When you work for President Goodluck Jonathan in the shady underbelly of his presidency as one of the many legs of his money-morphing millipede, you’ve got to grow legs longer than the rest to get noticed. The presidential elections are over and its time for emergency heroes to step forward to take a bow! But there are no heralding trumpets, no jangling cymbals nor serenading ballads, only the thumping sound of bodies of hundreds of Nigerian citizens being felled on the streets of Kaduna, Kano, Adamawa, Nasarawa, Yobe, Kogi, Sokoto, Jigawa, Zamfara, Taraba, Niger, Bauchi and Gombe and for no other reason than that President Jonathan won the election.
But it shouldn’t matter, should it? It shouldn’t matter that the nation is going through a dark period with these unnecessary killings and that a celebratory President is still transfixed in the cacophonous admiration of his shiny electoral medal as his Rome burns. So, step forward, son! Step forward, Reno Omokri! He’s got to do the lizard dance! He’s got to leap down from the top of the Rock in our face and nod his swollen head in self-congratulation a zillion times plus one! He’s got to gloat! The role of social media, something he’s championed for Jonathan, some say as his ghost writer on Facebook and Twitter, has to be celebrated!
Okay, you may not have heard of Reno Omokri before last year. But he’s Jonathan’s kinsman and is also kinsman to Jonathan’s Senior Special Assistant on Research Documentation and Strategy, Oronto Douglas. When the decision was taken to muscle in on the internet, no expense was spared as the Jonathan people went for top of the international range in Joe Trippi, the top Democratic campaign strategist from the United States who took charge of the project. Mr Trippi who’s worked for Edward Kennedy, Gary Hart, Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt, Tony Blair and Howard Dean needed a Man Friday to set the ball rolling. Mr Omokri, who was no more than a general dogsbody to Nasir El-Rufai, a former Minister under the Olusegun Obasanjo government was wheeled in to work with Trippi’s firm, Trippi & Associates and just so they legitimise his presence there, he was given the fanciful position on paper of Vice President in the firm. When I say on paper, I mean on paper, because you will never see anywhere, not even on the firm’s website, where Omokri is ever mentioned or acknowledged as a staff member of Trippi & Associates. It’s just a convenient arrangement for the ‘Goodluck Project’, it seems. With a President as benefactor and the firm having the freedom of the almighty dollar to popularise Jonathan in the social media, the world was Omokri’s oyster! Indeed, ‘President Jonathan’, the Facebook President spent time on his pages ‘bigging up’ Omokri supposedly for his work with ‘Build Up Nigeria’, which is no more than a few video clips of supposedly progressive Nigeria and a website still under construction. However, with such presidential epaulettes on his tiny shoulders, Omokri felt supremely qualified to spin tales!
So, on Tuesday, 19 April, 2011, Mr Omokri took himself to Washington DC, where he and Nasir El-Rufai were scheduled to give separate talks on the just concluded presidential election in Nigeria at the Atlantic Council. Omokri’s brief, not surprisingly, was to discuss the role of social media in Jonathan’s victory at the polls. His ‘boss’, Mr Trippi rushed in from Nigeria to support him. However, Mr Omokri in his assessment of the role of the social media in Jonathan’s victory only had one purpose – to tell Nigerians and the international community that SaharaReporters, the advocacy journalism website that has been a thorn in their delicate flesh has been the cause of the ferment in the North! In Mr Omokri’s narrative, SaharaReporters is “the opposition party-linked site” that “amplified” the claims by Buhari’s spokesman, Yinka Odumakin who, “while rejecting the results alleged that votes in the North were deflated while votes in the South were inflated”. To Omokri, anyone who knows Nigeria “could almost predict that those claims would lead to violence”. He said the day after the election, he and some of his election monitoring partners began to observe on Facebook and Twitter “multitudes of young opposition supporters venting that they had been cheated” and who “pointed not to any observed lapses, not to reports from Election Monitors ( who ALL, including the respected former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae, opined that the elections were free, fair and credible) but to reports from saharareporters.com.” With that, he invited us to “see that opposition supporters (mostly youths) were largely incited by the uncorroborated allegations from an opposition leaning website”.
