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Nigeria part 1: ‘News is what somebody, somewhere wants to suppress. All the rest is advertising.’

05 Apr 2022 | Written by By Paul Phillips


My trade is journalism and although the source of the opinion in the title of this report is disputed, the message has always struck a chord with me. 

So it was with some trepidation that I first ventured into the world of Public Relations, which, at heart, is about promoting a positive message for a client. Impartiality is not exactly the industry’s buzzword.

 

There are but two classes of people in the world—those who have done something and want their names kept out of the paper, and those who haven’t done anything worth printing and want their names put in.’

 

That view was published in a newspaper in Pennsylvania in 1894. It stands the test of time.

So why, you may ask, did I take on the job of creating a media strategy for the Governor of the Delta State in Nigeria? He was preparing to leave office and wanted to have his achievements catalogued and publicised. 

If only I had known what I was getting myself into…


Nigeria is an exciting, vibrant place. 

It tops most lists of the richest countries in Africa. It also has more people than any other country on the continent. The population is over 200 million and rising by an estimated 5 million a year. 

It can also be a dangerous place, particularly in the north east of the country where the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram was founded.

I received a lot of advice before travelling to Nigeria; most of it was meant to be helpful but nearly all of it was negative. However, my destination – the oil-rich Delta State – was considered safer than most. 

I was not long back from Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) where grim things happened almost daily so I reasoned Nigeria had to be better than that, which, admittedly, is setting the bar rather low.

I was also bolstered by the lessons I’d learned on an intense training course for those of us who may find ourselves working in a potentially hostile environment. One of the key messages was to be as inconspicuous as possible – to not stand out, to be aware of local cultures and customs. 

I was recruited for the Delta State Governor’s project along with a friend and former BBC colleague by a London-based intermediary. He had been awarded a sizeable contract by the Governor’s office. 

We were assured that we would be perfectly safe. We were staying in a secure, walled complex of lodges in Asaba, the Delta State capital, with armed guards at all the entrances.  An armed security officer would be with us at all times and any travel outside the complex would be in armoured vehicles with a police escort.  It made us feel quite important, but I wasn’t sure if it would make us less conspicuous. 

We were provided with a list of things that we might be able to turn into newspaper or online articles and TV or radio stories, all of them geared towards highlighting the achievements of the Governor. These included Asaba’s new airport, a ‘state of the art’ media centre and improvements in health care. 

First of all, we had to meet the Governor, but that was not a simple operation – even though we were being employed to promote his legacy. It took our intermediary several days to make contact with the Governor’s team and several more days to sort out a meeting.

Eventually, we were granted an audience but it was under slightly odd circumstances. 

The complex we were staying in had tennis courts and the Governor was a keen player. We were granted a few minutes with him when he had finished playing tennis one evening to lay out our detailed plans to commemorate his achievements.

So it was that we stood suited and booted watching the Governor play his tennis match. We didn’t have a particularly clear view because the tennis court was surrounded by a platoon of heavily armed guards who made sure we stood at an appropriate distance.

It wasn’t the most comfortable of experiences. Suits and boots were not the ideal attire for the heat and humidity. If you have ever opened your dishwasher mid-cycle you’ll get an idea of what we were enduring.

The Governor eventually finished playing and we were invited onto the court to meet him. Our employer explained our plans while the Governor looked at me and my partner with some suspicion. He said absolutely nothing to us but turned to one of his aides, whispered something and left.

The aide told us that the Governor was about to head to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, for an important meeting. He said we could start work on his legacy project but first we had to run it all by his Minister of Information. 

The next day we got into our armoured vehicles with our security guards and drove to the offices of the Information Minister. We were ushered into a waiting room outside his office. The door was open and we could see the Minister at his desk, surrounded by some of his staff. You know that scene at the end of the Godfather when Michael Corleone becomes the boss of his family? The scene in the Minister’s office reminded me of that. 

We were eventually summoned into the office but our hopes that our plans would be met with some enthusiasm were quickly dispelled. We were getting used to suspicious looks by now – you can’t blame anyone for that, to be fair – but this time the looks came with utter disdain. The Minister stood up and went through a door behind his desk. 

‘You may keep talking,’ he said. We heard the sound of a toilet flushing and Minister re-appeared at his desk. 

‘I want you to visit my television and radio station,’ he said. ‘I have spent 2 million dollars in the last year on it. And then I want you to visit my new media centre. You can report back to me.’

So we headed off to the headquarters of Delta State TV, a few minutes drive from the Minister’s office, accompanied by one of the Minister’s senior aides. 

I’ve spent almost 40 years working in TV News and I can safely say I have never seen a broadcasting set-up like Delta State TV. It was as if I’d travelled back in time. 

Many technological advances that I took for granted were conspicuous by their absence. For example, the news crews’ cameras used video tapes. I’d last seen those in the early 80s when I worked for a regional TV company in the UK. We did see a few digital cameras in boxes but we were told no-one knew how to use them. In the master control room, from where the station’s output was broadcast, there was a small pile of DVDs including Harry Potter films. One was playing while we were there. The picture quality was not the highest I’d ever seen. 

We later found out that the Information Minister couldn’t get a clear signal from the TV station. Bear in mind that his office was just a few miles down the road. I wondered what the reception must have been like for areas outside the state capital. 

What we seemed to be witnessing was a TV station whose main output was, let’s say, ‘dubious’ copies of major films with a couple of news bulletins sandwiched in between. 

We’re not talking about a major news operation here either. A film crew interviewed my partner and me about our impressions of Delta State TV. Our interviews were featured in that evening’s news bulletin. 

It wasn’t my proudest moment. If I had been wearing my journalism hat I would have raised an awful lot of questions about where the Minister’s big budget was being spent. But I was on a PR mission and I tried my best to paint a positive picture. 

Our next stop was to visit the new media centre in another part of the capital. It would bear the Governor’s name and, we were told, be of the highest international class. 

Well. We were taken to a field that had a couple of partly finished concrete buildings on it. The project has been started three years before but there was a way to go before it reached international class. 

It was becoming increasingly clear that our mission to produce a showcase of the Governor’s achievements was going to be a challenge, to say the least.

But we were pinning our hopes on the Governor’s pet project – a new hospital that he had commissioned in a small village outside Asaba. 

The Governor was a consultant paediatrician before taking political office and was determined to do something about Nigeria’s poor record of maternal mortality. 

This was more like it, we thought. 

Then things really started to go wrong.


Nigeria part 2: ‘Make do and Mend’ will be published tomorrow. Check our blog first thing to read it!

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