Between the Government and the Media in Nigeria: A Study in Acrimonious Relationship

Ever since I can remember, October 1 celebration in Nigeria has always muted, it has usually been an occasion for recounting the nation’s woes and recriminations between the government and the opposition. I saw a bit o it last night as I watch television in between jotting down my thoughts. On a day such as this, the media would be awash with interviews with our founding fathers, founding mothers, founding uncles and founding aunties who would bemoan our fate as a nation without anyone taking responsibility for our collective failings.

In what has become an annual fest in self-righteousness and hypocrisy, anybody with access to the media today, including those who have had opportunities to serve in government at various levels and at different epochs, would blame the nation’s woes on leadership failure and corruption. Incidentally, even people who are currently in government and elder statesmen (a title the media now bestow on any and every old man that catches their fancy) are going to follow the same line of reasoning.
It may well be true that we can actually locate our current challenge within those two problems but as I pointed out in the piece I wrote to mark Nigeria’s 50th Independence anniversary two years ago, the current circus is almost akin to the African folklore of three famished brothers eating from the same plate of food which may not be enough to satiate their hunger. Apparently losing out in the game of greed, the first brother remarked but to no one in particular: 'you are eating too fast'. To this the second brother responded: 'so you saw him'. The third brother completed the farce: 'That was exactly what I wanted to say'!
If there is anything I learnt while in government, it is that every public official in Nigeria is deemed corrupt and incompetent, except the one making the allegation. Yet with the landscape strewn with broken dreams and wasted opportunities, what our nation needs today at practically all levels are not those who can regale the people with litany of her failings which are self-evident. What we need are honest leaders who will accept responsibility for our past; as well as men and women who will stand up and be counted in the process of rebuilding our nation so that on a day like this, rather than continue to read from the book of Lamentation, we can actually begin to sing the songs of Solomon.
But I will be honest to admit that we have serious challenges that can task even the most of optimists and this brings me to the story of a Pastor who, worried by the state of the nation and its multifarious ills, decided to task his congregation to fast and pray for one week.
On the last day of the fast, time was set for a special prayer for the nation in the course of which the pastor admonished his congregation that henceforth, nobody should make any negative statement about Nigeria again because of the power in the spoken word. He said that however bad the situation may seem, the confession of everyone should always be that “it is well with Nigeria”. The service over, the members were in boisterous mood as they left the church with the pastor leading the way. But just as he exited the door and saw his vendor bring to him newspapers with screaming headlines…now let’s go with a recent one: “Perm Sec caught with two billion Naira cash”, the Pastor muttered rather subconsciously but to the hearing of some members of his congregation: “Chei, Nigeria is finished!”

Distinguished panelists, ladies and gentlemen, I try as much as possible to avoid a session like this and I had good cause not to be here today having been down with typhoid fever in the last one week. But I gave my word to Pastor Poju Oyemade who I am meeting in person for the first time this morning but know very well by reputation. It is not in my character to disappoint such a distinguished Nigerian who has become a source of inspiration not only for members of my generation but also those coming behind us. Thank you pastor for considering me worthy to be invited for this programme.

I am indeed very delighted to join this distinguished gathering to celebrate our independence anniversary even though that also means I miss the birthday of my son who incidentally is nine years old today. I am also honoured to have been asked to share my thoughts on any issue of my choice which is also a licence to ramble. But what I intend to do is to talk briefly on my take on the uneasy, and most often antagonistic, relationship between the media and government in Nigeria.

Having been privileged to work for many years as a reporter, columnist and editor before taking up appointment as Special Adviser to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua on Media and Publicity, I can say with all humility that I have gained very useful insights on the interface or lack of one between the media and government in our country and what I think informs this state of affair. I find this topic interesting, especially against the background of recent claim by President Goodluck Jonathan that he is the most criticized president in the world, and a growing perception that we have in Nigeria an adversarial media that never sees anything good in government and those who serve in the public arena.

