President Buhari’s Need for Citizens’ Engagement -By Dayo Isreal

Filed under: National Issues |
Dayo Isreal

Dayo Isreal

 

Mr President, we know you have only done a month in office but we want you to address us directly as often as you can. Enough of the press releases and statements from aides, we want a president who speaks to us. It would highly endear your administration to the people. Mr. President, please don’t speak to us through speeches at events only, address a weekly press briefing in the villa; when there’s an incidence, come out publicly and address Nigerians yourself, and not just through prepared press statements from your media office.

As Nigeria celebrated the victory of General Muhammadu Buhari in the past presidential election, the key expectation from the government for most Nigerians is an all engaging and inclusive administration. This has been further confirmed by the #OpenNass and #OpenGovt campaign. Many Nigerians, I included, look forward to an administration in which the president addresses the people directly from the lawn of Aso Rock and through town hall meetings and/or at high schools across the North-East. However, when the president’s first appointment was of two spokespersons, I began to get worried. Was this going to be more of the same? Is this the change we have been expecting?

The momentum the Buhari/Osinbajo campaign gave to Nigerians was positively exhilarating. The Vice Presidential candidate was on the bus, in markets and community places, speaking on the ingenuity and credibility of their ticket. He was the icon of the campaign in the South-West. We saw General Muhammadu Buhari (GMB) and Professor Yemi Osinbajo (PYO) engage us actively, like no other presidential candidate and his deputy have done in recent campaigns. Even people who weren’t going to support General Buhari because of his old age and dictatorial antecedent came on board due to conviction about the Vice Presidential candidate. “President Buhari is a man of integrity, he is going to hit the ground running, he has experience in countering insurgency like he did to the maitatsene,” Professor Osinbajo claimed in one of his pre-election conversations with the public.

However since the inauguration, the vibe of the APC campaign and the momentum from APC and the General Muhammadu Buhari/Professor Yemi Osinbajo team has died down. We only see the Vice President speaking at church events and the president speaking through one aide or the other. Where is our Professor Yemi Osinbajo? Where is the voice that mesmerised us with his intellect to support the GMB/PYO ticket? We want to hear from the men we voted in to represent us. We want them to speak to us the same way they did when they sought our vote. We had numerous town hall meetings, many independent, and others supported by ACT NOW, where PYO spoke to us about his aspirations; we also seek a continuation of these town hall meetings to brainstorm together on how to achieve the government’s job creation goals.

One of the uniqueness of the APC campaign was the engaging way David Axelrod reportedly drove the campaign. Engaging, captivating and unique. One almost thought it was an Obama campaign, and hence we had expected an Obama kind of engagement in the new government.

Each time foreign presidents are visiting Washington DC, President Obama would walk them to the south lawn for a live press briefing, where he addresses the public. He does the same when he travels locations, like visiting a school and addressing issues of childhood obesity, etc. Mr President, we know you have only done a month in office but we want you to address us directly as often as you can. Enough of the press releases and statements from aides, we want a president who speaks to us. It would highly endear your administration to the people. Mr. President, please don’t speak to us through speeches at events only, address a weekly press briefing in the villa; when there’s an incidence, come out publicly and address Nigerians yourself, and not just through prepared press statements from your media office.

Your Excellency, President Buhari, Nigerians would appreciate an extra effort in your engagement with us.

According to the White House Historical Association (WHHA), “In a democratic nation like the United States, where citizens determine by their votes who will serve them in government, it is important that citizens have contact with their representatives. On the highest national level, this means that Americans need to know what the president is thinking, what his plans are, and how he hopes to tackle those challenges that concern them. Throughout history, presidents have used all technology available to help them reach greater numbers of Americans. As new inventions increased the ability to communicate, presidents made good use of them”.

WHHA confirms that when first president George Washington (1789-1797) took office, he decided that he would visit every state in the nation — from New Hampshire to Georgia. He took trips at different times, one to the north and another through the southern states. He traveled on horseback and in a horse-drawn carriage. The journey to the south took more than two months and Washington traveled almost 2,000 miles. Washington believed that this was the best way to get to know the American people, the cities and towns they lived in, the land they farmed, and the system of roads upon which they traveled (the roads were mostly sandy, muddy, or bumpy).

According to WHHA, Washington also knew that the American people were curious about him. What did Washington look like, they wondered? What sort of man is he? Most Americans had never seen him face-to-face, and many had not even seen a picture of him. More importantly, the citizens had never seen a president — any president — before. Washington’s tour of the United States marked the first time a president had communicated with the nation. Even though Washington knew his speeches to Congress would be published in newspapers, this was not the same as making contact with Americans.

In changing how a president addressed the nation, and by educating and comforting the public with his speeches, FDR was able to bring about some of the most revolutionary changes in American and world history. These included the New Deal and the United Nations. Roosevelt’s fireside chats also helped him convince Americans, in the years before Pearl Harbor, that they could not remain isolated.

