Within the Nigerian political system, truth is like a good wine. The longer it is withheld, the silkier the flavour. But the ability to lie or tell the truth determines the long-term success or failure of anyone’s public career. I have often wondered why ministers, presidential advisers on media and publicity, and special assistants create the impression that they were appointed to feed us with lies even though the ability to lie is not a key criterion for appointment. Yet many government officials behave as though lying is a requirement for promotion.
In every society, a common expectation is that people who hold positions of authority should live up to those expectations. However, politicians and public officers are viewed with suspicion because they are believed to lie regularly. In a situation of mutual distrust, the thin line that holds the relationship between politicians and ordinary citizens remains fragile. Many people are cynical of government officials.
Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed is an exceptionally talented man and a public entertainer. He has the oratorical power to convince you that two plus two would yield six rather than a four. While some people love him and his strong defence of the government he serves, others detest him with a passion. He is perhaps the most controversial and divisive man to hold the office of Information Minister.
In an interview with Tim Sebastian of Deutsche Welle, Lai Mohammed denied the government has ever infringed on the rights of journalists to report news freely. He also rejected the idea that there have been human rights abuses in Nigeria under the current government. The minister’s typical response is that the allegations against Nigeria were based on misinformation perpetrated by people he described as mischief makers. He said the government has been most sensitive to the issue of human rights and there was no policy that is deliberately designed to interfere with people’s human rights.
Unfortunately, most of the minister’s responses were too generic, lacking specific details necessary to rebut allegations by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other UN agencies that Nigeria had failed to cooperate with their investigations into human rights abuses and violations of media freedom.
I have never known Lai Mohammed, the sagacious Information Minister, to admit publicly that President Muhammadu Buhari has failed to deliver on the numerous promises he made in 2015, prior to his election as President. Lai Mohammed sees himself as an unblemished minister who has been attacked unfairly by some members of the public. That is Mohammed, the peripatetic minister who believes, even in the face of daunting challenges, that he was cut out to manage the information ministry to the satisfaction of his boss. During the interview on Deutsche Welle, he made repeated references to a “lot of ignorance and mischief.” That, by the way, was his blanket response to allegations against the Nigerian government. Unfortunately, that constant refrain failed to convince anyone that the government was mindful of its international obligations to uphold citizens’ rights.
In an answer to a question, Lai Mohammed said: “When it comes to freedom of the press, we are doing extremely very well… I think we have a robust free press… This administration in particular has been sensitive to the issue of human rights.”
Many victims of human rights abuses would contest the minister’s blatant inaccuracy.
The Information Minister’s response to accusations that the government has rolled out laws that constrained press freedom and curtailed citizens’ rights was also disappointing. You are left with the impression that the minister was not really prepared for the interview or, if he was prepared, he did not anticipate the kind of tough questions that would be put to him forcefully by his interviewer. Overall, the minister’s performance was tremendously and pathetically pedestrian.
Nigeria has been particularly unlucky in terms of the unremarkable achievements of ministers and special advisers on media and publicity who were appointed to serve the country under various governments. Other than a handful of ministers with an average performance record, we are yet to experience above average achievements by many ministers. Where we expected ministers to excel, they grossly underperformed. But it is not only ministers who have failed to attain public expectations or achieve goals set for them by government.
How could Lai Mohammed argue the Federal Government has an unblemished record of respect for press freedom and citizens’ rights? Yet there are instances in which Tim Sebastian, the interviewer, reeled out cases in which Nigerian journalists and editors were attacked or detained unlawfully or incarcerated by the government, including the seizure of publications, and shutting down of radio stations owned by a member of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). These abuses have exposed the lie in Lai Mohammed’s claim that the government obeys the rule of law, and respects press freedom and citizens’ rights. In countries where governments uphold the rule of law, you will not hear these kinds of abuses.
I would argue the government does not hold journalists in high regard. It does not respect press freedom and court judgments. There is impeccable evidence to challenge Lai Mohammed’s claims that the government is a respecter of press freedom and human rights.
It is this failure to confront reality, the government’s continuing nervousness to explain the true economic situation in the country, and the government’s obsession with secrecy rather than transparency in public administration, that has placed a huge barrier of distrust between government and citizens. Therefore, when people describe the Information Minister as a public entertainer full of swagger and half empty on substance, you can understand why.
During the interview with Tim Sebastian, the minister was expected to draw on verifiable facts to repudiate accusations made against Nigeria by some international organisations. Lai Mohammed seems to be on top of his game only when he is criticising opposition parties that uncover the government’s inadequacies. It is now five years since Buhari was elected President in 2015. This is time enough for the government to achieve most of the promises it made during election campaigns.
When a minister such as Lai Mohammed makes public comments that are at odds with the reality on the ground, you have to wonder whether he is truly aware of how the public perceives him, or the potential of his comments to mislead citizens. Accountability does not start and end when government officials are in positions of power. It continues long after officials have left office. Lai Mohammed should be reminded that the government he serves is not permanent. Every government has its use-by date.
Some people tend to defend Lai Mohammed’s vigorous support of the Buhari government on the ground that it is hard for a man to criticise the government in which he serves as a senior minister. That is a defective argument. There are ministers and other officials in other cultures who resigned their jobs whenever the government breached its own ethical code of practice. Such resignations are uncommon in our environment.