August 21, 2017

Buhari and Dasuki: managing perceptions by Ayisha Osori

Buhari and Dasuki: managing perceptions by Ayisha Osori

While millions of Nigerians want the twins;  Corruption and Impunity, caught, tied up, flogged and severely disabled, they also want  this to be done within the boundaries of law, and accountability. The question is whether this administration realizes it or not.

The revelations from the Department of State Security (DSS) and the former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki about their recent entanglement arising from a search warrant raises several concerns.

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 The first is that ‘news’ moves faster than the facts and if those who own the story do not provide enough information, people will fill in the gaps. In the hours before Dasuki and the DSS shared perspectives on their interaction, many were led to believe that Dasuki had been arrested, had resisted arrest and was under house arrest as pay back for his involvement in ending the Buhari-Idiagbon regime 30 years ago. He had some sympathy because echoes of 1983 and the suspension of rights started reverberating – aided no doubt by the vicious campaign ads of the just concluded presidential elections.  

Muhammadu Buhari, former Nigerian military ruler and presidential candidate for the All Peoples Congress, APC

In the fight against Corruption and Impunity and the need to get redress for some of the most recent egregious cases, the Federal Government must try to pre-empt the gaps and inform the public of its actions and the reasons why as soon as possible.

While the fight against Corruption and Impunity fits in tidily with the governing party’s key campaign promises,  the government needs to put out proactive communication in order to keep control of the narrative.

The second is that the Supreme Court has ruled that the DSS no longer has the right to seize passports and Mallam Dasuki’s passport (along with other items) has allegedly been seized by the DSS. This will ultimately be bad for public perception especially since we are still in the embryo stages of what is emerging as President Buhari’s desire to ‘clean house’ starting obviously, with the immediate past administration.

While Corruption has taken root in every aspect of government, probably necessitating a decision not to risk the vigilance of Immigration to stop persons of interest from fleeing (think Maina of the Pensions fund  fame), the DSS and the Presidency must do more to manage the growing perception that they are disdainful of the law.

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Third, the communication around the fight against Corruption and Impunity cannot be reactive and poor and that is the only way to describe the press release from the DSS almost 24 hours after Dasuki’s story ‘My 24-Hour SSS Ordeal’ made it to the front page of The Nation. 

On technicalities, the press release was signed by a person whose designation was not provided and there was no seal or any symbol to indicate this was communication from a government agency. 

In addition to being wordy and badly edited, the 4-page statement implied that Dasuki was implicated in treasonable felony for having rifles and bullet proof cars and spent a lot of words proving that the DSS was on the defense. This would not be the case if the communication had been pro-active and anticipatory of the issues. 

Dealing with Corruption and Impunity is not going to be a day or a month’s job and by all indications it will stretch us as a country and test the resolve of this administration. It would, therefore, have been helpful if the communication was designed to meet clear objectives: what the administration wants to achieve, the benefits to Nigerians and how this all ties in with the dominant narrative of this administration on Corruption and Impunity.

There is no doubt that President Muhammad Buhari is adored and just  because some fans  tried to mob him with love at the mosque last Friday, it might be tempting to think ‘it is only the guilty or compromised minority and their accomplices who are complaining’. This would be a mistake. Public perception can change quickly and it does not necessarily have to be the majority that changes, just the loudest and most globally connected i.e., those on social media and the Internet.

The human propensity for deification and hero worship often prevents those close to Presidents and decision makers from being honest and critical when they should be. Sometimes they even prevent occasional entrants into the inner sanctum of leadership from asking the questions that need to be asked. This is not ideal for democracy. Questions  – critical to honing and perfecting plans are also required to strengthen the accountability measures for ensuring that those in power do not abuse their powers or lose their capacity to understand that they serve at the pleasure of the people and for the benefit of the people.

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 In order for President Buhari to keep the favourable perception of those who have high expectations of him and take their role as citizens seriously he needs an antidote to those around him who may wish to shield him from the painful truths he needs to hear.  The antidote is a constant Devil’s Advocate.

The President can insist at every executive or kitchen cabinet meeting that someone plays the Devil’s Advocate. No one or two persons should be designated to play this role – everyone –must play this role by turns.  The minutes of meetings should capture who played the role and indicate who plays it next – this way no one gets to be branded the ‘naysayer’ and everyone is forced to think and anticipate how others might perceive what actions and policies are being proposed or recommended.

It might not be perfect, but it would be a great way to ensure that the light of truth/reason/innovation/alternative views penetrates the fog of group-think and the fear of causing offence.

On the heels of the Dasuki fiasco, the former Chief Security Officer to former President Jonathan, Gordon Obua is also claiming unjust detention. This is not good news and this administration will create needless roadblocks in its journey to tame Corruption and Impunity if public perception turns against them in the manner in which these investigations and hopefully eventual prosecutions turn out.

President Buhari must not waste or fritter away the favourable public perception he has in abundance  – and proper strategic communication (quite different from media engagement) is key.

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