Like President Jonathan, I know what it is to be at the receiving end of a brutal media attack. Between September 2009 when my late boss was taken to Saudi Arabia through his controversial return in March 2010 and the unfortunate but eventual death in May of the same year, I faced the most difficult period of my professional life. But even at that period, I always told those who sympathized with me that if I was outside government at that particular period and was writing my column I would also be very brutal with an Olusegun Adeniyi given the circumstance. But then, as Reuben Abati, (my friend and brother who was also very critical of what was going on at the period) must be finding out now, the easiest thing in the world is to proffer opinion from the safety of a laptop!

Now that I am back to my comfort zone, I can reflect on the interactions between the media and government in Nigeria and why the later almost always blame the former for the negative public perception of its efforts. Media practitioners, however believe that public officials only have themselves to blame because of their conduct and the special benefits they confer on themselves.

The pertinent question here is: Why do so many public officials have a bad reputation when their job description seems so noble and self-sacrificing? The answer can be a little complicated. In his essay, “The Declining Reputation of Politicians: Is it Deserved?” Colleen Lewis argues, and I quote: “Politicians largely blame the media for their poor reputation and the public for expecting and demanding more than they are capable of delivering. The media blames the politicians - after all, they only report what politicians do. The community blames politicians because they do not deliver on their promises, ‘feather their own nests’ and put party interests before the interests of those they are elected to represent. These vantage-point explanations largely seek to displace blame. However, there is an element of truth in all of them.”

Lewis contends that politicians complain that they are often subjected to biased journalism, which treats them as a homogeneous group and portrays all of them in a bad light yet while they blame the media for the growing public cynicism toward them, according to Lewis, “research indicates that the public are discerning when it comes to the media: they do not believe all that they read. The public consciously selects and forms their own opinion about the media’s message; they do not simply accept it. Nor is the media the sole source of influence on people’s opinions.”

On the home front, this reputational dilemma is hardly helped by the perception of corruption on the part of many of our politicians and those who hold political offices. There is indeed a sweeping dismissal by the media of Nigerian public officials as incompetent and that many of them take unfair share of the national cake. But to borrow from the thesis of Lewis, Nigerians are also discerning and can, and often do, form their own opinion about our politicians, regardless of what the media project. A history of missed opportunities, successive allegations of financial malfeasance and a telling lack of effective sanctions of guilty persons have meshed to make majority of Nigerians to conclude that people go into public office in our country not to serve but to feather personal interests.
But while public officials know that constant criticism comes with the territory and are apparently willing to pay that price, they nonetheless believe that there is unfairness and lack of objectivity in the attacks to which they are subjected by the media which they perceive as perpetually anti-government. Is that a fair assessment of the situation?

Broadly speaking, students of journalism are taught that the role of the mass media is to inform, educate and entertain the people. It is within this ambit that we can situate the interaction between the government and the people and the role of the media in fostering it. It is indeed in recognition of the vital importance of this role of the media that the right to freedom of expression and the press is enshrined in Section 39 of our 1999 constitution.

A key function of the mass media in all modern democracies is to provide the primary platform for constant dialogue between the government and the governed. The dialogue I speak of goes on in this way: Government communicates its policies, programmes and actions to the people through radio, television, newspapers and the internet which has revolutionalized modern day communications in ways that were unimaginable not too long ago; the people ingest the information coming from government through the mass media and send a feedback by way of expressions of public opinion.

