Dr. Ethelbert Okere is a veteran journalist and author. He is currently the Director-General of Imo State Orientation Agency. In this interview with Damian Duruiheoma, he speaks about the perennial gap that exists between the government and the people and how his agency intends to bridge it in the state.
Not many Imolites are conversant with what your agency has been doing in recent times even though it was quite vibrant during the era of governors Udenwa and Ikedi Ohakim. What happened?
It is the same question I was asking personally before I came here but the answer is not farfetched. The agency was run aground by the administration that came after that of Ikedi Ohakim. I could remember that as Special Adviser to Governor Ohakim on Public Enlightenment Documentary, I did a lot of collaboration with the then Director-General of the agency, the late Angus Oguike. But after we left, the agency went comatose. To start with, the new administration took it away from its original place at the state secretariat to where it is currently located. Right now, three quarters of the building housing the agency have no roof. But thank God, His Excellency, Senator Hope Uzodinma, has vowed to completely revive and reposition the agency and that is where we are now.
What is the difference between your agency and the Ministry of Information?
The difference is very clear. You can give out information but if the people have a mindset, the information would be of no use. Because of the perennial alienation between the people and government, the former generally do not believe the government. Anything that comes from the government, they see it as propaganda or even outright lies. On the other hand, they tend to believe whatever those opposed to the existing administration insinuate about it. But the truth is that over 80 percent of things said about government by opposition elements are lies. So, orientation is to make the people see that they are on one page with the government. Conversely, it is also to make the government see the people as partners in progress.
For example, government agents who are charged with the responsibility of enforcing rules have to do it with some compassion, if you like human face. But what we have had over the years is a situation where the so-called government agents harass, intimidate and even extort the people in the name of enforcing government rules. Since I took over the agency, we have been collaborating with other ministries and agencies of government that have one law or the other to enforce to ensure that their field operatives do not unduly harass members of the public. In other words, government officials or agents also need orientation. But for the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had conducted plans to hold workshops for field agents of government. But will we still go ahead while observing the necessary protocols? The point I am making is that for information dissemination to make an impact, the people, first and foremost, have to see themselves as part and parcel of government. That’s where orientation comes in particularly in a situation as we now have where, as I said earlier, there has been so much alienation between the government and the governed.
There has been the issue of fake news which has been causing a lot of misunderstanding between the government and members of the opposition and the public generally.
Don’t you think your agency has a role to play in tackling the menace?
We obviously have a role to play but the way I see it is not to blame only those who propagate fake news. You cannot talk about fake news without talking about sycophancy. They are two sides of one bad coin. They are both evil. While fake news pollutes the minds of members of the public against the government and its functionaries, sycophancy prevents those in government to know exactly how the people feel. Both are dangerous to good governance. So, our agency will tackle both, but of course not with guns behind the peoples. It is by letting the people know the evils of fake news and make those who indulge in it see their own folly. I will give an example. Sometime in early March this year, at the heat of the COVID-19 crisis, there was this posting on Facebook that Governor Uzodimma had smuggled into the state three of the members of the Chinese medical team that arrived in the country amid controversies. And the matter generated so much heat. But I did an article in which I noted that you don’t need to be a soothsayer to know that the posting was a blatant lie.
In the first place, the posting came in less than 48 hours after the team arrived in Nigeria and was taken into quarantine. So, the question was, how did three Chinese who were on quarantine get smuggled all the way from Abuja to Owerri? Two, at the time of the report, there was not a single case of COVID-19 in Imo State. So, what did the governor tell the authorities in Abuja or those who brought the team that made them release three members of the team in less than 48 hours? What were they coming to do?
As soon as the article appeared both in the regular media and social media, the place was flooded with commentaries by those who agreed with my submissions, including those who had made earlier posts tending to corroborate the first post by one of their own. That was how that matter ended. And I am sure the fellow who circulated that fake news realised his own folly. Unfortunately, most of the fake news has political undercurrents. But as you know, nobody can do effective opposition by sending out lies about so-called opponents. As an opposition element, you should have the ability to spot where your opponent goofed and nail him or her; not concocting lies. I have been involved in providing media backing for politicians in the last 20 years but I never concocted lies. I spot your gaffe and hit. As for sycophancy, it is unfortunate that our state, Imo, seems to have become the headquarters of sycophancy in Nigeria.
Unfortunately, some of our colleagues, I mean those that belong to the same trade like you and I, are part of the problem. There is this ubiquity of local print media in the state. Ordinarily, it is a very good thing but in essence, it has caused a lot of discomfiture for the society. The modus operandi of some of the practitioners encourages sycophancy. For example, for a peanut, anybody in the state can find his or her face on the front page of any of the Owerri-based newspapers either abusing somebody or praising another, especially those in government, to high heavens. You even see government appointees taking advertorials praising the governor, talking about him in superlatives, telling him that he is the Messiah.