The pattern of public communication in Nigeria has over the years been deplorable. Public policy is hardly ever well publicised. The people are always in the dark about a policy, especially the roles they are to play to ensure its success. Indeed, the apparent disconnect between the government and the citizenry is due largely to poor public communication flow. Sometimes, it takes the form of no communication at all while at other times, it is occasioned by inaccurate or inadequate communication. Interestingly, because the real target of any policy is the people, the general public ought to be conversant with any matter of public interest. That is what is referred to as public enlightenment – a veritable prerequisite for national development.
The solution to the problems of development in a nation does not necessarily lie in massive construction of physical structures alone. In fact, the people may, due to ignorance, not appreciate such projects and could misuse them. There is, therefore, the urgent need to place greater emphasis on public enlightenment to prevent devastating mob actions like the burning of public buildings or the disruption of public power supply cables, among others.
A cursory look at the handling of the topical issue of fuel subsidy would show that in reality no one spoke for the indigent Nigerians. Recently, some ministers made a point that majority of protesters against the removal of fuel subsidy did not know why they were on the streets. That observation is, no doubt, correct because there is no way the down-trodden and uneducated indigent persons whom the ministers had in mind, would have known the issues at stake when they were not educated on the subject.
Government as usual takes for granted that people knew or ought to have known, without making effort to ascertain whether or not the issues at stake were known to them or whether those who were supposedly informed understood the message. In other words, the ministers were right that more often than not, people are instigated into protests. This is because the so-cal1ed instigators – the opposition political parties, are no 1ess contemptuous of our neglected indigent Nigerians. Indeed, the diction of the alleged instigators is the same as that of the government, a language which the poor masses do not understand. What, for example, would the uneducated have made out of the address on political mandarins by our dear ministers?
The question why then were the indigents on the streets should not be difficult to answer because they got there through what is called intra-personal communication. Some of them woke up on the first day of a new year to discover that the same amount of money which catered for certain needs the day before suddenly became greatly insufficient for the same needs as was the case with the January 1, 2012 fuel subsidy protest. They did not need to be educated to appreciate their deprivation as well as its suddenness. Thus, no one needed to instigate such persons to get into the streets. While some other persons who are unemployed and thus idle found good company in the streets, other idle hands seized an obviously conducive environment for looting. It was a classical case of people talking to themselves in the absence of communication.
There is, however, the argument that the fuel subsidy matter has, for a while, been the subject of debates here and there and as such it is wrong to say that no one speaks for the uneducated and indigent masses of this country. Here, we need to note that sectoral consolations and public enlightenment are two different issues. Whereas a few things may be said to douse tension or to discourage protest, they are of little relevance because those would essentially pass for what is known as panicky rejoinders. In addition, they are usually directed at the elite and not the indigent Nigerians.
Apart from the fact that the messages are neither timely nor easy to understand by the uneducated, the channels employed are usually inappropriate. Advanced technology has, no doubt, established that the best way to reach mass audience across distances is to use the mass media particularly radio, newspaper and television. But in Nigeria, the problems which indigent Nigerians have with the media are too many.
Firstly, no many people have access to the media or can afford the channels. Secondly, the country’s erratic public power supply makes it difficult for people to listen to radio or watch television. The indigent masses cannot afford batteries for their radios let alone generators for television.
Thirdly, media practice in Nigeria is not only urban-based but exceedingly elitist. It is not grassroots-oriented. To start with the use of local languages which the people hear and understand is unfortunately uncommon. Consequently, media contents which are designed to inform, educate and entertain the people are not understood by them.
Therefore, there exists in Nigeria a visible disconnect between the media and a large percentage of their target audience. This is a major challenge yet to be met because the ideal thing is that people do not need to understand a foreign language to be able to know what is actually happening either in their country or elsewhere.
Sadly, community-based and community-owned radio and television stations, as well as newspapers, are rare in Nigeria. The decision of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) to use its national stations to transmit over 12 Nigerian languages is commendable, but the corporation is yet to operate from all state capitals let alone in local communities. As for television, the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) is supposed to have a total of 200 stations with no less than 80 in local communities, but there is doubt if the expansion project would be completed considering the trend of irregular capital grants to the Authority.
In the case of the print media, it is strange that a nation which had a newspaper, Iwe-Irohin, that was published in a local language as far back as 1859 is yet to come to grips with how to sustain community and local language newspapers. Consequently, to use any of these modern organs to communicate with the indigent Nigerians amounts to nothing.
Traditional institutions would probably have been useful but there is doubt if they are sufficiently committed to public policy to become its advocates.
What is more, modernity has overtaken the traditional channel, which is the town crier. One framework which would have been helpful is the use of cine rovers at the village square. Unfortunately, this has gone into disuse since 1993 when government merged the proscribed MAMSER with the Public Enlightenment Division of the Federal Ministry of Information and Communication which had metamorphosed into National Orientation Agency (NOA).
The great dream of the founding fathers of NOA, which was to use it as a grassroots channel to mobilise public support for government projects and policies has been abandoned, as the agency is now more often used to propagate culture. Who then speaks for indigent Nigerians on public policy?
Toby writes from Port Harcourt.