Marketing government in season of drought

The party in government, All Progressives Congress (APC), is having uphill task marketing the achievement of President Muhammadu Buhari and his government, one year after it was elected to do things radically different from where the last government was forced to stop on May 29, 2015. It is not yet one year since Buhari mounted office, but the growing impatience among the populace with the snail speed or no speed at all of this government, has now overtasked the capacity of Lai Mohammed, Information and Culture minister, and other spokespersons of party and government to sustain their once brilliant engagement with the people, prior to May 29 2015.

If we recall, in those boisterous days leading to the formation of the APC, when men of different political hues gravitated towards the new coalition, and in the build up towards campaigns and elections, it was pretty easy for Mohammed to marshal the ideas of his party and be believed. All he needed then was to remind Nigerians of how clueless former president Jonathan was, in tackling the Boko Haram insurgents; bringing back the Chibok Girls; paying huge sums for fuel subsidy, and failure to provide 24-hour of electricity. In those days, talk was cheap and there was a ready scapegoat in the then ruling party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

As party spokesman, Mohammed distinguished himself in the traditions of Goebbels et al., in making people believe whatever he had to say. But as minister of information, he is still talking, but appears to no longer have the magic wand to compel belief. He is daily granting interviews on Radio Nigeria and other government media, visiting private media houses and explaining what government has done or plans to do, but the more he engages, the less he touches base with ordinary people, the voters. Even in the social media and other platforms that once heralded the APC as the best thing to happen to Nigeria, disbelief has set in and Mohammed is no longer the spellbinder.

It is not only the information minister who has found himself in this quandary. Last week, Senior Special Adviser to the President on media and publicity, Garba Shehu, lamented the failure of the National Orientation Agency (NOA) to believe in the change agenda of government, and to effectively propagate the good works to the people. According to him, NOA has 773 offices across the country and well equipped with staff and material to spread the good news. But they have not done so because they do not believe that change has come. He alleged that they have been passive, whereas, so much is being done, which they could have taken to the people. He said the president has been very generous, otherwise, he would have sent home some staff of the agency who are reluctant to catch the change bug.

To spread the message of change faster, he then announced that the Presidency is set to embark on town hall meetings with the people. That mission, he said would be taken up by the vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, shortly.

It is easy for some of us to understand and empathise with people in government when they run into trouble in explaining government business and progress to the people. Government business in this country has never been an easy task. Even during military regimes, when there were less of bills to settle (personnel cost), and fewer layers of compromises to assuage in order to get things done, there were still big issues. Apart from issues of fundamental rights of citizens, which military governments had to abrogate in order to impose their own rules, they were still challenges of running an oil-dependent economy, borrowing to fund budgets that were heavy on recurrent and low on capital investments. There were other core issues of proper definition and structure to facilitate the administration of the country. But because the military were not answerable to anybody, they did whatever they could to force the country to work.

That is not what happens in a democracy, where all interests are put on the table to be debated. While a military leader reads his budget on January 1st and begins implementation almost immediately, in a democracy, there are processes that must be duly followed. And this is where we are presently as a country. The first budget of the APC government is going through hiccups and that has to be sorted out before the party surges ahead to commence implementation of its campaign promises.

And this is where many Nigerians do not understand and cannot emphathise with this government’s failure to give life to its many promises. There has to first be a budget in place, for ministries to draw from and hit the ground running. But the budget itself has become a bundle of contradictions for a party that once arrogated to itself knowledge and solution to all problems. Apart from arriving late and not conforming to timelines provided by the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF), a product of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2007, the document got stolen or disappeared few days after the President presented it to the National Assembly at a grand ceremony on December 22, 2015. Since then, it has been from one ugly story to another. When it resurfaced, the document had been corruptly padded and the Presidency and the cabinet disowned it. Civil servants were blamed and the Director-General of the Budget Office, Yahaya Gusau, was sent home, after only being appointed in August of 2015, for a term of four years. But that has not ended the budget ridicule. What we hear now is that the NASS is still cleaning the budget line by line, after it had been passed, while the President has vowed not to sign the document in a hurry.

 Alhaji Lai Mohammed

Alhaji Lai Mohammed

Meanwhile, this is April, with the first quarter gone and nothing happening. Nigerians had gone through this road before, with delayed budgets and poor implementation. And they are wondering what change the APC has brought into governance.

The absence of a budget has affected government’s capacity to disburse funds to deliver on its major programmes, apart from raising money to pay salaries. With the rains set to return, the likelihood of contractors returning to the roads for the remaining part of the year is slim. And this is where government and the peoples’ paths will cross annoyingly. Many road contracts have been abandoned, waiting for the budget.

Electricity supply to homes has virtually disappeared and Nigerians are not finding it funny. It takes more than sweet mouth and radio jingles to explain to the people that this government has been unable to boost supply or effect changes in old and faulty transmission lines. You need to have a budget in place to do that, but Nigerians have heard such stories in the past. They were promised change and they voted for change. So, where is the change?

It is in the area of supply of petroleum products that this government has really shown cluelessness. It promised to end subsidy, but is shy of fully deregulating the industry and then facing the music afterwards. Today you hear of unbundling, tomorrow you hear a different story. Of course, the problems have been there, but what is needed now is the political will to do things differently and with results the people can see.

In these glaring challenges of the APC government, there is little the NOA can do to explain to Nigerians why government is duck-footed. Not even when you man the 773 offices of NOA with APC faithful. There is nothing tangible yet to propagate, which the people themselves cannot see or feel. And once government begins to work, the social media will be agog with the facts. No hiding place for gold fish.

It is also not about town hall meetings at this stage. During the campaigns, there were town hall meetings, where promises were made. This is the time to fulfill those promises, but if there is no budget to support all that, only a sincere engagement will calm frayed nerves.

If there must be town hall meetings, what will sell at this point is when Vice President Osinbajo is ready to flag off the free feeding programme he promised to Nigerian school children. That can be done at a town hall.

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