Ministry of Information and Culture in search of purpose, by Akin Alao

Lai Mohammed

At the risk of criticising the attitude of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to cultural matters, we feel it behoves all scholars of society and cultural enthusiasts to draw the attention of the honourable Minister of Information and Culture to certain disturbing trends in his understanding of the mandates of the respective parastatals under his Ministerial supervision.

It would seem that the managers of the pivotal Ministry of Information and Culture are out of tune with the specific mandates and past laudable achievements of the ministry. There is a huge deficit in the way the affairs of the ministry are being managed. There is a terrible disconnect between the country’s cultural policy and the track through which the honourable Minister is taking this central ministry. A perceptive understanding of the role of the Minister in charge of Information and Culture would reveal that the office of the Minister is central to the success or otherwise of this administration.  In the first instance, the honourable minister is not a mouthpiece of government or the image maker of the President. That Ministry is not an appendage of the Office of Mr. President, but a full fledge Ministry created and funded to serve the interest of all Nigerians. As presently constituted, this administration has a Senior Special Assistant and Senior Special Adviser attached to the Office of Mr. President. Without doubt and to all intents and purposes, the two gentlemen are doing their best in protecting and projecting the image, person and office of the President. The Minister of Information and Culture is a Federal Cabinet member, a high official of state who is saddled with the onerous responsibility of defining, designing and executing the information and cultural policies of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Almost two years after taking the reins of power, it is still difficult to discern the direction of this administration with respect to information management and deployment. To date, the information policy of this administration has not been spelt out, articulated or publicised. Despite the wonderful advantage it has in making a clean break from the past, the Minister has still not seen the need to develop a well thought out and comprehensive policy in response to the peculiar challenges and needs of this administration. No comprehensive and easily digestible information policy is in place to popularise or disseminate the critical platforms and commitments of this government at all levels. The roles of media stations, practitioners and owners play in the execution of the policy have yet to be defined. We believe that it is the duty of the Ministry to regulate, coordinate and ensure standard in the industry. It is very sad to note that the information industry in Nigeria is poorly managed and not regulated in the best interest of the values and commitments of the present administration. This is best demonstrated by the rate at which the administration is losing its goodwill among the citizens of Nigeria. Two factors may be responsible for this. One, the new media option is largely free to cast aspersions on government, abuse basic rule and regulations of responsible journalism and constitute itself into a faceless opposition, revelling in rumour mongering and selling blatant lies. They equally serve unpatriotic purposes of providing cheap access to the information superhighway for enemies of the state. Secondly, many statements, defence and positions of the Ministry in support of government actions, reactions or inactions have been found to be spurious, specious or out rightly outlandish. These positions lack intellectual depth, they reflect poor understanding of the Nigerian mentality just as they demonstrate a mediocre appreciation of the mood of the country. It is rather unfortunate that the bar has been dropped and the Nigerian Information industry is generally unimaginative and seemingly oblivious of what is trending globally.

With regard to the cultural policy of this administration, it is obvious that there is a huge but sad disconnect between the office of the minister on the one hand and the desks of the chief executives of the parastatals on the other. How else would one describe the recent gaffe of the Minister at the recently concluded Edinburgh festival/Summit when he signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the British Council? The action requirement of the MoU is for the British Council to help revive cultural tourism in Nigeria. To the ordinary man with modest education and with a modicum of information on the evils of colonialism in Nigeria, the British Council was obviously a wrong or inappropriate choice. Responsible officers in the Ministry did the country and the Minister unpardonable wrong by not informing him of the elementary or basic rules in cultural diplomacy. In the 21st century, culture has gone beyond exhibitionism or jamboree to become an instrument of international politics and diplomacy. To think that the British Council has anything positive or in the best interest of the country to offer in terms of cultural re-awakening is to be living in fool’s paradise. For many years, before and after independence the British government invested enormous resources in building up the British Council and its Radio, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to surreptitiously imbue in young Nigerians, the values and thinking of the British. It was more fashionable to cite the BBC as the source of information because it was considered to be more credible and reliable. They preferred BBC news items to whatever their parents told them. The BBC became easily the clearing house on every news items. ‘’If it was said on BBC, then it was true’’. Fifty six years after independence, Nigeria is yet to rid itself and populace of the virus of British propaganda.  It was therefore a curious irony that a Nigerian Minister would be celebrating a cultural pact with a former colonial government that has continued to assault the cultural values of Nigerians and making a joke of our artefacts by keeping them away from their rightful owners. It may interest the Minister to know that there are existing MoUs with Britain and other European countries to repatriate stolen Nigerian works of art. Not much has been achieved in this regard despite concerted efforts in the past. On the other hand, the Minister should have been properly and adequately briefed on the existing MoU with Brazil for the promotion of African culture and exchange of visits, which the Ministry actually delivered through some of its strategic parastatals. One of these MoUs actually incorporated Bilateral Air Service Agreement which was to launch direct flights between Nigeria and Brazil, two countries with the largest Black population.

