By Dr Raphael Eneh, a member of the Save Enugu Group
Governor Sullivan Chime of Enugu State, who for five months was out of circulation on health grounds, has now proved to be a far better handler of human and public relations than his aides paid from the public treasury to manage his reputation.
On Monday, February 13, Chime addressed the press at Government House in Enugu where he disclosed that he was until February 9 in London for treatment of nose cancer. The governor left the state on September 14 and spent a whole 140 days abroad, the longest period he has ever been out of Enugu. During this period, his aides, including the Commissioner for Information and the chief press secretary, fiercely maintained in public declarations that Chime was hale and hearty and was merely enjoying his accumulated leave in an undisclosed location.
The propaganda by the governor's aides was plain unintelligent. Propaganda can be effective only when it has a considerable element of credibility. The essence of propaganda is to influence the audience, and the audience can be influenced only when the message is believable. How these aides expected the highly intelligent people of Enugu State and, indeed, enlightened Nigerians of the 21st century to accept this hogwash of an explanation will never cease to beat our imagination. If they had come out clean by telling the public that the governor had an ailment and was responding very well to treatment, the rumour mill would not have been abuzz with such reports as that he had died in an Indian hospital of diseases ranging from aids to liver scoliosis and from mental ill health to heart failure. There would not have been so much tension in the land. Countless civil society organizations would not have risen up, in alliance with the mass of the people, in a ferocious fight against the state government then led by the Acting Governor, Sunday Onyebuchi.
Gov Chime is right in giving credit to his deputy for holding the forte firmly during the long period of absence. As the governor recounted before the media in his first public appearance after his return, things were moving very well while he was in London principally because the deputy governor and the rest of the cabinet ensured that workers' salaries were paid promptly, just like contractors who were working on different projects throughout the period. The government machinery operated as though the governor was in the state in flesh and blood.
To be fair to Chime, he has a record of service delivery. If this well established record is not known to every Nigerian, it is simply because the government does not spend resources recklessly on propaganda. At a time many governors are busy spending fortunes on self-aggrandizement and self-hero worshipping — all in the name of publicity for the state — Gov Chime would rather expend the resources on infrastructure provision and enhancing the people’s living standards. There is no person who can visit Enugu city in particular without being impressed with not just the immensity of basic social facilities but also the quality. He has done pretty well.
Still, I was one of the civil activists who strongly campaigned for his removal by the state House of Assembly. The 1999 Constitution mandates every state legislature to remove the state governor if he is considered unfit or unsuitable to continue in office on health grounds, for instance. Convinced that Chime had become incapacitated by a serious illness which his aides were hoarding from the public because of their private gains at our expense, civil society organizations, led by Save Enugu Group, moved for his impeachment. We were driven purely by our love for the state and the need to uphold the Constitution.
There was an unmistakable vacuum in the state leadership. It is to this day difficult to understand why aides of the state governor should treat our citizens in a democracy with so much contempt by telling us that it was proper for the governor to be away from Nigeria on mere holidays for close to half a year. The explanation that the governor was entitled to so-called accumulated leave was revoltingly insulting. To be sure, if they had been honest enough to admit that Chime was ill and was receiving adequate treatment, we would have understood. After all, the civil society is not composed of savages and sadists. As Governor Chime spoke frankly and honestly at the press conference, providing important details of his traumatic experience, the atmosphere was full of sympathy and empathy. It was a moving account which the media faithfully reported.
Talking with the benefit of hindsight, it is certain that if the Acting Governor, Mr Onyebuchi, and the Speaker of the state legislature, Anselm Odo, had cooperated with us, the Chime administration would have been history by now. We were working with most people who matter in Enugu, including Chief Enechi Onyia, SAN, who hails from the same place as Chime. Despite the acute and sustained pressure on him, Deputy Governor Onyebuchi remained uncritically loyal to his boss, leading the frustrated chairman of one of our member NGOs to declare him "unambitious" while referring to Speaker Odo as "awfully timid to do the right thing".
The major lesson of the communication management of the Chime saga is that men and women in the corridors of power should not treat the citizens in a democracy with contempt by engaging in what communication science researchers call black propaganda, that is, the kind of propaganda which ironically ends up making the target become resentful of both the message and the messenger. The resentfulness can lead to serious consequences. In other words, the embarrassingly poor management of Gov Chime's illness could have resulted in the governor’s removal from office, as civil society organizations throughout Nigeria such as Save Nigeria Group, which played an eminent role in the emergence of Vice President Goodluck Jonathan as the country's president in 2010, joined the fray against the Enugu State government. If only Deputy Governor Onyebuchi had been a little ambitious as Dr Jonathan and Speaker Odo as courageous as Senate President David Mark or Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu who came up with the doctrine of necessity which led to the enthronement of Jonathan as Acting President, the story would have been different for Gov Chime. Enough of all the sycophancy in Government House, Enugu. Otherwise, the fire next time will consume everyone.