Lai Mohammed: This is what happens when the ruling class is older than everyone else
60% of Nigeria’s 200 million people are younger than 30, but the Information Minister’s strategy suggests little regard for how young people find information, or do anything at all.
From the moment Lai Mohammed was screened by the National Assembly to be the nation’s new information minister, he faced one simple yet daunting task; providing Nigeria’s citizens with credible and timely information on government activities, programs and initiatives.
The minister has chosen to discharge that duty by questionable means. The results have been largely uninspiring, so much that poor communication is now accepted as one of the biggest failings of the Buhari administration.
Since the earliest months, two main themes have become obvious in Mohammed’s press conferences and statements.
When backed into a tight corner, he is quick to pass the blame and play the victim.
In the months since he took on the role, his major points of call have been the presidency’s performance in key areas and the president’s health.
While the economy still tries to emerge from its first depression in 25 years, President Muhammadu Buhari has spent a large part of the last 5 months on medical leave in London as he tries to recover from a mystery illness. In both regards, there are serious questions to answer.
Instead, in press conferences and interviews, when asked for comments on these issues, Mohammed suggests a picture where the opposition and its supporters are the enemy and the members of the Buhari administration are saints, complete with halos and golden robes.
He answers questions with rhetorical pleas for mercy, whether he’s asking why the media ignores the factors that the administration blames for its poor start or explaining how questions about the president's health are a distraction.
A good example is when a delegation of the National Council of Women’s Societies visited him at his office in Abuja. When asked questions about the welfare of the nation’s citizens, he answered simply, “We are very concerned about the welfare of Nigerians and we are not sleeping; many of our critics have been unfair to us because many of them know that we did not invent the problems we are facing today”
In other situations, Mohammed makes veiled attempts at inspiring or appealing to populist sentiments.
Where he has the opportunity to clear the air with facts and credible, timely information, he tries to curry favour with the masses by saying things that suggest that they are being manipulated or misinformed by the media and everyone except the Buhari administration.
Lai Mohammed's rhetoric is designed to suggest that the government has a monopoly of affection; that it is the only entity, human or otherwise, that cares and knows what is best for Nigeria and its people.
Others like every political entity in the opposition are either part of the problem or like the media, sensationalists who only start conversations regarding the presidency's actions to create a distraction from the work in progress.
It sounds too much like the early stages of an abusive relationship.
In November 2015, when the Treasury Single Account was launched, it met criticism from a large number of people who did not understand the need or the idea behind unifying the government’s accounts.
To clear the air, Mohammed issued a statement, saying “it is understandable that the psyche of those who are making the frivolous allegations concerning the TSA has been badly affected by the impunity that permeated the country under the immediate past administration”
“But the lies that have been wilfully disseminated by scandalmongers over the TSA cannot and will not fly", he added, "because it was precise to put an end to such impunity that Nigerians voted massively for President Muhammadu Buhari, who has an unblemished reputation for integrity, due process, transparency and the rule of law”
It would have been easier to just explain what the TSA was and why Nigeria needed it at that point in time.
Mohammed occupies a position where, thanks to Buhari’s absence, he has become the main mouthpiece of this administration. The manner he has chosen, however, shows something more than ineptitude.
In a nation where more than half the population is under the age of 30, it shows a lack of understanding of how young people acquire information in the digital age and how that access to information is inspiring a level of enlightenment that has increased what people expect of their leaders.
This, in itself, goes to a larger problem that has been the bane of successive administrations and is a cross that Nigerians have had to bear for decades.
An information minister like Lai Mohammed is what happens when the ruling class personalises their claim to power, over too many years.
As the world has learned and (continues to see) in the case of Donald Trump, a lack of experience can be disastrous when one holds important political office. But you find that age is not experience, and knowledge quickly becomes obsolete if one does not stay updated and in touch with things.
And no, appointing 17 30-year-old Special Assistants does not count.
There’s also a sense of aloofness; a tendency to act as if being in office or the political class gives you access to some truths or secrets of the world that remain the same, regardless of quickly the world develops.
It is why the Minister for Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu thinks it’s a good idea to appear in front of pressmen with little more than the news that Nigeria will begin to manufacture match-sticks and pencils in two years.
It is why with the president away with doctors in London, Mohammed thinks it is fine to give non-answers and vague statements as if it is the responsibility of the populace to prove or discover the true state of the president’s health and not the other way around.
