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Deconstructing Lai Mohammed as government’s spokesman

From Magnus Eze, Abuja
ALHAJI Lai Mohammed was the National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC) until No­vember 11 last year when he was handed the information and culture portfolio as minister following the inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet.
Three months down the lane, it is has become imperative to x-ray Alhaji Mohammed’s approach as information man­ager of the Buhari-led administration, with particular focus on his information management methods and tactics.
The 100 days in office of the Information and Culture Minister has been dominated by the festering issues of Boko Haram insurgency and anti-corruption war, in addition to the economic downturn, Lassa fever outbreak and the 2016 Ap­propriation Bill, among others.
His methods and tactics
An Abuja-based national daily recently reported that the Buhari administration was tinkering with an idea of a minor cabinet reshuffle that may affect two very prominent ministries, quoting a dependable source very close to the seat of power.
Incidentally, the report mentioned Alhaji Mohammed as one of the four ministers likely to be affected in the purported swapping of positions.
The report claimed that complaints from top leaders of the party and government against the information management methods of the minister had grown in torrents and become a regular object of attacks, especially in the social media, and this to them, is seen as the inadequacy of the information min­ister at his post.
According to the newspaper, “nobody is happy about the widespread classification of the spokesman of a government that puts a lot of premium on integrity, in a regular bad light, as he is being daily and widely being dubbed as a liar, and that is not good both to the image of the government locally or internationally”.
Critics of the minister accuse him of not being diplomatic in approach. They see him as always blunt and combative; still wearing the garb of spokesman of the opposition, a role he has long switched with Chief Olisa Metuh of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
They also allege that the minister has relied more on the instrument of propaganda; feeding the public sometimes with half-truths and ‘cheap lies’ with the tendentious aim of deceiv­ing the people. In addition, opponents of Alhaji Mohammed’s information management approach believe that the issue of cor­ruption was being over-flogged.
But Alhaji Mohammed has seen nothing wrong in his style. He believes that Nigeria is on a trajectory and needs every criti­cal effort that could be mustered to rescue her.
For him, Nigeria is at war; and wars are not fought with kid gloves. The minister, who observed a correlation between cor­ruption and terrorism, insisted that corrupt Nigerians were “bet­ter funded, better coordinated and better organised,” and were already fighting back.
Weighing the minister
But how far has Alhaji Mohammed fared in handling the contending issues facing the administration?
The two-pronged war against corruption and insurgency has been the primary focus of the Buhari administration being part of the cardinal campaign promises of the APC. The minister has arguably put his best including making sure that the media are adequately briefed on happenings in these areas.
Alhaji Mohammed has had to engage the various critical segments of the society especially the media in his concerted efforts at enlisting their support and understanding.
He has met variously with the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON), Nige­rian Guild of Editors (NGE); Newspapers Proprietors Associa­tion of Nigeria (NPAN), Online Publishers Association and a range of editors both in Lagos and Abuja.
The ministry has within the period also programmed a new attitudinal change campaign tagged “change begins with me”. The National Orientation Agency (NOA), with offices across the 774 local government councils, will be saddled with the responsibility of driving the programme. There is also another campaign against corruption.
At the meeting with BON on January 7, the minister en­joined them to assist government in disseminating security awareness campaign messages to the nooks and crannies of the country. He likened the situation in the country to war, reiterating that the media cannot afford to be neutral at this time.
The minister in addition said the campaign was to educate Ni­gerians on the need to support the military which, according to him, had acquitted itself creditably in the battle.
The campaign has since gathered momentum; alerting the citi­zenry to the need to be more security conscious, to be able to iden­tify Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the weapon of choice being deployed by the dastardly terrorists.
To make them more potent, the messages are produced in vari­ous indigenous languages.
Even as the minister remains upbeat on the Federal Government and the military winning the war against terror; his critics claim that his “unguarded assessment” of the true situation on ground has been counter-productive.
Government has insisted that Boko Haram has been technically defeated. But Senator Baba Kaka Garbai (Borno Central) recently debunked government’s position; he said that the insurgents were still occupying more than half of Borno State. Indeed, the senator on sympathy visit to Dalori, one of the communities lately attacked by Boko Haram said most shockingly that only three local coun­cil areas were safe from Boko Haram attacks, because of heavy military presence.