But politicians believe that this interaction is skewed against them and that the Nigerian media does not foster this very important dialogue or promote mutual understanding between government and the people. Our media, as far as they are concerned, serve only the interest of the opposition. The argument always advanced is that for the media to function effectively as a means of communication between government and the public, greater effort must be made to ensure that their contents are factual, credible and unbiased. Government believes the Nigerian media does not meet these standards.
Before I examine whether or not this allegation is correct, I need to stress that the feedback role of the media indeed imposes a responsibility on it to, as much as possible, give equal opportunity to contending views and ideas so that the public can have balanced information to make informed decisions on public policy. The danger of the media failing to serve as a fair and balanced platform for the discussion of public policy lies in its capacity to create a crisis of confidence between the government and the people. If the media indeed skews the basis of a government policy, it undermines the ability of the people to appreciate it and, therefore, attracts opposition to it. A similar thing will happen if the media misrepresents public opinion on government policy. The misrepresentation of the position of government on issues of public importance also results in the conclusion by the populace that it is insensitive to public opinion.
But now to address the critical issue of the acrimonious relationship between the media and the government, I want to use an issue that has been with us for a while and not likely to go away very soon as a case study for the mutual distrust that we see play our everyday. If there is any issue that has badly affected the image of this government and may be responsible for the negative perception that made Dr Jonathan to describe himself as the most criticized president in the world, it is the removal of fuel subsidy. Given that government feels that this is the right way to go, a position to which I also subscribe, the feeling within the executive is that the media is merely playing to the gallery in opposing the policy thrust. The media on the other hand sees the action of the government as insensitive and irresponsible.

Now, let me delve a little bit into what I would describe as the two sides of the coin. While my membership of the Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, NEITI, (to whose governing board I was appointed a member by President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2004) exposed me to some of the dealings in the upstream operations of our oil and gas sector, it was my stint in government that gave me insight into the rot in the downstream operations.

The critical point which needs to be underscored is that once you remove the rent element which the current arrangement promotes and also do away with certain bottlenecks, especially with regards to operational difficulties at our ports, a lot of racketeering and inefficiencies will be cut off and the price of petrol will quite naturally adjust to market reality and ultimately stabilise. The implication is that the moment we begin to refine locally (which will not happen under the current dispensation) some cost components would either reduce or be eliminated from the pricing model.
While I concede to people who would argue that the racketeering in the sector arose as a result of government failure, the fact also remains that there is no country in the world where you create this kind of incentives for corruption that the system will work. Yet given the huge market that we have within our country, and also considering the fact that our supply outlets feed the sub-region, there will be investment in private refineries if the conditions were right. As things stand today, no rational investor will commit his money into building a refinery in an environment where government fixes the price because there is subsidy money to be shared by a few individuals. Investors will not come in because they know such a system cannot for long endure as the bubble must somehow burst somewhere. So the arguments for removal of subsidy are compelling.

I recall that in pursuit of the deregulation agenda, my the late boss had established a small committee which came up with a simulation of what the pump price of PMS should be at different prices of crude oil while also dissecting the PPPRA template. Some of the findings were: One, the template was applying a blanket ship-to-ship (STS) cost of N2 for Lagos and N2.50 for Port Harcourt on the total volume discharged directly by the mother vessel after lightering. They also discovered that a trader's margin of $10 per metric ton was always built into the freight cost of imported products yet financing of product subsidy had actually included trader's margin in the template. Perhaps the most controversial, however, was that Demurrage cost was subsumed under the lightering expenses on the template which meant whether or not it was incurred it would be paid. In contrast, South Africa allows only three days for demurrage in calculating fuel price. There were other findings which revealed suspicious activities in the implementation of the subsidy regime.

Aside the loss of revenues, the security challenge posed by ships that could virtually bring in anything is better imagined. So all factors considered, government has compelling reasons for wanting to stop the regime of subsidy and the decision could not have been taken to punish the people.The fact is that if we must develop our oil and gas sector to derive the maximum benefit from it, there must be a meaningful, structured and transparent conversation on why the current regime of subsidy is wasteful and unsustainable. But government feels that the media frustrates all efforts towards that genuine dialogue with the people and deliberately misrepresents its good intentions. The only conclusion therefore is that media practitioners are either unpatriotic or they are controlled by the opposition.
Having been on both sides, I understand why this issue is akin to a dialogue of the deaf. It is not that the media cannot see what people in government are seeing or understand what they are saying. The point is that they actually see more. While it may be convenient for the government to say that fuel subsidy benefits the rich more than the poor (which is true), the vulnerable in the society may also argue (as indeed they do) that they will settle for the crumbs if that is the only thing they benefit from the government. And majority of journalists belong to this class. That in essence is why the media finds it more plausible to advance arguments against the policy to the frustration of people in government. Even among media practitioners who are well to do and can understand the issues involved, majority do not buy the argument of the government essentially because they do not believe that any money realised from further taxing the people (by way of upward adjustment in pump price of PMS) would be judiciously spent. Many in fact believe that such money would end up being stolen. Unfortunately, I must admit, they do have a point.
It is recalled that following the January fiasco over the removal of subsidy on the first day of the year, the House of Representatives established the Farouk Lawan Committee to probe fuel subsidy payments in year 2011 and there were shocking revelations from the committee sessions.

