Opinion: Biafra: How communication failure is heating up Nigeria

Acting President Yemi Osinbajo scored a bull’s eye with his identification of the pathogen causing the eruption and inflammation of ethnic animus across Nigeria recently. Speaking June 14 to influencers from the South-East, and before them those from the North, Osinbajo pointed to the failure of communication.

The Acting President stated: “It is also clear that wars sometimes start, not with bullets, but with words. Hateful, incendiary speech, opening floodgates of blood. The tongue, like the pen, is often mightier than the sword – because it is what pushes the sword into action. When we throw words like stones in a marketplace, we do not know who or what it will hit.”

The issue, of course, is the narrative around BiafraExit and NigRemain.

Since 2015, public communication in Nigeria has tended towards the negative and the extreme. Discussions on the elections were provocative, insulting and aimed at drawing blood. It was par for the course, some said, as political communication is warfare. However, the amplification of ethnic sentiments in our political sphere dates back to the run up to the 2011 elections after the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua.

Unfortunately, it has continued. President Muhammadu Buhari reduced the halo of the Presidency with his emotive comments and conduct that further polarised the nation. It was that negative mindset that enabled the flowering of the New Biafra.

There are many views and arguments for and against the “BiafraExit”. Whatever the case, communication around the putative republic has been less than salutary.

Two Hs have characterised the narrative around the New Biafra. They are hate and hubris. Proponents of the New Biafra speak with arrogance about alleged Biafran exceptionalism. They point to many Igbo firsts; the progress of the Igbo individually since the civil war and their ability to survive in harsh environments like the cactus as grounds for confidence in the success of a New Biafra. They then undermine these positives by diminishing other ethnicities and even preaching hatred against the various groups. The arrogance extends to claiming territories outside core Igbo land as parts of the New Biafra and dismissing the objections of persons from those areas peremptorily.

Buhari, who is himself a war veteran, worsened the situation with the maladroit handling of a prickly situation. Note that Mazi Nnamdi Kanu had commenced his Radio Biafra and its vile outpourings two years before the ascendancy of Buhari. There was before that the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra since the Obasanjo government. The Goodluck Jonathan government watched Kanu askance, keeping a distance. Buhari went for the jugular, the same as he did ill-advisedly with the Niger Delta agitators, and ended up turning a fringe movement into the mainstream. His pronouncements on the division of the spoils of office and actual conduct in the deployment of state power worsened the feeling of alienation.

Negative emotions have driven the conversation around Biafra. A conglomeration of youths from the North raised the decibel of negativism with their pronouncement on June 6, 2017, asking the Igbo to quit Northern Nigeria. As with the New Biafra, the tone and tenor of their remarks were combative and filled with the two Hs of hate and hubris. They matched and exceeded Kanu and his Radio Biafra in the quantum and vehemence of their invectives and hatred of the Igbo.

Nigeria is now on a knife-edge arising from wrong policies but more from the narratives around the traditional struggle for preferment amongst groups in a diverse polity.

The explosion of platforms in Media 2.0 has worsened the failure of public communication. The Nigerian situation today vividly illustrates the pitfalls and dangers of the new media order. We have lost the gatekeeping role prevalent in old media to a free for all. Opinion formation takes the form of who shouts the loudest, without the benefit of peer review and test for taste, validity, appropriateness, ethics and fair comment. Gatekeepers in time past checked for these attributes to minimise harm.

The era of citizen journalism sees a deluge of information without communication. There is so much out there, from all the ethnicities.

There is a discernible vacuum in the media space. The era of dominant media organs to which citizens turned for direction is gone. There are no such organs anymore either in the print or online, leaving a dangerous space now filled by all manner of platforms. The result is the current anomie.

Effective communication is purposive and persuasive. It is planned, with clear objectives, milestones and messages. The New Biafra says its intendment is to cause Nigeria to hold a referendum to determine whether persons in the demographic would want to stay on in the country. Because the messaging has been diffuse and obtuse, it has not been persuasive. Rather, it has brought out the beast in the other rather than winning their empathy and support.

Messaging by IPOB has been full of bile and hatred against other ethnicities. They post false narratives on various issues, including religion. The most recent are trending video and audio messages of attacks on Igbo in the North or the sighting of ammunition in vehicles in the East, all of which are false.

It would seem that rather than the stated objective, IPOB and the “BiafraExit” movement want to force the motion by deliberate provocation of other groups, thus putting the lives, relationships and well-being of its primary stakeholders at significant risk all by its actions.

The sole credit of the IPOB campaign is forcing a renewed discussion of the structural and other inequities of the Nigerian federation. Each day, new revelations indicate the complicity of the current Federal Government in deepening the fissures through outright disregard for the laws of Nigeria on Federal Character and the sensibilities of other groups. But IPOB’s communication has been deleterious, particularly so to its primary audience.

Among the functions of communication that experts identify are integration, socialisation and mobilisation. Integration involves providing to all persons and groups “access to the variety of messages that they need to understand each other and to appreciate others’ living conditions, viewpoints and aspirations”.  The media contribute to the socialisation process by providing a “common fund of knowledge” enabling full functioning of citizens.  The motivation function involves “the fostering of individual or community activities, geared to the pursuit of agreed objectives” (MacBride, 1980).

The absence of persuasive communication has hampered integration in Nigeria particularly in the last two years. Communication traditionally would attempt to influence beliefs, attitudes, motivations and behaviours of its audience about an idea,  object, or other persons. A grand project such as the New Biafra requires strategic communication to create awareness, understanding, acceptance in some cases, or at least empathy for it in others. Effective communication avoids distorting messages during the communication processes. Communication is effective when it leads to the sharing of information accurately between sender and receiver and causes the desired response. It should generate and retain the effect you want.

Communication of the New Biafra also calls for reflection by professionals. IPOB has triggered the Agenda Setting function of the media by placing the matter of an independent country on the burner of discourse. Agenda setting theory posits the interplay of forces in the socio-economic environment, and this is playing out.

However, agenda setting is not a theory of persuasion. Diffusion of innovation is one of the most prominent theories of strategic communication. Application of this theory or any theory or model of persuasion lacks in the current narratives, for and against the proposition.

There is a need for better communication in the public sphere in Nigeria. The proponents of Biafra need to deploy strategic communication and use the principles of persuasion or social influence enunciated by Robert Cialdini and the experts in psychology and communication. The six principles of persuasion would combine well with theories of communication to deliver a Communication Plan that is high on delivery and low on the channel noise affecting the BiafraExit, NigRemain and other causes.  Briefly, Cialdini has theorised and proved that people are more inclined to buy-in to messages if we use experts (authority); if the source is trusted (likeability); if we consider ourselves in their debt (reciprocity); and if doing so resonates with our beliefs and prior commitments (consistency). People would also buy in if the choice is popular (consensus) and would deliver a prized commodity (scarcity). All the parties, proponents of the New Biafra and its opponents, would do an excellent service to Nigeria by purposive and effective communication. Time for a reset. Punch

  • Nwakanma is a Lagos-based communications expert and consultant

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