In an exclusive interview, Mr Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture, barred his mind on topical national issues — issues ranging from the farmer-herder crisis, IPOB, social media regulation, and of course, to insecurity, as follows.
Question: Is the government still hell-bent on regulating social media?
Mohammed: Oh yes. There is no going back on the government’s decision to regulate social media. And you see, we’ve always said at every opportunity that the idea of regulating social media is not to stifle freedom of expression. Rather, we’re concerned about the growing phenomenon of fake news and disinformation which actually poses threat to the security of every nation. You see, Nigerians have forgotten that as far back as 2017 when we saw the dangers posed by fake news and disinformation, we dedicated an entire national council on social media to discuss this issue, and we said that the next upheaval in the world would be caused by social media.
Now, fake news and disinformation are not new, but because of technology and the speed today with which news is disseminated through these platforms, it has become even much more worrisome. Now, with traditional media, there were a lot of safeguards; a lot of gatekeeping. Anybody today with a smartphone can go into his room, concoct stories, and nobody bothers to find out whether it is true or not. And we’ve seen unfortunately that fake news and disinformation through social media has led to serious political upheavals everywhere in the world. Now, in 2018, we began this advocacy to seek the support of all stakeholders on how we can tame the monster of fake news and disinformation. We sought and got Facebook, Twitter and Google at this office, and they agreed with us. Now, it has come to a stage that we have left the level of advocacy. We must take concrete decisions on how we can regulate social media. I’ll state two examples; one at home, and one outside. The #EndSARS protest was started as a peaceful protest, and had the support of virtually everybody; The youth said look, ”the excesses of the police are enough”. So, they came out and made five demands on the government. The government met all the five demands. But, of course, they allowed this thing to be hijacked by hoodlums but that’s not the point I want to make now.
The point I want to make is that, how did fake news, social media, contribute to the deaths we had? To the best of my knowledge, there were no serious casualties, until when the social media started this disinformation and fake news that 78 people had been killed at the tollgate. That was what started all the violence, the murder, the arson, which led to 37 policemen, six soldiers being killed in cold blood; led to over 269 private and public buildings being destroyed. Left N1 trillion destruction in Lagos state — 57 lives all over Nigeria. As we speak today, there’s no evidence whatsoever. The government has set up a panel of enquiry; we’re yet to hear anybody say anyone is missing — almost three months later. But look at what it caused in the country.
Now, they were sending out fake news on all platforms, some of these social platforms were even encouraging them; Twitter and co. It’s the same disinformation when the former president of the US refused to accept he lost the election and was tweeting, ”everybody look, they stole my election, we must stop the steal”, and people went to occupy the Capitol. But the only difference is that when the Capitol was occupied, the same media, the same platforms that encouraged the #EndSARS protesters here, were the first to remove the rug under their own president. The same media, especially CNN that described the #EndSARS hooligans as peaceful protesters, now labelled the others as domestic terrorists and insurrectionists.
Question: But there is a difference here. Why Nigerians are alarmed when you say the government will regulate social media is because the government is arrogating too much power to itself. In the case of the US, the government did not get involve in censorship, it was the owners of the social media platforms who did the censoring. So, are you looking at regulating social media as a government or do you want go through backend channels like working with the platforms?
Mohammed: You see, if you followed our discussions on this matter, we wrote out letters to stakeholders — NUJ, Guild of Editors, Twitter, Google, Facebook. We wrote them letters, even online editors, saying ”let’s come and sit down together to regulate this platform, because if we don’t, you’ll be the ultimate loser, because if your platform is described as a fake news platform, you’ll lose business; you’ll lose credibility.” And we have copies of the letters. Some said they were not coming. So, even as we speak today, we are not abandoning that. We believe that it should be all stakeholders — we are only just coordinating. We did not go to the national assembly to ask for a law to regulate social media. We invited stakeholders — both platform owners, practising journalists and everybody. Yet, we were rebuffed but no government will fold its arms and allow fake news and disinformation.
Question: There is general insecurity in the country — kidnapping, banditry and insurgency — but the case of Abuja is particularly embarrassing. There have been kidnappings here and there; a journalist was kidnapped a few days ago in the FCT. What is the government doing about the rising cases of kidnapping at the seat of power?
Mohammed: “I think it’s very unfair to say Abuja is not as safe. You see, what is always baffling me is we have such very short memories. Prior to 2015, what was the security situation in Abuja? It wasn’t even about kidnapping. All we had prior to 2015 in Abuja was a federal capital that was completely unsafe where Boko Haram and criminals could stroll in at will and pick where to attack. And they were so brazen then that the police force headquarters was attacked and bombed, the UN headquarters was attacked and bombed, THISDAY headquarters was attacked; Banex Plaza; Nyanya Park, twice; not even to talk about other areas in Abuja. Now, this was the time where you could not even enter a place of worship without being searched and screened. Now, same Abuja we have no bombs exploding regularly. So, when people now look at that and what it is today, then you have occasional kidnapping and you do not compare what it used to be to what it is, I think it’s very unfair to say Abuja is not as safe.
