So long successive governments in Nigeria have grappled with the National image project in so many ways to no avail. Babangida engaged in a cacophony of “Image Laundering” overseas to no avail. In fact since the word “Image Laundering” connoted and still connotes grandiose conferment of some credibility on some discreditable issue, Nigeria’s Image instead took a nose dive.
The next two governments un-enviably suffered hard landings as Babangida’s June 12 altercations stigmatized their policies even before they were made. Chief Ernest Shonekan’s interim government turned out to be interim trouble. In a machiavellian intrigue of leadership, General Abacha’s government emerged but could not emerge from the shell of what people called ‘pariah state’ – assuming there is anything of such associated with image management. Heaving continuous sighs of burden within concentric circles created before he came – and he was part of it – General Abacha saw the futility of image laundering and decided to concentrate on domestic policy – a good strategy. But he was far gone – confusion set in. With propagandry masquerading as image management or more commonly, high spending media relations, the usual result of confusion was frustrations which lead to a number of wrong steps including the Ken Saro Wiwa mistake. And there was no more image to manage. Nigerians however, have afterwards argued that the greatest sign of a stable economy include affordable price of foods, security of life and property and higher employment rate. General Abacha, they argued, held these prices lower enough for the common man to survive. Reforms, they kept arguing, must not achieve less than this ‘benchmark’ if not better. What do we say now?
Chief Obasanjor’s vantage government both foreclosed this in 1999 and made it clear by 2003. Obasanjo’s 1999 government was the best opportune with foundations for establishing goodwill between the government and its various expectant and supportive publics already well laid out. Before he came ethnic biases were beginning to fester, marginalization was everywhere in the air, the west agitated, the Niger Delta felt suffocated, the East felt still conquered, and all felt only the North enjoyed without its minorities. Added to these, the military incursion into governance needed solution. Badly dilapidated infrastructure needed urgent attention. But the future was important. Nigeria needed badly, a history of smooth transition. Who could be the magic wand to solve these stubborn problems? All fingers pointed to the incarcerated and non – political Chief Obasanjo. Against shrill voices in the West, all agreed. He has the image – the image of antecedents. He handed over in 1979. He was a gallant general. And he is Yoruba! And he became President.
It was a promising government that appointed its ministers within the first two weeks with heavy weights like Bola Ige in the legal works after being in Power and Steel. It was a lucky government that had Bush sighting weapons of mass destruction in Iraq thereby sky-rocketing the dollar price of crude oil all through his government. Here was a blessed government that enjoyed absolutely the goodwill of every Nigerian from the outset despite the political injustice meted out to some people in his party. With the aid of world class technocrats, the Obasanjo administration set off by saying the right things: – there would be reforms, the government would step on toes, millions of jobs would be created in the first few years, there would be power for all by 2003, crime would be under check, education would be for all and more. Nigerians saw an Eldora do, hopes rose, shoulders hung high and Nigerians sat salving. Why should not these be achieved? The man has seen money before; he does not need it now. ‘He is old’, people said ‘he has no need to fear’. He knows how to plug both military ambitions and corruption. ‘He knows’, they enthused.
Soon time blew the kick–off whistle on governance. The president then appointed media relations experts as image managers – always the case in Nigeria. With the help of diplomatic image launderer’s, the then president taxied in airplanes from London, Lisbon to Honolulu. He crisscrossed from Alaska to Somali to Japan.
Expectedly, the international community took the disposition of listening to Nigeria. The former president’s international reputation helped. International institutions turned their earlier deaf ears as usually vulturously to the nation. The scorecard of government officials chronicled those in addition to GSM. In the euphoria, we missed out on four basic ingredients of image management.
First, the perception of the publics is the reality. The believability and goodwill a government or an organization achieves depends on its publics not on itself. This is also the fulcrum of its survival. To achieve this, the government needs to keep an eye on how the publics see it constantly comparing it with the desired vision earlier set. Every government that goes defensive, appointing special assistants, who marshal out classic arguments when the publics simply feel otherwise, is hanging itself.
The second is that image is highly imaginative. It belongs to the spirit and soul of the visioners and only takes constant and precise application of appropriate actions to concretize it into cues which others can now see and touch as identities and logos. Because of its very fragile nature, any shift of focus or laxity introduces very difficult – to – discover extraneous factors into it. The most damaging shift of focus is praise singing.
The third lesson the Obasanjo image managers missed is the very simple but difficult – to – practice customer care cum image management principle – under promise but over deliver. This was one of the greatest low points of that government. At all points, the government stood high on promises but with all the enormous resources available to it, fell baldly short of average achievements. To be fair, the military is less ambitious, now but they have since transferred the ambition – they now extort and mercilessly deal with Nigerians in any small encounter, they escort illegal goods and may have joined robbery!
•Otuekere is the Head, Public Relations, Mike Okereke Consulting, Lagos