Sunday, April 18, 2021

Buhari and the virus, STRATCOM and underlying issues, by Richard Ali


tiamin rice

In an address broadcast to the nation on Sunday, March 29, the Federal Government seems to have finally gotten ahead of the new threat profile posed by the COVID19. President Muhammadu Buhari spoke in decisive terms about the coronavirus and how it has affected Nigeria. He situated the Nigerian people as being the great bulwark against the spread of the virus. Of interest is paragraph 29 which states that all inconsistencies in policy guidelines between the FGN and states will be eliminated. Inconsistency in policy is one thing, the execution of policy is another and how policy is owned and adopted by its target audience is yet another. This last lies in the realm of strategic communications, also known as STRATCOM. STRATCOM finds its roots in the disciplines of marketing and public relations.

STRATCOM is both a practice and a discursive framework useful in evaluating how effectively information is broadcast, it does this by measuring compliance. It starts with the purpose of communication and works backward to create the message. The president’s desire for policy consistency necessitates the communication of these policies at the federal, state and local government levels to the people. While the coronavirus pandemic is a health crisis, the reality of communications failures is no less evident in issues of internal security. Further, in the highly interrelated world we live in, a pandemic is most definitely an internal security matter. This is seen by the exercise of disease containment protocols such as quarantine and location lockdowns, which are aided by the deployment of national security assets, primarily the police but, in our peculiar Nigerian case, the military as well. At present, only Lagos, Osun and the Federal Capital, Abuja, are on lockdown. Should prevalence spread to other major population centers, there is the possibility of adding more cities to the list.

In the last weeks, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has been at the forefront of disseminating information about the COVID19. In instances, the federal Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire, has intervened to make not always very helpful press releases. The federal Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, has been missing in action regarding the coronavirus; as has been the minister in charge of Communications, Isa Ali Pantami, recently restyled his ministry to include Nigeria’s “digital economy”.

In my hometown, Jos, last week Friday, a preacher, Sheikh Jingir, held public Jumaat prayers after claiming that the coronavirus disease did not in fact exist and the hoopla around it was a plot by “the Jews” (those eternal bogeymen for 20th century-variety Islamists and Middle Ages Catholics) to stop Muslims praying. The image that is most interesting was of young Nigerians in a public square in Jos yelling in Hausa, “Mallam ya ce babu Corona!” This translates to: “The learned man (Sheikh Jingir) has said, no such thing as the corona (virus) exists.” A video has also circulated of the FCT’s COVID task force, led by Attah Ikharo, confronting a Pastor U. Uden, who also held a church service. A police station in Katsina was burnt down by supporters of a cleric, Mallam Hassan, who, like Sheikh Jingir, had held public prayers on Friday. Mallam Hassan was then detained by the police, much to the ire of his partisans. At least one person died.

The monumental ignorance and the irresponsibility of religious leaders and the flock, sheep who gathered to these clerics on Friday and Sunday, despite regulations in place for social distancing, is precisely a failure of strategic communications. It is a failure of our ministers of Health, Information and Culture, and Communications and the Digital economy primarily. It is a failing of interagency cooperation for strategic communications on the COVID19 by the government of Nigeria. If some of the people who attended Sheikh Jingir and Pastor U. Uden’s services catch and spread the coronavirus, a part of the blame must be fastened on these officials—Osagie Ehanire, Lai Mohammed and Isa Ali Pantami. The buck stops with them. They should have worked together to develop a common STRATCOM for this pandemic. They have not.

In developing a national STRATCOM strategy, the WHY—HOW—WHAT matrix is useful. This matrix must be worked out by the brightest people the relevant ministries can find, who have a thorough knowledge of departmental capacities, capabilities and culture. WHY has already been set out by Mr. President: To prevent the spread of the coronavirus while our citizens, workers and business owners suffer as little as possible from the necessary restrictions facing the crisis will call for. This is the strategic direction. HOW, this is where the Ministers come in. How can the messaging be tailored to the several types of Nigerians that exist, factoring in literacy levels, rural-urban location and much else, relying on data that exists within these government departments? Pantami, Lai Mohammed and Ehanire’s best brains have to ask themselves what problems arise from the WHY; which target groups exist that are affected by these problems; what do these target groups care about the most, what are their concerns? This is tactical level work and this must be thorough. Strategic success depends on what’s done at that level. WHAT refers to individual interventions that follow an exhaustive tactical understanding of the problems the strategic direction throws up. It answers: what means do we use to get the message across to the several individuals but interconnected levels of target groups most effectively? Everything, administrative platform and collaborations alike, resides here.

Now putting it all together. We cannot afford failures in strategic communications in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Now is not the time for grandstanding and silo-thinking mentalities within relevant government agencies. On this column, I have called for a serious commitment to interagency cooperation within the government of Nigeria. I am yet to see this happening and the fact that citizens, by their thousands, ignored social distancing on Friday and Sunday, is a key performance indicator.

We see the STRATCOM failings in the response to COVID19 in issues of internal security as well—whether it is in the ways we communicate necessary kinetic force application in a country where the military plays an outsize and overstretched role in maintaining internal security; or in how we counter the narratives of religious and ethnic violent extremists; or in how we employ soft approaches to preventing and countering violent extremism and disrupting the pathways of radicalization. Addressing myself to the highest policymaking levels of the government of Nigeria, I say: This needs to change. And fast. Much more has to be done. History, and the next election for you politicians, is at stake.

As for the rest of us, especially those under quarantine: stay safe, stay indoors, and follow the directives of the NCDC. In the true Nigerian manner, “Happy Quarantine”.

Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and of the State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet. He can be reached at [email protected]

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