Given the “sting operation” scandal that later emerged, the report of the House committee has been marred by controversy. But the interesting thing for me is that the federal government, apparently to its own embarrassment, has discovered that most of the findings contained in the House committee report are actually correct.

Although not released to the public, I have read the Report of the Technical Committee on Payment of Fuel Subsidies established by the Federal Government which has since been submitted to President Goodluck Jonathan. What I find very revealing is not only the self-indictment but the fact that the NNPC which had, following the House report, disputed the claims on the kerosene fraud, was represented in the Aigboje Aig-lmoukhuede committee that came to some salient conclusions.

Let me quote from the report: “…in spite of a directive issued by President (Umaru Musa) Yar'Adua on June 15, 2009 that NNPC should cease subsidy claims on kerosene, PPPRA resumed the processing of kerosene subsidy claims in June 2011 and NNPC resumed the deduction of kerosene subsidy claims to the tune of N331,547,318,068.06 in 2011. In addition, the distribution of DPK which was being imported solely by NNPC was skewed in favour of depot owners who have no retail outlets. Two-thirds of the kerosene sold by NNPC between 2009 and 2011 was sold to depot owners and ‘middle men’ who in turn sold the product to owners of retail outlets at inflated prices of between N115.00 and N125.00 per litre (compared to the ex-depot price of N40.90), leaving consumers to pay higher prices than the N50.00 per litre directed by Government.”

Against the background that the defence put up by the NNPC and the Petroleum Minister was that the directive by the late Yar’Adua was never gazetted, it is indeed telling that the federal government committee would share the same position with the Lawan Committee on the controversial N331 Billion payment on kerosene subsidy.
In the Federal Government report, there were also revelations of “lack of adequate provisions for dealing with violations (including criminal activities) and of a deterrent to prevent oil marketing and trading companies from making false subsidy claims in the Petroleum Support Fund (PSF) guidelines and the inclusion by PPPRA of oil marketing and trading companies that did not meet the eligibility criteria...”
Other highlights from the report include “abuse of the due diligence process for applicants to the PSF scheme, lack of transparency in the process for import allocations, payment of subsidies to oil marketing and trading companies in spite of lapses in presented documentation and the inability of PPPRA to use effective vessel tracking tools to verify the status and location of the vessels supposedly used to import petroleum products and to compare such information with the details on presented bills of lading…”

The inability of PPPRA to use a transparent basis for the conversion factor from metric tonnes to litres in their template also created opportunities for fraud in the determination of the volume of imported products for which subsidy should be paid, according to the committee. The report therefore noted that because Nigeria does not have a verifiable statistical basis for computing daily consumption of petroleum products “the absence of this data opened up the determination of the nation's requirement for imported petroleum products to abuse. This situation in conjunction with the absence of regulation of the amount of petroleum products imported by NNPC led to uncontrolled importation beyond the country's requirement”.

On the management of the Federation Account, the report queries how NNPC deducts subsidy payments as a first line charge even when “there was no documentary evidence that this process was duly authorised by law, by the PSF guidelines or by any duly designated Government agency and there is therefore no legitimate backing for the current practice.”The committee also found out that there was no documentary evidence that the NNPC's current regime “for processing subsidy payments under the PSF scheme was duly authorised by law, by the PSF guidelines, or by any duly designated Government agency. The accounting process used by NNPC (only one set of accounts for sales proceeds of both imported and locally refined products) made it difficult to account for domestic refining of petroleum products”.

