Yar'Adua's image problem

Yar'Adua's image problem 

By Levi Obijiofor 

Friday, 7 November 2008 

He has been in the presidency for nearly 18 months but if Umaru Musa Yar'Adua were to be taken to court to defend charges of poor performance against his government, the public prosecutor's charge list would overwhelm even the president's lawyers. That's how disappointed many Nigerians are with Yar'Adua's style of government. 

In the court of public opinion, the charges against Yar'Adua are numerous. They include irritating delays in decision-making, poor programme planning and implementation, endless contradictions between promises and actual performance, inability to quell the restiveness in the Niger Delta region, failure to articulate and manage effectively the poverty eradication programme known as Community Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (CEEDS), breakdown of law and order, growing cases of human rights abuses (such as the recent bashing and public humiliation of a young woman by a naval officer's aides), as well as increasing cases of government's intolerance of a critical press. 

On these allegations have emerged two major reasons why the press has subjected Yar'Adua to endless scrutiny. First, he is perceived in various parts of the country as "Baba Go-Slow", an uncharitable way – in Nigerian terms -- to describe a president. The second reason derives from the government's apathy to important national issues and the government's capacity for contradictions. 

Let's start with an analysis of the contradictions. In a speech delivered at the opening ceremony of the First Conference of African Journalists in Abuja on November 12, 2007, Yar'Adua who was represented by Information and Communication Minister John Odey, pledged that his government would not accede to any form of media suppression. He also promised that, in light of the important roles that journalists played in the advancement of democracy, his government would not deliberately obstruct journalists in the performance of their responsibilities. 

Foreign journalists in the audience cheered repeatedly because they liked what they heard. In their judgment, Yar'Adua must be an unusual African president specially created in heaven and dropped off on earth to help save Nigeria from destroying itself. 

Yar'Adua's speech also delighted the audience because it identified the key elements of democracy such as freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of choice, all of which Yar'Adua said his government would respect. His words: "The denial of any of these is a violation of fundamental human rights… The extrajudicial murder of media professionals, arbitrary arrests and persecution must be stopped completely if perpetrators of such violations desire to genuinely promote democracy in their countries… In Nigeria we make bold to say that we don't engage in such impunities for our governments will not tolerate any such violations." 

Foreign journalists, particularly those from countries ruled by authoritarian governments in Africa, pinched themselves when they heard Yar'Adua's lofty claim that his government will not infringe on the citizens' right to free expression. Coincidentally, all these promises to respect journalistic freedom and other basic human rights were rolled out at a time when Yar'Adua was preoccupied with selling his new doctrine of respect for the rule of law. Although Nigerians didn't believe that Yar'Adua would successfully sustain his philosophical mantra about the rule of law, some people were still prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. 

Those foreign journalists who hailed Yar'Adua's opening address must have been naïve. No government (particularly in Africa) willingly grants freedom of expression to journalists or anybody. History shows that journalists have had to fight for freedom to express themselves and to serve the public. 

With Yar'Adua's promises have come major tests. The first test of every promise lies in its fulfilment or abandonment. Some promises are made to entertain or impress. Others are made for lack of meaningful ideas to sell to an audience. Nearly one year after Yar'Adua made those pompous promises, we have witnessed blatant human rights abuses. Take a look at what happened to a young woman in Victoria Island this week. Although the naval officer, whose aides pummelled and brutalised a young woman, is not a member of Yar'Adua's government, Yar'Adua -- as the president -- has the duty of care to set up a high-powered judicial inquiry into the incident in order to understand what happened, why it happened and what appropriate legal action the government should take. 

A citizen of Nigeria – at home or overseas – deserves to be defended by the government and protected from brutality of any kind. That particular incident in Victoria Island, the video of which is circulating around the world, has done irreversible damage to the image of Nigeria. Through the overzealous actions of a few bad men in uniform, Nigeria has now been cast as a nation inhabited by uncivilised men. The nation is still waiting for the government to condemn that action and to investigate the incident. 

In the past one year, journalists have been intimidated, harassed, assaulted, arrested and detained unlawfully by agents of the state. News photographers have had their expensive digital cameras seized and smashed by over-patriotic agents. At least one television station was shut illegally, its operating licence suspended arbitrarily, its offices thrashed and its journalists bashed, arrested and detained illegally. Sardonically, these breaches of human rights and press freedom occurred under the watchful eyes of a president who likes to project himself as the guardian of the rule of law. 

Consider this contradiction. In his nation-wide address on the first anniversary of his government on May 29, 2008, Yar'Adua said: "The greatest national problem we have and one of the greatest problems facing Nigeria is the breakdown of respect for the rule of law and established procedures." He is not quite right. In my view, the greatest national problem is the constant abuse of the law by those who swore to respect and protect the law. 

In our democracy, press criticisms of the federal government are interpreted as hanging offences. Critical comments are seen by nervous security agents as plots to undermine the nation. Unfortunately, the image of Nigeria as an exemplary African democracy where relative press freedom flourishes has been severely damaged, no thanks to the indiscriminate and unlawful arrest and detention of journalists without trial. Last year, Yar'Adua promised African journalists that official human rights abuses and violations of the citizens' right to freedom of expression would not be tolerated by his government. 

The state of press freedom in Nigeria is undoubtedly gloomy. Print, broadcast and online journalists suffer from the trauma of harassment, and unlawful arrest and detention. The frequent incarceration of journalists by federal agents under the cold stare of Yar'Adua's government has badly smeared the president's doctrine of the rule of law. No one believes that this government respects human rights and press freedom any more than military dictators did some years ago. 

The atmosphere does not bode well for the government's hype about respect for free speech. The hallmarks of democracy, which Yar'Adua outlined in his speech to African journalists in November 2007, have been desecrated by federal officials who feel they are more patriotic than journalists. 

Beyond the abuse of press freedom, Yar'Adua's government has also antagonised the public by its irritatingly slow approach to policy making and programme implementation. Incidentally, Yar'Adua mentioned in his anniversary speech last May that he was aware of the public's disappointment with the slow pace of his government. But he was quick to defend his unhurried style of governance. He said his slow attitude to matters of government were part of his "process of learning". The problem is that Nigerians don't want a government that would spend the better part of its tenure learning how to govern. 

Sounding a bit cocky in his address, Yar'Adua said: "When you work hard and produce plans, it will be 60 per cent of what you want to achieve. If you have a good plan, the implementation goes on smoothly… But am not perturbed (by the tag of being seen as slow). Once you are sure of what you are doing and the path you are travelling, it is a matter of time for it to materialise." Unfortunately, the nation has waited so long and seen nothing but official puff. 

When Nigerians refer to Yar'Adua as "Baba Go-Slow", they don't always use it in a derogatory sense. Instead, the expression is used to alert the president to accelerate the pace of governance. In his anniversary speech last May, Yar'Adua said he would initiate immediate changes in the structure of his administration and the workforce. Five months after that announcement, Yar'Adua is still busy searching for the right mix of candidates to fit his political chessboard. The nation wants the president to match his proposals with prompt action. 

Ever since he emerged as president (a position that is still being contested at the Supreme Court), Yar'Adua has struggled to create an image of himself as a man of high character, an amiable president who symbolises moral authority. Unfortunately, human rights abuses perpetrated by agents of the state, as well as frequent violations of the citizens' freedom to express themselves have continued to damage rather than improve Yar'Adua's image in the public.