President Obasanjo’s monthly media chats were unprecedented in Nigeria . What made it even more interesting at the time was the constant talk about how he hated journalists and interviews. He still managed to face them once every month and sometimes took random (even if doctored) phone calls from Nigerians. Yet, most Nigerians did not still feel like they connected well with Mr. President and wanted him to be more accessible. This was in spite of the fact that no other President before or after President Obasanjo had/has been able to match the feat.
Some people now seem to miss that, while others do not see any reason to fret since new media has taken over from the constant reliance on the old press. US President Barack Obama is like the poster boy for politicians who have used new media as a way of staying in touch with people. He became popular for his use of the Internet to campaign, with email services, a website and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Interestingly, he did not stop after his campaign. I for one, registered on his website at the time, and till date I still get emails from him on everything from asking people to support the Healthcare Bill, asking for ideas on how to tackle immigration issues. The first Lady Michelle Obama, asking us to sign a surprise birthday card for her husband. I am not even American; yet for some reason, I have always felt like a part of their government. There is just something about opening an email that reads ‘From: President Barack Obama’, and starts with; ‘Dear Ebuka’. Even if I know that the same email was sent to millions of other registered people to the website, it still leaves me happy.
But that joy was a little dashed on Thursday when President Obama made an appearance on a show that is hugely popular with the women. ‘The View’ is a show with female co-hosts, known for being very loud and intimidating towards their guests. Most men cringe at the thought of even watching it, talk more of being a guest on it. But President Obama became the first sitting American President to appear on the hour-long show; or on any daytime talk show for that matter, in history. Amongst the many questions on Afghanistan and the economy, the one question that stuck for me was when he was asked about his account on the social networking site Twitter. He confessed that he has never posted any of those message online and that he had a 20 something year old who did that for him. Not that I expected the President of the most powerful country in the world to spend his time constantly typing out messages to people.
Having it stated so clearly by the man himself, made everything lose its personal touch. It also made me think about my own President Jonathan and the recent buzz that was generated after he was said to have joined Facebook. I was also as excited as most Nigerians, especially those in my generation who have embraced social networks as their means of communication and tool for being heard. It felt good to know that Mr. President was just a click away, especially after he was said to have lifted the ban on the Super Eagles from participating in international football, based on comments on his Facebook page. I was one of those who hoped the ban would not stand and even though I never took my complaints to Mr. President’s Facebook page, I was extremely excited at the fact that victory could be achieved in Nigeria in such an unconventional way.
After reading an article on the same issue by Tolu Ogunlesi, the slogan amongst young people seems to have become;‘Have you liked President Jonathan today?’; referring to his page on Facebook where simply by clicking on the icon that says ‘Like’, you become one of over 140,000 Nigerians whom the President supposedly interacts with on a daily basis even if after the Obama episode, I am left to ask; are we really interacting with Mr. President? That is an aside though. But the more important questions to ask are; does Mr. President really care that much about what we have to say seeing how many advisers he surrounds himself with? Secondly, is he really interested in running an open government where all Nigerians are involved or is he just being a typical politician who is doing what seems to be the vogue, without really caring that much for Facebook or the comments there? Most importantly, is he using the positive Facebook buzz as a diversion or distraction from doing what he should be but isn’t really doing as the Head of State?
It is very rare to find politicians who embrace change in Nigeria . When they do, it is usually because they have some selfish interests there from. Naturally, that skepticism has followed this sudden love for the social media by President Jonathan. While most people find only positives in it, some wonder what he would be doing with 140,000 opinions at once. Is it not true that when too many people are talking, no one is heard? Is that not why we have journalists who should be able to concisely relay the issues Nigerians have. Because whether we like it or not, most of what Nigerians complain of on that Facebook page, are things that are being written about everyday on the pages of newspapers. From electricity to kidnappings to corruption, to unemployment, I for one in my short 4 year stint on this page have found myself writing on these same issues every week without seeing a difference. The fact remains that Mr. President definitely knows what the problems are. Suddenly hearing them from Facebook users does not change anything. Thus, it becomes easy to conclude that he is just looking for an easy way of striking a chord with Nigerians, which would not be too painful anyways, as it would only remind us that he is being a typical politician.
It is wonderful to keep in touch with Nigerians and make them feel a sense of belonging. But when that sense of belonging only ends with rescinding decisions then, we would not have gained anything. The real needs of Nigerians are not the Super Eagles. Nigerians are hungry! Nigerians need power, jobs, security and good roads. No matter how chummy their online relationship is with Mr. President, fixing these major issues as a result of the feedback online should be paramount. The online chit-chat should not be a cover for not doing the right thing since at the end of it all, Mr. President will be remembered for what he has done in office; not for how many status updates he had or how many Nigerians he responded to on Facebook. Above all this though, there is no doubt that there are a lot of positives from this ‘GEJ’ (as President Jonathan refers to himself on Facebook) Internet buzz. For example with due respect to journalists, I for one had never heard that Nigeria had an abandoned property in the US state of California until someone pointed it out on Mr. President’s wall, talking about how the state was the 7th largest economy in the world and needed a Nigerian consulate like most other countries. Mr. President highlighted that comment and talked about how he had directed the Ambassador to give him feedback on the property for possible resuscitation. Also, without Facebook, Mr. President may never have known about the now famous Dipo Daramola, who claimed on Mr. President’s page to have the perfect antidote for fighting kidnapping in the country. It would definitely be an awesome story to tell if at the end of the day, kidnapping is nipped in the bud, all thanks to social networking. But even in the face of that, some have argued that his enthusiasm for ‘Facebook’ has made him stop seeing things objectively.
For instance, whatever Dipo may be offering him has existed here in Nigeria for years now, i.e.; simple GPS mobile tracking. He does not have to go all the way to call a Nigerian student in Finland to help with mobile tracking technology. It may also be a waste of time as most mobile phone users in Nigeria are still not 3G users, which may make GPS tracking a little more difficult than envisaged.
But I digress… Without a doubt, I am happy that President Jonathan has embraced social networking. But I also hope that he really is not spending all his time sitting in front of a laptop, reading what Nigerians have to say. There is no doubt that much more than hearing from him; Nigerians want to feel him work. They want to see roads being built, they want to feel more secure, they want to know that paying their electricity bill means that they will be getting power supplied to them adequately. Political stunts are cool and always help ratings. Sadly they never last the test of time.
Yes Nigerians have a very short memory and love people who seem to deliver ‘now now’ as against performance that builds a legacy. When we wake up every day and hear that billions have been budgeted for an undeserved 50th anniversary, or that we can no longer visit our own villages anymore for fear of being kidnapped, or that families die from inhaling generator fumes; or that our Speaker was in a fight with a state governor; or that scores died from accidents resulting from pot holes on what should be expressways, it becomes difficult to pay attention to Mr. President’s Facebook talk. All I ask is that the core reason for him being President is not forgotten in what is beginning to seem like a strategy to draw young voters to his side. Not a bad thing to do, until it starts to interfere with what his job should really be. Mr. President Sir, we love Facebook, we also love that you are on Facebook. But please Sir, get to work and get one tangible thing at least sorted out for Nigerians.
Anything at all… Thank you.
Will the Presidency be kind enough to give the Falconets half the monetary motivation they gave the Super Eagles?