people to freedom of information. People often lean on that pillar to hold those who govern them accountable. It doesn’t matter whether the congress, or National Assembly as in the case of Nigeria, pass or shoot dead the freedom of information bill. No matter how inclement the political climate might be, people are in constant pursuit of information, bombarding their elected representatives with endless stream of inquiries. It is the lot of the President’s spokesmen and the Information Minister (at the broader governmental level) to answer to every single inquiry. To be effective, the spokespersons dare not sleep with their two eyes closed because their phones would never stop ringing. They must be on their toes, always. Their antennae must be high up every second.
You may be tempted to “that’s no big deal, after all, they are only doing their job.” Well, you may be right. Except that everybody, both literate and illiterate, even artisans and journeymen who happen on Congress like a terrible accident, seems to know the job better than the men appointed based on their intimidating CVs, experience and expertise. Despite being the masters of their game, everybody else seems to know the job of these tested professionals better than them. The charlatans spew all kinds of garbage on how the professionals must do their job.
And if the principal does not know his onions and have a firm grip on the handle, he would be tossed up and down by all manner of fallacies. And after dancing to all kinds of tunes, the next thing would be to flip-flop. He announces a policy at 8 a.m. and reverses it by noon. Before sunset, he reverses himself again.
Ask former press secretaries and ex-media advisers to ex-Presidents and former governors, what was their worst nightmare on their beats, and they would promptly finger this problem. This is not to mention the horror of the social media that is replete with ‘alternative facts’, a euphemism for half-truths and outright falsehood; a phenomenon now popularised and glamourised by the new American President, Donald Trump.
I have gone to this length with two men on my mind: Mr. Femi Adesina, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, and Malam Garba Shehu, the Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to the President. The two gentlemen, both accomplished journalists, both former Presidents of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, have been under tremendous heat since their Principal, President Muhammadu Buhari, began his 10-day vacation in London on January 19.
Although the President’s spokespersons made it clear, on the day of his departure, that Buhari was travelling to enjoy part of his annual vacation, the rumour mill still buzzed, first, with the ‘news’ that he had been hospitalised; then, that he had been moved to intensive care unit, and was under a respirator; and, finally, that he had died. To convince all ‘Doubting Thomases’ about the veracity of the story, a man even posted on Facebook that he gathered from the intelligence community that, like the then seriously sick President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, President Buhari was moved out of Aso Rock in the dead of the night and flown out in an air ambulance.
Another Nigerian backed his own ‘Buhari is dead’ story with an innocuous statement that Adesina purportedly made after seeing his boss off; that Nigerians should pray for the President. That statement, the ‘concerned Nigerian’ maintained, reinforced his cynicism about the President’s health. And the only thing that could shake it off was if he saw Buhari’s gait and the stride of his steps, and he is strutting yet again on Nigerian soil. Indeed, the harder the trio of Lai Mohamed, Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu tried to dispel the satanic rumour, the more vigorous the mill got, and the hotter the rumour became on social media. The traditional media was not excluded from the roiling rumour as some Nigerians granted interviews, requesting the President to speak to the nation from his home or holiday resort in London as proof that he was truly alive and well.
However, the much talked about proof of life was provided early last week. It came in the form of photos, released by the Presidency, showing: Buhari and his daughter with Ogun State Governor Ibikunle Amosun; the President and his wife, Aisha; then, the President at lunch with a guest; all live from Buhari’s vacation home in London. The photos, to me, sounded the death knell on the satanic rumour. The pictures knocked the bottom off the rumour; or doesn’t that English idiom say that “a picture is worth a thousand words”? If the photos still won’t work for the mill and the millers, then, they should wait till Monday, February 6, when Buhari is expected to resume duty. If the day comes and he is not at his desk, then, the millers can hit the road.