I know that before I became a minister, anytime I was coming to Abuja, my wife will ask me not to sleep in Abuja because nobody was safe in Abuja. So, when you look at what it was and what it is today, you see the difference. There’s nowhere in the world that you don’t have security challenges. It is what the government is doing about it. Unfortunately, it’s only when kidnappings happen that they are reported very loudly. When kidnappers are neutralised and when victims are freed, they’re not given the same amount of attention. But yes, we do admit there are security challenges like anywhere in the world, but we’re rising up to it. There are various military operations dealing with insecurity on a daily basis. So, for anyone to tell me that Abuja was safer in 2015, it is not correct.
Question: It is assumed that the government treats killer herdsmen with kid gloves because of their ethnic origin, while it goes all out against the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) because the group is predominately Igbo. Is this true?
Mohammed: You see, IPOB as a group does not even recognise the sovereignty of Nigeria. This is a secessionist group. The killer herdsmen are criminals. Now, the way you treat criminals is you pursue them, you arrest them, and you prosecute them. The way you treat secessionist group, you proscribe them. So, you see, we keep comparing oranges with apples. I had the opportunity to say this somewhere this week, that even IPOB will be very upset that you’re comparing them with the killer herdsmen. We have a group that has its own constitution as a country, and refuse to accept the sovereignty of Nigeria. You have nothing to compare them with some common criminals. So, the treatment is different. Two, it’s not correct to say the government is treating herdsmen with kid gloves.
And I want to appeal to the media to please show more responsibility in handling cases of intra-ethnic conflicts, either between herdsmen and farmers or between religious groups. See, Nigeria’s strength lies in its diversity. We have been living together very peacefully for years and we’ll continue to live together. Let’s address issues that will cause friction. I don’t want to lecture anybody, but let’s ask ourselves, ‘what are the immediate causes of these herdsmen-farmers clashes?’ It goes beyond Fulani wanting to dominate Nigeria as they say. We’re talking about climate change. Between now and 50 years ago, Lake Chad has lost 90 percent of its water surface.
Up till 50 years ago, about seven countries in West Africa, Central Africa relied on the Lake Chad for their water resources, for their farming, for their irrigation, and for grazing. With over 90 percent of the water lost now, they’re moving southwards. That is one major reason for the conflict. Another is that, you see, with the Sahel in turmoil, with Libya disintegrating, there is proliferation of small arms; if you look at it — Libya, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger Republic — these are all in one form of turmoil or the other. It’s bound to affect Nigeria.
But you see, I’m glad that our political leaders, traditional leaders and religious leaders appreciate this and they are working tirelessly to resolve it. We meet regularly with the Christian Association of Nigeria; we meet with the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs; we meet the national council for traditional rulers, and we know that the challenges we’re are facing are more than what is in the public space. Some are economic; some are lack of social inclusion. Some date back to 15 and 20 years. For instance, some bandits simply believe that, ‘why should we owe any allegiance to Nigeria?’ They say whatever the government is talking about, whether it is roads, hospitals, that they don’t even have access to them. So, these are social issues; there are economic issues. So, it goes beyond this.
Question: How is the government addressing the problem of herder-farmer conflicts. The government initially proposed RUGA (Rural Grazing Area). Will the government bring back RUGA? Or is there a plan to address this challenge because it appears the government is not doing much right now.
Mohammed: You see, unfortunately, the government faced pushbacks from those who normally ought to benefit from this programme, and a lot of people do not even understand what it’s all about. Now, the national livestock plan is a programme the government brought forward, which unfortunately is not being given the opportunity to survive. Everybody appreciates that ranching is not only an economic solution, it’s also a social solution. But if you want to introduce ranching, you must also understand the mentality of our herdsmen. The average Fulani man counts or records his wealth by the number of cattle herds he possesses, not how fat they are or how productive they are. So, you need to convince them of the benefits of ranching. Who does not know that a cow that travels from say Kano to Lagos, by the time it gets to Lagos it’s thinner because grazing along the road is haphazard. But if the cow is on a ranch, it is assured of meals regularly and it is fatter. A cow on a ranch will produce probably about 10 times the amount of milk that a migrant cow will produce. But we need also to sensitise them; we need honestly to make them understand. It’s like it’s a new way of life to say ”don’t count your wealth by the number of cattle herds but by how productive they are.” You see if I have a cow that weighs say 500kg, the milk and the meat I’ll produce from there will be more than probably someone that has 10 cows and each of them just 50kg. So, these are the kind of things that the government is doing. In addition, don’t also forget that there must cooperation among the three tiers of government; federal, state and local. But please, let’s give this programme a chance.
Question: But is the government still insisting on RUGA?
