Information Management: Between Odey and Akunyili

Dora Akunyili

Sometimes in 2002, NAFDAC officials closed down Biomedical Service, a popular pharmaceutical company in the production of Travenous Fluids in Nigeria. The owner of the firm, Dr. Faruk Abdulazeez, who was an influential politician, believed strongly that the action of NAFDAC was based on wrong assumptions. Fully convinced that his firm had done nothing wrong in its operation and the need to allay the fear of the public who might have received wrong signals on the company over the closure, he decided to go to press.

Some media experts including former NUJ Chairman, now Senator Adeyemi Smart pointedly advised Dr. Abdulazeez not to engage Akunyili and NAFDAC in media war. Everybody even at that time believed that Akunyili had carved a niche for herself and earned tremendous goodwill from the press. Though a Press Conference was held by Biomedical Service, it only appealed for reasoning and reassessment of its products. With further consultation, the case was revisited and the company was reopened.

The appointment of Prof. Dora Akunyili a pharmacist as Minister of Information should not have been a surprise considering the fact that Federal Ministry of Information has been a haven for non-professional as its ministers. Most of the ministers appointed in the past have no background knowledge and qualification in mass-communication, journalism or Public Relations practices to be quite relevant. Other sensitive ministries like that of justice, health, finance, science and technology have always had relevant professionals with requisite qualification as ministers. Since the reemergence of democratic dispensation in 1999 some of the past ministers of Federal Ministry of Information were Emeka Chikelu, a lawyer; Frank Nweke Jnr., a zoologist and John Odey a banker by qualifications.

The media and PR practitioners do seem not to bother about the qualifications of the minister of information. At the national level, the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) have all spoken to support the emergence of Prof. Akunyili as Minister of Information and Communication. The Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) is yet to do so publicly but in the online forum for Public Relations practitioners in Nigeria, 60% of respondents said they agreed with her appointment, 26% ticked totally wrong while 13% just said NO.

Interestingly, Prof. Dora Akunyili like her predecessor in the Federal Ministry of Information and Communication, John Odey, have through regular interactions with the media courted their respect and understanding, most especially editors and respective beat correspondents. From practical experience they know how to woo the media and sustain working relationships.

As much as PDP under Obasanjo was receiving the bashing towards the tail end of the administration, as the then spokesperson of the party, John Odey’s integrity and professional acumen in dealing with the press was not in doubt. Information management is not necessarily speaking out to be heard but also strategizing silently and quietly in ensuring that negative information that create bad impression are controlled.
This writer had a close working relationship with John Odey where he observed how he related and managed government’s information. For instance, Odey doesn’t take offence on constructive criticisms where practical solutions are proffered. Without restraint, he gives out his telephone and email addresses and responded to enquiries mostly to text messages. Where necessary, he arranged appointments to clear the air on government policies.
It may interest the public to note that John Odey belongs to some online forums, including those for Resident Information Officers (Press Secretaries) and Public Relations in Nigeria where members and even his staff do take on him or disagree on issues. He often reacted maturely and positively to the reasons adduced and on several occasions he ensured the issues were squarely addressed.

I think the communication side of the ministry which deals with telecommunication service and its regulatory environment overwhelmed his portfolio as he had to take some decisive and responsive actions, especially on controversial issues of NITEL towards reviving our collective patrimony. Another area where many had expected John Odey to speak publicly as Minister of Information was on the purported ill-health of President Yar’Adua when the latter was in Saudi Arabia. Odey and Presidential Spokesperson, Segun Adeniyi maintained a dignified silence to avoid sending wrong signals to the public.

One of the strategies effectively adopted by John Odey in his brief stint as Minister of Information was the weekly Press Briefing he addressed after each meeting of the Federal Executive Council in Presidential Villa. The avenue afforded him the opportunity to highlight positive developments, new directions of government and also using it occasionally to correct misgiving in the polity. While no human is ever infallible, John Odey may have had his weaknesses but he was never arrogant or vindictive as he tried to carry everyone along even against political and bureaucratic considerations.

He couldn’t make much noise because in every organization whether public or private, the ultimate boss dictates the tune. Probably that was the reason he was not as loud and garrulous as past ministers in similar positions.

There is no doubt, Professor Akunyili will prove her worth in the new terrain considering the overwhelming support she has so far received from different angle and surprisingly from media and public relations practitioners.

In the area of practical media relations, she may have no problems. Her success and global recognition as a non-nonsense anti-fake drug crusader when she was the boss at NAFDAC were largely influenced by the tremendous support and encouragement of the Nigeria’s media who promoted and protected her positions. Probably it is in recognition of her goodwill with the press that President Musa Yar’Adua posted her to Ministry of Information.

I believe Prof. Dora Akunyili can facilitate, through tactical lobbying, the quick passage of Freedom of Information Bill with the National Assembly. She Should also ensure that Nigeria Press Council as the regulator of the press in Nigeria, perform its statutory responsibilities diligently and fearlessly like NAFDAC by monitoring unethical and unprofessional conducts of some media outfits in their reportage and editorials.

To sanitize the profession of journalism and public relations practice in Nigeria, she should support the efforts of NUJ and NIPR in ensuring that those that practice these sensitive professions have acquired basic training and qualifications. She can do that as she did with certifications of products and practitioners in Food and Drug industry in Nigeria as NAFDAC’s boss.

While we welcome the new minister to new social and political terrain of information dissemination, she must be reminded that some actions may require different approaches: diplomacy, patience, endurance, decisiveness, courage and sincerity of purpose or one can easily lose all the past glories and respects earned over the years.

If she intends to play safe from going against her major constituency which is now the media, is better she concentrate her energy on the communications’ aspect of the ministry which deal with telecom operators and their incredible services of late. That is where there is business without politics of what-to-say and not-to-say.

This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in Economic Confidential January, New Nigerian January 8, Daily Trust January 8, Sunday Tribune January 11, Daily Sun January 12, Triumph January 14, Thisday January 18, Guardian January 19 and Leadership January 21, 2009


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Yushau Shuaib

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