Certainly, Adesina must have been worried sick about the death rumour, even if he refuses to admit it publicly. Anybody in his shoes would. Anybody in the shoes of Garba Shehu and Lai Mohammed would be. They would be sad and mad that despite telling the world the truth they knew, some citizens still fed the mill with ‘alternative fact’. I would be angry and frustrated if I were in their shoes, too, because the death of a President is not a joke. It usually deals a devastating blow to a nation, especially if the President is loved by his people. It is not what citizens should wish a President that is striving to rescue his nation from the woods. It is even ungodly to wish one’s enemy dead.
There is no denying the fact that death is an inevitable end for all mortals. Although it is as certain as day and night, coming at its appointed time, it is still something people should not joke with because of its finality; because of its irreversibility. That’s why rumours of death would worry anybody. But I don’t think it should worry President Buhari unduly. At 74, and with his life accomplishments, I don’t think he would be unnecessarily worried about the cessation of life. Even if God decides to call him home today, (like He can call me, like He can call anybody), Buhari would go home rejoicing, satisfied that he had run a good race. Therefore, I expect rumours of his ‘death’ to be the least of his worries.
In any case, he is not the only leader to have read his own obituary. This is not the first time rumours of a leader’s death would roil Nigeria and make headlines. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe read his own obituary. He saw his political associates, friends and foes pay tribute to him on prime time television. He heard and read eulogies by genuine friends as well as people who would be too glad to see his back. Despite all that, the Great Zik of Africa still enjoyed life to the fullest. He lived for many years after; joining his ancestors only on May 11, 1996, aged 91. Some of those who announced his obituary actually left before him.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has read his own obituary several times. His first death rumour broke in February 1999, shortly after his election as President, at the onset of the Fourth Republic. The riot that tracked that rumour claimed many limbs and lives, especially in Lagos. And property too. Yet, the Ebora Owu did two terms as a democratic President. He even attempted to rig a third term but for Nigerians who rose stoutly against that satanic ambition. Again, he was rumoured dead in 2010. But today, and many years after, ex-President Obasanjo is still alive and waxing strong. His official age is 79.
Rumours, like jokes cracked and spread on April 1, the Fools’ Day, could be good, humorous distractions; at times. But a nation steep in recession as Nigeria does not need the distraction of death rumours. Yet, there is little anyone can do to stop those feeding the mill with their fantasies. Therefore, rather than being upset by his rumoured death, I expect President Buhari to see it as a wake-up call to correct his mistakes, and renew his resolve to rescue Nigeria from the precipice. He should seize the moment to implement policies that would redeem these horrible times for Nigerians and make life abundant for them. He should unshackle himself from the fetters of those trying to hold him and his government captive and execute projects that would etch his name boldly in gold in Nigeria’s hall of fame.
He should seize these moments to work at living legacies that would endure from generation to generation. He must work to engender a Nigeria where corruption, nepotism, favouritism, religious strives, tribal conflicts, Fulani cattle herders’ barbarism, and other ills that currently plague the country are shot dead; and they remain dead forever. He must do things that would make him say, at the end of age, that ‘Allah, now, let your servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen the glory of Nigeria.’
As for those wishing the President dead, repent. And I say, repent because, as the Yoruba would say, mokan mokan ni oye nkan. Loosely translated, it means: like family titles, death is turn by turn. We are all pilgrims on earth. We are like commuters in a train or a bus, and everybody must alight when he gets to his destination. Culturally and religiously speaking, you do not wish people dead; not even your enemies; no matter their iniquities. Rather, you pray for them.
Therefore, before you feed the mill next time, pause and apply the principle of confirmation bias, that credible journalism espouses. The principle tasks people to “interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.” It is after you have tested the new evidence against your beliefs that you can now go to town with your inference. That way, you would not subject innocent souls to undue trauma.
My last word goes to Lai Mohammed, Femi Adesina, and Garba Shehu: do not grow weary in well doing (on your various beats) but steadfastly clinch to and espouse and broadcast the truth that you know. This is because it is only the truth that we know and perform that can exalt our nation. Half-truths and absolute falsehood will rapidly catalyse its slide to the abyss. God forbid.
God bless Nigeria.