Open Letter to Minister of Information on Nigeria’s Image

John Odey Minister of Information and Communication

Hon. John Odey, I find it necessary as a Nigerian writer with a bias in public relations to share with you pertinent issues on Nigeria’s Image Project. I use this media platform because of its importance to you as the top public officer in charge of information management in the country. Open letter like this convey the importance of the message instead of the usual direct memo which could be lost in a morass of bureaucratic redtapism or appear inconsequential in the heap of mails requiring the attention of ever busy public officers. I am also of the conviction that recent courageous decisions of government are clear pointers that the policy makers read newspapers and study other media sources, unlike their predecessors.

I am aware of your background in banking and your last assignment as the spokesperson of one of the political parties in Nigeria. It is not necessary to mention the name of the party because of the feeling it may evoke in the minds of some people. But I must admit that you performed satisfactorily though, cautiously, within the dictate of that environment. It is gratifying to note too that since your appointment as minister, you have discharged your responsibility professionally and in a civilized manner. You have neither made controversial pronouncements nor defended indefensible acts.

You may not be in any of the so-called JUICY ministries, even though communication is added to your portfolio, you are in the most sensitive organ of government that projects the image of our nation. Your ministry is the central mirror that the internal and external publics look at to assess the health and stability of our nation.

Hon. Minister sir, since you are yet to announce publicly, as other ministers have done, your road map and agenda on information policy and its direction, my points in this memo may be helpful in formulating your marshal plan.

Let’s start from the ministry’s headquarters. You may be surprised to learn that staff of the ministry prefer to be posted out than to remain in the headquarters. If there could be a Ministry-of-Do-Nothing, many would not mind to be there than stay in the Ministry of Information. The reason is not far fetched. Some staff presently have not received their salaries for months due to the introduction of online payment process called IPPIS. Yet some are ill-motivated without tangible schedules of responsibilities. As it happens in some establishments there is a problem of excessive interference from political appointees and consultants in running the core civil service routines. Add to these predicaments is occasional pressure for postings without regard to professional competence in terms of qualifications and experience. Because of the conservative thinking of average civil servants too, there is this self-inflicted malaise resulting from their failure to acquaint themselves adequately with the latest professional thinking and in the application of modern technology for information management.

One of the missions of the ministry is to conduct research, surveys and studies to enhance better understanding of the relevance, impact and approach to public information and their implications for public policies and programmes. The problem in this cardinal responsibility is that of ill-trained staff and lack of logistics to execute some of the projects. A situation where there is no mobility for staff to cover outside assignment and/or conduct regular survey research on the impact of government policies needs to be urgently addressed. Past experiences have shown that some projects with outrageous expenditures made less if not negative impact as they lacked economic sense for overall national interest. To block such loopholes, the budget of the ministry should be prioritized and tied to tangible and result oriented programmes, which should also have the capacity to carry the staff along.

As the official public information outfit responsible for gathering, processing, packaging essential information, the platforms for displaying and distribution of the packaged services should go beyond its existing webportal and services of its agencies in the electronic media like FRCN, NTA, VON and NAN to include rich publications and well-researched journals with timely frequency of delivery. This is necessary because the ministry has a statutory responsibility to provide general printing and publishing services to all ministries for effective public administration, education and business. Apart from its glossy Nigeria Monthly magazine and elitist Tender Journal for contract-seekers, other publications under its stables are not so regular. There is a fear that the Tenders Journal may soon be taking over with the establishment of the Bureau for Public Procurement unless that agency realizes that the ministry is responsible for printing such materials. The installation of modern and latest printing machine by ministry of information is necessary for general printing of newsletters, journals, magazines, cards, calendars and other seasonal printing for ministries and agencies. The idea of public-private-partnership should not be at the detriment of government’s responsibilities in job creation and cost effectiveness of services.

Since the vision of the ministry is to create an informed and properly oriented citizenry; the people in a democratic setting must be involved in policy-making through effective and accurate information. So far your office seems to be enjoying a healthy and rosy bond with the press, a relationship usually associated with new governments. It is also gratifying to note that the administration of President YarAdua is disposed to public discourse, dialogue and consultation as it gauges the public tempo in addressing the teething problems bedeviling our nation. May I therefore suggest that you should sustain the tempo by engaging the members of the Fourth Estate of the Realm to partner with you in constructive engagements for the sake of participatory democracy and sustainable development of our dear nation.

The functions of the ministry should go beyond just information management to other strategic aspects of public relations principles: reputation management, issues management, conflict resolution and tactical lobbying at home and abroad. It can partner with relevant professional bodies like Nigeria Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigerian Guild of Editors and APCON in its attempt to develop and institutionalize appropriate and generally acceptable public information and communication policies which will promote our cultural values, investment climate and uniqueness of our people in a prosperous and united nation. In fact the NIPR needs all the support to strengthen its legislation to effectively oversee actions and inaction of information practitioners towards ensuring the existence and maintenance of civilized and orderly and ethical behaviours in consistent with acceptable cultural and conventional norms.

The Ministry’s Heart of Africa Project introduced by the last administration to promote Nigeria’s national brand assets and businesses needs modifications for strategic effect. As good as the project is towards promoting economic advancement and enhancing the international perception of Nigeria, it requires inward approach by engaging Nigerians and local media to focus on encouraging developmental issues which could influence the external media by which their audiences will receive the right information on the positive growth. That process is possible if the government addresses the teething problem bedeviling the nation like the cases of insecurity, poverty level, power generation and illiteracy, which can be tackled with vigorous pursuit of the Yar’Adua’s Seven Point Agenda.

Our nation’s new positive international profile resulting from development at home is an indication that we are moving in the right direction. The forthcoming first Global Communication Summit being packaged by Timex Communication Limited would further enhance and promote the country’s image going by the caliber of respected international PR and communication experts billed to attend. With the recent nomination of ambassadors to foreign missions, it is high time that the government reopened some of its strategic Foreign Information Centres, which were closed down in the past because of shortage of funds. Some have argued that with surplus funds in Excess Crude and Foreign Reserve Accounts, redeploying Information Attaches to our missions, as conventional with other nations, can made economic in international image building.

Hon. Minister Sir, it is necessary to reiterate that the Freedom of Information Bill is very dear to majority of Nigerians more especially your constituency, the press. It is therefore incumbent upon you, not to shy away from your responsibility to influence the re-presentation of the Bill to the National Assembly to strengthen press freedom, engender transparency and accountability in governance.

I think the right steps and actions taken by the government in the areas of popular policies and its desired commitment to the rule of law, is drawing the public attention away from perceived faulty electoral process that allegedly brought in the new administration. Your task is eased, as all that is required of you is to look inward and take the best initiatives to make a difference in the information management and be amongst the best of the ministers of information we have had since our Independence in 1960.

Please accept my best wishes as you combine information and communication (juicy?) in your schedule of duties.
This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in The Guardian October 1, New Nigerian October 2, Daily Triumph October 3, Vanguard October 3-4, The Punch October 4, Leadership October 4, Weekly Trust October 6 and Daily Sun October 23, 2007


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Yushau Shuaib

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