In modern societies, the media plays an important role in shaping public opinion. In modern democracies, the Commander-in-Chief's public statements can influence both the media cycle and the actions of other politicians.
The reactions from President Buhari’s speech on his return from a 106-day medical leave in the United Kingdom reminded us of the polarising effect of Nigerian public appearances. There were so many interpretations to his speech that during interviews, the President’s Special Adviser conceded that the president’s team would consider a media session when “he settles in”.
No media session has been forthcoming.
Since his second coming to office, President Buhari has shied away from the local media and invariably, from addressing Nigerians directly on national issues. In his first year, most of his critical thoughts on Nigeria were echoed abroad. In November 2015, he disclosed crucial information on the return of looted funds by public officials while in Iran. In February 2016, he spoke to Telegraph in the UK on the location of Abubakar Shekau, the Boko Haram leader. And in March 2016, he spoke to Aljazeera in Qatar on the Biafran agitations. It was so prevalent that Adesina, his spokesman, defended the President's trend by citing the logistics of his schedule, while the President himself tasked Nigerian media with improving their journalistic standards. Eventually, President Buhari arranged a media chat in December 2015, but there has been no similar address since then.
As a result of this media shyness, coupled with the poor coordination of his media team, a lot of the controversy that has emanated from the Presidency has been the result of his aides speaking for him. So, what options do we have?
State of Nation Address
The phrase “Fellow Nigerians” reminds us of the era of military coups. Ironically, the Nigerian military did not fail to make use of the media to stamp their authority, give warnings to opponents and project a ‘positive brand’. Fortunately, the media outlets were not far from the seat of power (Lagos was Nigeria’s capital until 1991), and the military rulers took advantage of radio announcements and broadcasts. Whenever a government overthrow was in the works, the coup plotters always made arrangements to capture the radio stations to disseminate information to the people (televisions were not 24 hours and newspapers had schedules for publishing).
A gradual decline in media interactions with the people has been witnessed since Late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua took over in 2007. President Jonathan briefly overturned this trend with a number of media chats, some with infamous outcomes. Nevertheless, some believe that Nigerians still lack the forums where addressing the nation’s economic, socio-political and governance can be done in a single sitting.
One potential remedy is the State of the Nation Address (SONA). It is used in a number of nations in Africa, including Uganda, Ghana, Namibia, Kenya, and South Africa. The SONA is a requirement for the President to set out his national agenda by speaking to the people directly from the National Assembly.
First introduced in 2004 by the Obasanjo administration, the law which would have made this speech a reality was not approved by the Presidency on the basis that a similar address is already covered under Section 67 of the Constitution, which permits the President to attend and speak at the National Assembly if he deems it to be of national importance. Notably, it remains at the discretion of the President to attend or not.
The bill was then reintroduced in 2009 and mandated the President directly discuss issues ranging from national security to agriculture. During the bill’s public hearing, Attorney General of the Federation, Michael Aondoakaa, opposed it by stating that it was unnecessary since the President addressed the nation annually during the budget presentation. As expected, the President did not sign it.
Another attempt was made by the National Assembly in 2013 after President Jonathan delegated his budget presentation duty to the National Assembly; a style he seemed to have imitated from the Late Yar’Adua. When it was sent for approval, President Jonathan returned the bill, proposing amendments to enable him to send a representative to address the nation or send a transcript of the speech in his place. Like his predecessor, he also cited Section 67 of the constitution. Again, the implication was that a SONA bill would simply be duplicating existing legislation. He still did not sign it.
Finally, among the constitutional amendments commenced by the Senate in July 2017, the National Assembly obligated the President to attend a joint meeting of the National Assembly once a year to deliver a State of The Nation address. It is unclear if the amendments will be successful, but there is no evidence that the Presidency's stance on SONA will change under Buhari.
A constant argument made by legislators in their support for the SONA is that a national address ought to be mandatory. Although ministers and aides work for the President, hearing from the President himself is symbolic and carries weight. He is the voice of the people, not his appointees. If this address was mandatory, the President would have made three crucial speeches to the Nigerian people touching on his national agenda and stance on critical issues. It would rectify some instances where people are forced to keep reading his body language and misinterpreting his words.
It is well acknowledged that the President is media shy, but he should not only consider the SONA as a means of engagement with his people. For a government that made good use of the media during the elections, he must be reminded that the people want to hear more from the man whom they voted for. It is also an opportunity to restore moral and political authority over a divided nation. Just as Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and Tunde Fashola’s once did at the National Assembly, he should embrace the opportunity to impress his agenda on the people.
It may just be the start of a new media approach for the President, but it is one worth starting.