But what Mr Omokri did in Washington is part of a coordinated strategy conceived by the Jonathan team to counter the growing impression that even though the presidential election has been described as largely peaceful, all may not be as it seems with increasing evidence of obviously inflated poll numbers indicating that the sophisticated rigging programme may have been more widespread than observers are generally admitting. Working from the premise that more of such revelations may give fillip to the protests over the elections in the North, it was resolved to target the uncompromised media. Thus, on the day, while part of the team planted a story in the Nigerian Tribune accusing the BBC Hausa Service of inciting the riots for allegedly broadcasting that General Muhammadu Buhari had won the election in Adamawa State when the results were still being collated, Jonathan’s media chief, Ima Niboro was releasing a statement accusing “some foreign media” of polarizing the country by reporting that the nation is divided along religious lines and that the “Muslim North” voted against President Goodluck Jonathan. Thus, while his partners were taking on the traditional press, Omokri’s brief was to take on the internet media and there is no better target than SaharaReporters.
Ordinarily, it would have been okay to ignore Mr. Omokri’s claims and put it down to the result of overindulgence in a heady mix of celebratory champagne and ogogoro, but knowing that this is part of a wider strategy initiated during the Yar’Adua presidency to muzzle the critical internet-based media, with huge funds dedicated to it, it is crucial that the Nigerian people and free citizens of the world begin to take a harder look at them. It is no rocket science to understand why SaharaReporters is being tagged “opposition-linked” website for publishing the same statements released to the press by politicians and published by other websites and media outlets in an election season. Mr. Omokri and his people never sent stories or releases to SaharaReporters that weren’t published on its pages. The site is as available to them as it is available to other Nigerians, yet they choose to stigmatize the website for the simple reason that it remains uncompromised in a sea of supine media. SaharaReporters’ crime is that discerning citizens, even where they have misgivings about one or two reports, still trust its reports better than those published by the compromised media. They do so, because they know what SaharaReporters represents in the Nigerian public and international space and the information gap it fills for our people.
At this stage, I would advise that Omokri and his band of mercenaries move on. The election is over and we are sure they and their international spinmeisters have received their pay for a job well done. Jonathan is the President of the whole country; there is crisis afoot with citizens being killed by other citizens in a rage over an election he won. The onus is on him to win back the trust of those law-abiding citizens aggrieved and there can be no better way to do this than providing the country with real leadership. Perhaps, a less ambitious and more considerate person wouldn’t have torpedoed the zoning arrangement in his party, an arrangement that ensured his own rise to the top, and risk heating up the polity as he has done; but that is politics the Nigerian way and we just need to be grateful that the easily-led-by-the-nose, uninformed and illiterate mobs going around the North, burning, looting, maiming and killing in the name of electoral protest aren’t in the majority. Indeed, the pattern of the protests indicates that they are more focused on attacking the PDP bigwigs and their own elite they think sold out their people to Jonathan, even though this is supposedly in support of General Buhari’s electoral challenge.
The real tragedy comes to fore when we look beyond these claims. When you consider that those running amok are the very young who have been denied basic education, are poor and uninformed and whose minds are fertile grounds for sowing seeds of mayhem, the buck rightly shifts to the political leadership and its failure to address the socio-economic problems plaguing the country generally and particularly the North. There was so much hope in Jonathan and that was why SaharaReporters put itself in the forefront in the fight against the ‘cabal’ and their agents who were intent on stopping him from rightfully assuming the presidency. It was inconceivable that with his background as a minority, his good education, humble posture, considerable experience of being at the top since 1999 and seemingly less political baggage, he would not make an appreciable difference in the life of Nigerians. Yet, it’s been an all-round disappointment. Not a few believe Jonathan made himself prisoner to special interests and blood-sucking godfathers and became master of the game of political chicanery. But he now has a clean slate. If those who are advising him really love him and Nigeria, they should be telling him not to take for granted this grudging mandate given to him by Nigerians. He must stop the posturing and go for real results. There is so much to do and it would be in his interest and that of Nigeria and Nigerians for him to focus on these, rather than waste his time trying to stigmatise those who ask the hard questions. Nigeria needs honest, visionary and productive leadership and if he begins to provide this now, as true patriots, we shall be there to support him. The ball is in his court, not in the Omokris’ or their type.