Coronavirus outbreak happened and Nigeria’s health minister, Dr Osagie Enahire, began to hold press briefings. The purpose is to bring Nigerians up to speed regarding the outbreak. It’s also to give facts that render speculations useless. Nevertheless, inventive Nigerians on social media were steps ahead with their fact and fiction. One of such was about the health status of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), as well as his Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari. Against this backdrop, Enahire held a press briefing but the manner he went about this particular one raised more clouds than the dust of speculations he was out to clear.
On that occasion, it was a Question and Answer time and a journalist asked about Kyari’s COVID-19 status, referencing Enahire’s comment about a presidential aide. The minister said he didn’t mention Kyari’s name, rather he said “presidential aide”. He took exception to how the journalist mentioned Kyari’s name and he asked if the journalist knew he could get himself into trouble for mentioning the name. This exchange is absurd considering the purpose of the press briefing, just as it exposes a certain mentality among appointed public officials.
This isn’t the first time I call attention on this page to the manner public officials treat or respond to journalists. Sometimes, these officials conduct themselves as though they are some ego-burdened military officer who thinks his uniform qualifies him as a demi-god. Some take on airs as though certain questions are beneath them. They also issue veiled insults when in fact the questions asked by journalists provide them with an opportunity to use the voice they have to suavely rubbish their critics’ argument. At other times, some appointed public officials respond to questions as if they are afraid of an imaginary military employer even though this is a democratic dispensation. For me, appointed officials who behave in this manner have two issues driving them. One, they’re afraid of losing the political post they hold. Two, they are unaware that they also transfer the fears of their employers to both the Nigerian public and the journalists they sometimes address. I take exception to the last part, especially. For no Nigerian should be afraid of another Nigerian. I’ve never had the fear of any Nigerian, not even anyone who wears a uniform and egoistically imagines the uniform makes him some superhuman. When I see them act inappropriately, I’ve always verbally said what I think – soldier or police. Their reactions make me know that they’re wary of the Nigerian who wouldn’t be silent in the presence of anyone in uniform who conducts himself irresponsibly. As for appointment, none is so important that I wouldn’t say my mind and walk away from an employer who thinks I should watch as they sabotage our nation. Some of us don’t have only one workplace address anyway. Each human being has more than one talent on which they potentially could survive; this is important to note by the person who doesn’t want to compromise his integrity, or perpetually live with the fear of being sacked.
I imagine Enahire didn’t mention the name of Buhari’s Chief of Staff in relation to the COVID-19 status at the press briefing because he was afraid of incurring the displeasure of his principal. This raises questions. Was there anyone to fear on that occasion? Was there any reason to fear? I attend to the first question. If, in a democratic dispensation, a cabinet minister is afraid to mention the name of the President’s Chief of Staff, the implication for our governance process is dire. It points to how afraid cabinet ministers may be to take fundamental decisions or stand up for what is right for our nation. It’s one reason so much crime against Nigeria is being committed in terms of corruption and impunity but top officials look the other way. This isn’t military rule, and that this disposition continues under democratic dispensation is unacceptable. Obviously, Enahire doesn’t want to offend Kyari through whom all ministers have access to the President. But is Kyari a man to fear?
Now, people have their sources of information, and through which prisms they see a public official. My experience is that sometimes public officials that people castigate are the ones who mean well for the public. Meanwhile, officials that the public praises do unbelievable damage to our polity, and only people who are close to them are aware of this. I had sat in private conversations with a politician in the course of his campaigns and I heard him state the good things he planned to do for people from a marginalised section of his state. He arrived office and because of some occurrences that were neither his creation nor within anyone’s control, the people from that part of the state insulted and demonised him. If any human being would be encouraged to execute the fine plans he has after such attacks, he must be superhuman. As for Kyari, people have their impressions about him, some formed from the partisan and tribalistic prejudices expressed in social media. I don’t form views from that source, or some of the irresponsible pieces of journalism we have around. If experience has taught me anything, it’s that it’s not all the time the crowd is right. And in case I need to know who a public figure really is, I ask relevant and appropriately informed Nigerians.
Top Nigerian professionals in different fields told me how Kyari called them and asked for their assistance in order to get done for Nigerians what certain cabinet ministers who had such statutory responsibility wouldn’t do. Yet, such ministers cultivate the media, giving the impression they’re working when they’re actually working for their pockets. When this happens, I’m informed, Kyari reaches out through back channels to professionals, using presidential committees as well, to get things done in order to make his principal to look good in the eyes of Nigerians. I stop there since some would soon accuse me of speaking for a man that I have never met. The day I have anything to complain about with regard to Kyari’s comment or action especially on how our nation is run, I shall state it too. That’s what fair and responsible journalism is all about, rather than the childish name-calling, insults, and noisome fuming which some mistook for criticism on the pages of newspapers.
As for Enahire’s threat that a journalist might get himself into trouble for merely mentioning Kyari’s name, this is from a mentality. It’s the mentality that a journalist might get himself hurt while doing his job. It isn’t exhibited by public officials alone. Senior journalists do too. As such, they don’t help in the drive to create the right atmosphere for a journalist do their work without fear, and I don’t think this ought to be the case in a democratic dispensation. Not long ago, I pointed out how a Lagos State chairperson of the Nigeria Union of Journalists said on a Channels TV programme that a certain journalist “got his fingers burnt.” The journalist investigated and reported the corruption that happened at the nation’s borders. Thereafter, men of the Nigerian Customs beat him to pulp. The NUJ leader on many occasions referred to what this journalist did as though a journalist should fear any Nigerian in the course of doing their job. During his press briefing, Enahire displayed the same mentality. I expected that the NUJ’s national leadership would issue a statement stating that they took exception to how the minister tried to intimidate a journalist while doing his job. It didn’t happen.
Enahire’s objective for holding press briefing was to provide clarifications about Covid-19 and the Nigerians it had affected. But he said he mentioned “presidential aide”, he didn’t mention his name. So, what clarifications did this approach provide? He simply gave room for more speculations in the social media regarding the aide he might be talking about, and if another aide apart from Kyari had indeed fallen victim. To this extent, Enahire’s outing that time didn’t achieve its purpose. His performance only makes one wonder when this mentality of fearing their principals, rather than being open with Nigerians, that’s common among appointed officials will wear off our national psyche. It does great harm to our polity far more than we reckon.