In yet another key finding, it was discovered that “payment of subsidies to oil marketing and trading companies in spite of lapses in presented documentation and the inability of PPPRA to use effective vessel tracking tools to verify the status and location of the vessels supposedly used to import petroleum products and to compare such information with the details on presented bills of lading contributed to the creation of opportunities for abuse of the subsidy payment process”.

Among the people who came to such damning conclusions were Mr Michael Arokodare, the NNPC Executive Director for Finance and Accounts; Mr Reginald Stanley, the new Executive Secretary at PPPRA who, I must admit, has restored a measure of integrity at the agency. In the committee were also: Dr Abraham Nwankwo, Director General, Debt Management Office; Mr Jonah Otunla, the Accountant General of the Federation; Dr Bright Okogu, the Director General, Budget Office of the Federation; and Ms Oyinye Ahuchogu of the Central Bank of Nigeria.
Now, given such self-indictment, how could the media support removal of subsidy? The argument would be, as it has always been, that the subsidy regime would merely transfer more money from the pockets of the people to that of some fat cats in the oil sector and their collaborators in government. What this means in effect is that the media would find justifications for vilifying government whenever they push such agenda because they know that officials are selling to the people equity with unclean hands. It is therefore not enough for the president to claim, as he did this morning in his Independence broadcast which I watched, that his government is deemed by Transparency International is second only to the United States in fighting corruption. Nigerians want to see some of the people who shared public money in the name of subsidy payment in 2011 being punished.
Notwithstanding what happened, I still believe the media needs to look more broadly at the issue of subsidy and its larger implication on the economy and the petroleum sector. Whatever the misgivings about the leakage in the sector the fact remains that without deregulation the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB)…whatever version we eventually get..will be dead on arrival while we can say goodbye to any idea of building private refinery. Now, I am not here making a campaign for subsidy removal but I am using the issue to illustrate the tension between the government and the media which do not always see things from the same lens.
The challenge, however at a period when our nation is at a delicate intersection between Renewal and Reversal either on the economic front or on the political plane, there is need for some form o collaboration between the media and the government. For instance, there is currently an intense contestation for power among the major geo-ethnic groups in the country. Tensions arising from the projection of such interests by the media could be distracting so it is important for practitioners to moderate such views. It has been empirically established that the media play a big role in what people think about, how people think, how people behave and how they perceive reality. The media is thus more than a constituency; it is also a channel to many other critical constituencies.
If we must be honest with ourselves, our 52nd Independence anniversary has been shadowed by growing apprehensions, in several quarters, of an impending national crisis. This fear, even if unduly hysterical, is fuelled by the incendiary nature of the subtle and not so subtle campaign for the 2015 general elections that are still almost three years away. Yet as it is typical, the current shouting match is not about programmes or ideals or for that matter the welfare of the people, it is about other primordial considerations.
While we can argue that the oft-predicted breakup of Nigeria remains largely far-fetched given that what unites the Nigerian ruling elite (from both the North and South) far outweighs what divides them, the media should also be wary of the fact that when Nigerian politicians become desperate as many are becoming, they are usually very dangerous to the health of the larger society.
At a time like this therefore, the media should not yield their platforms to hate mongers whose polarizing rhetoric could only push our plural society towards its delicate fault-lines. Collectively, both the media and the government must begin to fashion out the requisite strategies necessary to overcome the human and institutional barriers that for decades have held the country back, with a focus on accountability and good governance. We have to collaborate to chart a new course and embrace a more productive and cooperative form of engagement.

While I understand that the perennial conflict between the government and media has its root in the pre-independence struggle, there is an urgent need to moderate the destabilising impact of the adversarial relationship that does not in any way advance our society. Given that neither the government nor the media can make a claim to monopoly of patriotism, it is important that there be some form of collaboration, especially on critical issues that border on the security of the nation and the welfare of its people.

Thank you for listening and God bless.

Text of a presentation at the PLATFORM on October 1, 2012

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