In view of what has already been achieved in the area of culture, one would have thought that the Minister would be concerned with all efforts at expanding the mandate of the Ministry in promoting African values, heritage and traditions.

The African Union’s cultural policy provides a benchmark which at least should have by now been studied by the Honourable Minister. Nigerian cultural institutions and individuals actually played a leading role in the production of this Cultural Policy. For instance the objectives include:

(a) To assert the dignity of African men and women as well as the popular foundations of their culture;

(b) To promote freedom of expression and cultural democracy, this is inseparable from social and political democracy;

(c) To promote an enabling environment for African peoples to maintain and reinforce the sense and will for progress and development;

(d) To preserve and promote the African cultural heritage through preservation, restoration and rehabilitation;

(e) To combat and eliminate all forms of alienation, exclusion and cultural oppression everywhere in Africa.

Nigeria has not domesticated these lofty objectives or use them in articulating an Afrocentric cultural agenda. This, to say the least, should have been the starting point for the Honourable Minister of Information and Culture.

Today, the UNESCO heritage sites are underdeveloped and neglected, UNESCO Category II institutions are in limbo and probably on vacation, while the Special Projects such as the Slave Trade Routes are no longer receiving the attention of government. By 2017, it will be 40 years after the 2nd All Africa Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) was hosted by Nigeria. And despite the existence of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC), which was specifically established to preserve, promote and enhance the legacies of FESTAC, the Ministry of Information and Culture is criminally silent on what to expect. A close monitoring of the activities of these parastatals would suggest that they are all seriously handicapped, lack motivation and are fast draining out on ideas. Many of them are not in any position to actualise the national cultural policy and are generally out of sync with new developments in the world of art and culture. However, it is obvious that many of these parastatals could be transformed and overhauled to serve the purpose of exhibiting and promoting the best of Nigerian cultural values. Following the tradition in CBAAC, the intellectualization of Nigerian culture which CBAAC started should be vigorously pursued and used to draw a road map for the development of a new Nigerian cultural policy. All the parastatals in the Ministry of Information and Culture should be strengthened to demonstrate the appropriateness and adequacy of African cultural values and ideals in providing good governance. The intellectual content of Nigerian history and culture should be identified, studied and valorised to form the basis on which a new national identity and pride will be constructed.

In view of the central role of the Ministry of Information and Culture in redefining Nigeria under this present administration, no efforts or resources must be spared to strengthen the Ministry, empower the parastatals and appoint capable and knowledgeable hands to manage the affairs of the Ministry. The present situation of disorientation, cluelessness and financial helplessness must not be allowed to continue. A special extra budgetary fund must be provided to meet the needs of the parastatals, which should begin to function more of agencies of government established to convey the policies and activities of this administration to the people of Nigeria and by extension build in them enormous hope, undiluted patriotism and great pride.  For Nigerians to believe in this administration and its capability to build a Nigeria of our dreams, there should be a comprehensive review of Nigeria’s Information and Cultural policies, an assessment the potentials of each of the parastatals and an understanding of the constitutional and institutional mandates of each parastatal. There should also be a clinical audit of staff to determine their competence, resourcefulness and usefulness in carrying out the mandates of their respective agencies. The Minister should consciously encourage a workable synergy between the two arms by promoting mutually beneficial relationship. For instance the Information parastatals should be structured to advertise and bring to the public domain, the programs and activities of the cultural arm. In return, the cultural arm should provide content for the programmes of the information parastatals. Every programme and activity must fit into the well defined goals and objectives of the Ministry and ultimately this administration.

In the interim and to save time, a Ministerial Think Tank made up of seasoned practitioners, scholars and technocrats in the two arms of the Ministry should be put in place. This is to provide a roadmap and develop the operational objectives of the Ministry. At this point, Nigeria’s relationship with UNESCO and other similar bodies must be considered, strengthened and expanded. Ultimately, the country’s commitment to the ideals of African culture must be amply demonstrated in her commitment to using African ideals and values in the pursuit of sustainable development.

  • Akin Alao, Ph.D., wrote from the History Department, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife