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Watch Your Words, Mr Minister!

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By Philemon Adjekuko – 
By merely saying that the fuel queues will linger for another two months the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, plunged the country into another round of panic buying in a holiday season which ordinarily has its own troubles.

Before the unfortunate statement, the queues were getting shorter, at least, here in Abuja. Just a short while ago, the same minister inflicted unnecessary pain on Nigerians with his bungled up statement of the reorganisation of NNPC.

Doesn’t the minister know that the energy sector, just like the financial sector, is highly sensitive to information? Given the fragile situation in the petroleum sector, was it even responsible for the minister to make such a statement? Is the minister not already making it
impossible for people to even trust him given his perchance for making statements which the public can not clearly decipher? In other words, is the minister talking too much or does he lack discretion in his statements. These are some of the questions that have dominated public discourse in the last one week.

But much more serious is the issue of where the minster is taking the oil industry. On one hand, he reassures the country that the problems are being fixed. On the other hand, he says that he is not a magician. Did anyone say he should do magic at the haunted towers? By the way, what is this plan of putting all locally refined petrol into strategic reserve when the country is groaning under an acute shortage of the product? I thought the plan of getting the refineries to work was to ease the persistent shortages across the country?

Sadly, the minister is not alone on the matter of flawed communication. A lot of people are worried that this administration is having a lot of problems with its communication strategy, if there is even one in the first place.

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Over the last 10 months, Nigerians have complained about contradicting statements coming from different quarters within the administration and the ruling party. There have been instance of the ruling part saying one thing on promises made during the elections and President Muhammadu Buhari either distancing himself from the promise or redefining the promise in his own image. The problem does not appear to be receiving the attention it deserves. It appears that the issue is not even acknowledged to be a problem by those who should know better.

Nevertheless, while diehard loyalists continue to argue that the problem is imagined, its consequences are already here with us. Some Nigerians are beginning to take whatever comes out from this administration with a pinch of salt. Every day, Nigerians are busy matching what one government official or party official said with previous statements made. The result is a massive loss of confidence and a downward plunge of the administration’s approval rating. At least that is the felling you get as you listen to callers reactions on radio stations. This is clearly dangerous for a young government that intends to stay on for a while.

How should the ruling party and the government remedy the situation? Certainly, it is not by rehashing worn out, tasteless and meaningless statements like “there is no vacancy in Aso Villa” or going back every now and then to remind Nigerians just how ruinous past governments were.

The place of an effective communication in public administration is so important that it should not be toyed with by any government. Even when an administration is doing all the right things that will eventually benefit the ordinary people in the long run, adequate and proper communication remains a critical key to long run success.

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In the first place, the opposition is always around the corner to create doubts in the mind of the people no matter how good a policy is. It is “standard” political practice. You do not praise your opponent and get mileage for yourself. There is also the labour unions and other interest groups who want to maintain the status quo because it benefits them. These also complicate matters for government. Furthermore, government policies are usually complex and it is difficult for the ordinary people to have access to all the relevant information or digest such information even when they are accessible. Therefore, government has to go all out to make its case as clear as possible to majority of the people quite frequently. Again, it is unhealthy for government to wait for a long time to react to developments around the country. That has been the bane of this administration.

Finally, this administration must urgently embrace the principle of “show, don’t tell”. After ten months in government, people have started to get bored with “we are going to do this, we are going to that” line of communication. They would rather love to hear, “this was how it used to be and this is what we have done to put it right.”

I hope a word is enough for the wise!