I have often wondered why President Goodluck Jonathan’s special assistants and special advisers serve a diet of regular lies to the nation. When it is obvious to everyone that the sky is blue, the president’s special assistants and special advisers often argue clumsily that the sky is red. This implies they are the only human beings equipped with divine powers to see what the rest of the nation cannot observe.
In their job as information managers, special assistants and special advisers have struggled and failed in their attempts to deny or embellish facts, in their determination to lie to the public and in their eagerness to mislead the nation and the press about the president’s failure to act in situations that call for urgent presidential intervention. In their bizarre attempts to delude the nation, the president’s assistants and advisers have attracted public scorn.
Ever since fracas broke out in the Rivers State House of Assembly during which a minority of lawmakers tried but failed to overwhelm the majority, the Presidency has struggled to put a positive spin on the event, such as the argument that everything was all right in Rivers State. Are the president’s assistants and special advisers hired to lie or to engage truthfully with the Nigerian people?
If Rivers State is calm and peaceful, if there was no problem in the state House of Assembly, the National Assembly would not have voted last week to take over the legislative tasks of the state House of Assembly. National Assembly leaders said they took the decision to halt the instability in the state House of Assembly. But Doyin Okupe, the Senior Special Assistant on Public Affairs to Jonathan said on Wednesday last week (24 July 2013) that there was no crisis in Rivers State. That was an odd remark, even when video evidence of the brawl in the House of Assembly has circulated widely in the public sphere.
Okupe’s position is not surprising. He is widely admired in Aso Rock because of his persuasive but weird ability to see the colour green and argue it is grey. Okupe wants everyone to believe there’s no problem in the Rivers State House of Assembly. It is difficult to understand Okupe’s twisted logic. At the press conference last week, he said: “Insinuations and statements, suggesting that Rivers State is on fire are grossly unfounded. So far, as is evident to every discerning observer of political developments, the state is calm and peaceful. Residents of the state continue to go about their various businesses, religious, social and political activities under peaceful atmosphere.”
Okupe argued that if there was instability in Rivers State, Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi would not have travelled to the UK on official assignment. That’s Okupe’s evidence that everything is all right in Rivers State. Again, Okupe cited the situation in Ogun State in 2010 to support his argument that a scuffle in a state House of Assembly is no more than what it is – mere fisticuffs. His words: “We recall that in Ogun State in 2010 after series of sustained fracas and attempts at impeachment and counter impeachment, the Inspector General of Police locked up the House of Assembly for several months. In all that time, nobody in the whole country suggested that the situation was a threat to our nascent democracy and no state governor went on any solidarity visit.”
This is not exactly correct. The crisis in Rivers State is not analogous to the volatile situation in the Ogun State House of Assembly three years ago.
In trying to deflect criticisms directed at the president and his wife, the president’s special assistants choose to present untruthful accounts because they lack special skills required to engage directly and truthfully with an increasingly cynical audience. They fail to understand they can tell the truth, unadulterated truth, and still perform effectively in their job and remain loyal to the president and his wife who hired them.
Presidential assistants and special advisers in Nigeria tend to convey the impression they were hired to lie on behalf of the president 24 hours a day. This is why Doyin Okupe would call a press conference to argue gracelessly that the anarchy the nation witnessed in the Rivers State House of Assembly did not constitute a threat to democracy and national security.
In many parts of the world, the ability to lie liberally is not, and has never been, the key criterion for appointment as a presidential adviser or special assistant. In Nigeria, the reverse is the case. It seems you cannot be appointed into those positions in Aso Rock if you have no track record of lying in the public arena. It is a shame indeed because those who hold these positions are respected in other cultures.
The job of a special assistant or special adviser is seen by some people as particularly difficult in our society in which many people are distrustful of government officials. This makes it exceptionally difficult to get the public to believe the government’s storyline. We do not trust our politicians. And this is for very good reasons. When you deal with a political class that consistently lies to the people, the basis of mutual trust no longer exists.
In circumstances in which the citizens perceive political leaders as remarkably dishonest and corrupt, formal clarifications by government officials are likely to be viewed as mere propaganda. This is, perhaps, why previous presidential assistants and special advisers argue that information management at the Presidency is no less an easy task as the religious campaign to convert unbelievers.
Nevertheless, the most awkward case of blatant deceit occurred when the president’s wife, Mrs. Patience Jonathan, travelled overseas secretly for medical treatment in 2012. Her media assistant, Ayo Osinlu, denied repeatedly that Mrs Jonathan was ill and had travelled overseas for medical attention. He said dishonestly in August last year without batting his eyelids: “If you look at her itinerary in August, you will be wondering how she was able to accomplish that. In the course of this week, she will be back home. But remember, it all depends on her plans.”
This lie was blown open at a special thanksgiving church service held at the Presidential Villa on Sunday, 17 February 2013, when Mrs. Jonathan narrated how a devastating illness nearly took her life last year. She revealed she underwent nine surgeries in four weeks and was “dead” for seven days before God rescued her from the cold hands of death in an overseas medical facility. Clearly, her narrative did not match the official lies told by the Presidency during her absence. While she was receiving treatment overseas, the Presidency lied repeatedly to the nation that Mrs. Jonathan was holidaying in an undisclosed overseas country, following her excess workload during the 2011 presidential election and the stress of hosting the African First Ladies’ Summit in Abuja.
It would seem that lying comes easily to media assistants, presidential assistants and special advisers. In his media chat on Sunday, 18 November 2012, Jonathan denied that the government had entered into negotiations with Boko Haram to end the bloodshed in the north. He said the government could not negotiate with an organisation that lacked a public face. However, one of his special advisers had told the nation weeks before the media chat that the government had started small scale negotiations with Boko Haram.
Again, Jonathan said during the media chat that his government had not revoked the electricity contract awarded to Manitoba, a Canadian company. But, days before the media address, the president’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity said the contract had been cancelled.
Some types of lies cannot be constructed and served to a sceptical audience that has since lost faith in the government. The Presidency must not treat Nigerians like a group of pre-school kids. You cannot feed the Nigerian people with false information clearly intended to mislead.