Not a few people also criticised Alhaji Mohammed for allegedly saying that the military was prosecuting the war against terror with substandard weapons procured by the past administration of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. In fact, the military was almost dragged into a war of words with the minister, as they maintained that their weapons were of standard.
Being one not given to chickening out especially when armed with privileged information, Alhaji Mohammed has maintained that the Boko Haram has been technically de­feated; deflated, dislodged from their occupied territories with thousands of their captives set free.
While the minister explained that he merely said that the previous administration purchased inferior weapons and never alluded that the war against terror was currently be­ing prosecuted with substandard weapons. He added that the recent spate of suicide bombings and attacks on highly vulnerable communities in the north-east by terrorists did not mean the resurgence of insurgency but was mere antics of a drowning group.
“That they operate in a few local governments does not equate to holding and controlling territories. Yes, they may be operating in one or two areas but they are doing so from a position of weakness, unlike in the past when they bra­zenly took over territories, hoisted their flags, deposed and imposed emirs and even collected taxes”, he said.
The minister is not looking back in his determined ef­forts to mobilise Nigerians to give total support to the mili­tary to consolidate the achievements so far recorded in the fight against Boko Haram.
In his quest to seek first-hand information about the successes and challenges of the Military Forces pros­ecuting the war against insurgency, Alhaji Mohammed last December visited some attacked communities such as Konduga, Kaure, before stopping at Bama, some 16 kilometres away from the dreaded Sambisa Forest.
The minister has equally remained supportive of the Presidential Communication Command and Control (PCCC) under the Office of the National Security Ad­viser in coordinating information.
The bombshell
Alhaji Mohammed dropped the bombshell with the disclosure last month that 55 Nigerians had looted over N1.34trillion from 2006 to 2013.
The minister, who recalled that the first and second republics were brought down by corruption at a press conference, also dispelled the view in some quarters that the ongoing probe of the $2.1 billion arms scan­dal was a vendetta against members of the opposition party. Nonetheless, he reasoned that the essence of letting the world know of the monumental corruption allegedly committed by the 55 persons was for them to also know how those looters had altered and impacted negatively on the economy and lives of Nigerians.
“The acts of omission or commission of these 55 people have affected our life expectancy, increased maternal and infant mortality and brought decay to our infrastructure”, he stated.
Budget mess
The 2016 Appropriation Bill has been another sore point for the Change Government; beginning from the conflicting versions of the bill to the glaring cases of padding. Many had expected the minister to speak on the issue as it raged, but curiously, Alhaji Mohammed maintained studied silence.
Osayimwen George, an editor with Tori.ng, an online publication would want the minister to always intimate Nigerians about the truth behind controversial issues to prevent them from being misled by propagan­dists.
He cited the biting fuel scarcity that gradually start­ed November last year from the south east and the al­leged missing 105 Nigerian soldiers in the north east as two occasions where the minister kept mum and allowed critics and rumour mongers have a field day.
The other view
Interestingly, it is not all bashing for Alhaji Moham­med. His media relations may not be perfect but many Nigerians including journalists still see him as the real man for the job at this period.
For the media, he is a sure source of information as any encounter with him churns out news.
When the Buhari administration was recently ac­cused of not having regards for the media, Alhaji Mo­hammed had quickly debunked such insinuation dur­ing a meeting with NPAN in Lagos.
He said it was inconceivable that he would attack the media, even when his party while in opposition en­joyed more support from the fourth estate of the realm than the then ruling party or government.
“It is apparent that those making this accusation ei­ther did not read our statement in full or, if they did, did not situate it in the proper context”, the minister stated.
There was no doubt that Alhaji Mohammed elicited the support of newspaper proprietors at the end of the meeting. The NPAN Chairman, Mr. Nduka Obaig­bena, had assured him that the association aligned it­self “with your patriotic views, especially in the fight against corruption”.
“As the media, we will work with you and champi­on the cause of corruption,” he said, urging the govern­ment to follow the rule of law and be fair to everyone in tackling corruption.
A member of the Presidential Committee Against Corruption and Professor of Criminology, Femi Odekunle also does not see anything wrong in the min­ister’s approach.
He recently enjoined the Federal Ministry of Infor­mation and Culture to employ propaganda in the cam­paign against corruption insofar as the content of what they are saying is honest and truthful.