By Azu Ishiekwene
I have known the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, for a long time, I think. Before I got close, I was first drawn to him when he was chief of staff to former Lagos State Governor, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, even though I had known him earlier at the Nigerian Airports Authority.
But my interest grew from knowing to fascination and from fascination to respect when Mohammed became National Publicity Secretary of the Action Congress of Nigeria, a legacy party of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
In that position, which he held for many years and after which there has been none like him, Mohammed was arguably the single nastiest thorn in the side of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). He helped, in a significant way, to pave PDP’s road to hell and yet managed to keep them looking forward to the trip all the way.
He was their misery, their nightmare, their pain. It was not just what he did to the PDP during the tenures of three presidents – Olusegun Obasanjo, Umar Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan – which was bad enough – that made him stand out. It was how he did it.
In press statement after press statement, Mohammed called out the hubris of the PDP. The unpredictable locations from where the statements were postmarked gave the feeling of a mobile Howitzer. You could never tell where or when the next shell would fall.
He mocked the incompetence of the PDP and pointed out their hypocrisy. For nearly a decade, he challenged them consistently, to govern instead of making excuses, which they couldn’t even make competently.
I have not always agreed with those who insist that you cannot count three poorly performing ministers of President Muhammadu Buhari’s government without naming Mohammed, but his press conference last week after the CNN story on the Lekki Toll Gate shooting, got me worried for him.
Not that CNN is infallible. But its reporting – that soldiers used live rounds at the toll gate; that protesters may have been killed; and that government’s flip-flop was an indication of a cover-up, had been substantially reported in earlier investigative reports by Premium Times andAmnesty International. I don’t know which one was more reprehensible – the shootings, deaths, and the widespread violence and destruction that followed, or government’s shambolic handling of the whole affair. What exactly was Mohammed saying?
Why and how he would threaten, at a news conference, to “sanction” CNN without any material proof or facts in support of his position only for him to begin to assemble his defense days after publicly issuing the threat, left me wondering which Mohammed is in office today. His emotive and chaotic response during the flare-up in Nigeria-Ghana relations in August was a yellow flag for me. And last week, it turned red, raising serious questions about his job.
My search led me to, Witness to Truth, the 642-page book by the old Mohammed published eight years ago with foreword by General Mohammadu Buhari, as he then was, himself a casualty in at least one of the Mohammed’s press statements in the book.
If you read the book, which ought to be compulsory reading for all party and government spokespersons, including the new Mohammed, you will understand that except if Reuben Abati’s theory of Aso Rock voodoo has proved overwhelmingly right, it is improbable that the same Mohammed of old would tackle CNN the way he did on the matter at hand.
Witness to Truth is a compilation of about 500 press statements and special interviews granted by Mohammed on every conceivable subject from the rule of law to equity and justice and from violence to corruption, transparency, electoral integrity and responsible governance.
The pages are smeared with the blood of scapegoats – from Segun Oni to Maurice Iwu and Timipre Silva. But the cauldron is reserved for Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. The recurring theme being how useless and bereft the PDP had become as a ruling party.
As I read the book again, I couldn’t help thanking the old Mohammed for helping to hold PDP’s feet to the fire all the time. More important, however, we owe him a debt of gratitude for giving us something against which we’re now also obliged to measure him and the government he serves.
If Mohammed was still in opposition when the CNN ran its report last week, he would have wasted no time in issuing a statement like this:
“The All Progressives Congress (APC) has expressed shock and sadness at the video footage broadcast by the respected CNN in its investigative report on November 18 on the Lekki Toll Gate shooting, entitled, ‘How a bloody night of bullets quashed a young protest movement.’
“The report, which came nearly one month after the horrific scenes at the Toll Gate, largely confirms what a number of respectable local media organisations had reported and what the discerning public had always suspected: that we are in a democracy only in words.
“While we have no reason to be nostalgic about the years of military rule, we say unequivocally that not once during those years were unarmed protesters so brutally confronted, Gestapo-style on the basis of supposed inconvenience of demanding an end to police brutality.
“In light of the revealing and irrefutable report by CNN, the APC calls on the government to hasten investigations in the circumstances that led to the deployment of soldiers to the Lekki Toll Gate and the use of live rounds against defenceless youths waving the national flag and singing the national anthem.
“It is also an unfortunate symptom of the dictatorial and antediluvian tendencies of this government and its agents that, in complete disregard of the rule of law, they have gone ahead to freeze the accounts of citizens, hunting them down and chasing them underground for daring to express their democratic rights and demanding an end to police brutality.
“The CNN report has now confirmed what the APC has always said – that under this government, we have become a laughing stock to the world, with a Minister of Information who, instead of seeking and defending truth, is seeking victims, penalising local media stations and threatening the foreign media.
“Of course, the APC condemns, unequivocally, the killing of policemen and the large-scale destruction of property across the country in the wake of the #ENSARS protests. But the question must be asked: who sponsored the thugs that infiltrated and inflamed the protests? Who deployed the soldiers? How do they account for the live rounds used that night, and which particular CCTV footage is central to evidence in this investigation?
“Nobody is safe from a government that does not understand the meaning of democracy or the right of dissent – a government that does not know that the activism of pro-democracy groups was at the vanguard of the democracy being enjoyed today, by all including the Minister of Information so quick to defend the indefensible.
“The APC is alarmed that at a time when millions of Nigerians are concerned about the rampant news of kidnap, armed robbery and banditry; at a time when soldiers appear to be on the backfoot in the war on Boko Haram and university campuses are being invaded, the Minister of Information still had time to grandstand about the so-called unfair coverage of the Lekki Toll Gate shooting when, in fact, the entire country is under a siege.
“Instead of embarking on a fruitless, self-assigned task as enforcer of global journalistic standards, the APC advises the Minister of Information and Culture to ask his bosses in Abuja to put their own house in order first and, at least, do some homework, before confronting CNN.
“We ask all lovers of freedom and democracy to ignore the sanctimonious posturing of this government and insist on the pursuit of truth in the investigations to unravel what really happened that sordid night at the Lekki Toll Gate.”
In case you consider the foregoing improbable, read the press statement issued by Mohammed in Lagos on March 25, 2009 entitled, “AC shocked at journalist’s ordeal in Bayelsa, asks NJC to intervene” on page 68 of his book, Witness to Truth.
The apple of this journalistic invention did not fall far from the tree of that book.
Ishiekwene is MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview