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Why Government Is Losing the Propaganda War

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi No non-partisan Nigerian with even the littlest intelligence doubts that willful...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

No non-partisan Nigerian with even the littlest intelligence doubts that willful lies and propaganda are the Buhari government’s most potent tools of governance. That’s why I called the government a “propagandocracy” in last week’s column.

Of course, I knew the column would provoke an uptick in juvenile, libelous personal attacks against me by the barely literate but overpaid minions of the Buhari Media Center hiding under the pseudonymic cover that the Internet enables. I frankly didn’t read the sophomoric rants of the contemptible dolts at the BMC. I have better use for my time.

I am not the issue. The issue is that this government, through its spectacular incompetence, serial betrayals, and crying insensitivity, has made life in Nigeria a punishment for the vast majority of our people. Now, they want people on whom they inflict so much pain to not give expression to their grief. It’s like striking children with hard whips and asking them to not let out the inexorable wail of anguish that is sure to follow. That’s cruel.

But that’s the kernel of the government’s propaganda efforts: to stop people from giving vent to their misery. So all kinds of lies are fabricated to minimize or even outright deny the excruciating existential torment that people are contending with. But the problem with lies and propaganda is that they have a notoriously short shelf life. People’s material conditions, sooner or later, always remind them of the truth.

If you improve the material lot of the people you govern, you don’t need a propaganda unit to tell them what you are doing. Good works are their own PR, and the most sophisticated PR campaign can’t wash off failure and incompetence.

It’s true, though, that the more a government comes to terms with its ineptitude, the more it feels the need to up its lies to mask its failures. That’s why propaganda and lies are always in inverse proportion to governmental incompetence. That is, the more incompetent a government is, the more it uses propaganda as a tool of governance.

But the kind of propaganda the Buhari government dispenses is the intellectually deficient, scorn-worthy kind. It is crude, vulgar, illogical, abusive, and transparently mendacious. The problem with crude, abusive political public relations, however, is that it only excites and fires up supporters (who don’t need it because their loyalty is already in the bag), but repulses opponents and puts off people on the fence. The goal of intelligent PR is to convince people on the fence to join you and possibly also win over opponents.

The performance of Buhari’s unprecedentedly large media team in the defense of their boss and the demonization of their boss’ real and imagined political enemies is a classic example of the kind of primitive political public relations that holds sway in Nigeria. In this kind of political public relations, not only “political enemies” come under heavy fire; facts, truth, and logic also become casualties.

I have been a victim of this primitive public relations since I started public commentary on politics and society more than a decade ago. The practitioners of this brand of PR ignore the substance of your critique and try to muddy the water by making the critic, rather than the critique, the issue. 

For instance, in response to my biting critique of the way Femi Fani-Kayode physically prevented then Vice President Atiku Abubakar from attending a Federal Executive Council meeting in 2006, Fani-Kayode wrote that I was the son of a Fulani herder who washed plates in America for a living!

Similarly, in response to my article on then Vice President Namadi Sambo’s bigoted claim on national television that the PDP was Nigeria’s Muslim party, even when he couldn’t recite the most recited verse in his putative religion’s holy book, his media aides chose to launch laughably childish personal attacks against me under a false name.

Among several ridiculous claims, they said I was a “grammar journalist” (whatever the heck that means) who veered into political commentary because I wanted to be noticed by APC and rewarded with a political appointment if APC won the presidential election. An opportunity to persuade me—and several others— that the VP didn’t mean what I interpreted him to mean was wasted in puerile, uninformed abuse that ended up betraying the writer’s ignorance and hardening people’s opinion about the VP’s bigotry.

APC and BMC minions have taken the cake for illiterate, uncivilized PR. I have lost count of the list of infantile motives that they have imputed to me. Because they are so predictable and so easy to spot, I now squash them with the “block” button on social media. A popular Internet meme says, "The most common cause of stress nowadays is dealing with idiots." I can do without it.

The object of public relations, especially political public relations, as I’ve pointed out several times here, is to arm supporters with the ideational resources to defend you, to win over people who sit on the fence, to persuade opponents to see you as a reasonable person worthy of their respect, etc. This has been the core preoccupation of civilized political public relations since 64 BC when Quintus Tullius Cicero wrote Commentariolum Petitionis, regarded by many scholars as the “first publication on electioneering and political public relations.”

In the pamphlet, Cicero said the goal of what we call political public relations today is to “[secure] the support of your friends and [win] over the general public.” He advised people seeking elective offices to “take stock of the many advantages you possess,”  “cultivate relationships,” “secure supporters from a wide variety of backgrounds,” and so on. You don’t do this through easily refutable lies, deceit, insults, and smears.

Persuasion scholars also tell us that human attitudes toward persuasive messages often fall under one of three latitudes: latitude of acceptance, latitude of rejection, and latitude of non-commitment. Research has shown that when people judge a new message to be within their latitude of rejection (such as telling a poor, recession-ravaged Nigerian that Buhari has fulfilled all his campaign promises or that Buhari is “fighting” corruption even when demonstrably corrupt people in his government are having a field day  ), they are impossible to persuade.

Attempts to persuade them often leads to what social judgment theorists call the boomerang effect, where individuals are driven away from, rather than drawn to, the positions their persuaders want them to occupy.

Persuasion is often a gradual process, consisting of small changes at a time. Crude, unwarranted and uninformed insults don’t persuade; they only lead to a boomerang effect.

Public relations, real public relations, isn’t about bribing opinion page editors of newspapers and planting coarse, vulgar abuses against perceived political opponents, nor is it about writing immature smears against critics on fringe websites—all stock-in-trade of the Buhari propaganda machine.

In other words, this government sucks at even its most potent tool of government—propaganda. That’s a double whammy of cluelessness at governance and incompetence at propaganda.

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