Mohammed: Absolutely, yes. Government is very keen on this but you know you need to negotiate, or rather you need to consult with states. Apart from the gazetted federal government grazing land, you need the cooperation of state governments also. So, it’s like you need the cooperation of the state governors; you also need the cooperation of the herdsmen who you want to totally change their ways of life.
Question: In a situation where some state governments still do not agree to RUGA, what will the federal government do?
Mohammed: My position is that if some state governments have issues with the plan, we should convince them and bring them around. By the time they see the success of ranching in other states, they may probably come around. And I don’t think there’s any government that is opposing ranching as of now. They may have opposed open grazing, but I don’t think they are opposing ranching. And incidentally, even herdsmen too are seeing the advantage of ranching but it will not happen overnight. We need lots of advocacy; we need a lot of persuasion, and probably in 10 or 20 years time, we won’t even see cows in the streets. Don’t forget that in Norway, in Sweden, it used to be like this before too. The cattle used to roam. We still have nomads in Sweden despite the weather, so we must work towards this thing.
Question: Is there a deliberate policy by the Buhari administration to maroon the Southeast away from federal appointments?
Mohammed: Frankly speaking, I’m not in a position to give you the figures and data. But what I know, that more often than not, we concentrate our attention largely on ministerial appointments, and in that case, I don’t think anybody can complain because it is one from each state, and some states even have more than one. Two, CEOs of parastatals and service chiefs, but really to know the number, I will want an audited account of how many officers on directorate level are from which part of Nigeria. I want to know how many officers or deputy directors; I want to know how many officers on assistant director cadre. It’s only then we can know whether there’s balance or not. I always take parastatals under me for instance, and I say you cannot accuse us of favouring one part of the country against the other.
Look, I have about 19 parastatals under me, and I can tell you that it’s almost balanced. From the South, from the North, and I remember the last appointment I went to Mr President, I ensured that one came — I had about eight — at least from each geopolitical zone. The South-south produced the National Gallery of Arts CEO; the Southeast produced the Press Council. By the same token, the VON is headed by someone from the Southeast; NFC is headed by Southeast. When I had to recommend somebody for News Agency of Nigeria, it came from Southwest; somebody from NBC, it came from Northcentral; when I had to recommend somebody from NAOTU, it came from the North-west. So, when people want to make these comments, please let them have the total picture. I’ve been minister here in the past six years. All my permanent secretaries have been from the southern part of Nigeria. I elected somebody from the Southwest, then I had somebody from Southsouth, then I had somebody from the Southeast, and the current one now is Southeast.
Question: What happened to the ‘Change Begins with Me’ campaign?
Mohammed: The ‘Change Begins with Me’ programme is still on NTA; it’s still on in FRCN; yes, we can do more on the private channels if we have the funding. But again, I think the private channels should also look at this thing, they’re also corporate social responsibility [projects]. It’s because there is peace Nigeria, that’s why they can make money. We appealed to them to support us, we didn’t get any support from them. So it’s not about government failing; the corporate organisations that work in Nigeria that make billions of naira, we appealed to them to assist us. Because they have forgotten it’s because there is peace in Nigeria they’re making all the billions they’re making. So, we’ll continue to reach out to them. It’s not for government alone. But having said that, the NOA is still very busy sensitising Nigerians either on COVID-19 or on the unity of the country or insecurity. If you go to NTA, you will see our programmes like ‘if you see something, say something’. So, it is not correct to say that the ministry’s programmes are moribund. But yes, I agree with you that on ‘Change Begins with Me’, we can do a lot more with corporate sponsorship because we’re talking about a national reorientation. But, they will rather sponsor series, films that are not as meaningful to the corporate wellbeing of Nigeria. So, we’ll continue to reach out to them. If you should measure what you should invest in by the amount of naira and kobo that will come to you, then you’re missing the point. You should try to look at the bigger picture. That’s why we’re very grateful to the CBN, to the bankers committee. It has now invested N21.79 billion in renovating the national theatre; another N23 billion in turning the fallow land around the national theatre into a creative hub where they’re going to have a hub for film, one for music, another for fashion, and another for the IT. And we believe that this is a revolution in the creative field because it’s going to re-energise the creative sector, and we’ll be able to harness a lot of benefits.
And going side by side with the federal government’s approval of another N9.3 billion for the digital switchover, now you can see this digital switchover is capable of creating at least a million jobs in the next three years. So, when we move from analog to digital television, it will create jobs for the manufacturing industry cause we have 24 million households that have television in Nigeria today. When we switch over, each of them will need at least one set-top box. This set-top box will allow them to have a minimum of up to about 180 channels, then about 30 regional channels, and about 10 national channels. And the effect of this is that for the television industry, people will now produce more series; people will now make more money from productions, they’ll employ more people, because set-top boxes also give you access to the internet. And when we calculated the number of jobs that we’ll make in the next three years, it’s more than one million jobs. So, these are some of the projects that the ministry of information has come up with.