Tuesday, September 13, 2011


It’s become a familiar refrain: Whenever serious issues arise in the polity, Nigerians cry out to hear their president speak. But President Jonathan doesn’t talk much, which fires up his critics as they circle and slam. In the odd case when he decides to speak, it fires them up even more as they pass him for “clueless” and “uninspiring”. So how did President Jonathan perform in his latest Obasanjoesque media chat? Well... it depends. The president neither hurt nor helped himself based on his Monday night performance. It’s unlikely that any critic was won over, but for many in the president’s support base, it was a reassuring performance. By any standard, a media chat arranged by the presidency is a big deal. Hence, it would serve the cause of the president better in future, if notice is given to the public anytime a session like that is to be organized, especially if his aim is to reach the widest audience possible.

Shrouded and Scripted
A big question on the lips of many is: Was the interview scripted? Were the questions vetted by the president’s handlers? We can’t be too sure. For one thing, the session wasn’t broadcast live, an attempt perhaps by the president’s aides to mitigate a primetime disaster. Many pundits agree that the president seemed more composed and confident during the chat than at any other time since he assumed office. For that, he had a very friendly and subpar panel led by Stella Din of Silverbird Television to thank. Most of the questions were decidedly softball. It seemed the journalists had an agreement not to press the president for any specifics or ask intelligent follow-up questions. At a point, as they discussed politics, they looked at each other, confused on what to ask, until the lead anchor signalled that they move on to agriculture.

Matters Arising
To his credit, President Jonathan touched a wide range of issues, as he wasn’t given to the sort of long, winding answers favoured by Obasanjo in media chats of yore. But despite its breath, the session was shallow on specifics. Nonsense was made of assurances by President Jonathan’s adviser on new media, Reno Omokri, that “Mr President is presently talking about detailed plans of the FG...”, as the president shied away from making commitments or giving timelines for performance. “I’m not going to talk on any megawatts by any time, but I can assure you that we are working day and night,” he said in response to a question on power. When asked about a particular figure, the president replied that, “I would have to ask my finance minister.” The only definite time-bound commitment made by the president was on rice. “By the end of this administration,’ said Mr President, “we won’t import some food items, especially rice. I tell Nigerians to watch out.”
One other clear fact that emerged from the session was that President Jonathan still doesn’t know enough. Ninety percent of his examples were based on his knowledge of “my constituency, Bayelsa.” Someone needs to tell him that his constituency now is the whole of Nigeria and not just Bayelsa. Two clear winners emerged from the session. The first was the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Adesina, who received glowing tributes from the president, which he capped with, “I believe in the young man.” The second winner was Africa’s richest man, Alhaji Aliko Dangote. The president referred to the businessman so often that, “Dangote says so,” began to trend on twitter in the moments succeeding the interview. The most quotable moment in the interview came when President Jonathan was asked if he regretted introducing the 6-year tenure proposal. "I have no regrets at all," said the president, "Transformation is costly, transformation is painful. There's no leader that wants to transform that won't be criticized." Never has a truer word been spoken, though it's doubtful if anyone outside the president's inner circle would agree that the happenings of the past 100 days resemble transformation. But then, they say 100 days is too soon to judge.
The chat also showed that President Jonathan and Mallam El-Rufai despite their much publicized differences, aren’t so far away from each other on some issues –actually on one issue: wikileaks. They both described it as "beer parlour" gossip or “goship” in the case of the president, which I assume is worse than mere gossip. The president also generously dished a lot of anecdotes. At different points, he tried to prove that in politics, “people don’t think”, by comparing politics to chieftaincy disputes, land issues and lawyers. The high point was when he inimitably described the Libyan issue thus: “It’s like you are carrying a pot, you drop pot and everything scatter,’ he said, as his interviewers nodded, perhaps in understanding. One of the biggest oversights by the media panel, was questioning the president on the Libyan crisis without doing a follow-up on the hundreds of Nigerians being assaulted and terrorised over there by the TNC.
The conclusion of the matter is that based on Monday night's chat, Nigerians did not really cover new grounds or gain better insight on the person of the president or the state of the nation. The president did just enough to rally his base one more time. The chat did not convert critics, turn-off supporters or inspire independents. It was just that –a chat. But at least it was on the record, not beer parlour goship.

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