Once would recall that one of the undoings of the Jonathan administration was lack of transparency and a closed government. More importantly, they weren’t communicating. Yet, one would also give it to the Jonathan administration for its strategic engagements with the public through various town hall meetings and activities with stakeholders, such as the youth, women, Nollywood and more. An open government must go hand-in-hand with people’s engagement.

According to Washington historians, probably the most successful communicator on the radio was President Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945). From the room now known as the Diplomatic Reception Room, on the ground floor of the White House, Roosevelt used his “fireside chats” to talk directly to Americans about the problems they were facing during the Great Depression in the 1930s and during World War II in the 1940s. Families and friends would sit in their living rooms, by their fireplaces, and listen to the president on their radios. On Sunday night, March 12, 1933, 60 million Americans heard Roosevelt present his first “fireside chat.” His calm voice and simple language helped all Americans understand complicated issues and made them believe that the president was working hard to correct the problems they faced in their everyday lives. Before the United States joined the fight against Adolph Hitler’s Germany in World War II, Great Britain asked for America’s help in its struggle against the Nazis. When Roosevelt wanted to explain why the U.S. was lending England guns and ships, he compared this to lending your neighbour a garden hose while his house is on fire — you lend your neighbour what he needs in an emergency, and worry about being repaid later. FDR used language as a powerful political tool, changing the way executive office holders speak to the nation. As president during the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt insisted on using plain direct speech, rather than the flourishing rhetoric of the presidents who had preceded him, as Anne Marie Stresser says.

Mr. President Muhammadu Buhari, Sir you might have to adopt your own FDR-style fire chat. A state of the union address and a monthly presidential media chat is not out of order beginning from July. Our culture of a closed government must change, public engagement would do this administration only good.

Roosevelt’s evening radio addresses helped worried citizens stay informed about and involved with all matters of state. FDR intentionally used “direct, simple, calm, language” to explain problems and his plans to solve them. He sensed that he would be most effective in communicating with the public if he “joined” citizens in their living rooms and kitchens for relaxed conversation. No president had ever made the effort to address his citizenry so directly and informally. Your Excellency, President Buhari, Nigerians would appreciate an extra effort in your engagement with us.

In changing how a president addressed the nation, and by educating and comforting the public with his speeches, FDR was able to bring about some of the most revolutionary changes in American and world history. These included the New Deal and the United Nations. Roosevelt’s fireside chats also helped him convince Americans, in the years before Pearl Harbor, that they could not remain isolated.

Decades later, Ronald Reagan took Roosevelt’s use of mass media to a new level, making the presidency seem even more accessible. Although not the first president to use television, Reagan is remembered as a master of the medium, who delivered his vision dramatically, distilling it to its essential elements.

Further, Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) was the first president to appear on television from the White House. On October 5, 1947, he spoke about the world food crisis. His speech was seen in New York and Philadelphia. Just two years later, about 10 million viewers saw Truman’s inauguration, and more than 100 million heard it on the radio.

Mr. President, public speaking is not just important for presidential debates and campaigns, engaging citizens are more important than engaging voters.

Today, you can turn on the television and see the American president almost any day of the year. You can read entire speeches on the Internet and send an email message to the president by visiting the White House website. When the president leaves the White House on business or vacation, he now speaks to the American people from anywhere in the world using satellites to beam his message around the globe. In interviews with Ron Suskind in 2010, Obama said, “The area in my presidency where I think my management and understanding of the presidency evolved most, and where I think we made the most mistakes, was less on the policy front and more on the communications front… I think I was so consumed with the problems in front of me that I didn’t step back and remember, ‘What is the particular requirement of the president that no one else can do?’ And what the president can do, that nobody else can do, is tell a story to the American people about where we are and where we are going … going forward as president, the symbols and gestures — what people are seeing coming out of this office — are at least as important as the policies we put forward.” In an interview with Charlie Rose two years later, the president said the same thing. Asked to name a mistake he had made, Obama said it was not telling good enough stories to the American people.

Mr. President Muhammadu Buhari, Sir you might have to adopt your own FDR-style fire chat. A state of the union address and a monthly presidential media chat is not out of order beginning from July. Our culture of a closed government must change, public engagement would do this administration only good. An Office of Public Engagement should be instituted to help you reach the citizens more. This office should allow the views of the ordinary Nigeria citizen to be more readily heard within your administration. The office should coordinate events that bring members of the administration in contact with members of the public. The “town-hall” style meetings held by President Barack Obama since being elected are an example of this sort of policy at work. The office should also acts as a cheerleader for the administration and ensure the coordination of your administration’s message amongst different departments, in order to ensure full and balanced exposure.

Nigeria deserves to be continually engaged. Please call on your party, the APC and all state government to set up a public engagement team in their communities. As part of making government accessible to its citizens, the Office of Public Engagement should act as a point of coordination for public speaking engagement for the administration and the various departments of the offices of the president. This office should remove obstacles and barriers for engagement and works to improve public awareness and involvement in the work of the administration.

Mr. President, public speaking is not just important for presidential debates and campaigns, engaging citizens are more important than engaging voters.

Dayo Isreal is African Regional Director for GLEEHD Foundation.

 

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