The Nigerian ruling class, in 2017, discharges their duties by doing the exact same things that their peers did in the decades before them. It would seem that for them, the biggest evidence of staying abreast of the times is opening a twitter account.
Nigeria's biggest problem is the culture of political actors in the corridors of power.
The simple reason why every successive government seems eerily like the one before them is because the same set of people have been in those corridors since a few years after the nation gained its independence.
This group of people is referred to by most political scholars and commentators as the class of 1966.
In January 1966, 22 notable Nigerian leaders including the Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Premiers of the Northern and Western Regions, Ahmadu Bello and Samuel Ladoke Akintola were killed in a coup led by a majority of mutinous soldiers, led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna.
A number of soldiers, particularly from the Northern Region, were not enthused about this and in July 1966, they launched the counter-coup that put Yakubu Gowon in power.
Of the 32 soldiers that planned and executed that coup, four became head of state in the years that followed; General Sani Abacha, General Ibrahim Babangida, Brigadier-General Murtala Mohammed and Muhammadu Buhari, (twice as a general in 1984 and a civilian in 2015).
Although he was not a part of the team, a certain Olusegun Obasanjo was a friend of that class, and in time, after Mohammed, he got his own taste of power.
There are familiar names among the remaining officers. Many like John Shagaya, Paul Tarfa, John Nanven Garba and the more prominent Theophilus Danjuma have held various senior executive and legislative posts in successive governments; the rest have spread their tentacles and established themselves in various levels of power.
The team that plotted the coup on July 29, 1966, has not left the corridors of power since then.
Renowned economics professor and former Presidential candidate, Pat Utomi chooses to explain that they got into power with a huntsman mentality; a view that led them to view the coup as a triumph that they were entitled to.
“Nigeria has suffered state capture since 1966 and the group of soldiers who ceased the Nigerian state that year, retain a firm grip 50 years after”, he writes in the Sahel Standard.
“The culture of the class of 66 drove us, first hesitantly, then with deliberate speed into the cusp of a failing state… In my view, the class of 1966 cannot help itself. It was socialised into a view of triumph as the Hunt. The hunter mindset is kill and share”
For them, the benefit of that victory was to divide and conquer with this new power that they had acquired.
The class of 1966 has never given room for any disruption or change in the power system or how it is distributed.
Save for military coups that were literally power plays between its members, any signs of disruption in the power system have been few and far between. Access to power has been so stringently restricted that a place at the federal seat is only possible on their terms.
This is not to say there have been no crises of legitimacy, but where they have threatened the existing order, powers in the back seat have installed fillers or at least, influenced the election of more familiar surrogates — Shehu Shagari in 1979, Umar Musa Yar’adua in 2007 and Goodluck Jonathan in 2011.
For context, it’s been 51 years since that day in July.
The worldview and how things work have changed vastly in that time; while each member of that class, their ideals, power blocs, policies and objectives have stayed with them, as half a century has passed by.
It is no coincidence that most of the country’s most ‘ambitious’ projects became par for the course in other countries decades ago.
In recent years, Nigeria has shown bright signs in certain fields largely thanks to the tenacity and hard work of young people. There is much expectation for the role that the young generation, particularly millennials, can play in the nation’s growth.
One problem, however, is that the almost ever-present nature of the class of ’66 has created a fear to speak truth to power and a generation that will rather look away in hope than fight for change.
Massive internet penetration among the youth population and the quick adoption of social media also mean that a majority of young people are simply more capable of creating hashtags on Twitter than making practical moves towards demanding greater inclusion and a say in how they are governed.
President Buhari’s health and the absence of any clear alternatives in 2019 have set the scenes for a power struggle between the familiar suspects. Such that in the past few days, various rumours, including some that feature a coup, have circulated online and offline.
Regardless of what happens in the lead up to the next presidential elections, there is already an ideological void that will be filled by whoever steps up to the plate.
As things stand, the Nigerian political scene offers very limited options. Since the ruling All Progressives Congress got out of the opposition and into power in 2015, the People's Democratic Party that it made the swap with has become all but a shell of itself, destroyed from within by power struggles, decampment, scandals and finger-pointing.
With it, other parties have slowly faded into limited relevance. The implication that there are no alternative ideologies or beliefs that disgruntled, dissatisfied or those with the desire to upset the existing structure can pitch their tents to.
It is clear that there are young Nigerians who can take up the mantle at various levels of government to inject much-needed stimulus, and innovation into the country’s systems and structures.
The need for them to demand control of their future and have a say in the Nigerian government is desperately obvious, now more than ever.