Some time ago, a traveller asked a farmer how to get to a particular village. Deadpanned, the farmer replied: "Gentleman, if I were you, I wouldn't begin from here." When Alhaji Lai Mohammed walked into the Press Gallery for the routine post-Federal Executive Council meeting briefing with the State House correspondents on Wednesday, he showed little sign of someone prepared to exchange verbal fireworks with reporters.
In fact, the Honourable Minister of Information and Culture entered the briefing room cheerfully: "Oh! They've blocked my way. Okay! Okay!" He jocularly remarked to his colleague, Amina Mohammed, the Minister of Environment, as he manoeuvred his way through tangled camera wires that were obstructing his passage to the podium.
Since Wednesday FEC sitting was the first since the January 13 edition that was asterisked by the "lateness" of the Vice President and considering the fact that several crucial issues of national importance have happened within that period, journalists had teed up probing questions. But as soon as he took his seat with his colleagues, the last being the Minister of State for Environment, Ibrahim Jibril, Mohammed warned journalists not to ask any question about the beleaguered 2016 budget. He even went further to specifically restrict us to channelling our questions around the two issues that Mrs. Mohammed would brief us about.
Mohammed's commandeering elicited a simultaneous ahem amongst members of the press corps, and an unidentified voice thundered: "but why?" Unflustered, the aweless minister, finished his brief remarks and passed the microphone to Mrs. Mohammed to read a prepared summary of the FEC's agenda for that day.
By the time Mrs. Mohammed concluded reading the script, climate change and the President's last four foreign trips in 2015 were the two issues said to have been discussed at Wednesday FEC meeting. It was time for reporters to ask their questions which have been streamlined to the two issues as previously noted. But instead of a question, the first thing the ministers received was an unusual reprimand that stemmed from the two-question consternation. A reporter demanded that Mohammed explain why the only focus of the administration would be on issues that not only had little to do with the prevailing circumstances of the Nigerian masses but that had already been ubiquitously reported in the media. He expressed his dismay at the utterances of Mohammed and said it's hard to believe that the president presided over a meeting for 3 hours just to get briefed on his own foreign trips.
Nonplussed, Mohammed looked to his left, adjusted his signature bow tie, a bit of nervous twitch, the rest macho posturing and shot back at the reporter: "Frankly speaking, I'm embarrassingly shocked." Then the reporter cut in again, reiterating his position that climate change issues and the foreign trips have become stale and that the information minister should tell us what issues the FEC really addressed. Rather than give a boilerplate response, however, Mohammed lectured the reporter: "You asked a question, you're supposed to wait for me to answer." That's hardly surprising: we know Mohammed didn't become the most quoted source in the Nigerian media, as spokesman of the then opposition APC, for his sissiness.
Mohammed then went on to explain that the administration thought it pertinent to let Nigerians know about the President's foreign trips because it is what has been demanded. Then the briefing continued with reporters asking about climate change and foreign trips from various angles.
As President Buhari's administration has been forced onto the defensive in recent weeks -- especially over budget inadequacies, controversial anti-corruption measures and incoherent anti-terrorism pronouncements--the daily sparring between his media team and the press is becoming increasingly testy. The administration should expect, and be prepared to absorb, seemingly unusual enquiries that could provoke verbal fireworks.
After the briefing, Mohammed asked me what the name of the reporter that sparred with him is, I responded that he's one of our most senior colleagues here. He then headed to the car park and I returned to the Press Gallery after a brief chat with him. As I entered to take my seat, I heard people screaming the name of the reporter, it was Alhaji, as he's fondly called in media circles, coming back again to see him. He held him by the wrist and the duo walked a few metres away to the corridor. For a moment, the activity was reminiscent of the frenzy about the Deutsche Welle reporter that Jonathan administration banished from the Villa for questioning the Chadian president about military's use of mercenaries to combat Boko Haram insurgents. They chatted for about 20 minutes. To my relief, the two looked sanguine after their confabulation and that closed another typical chapter of a media-government combat.
The Pariah Attack.
By the time the press conference ended, almost everyone has forgotten about the earlier ruction per what was discussed in FEC, because Alhaji had thrown another cause célèbre in the mix. While answering questions about the alleged superfluity of the President's foreign trips that have been on overdrive lately, the information minister responded that the trips have become highly consequential because Nigeria's pariah status during Jonathan's days must be reversed.
"The personal presence of Mr. President in many of these fora is important because before now we were almost a pariah state." The intensity of that language prompted another reporter to press Mohammed for clarification, in what was essentially a lifeline. Alhaji repeated his statement, and that was the story most media houses led with the next day. If the pariah bombshell was an attempt to obscure some parts of the FEC briefing, the Jonathan-administration-was-corrupt meme rose to the occasion once again because at 7:39 a.m. on Friday, "Lai Mohammed" was still trending on Twitter for that "infamous" statement.
On Friday, President Buhari made one of his most popular appointments so far. After what seemed like a political detour with the initial appointment of Bashir Ahmed as PA social media last week, which elicited a mixed bag response across the Nigerian blogosphere, the administration finally announced that the cerebral Tolu Ogunlesi will be heading its social and digital media desk. Tolu's exploit in journalism and public policy is arguably unrivalled, so I consider his appointment a square peg in a square hole. I can't wait to receive my friend at the Villa, albeit he told me he would be "starting work soon" because he has to first disengage from his current assignment at the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment.