Strategic Communication In Governance, Security And Sustainable Development: The Role Of Traditional And Religious Institutions

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A presentation at the Crisis Management Seminar of the National Institute for Security Studies by Rev. Fr. George EHUSANI, in Abuja, October 18, 2021

Introduction: Dynamics of Effective Communication
Communication is defined as the mutual exchange of information and understanding between two or more parties by any means possible. Communication is also described as the mutual exchange of meaning, which is characterized by the dispositions of empathy and compassion, acceptance, and respect. Communication involves an ongoing process of ‘coding’ and ‘decoding,’ because if the recipient of communication cannot successfully decode the content, then no communication would take place.  For Effective Communication to occur, truth and trust are indispensable among the required ingredients. In the first instance the content of the communication must be true, and it must be communicated truthfully. Secondly, the parties in the communication enterprise must have earned the trust of each other before any effective communication can take place. It was Abraham Lincoln who advised that, “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend, that you have his interest at heart, that you care…” Thus, effectiveness in communication often depends to a reasonable extent on the credibility of the communicator in the eyes of the other parties involved. The parties need to have wide areas of shared experiences and shared meaning, and the content of the communication must be credible, relevant, beneficial, tested and owned by all the parties involved, if communication between them is to be effective.

Trust is critical in the effectiveness of communication. But such trust cannot be earned through acts of coercion and intimidation. Acts of coercion and intimidation rather lead to further breakdown in communication. In the face of the breakdown of trust between the leaders and those they lead, no real progress can be made in the direction of effective communication for governance, security, and sustainable development, until a measure of trust is re-established. And how do the leaders facilitate the re-establishment of such trust? By disposing themselves to know and embrace the truth of their local or national circumstances, no matter how uncomfortable such truth might be; for as Jesus Christ says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Yes, by demonstrating sincerity of heart and sincerity of purpose, and by being consistent on this path of sincerity, the people will eventually come to believe that the leaders truly care for them, and they will reciprocate with not only personal loyalty, but also some commitment to assisting their leaders in its task of strategic communication of policy frameworks and policy directions with the people.

Information dissemination and announcements are not the same as communication. A series of monologues do not qualify to be called communication. And attempts at the indoctrination of a population are antithetical to effective communication. What is more, the mismanagement of public relations by reactive rather than proactive messages from official channels of the government have in recent times often aggravated potentially volatile situations, rather than calm down such situations. Instead of strategic proactive communication, we have often been fed on a diet of strategic denials and distractions regarding facts, figures and realities that are in the public domain. We have also been treated with what has now become regular demonization of Nigerian stakeholders who happen to voice out their disagreement with certain policies of government or those who express their displeasure and frustration over the obvious failure of government to improve the economy, to reduce corruption or to effectively address the heightened insecurity in the land. Such crude attempts at communication or such public relations practice on the part of government officials can hardly elicit any measure of loyalty and patriotism in the citizens. The result has indeed been widespread resentment among a significant portion of the Nigerian polity, and a proliferation of groups that are now seeking self-determination. Sadly, there are elements in some of these groups who today have resorted to armed insurrection.

Agents of the government who react too quickly and often in the most impetuous manner to every critical comment regarding the failures and perceived injustices of the government should be told in very clear terms that they are often heating up the policy and rendering an already dangerous situation even more precarious. Senior officials of government, who react too quickly and often too impulsively to critics of the administration should be educated on the fact that democracy only thrives when there is a government in power, and there are opposition voices, whose duty it is to constantly drag the feet of those in power to the fire of good governance. In a democracy, critics of government policies and political actors should never be called enemies of the state. Yes, spokespersons of the administration who take on critics of the government often in the most uncivil manner, should be told that if all Nigerians become sycophants, minions, and praise singers of the captain of a sinking ship, then we are all doomed, when the inevitable occurs. Finally, in a volatile environment such as our own, all those who speak for government and their principals should be mandated to take a short course in the dynamics of nonviolent communication, which is now widely available, even online.

Critical Elements of Human Security
On the subject matter of security, I need to emphasise here that all of us stakeholders in this country, and especially functionaries of our security agencies, need to begin to understand national security beyond regime protection and the safety of the incumbent, to include or take into consideration all elements of the human security of Nigerians. We need to begin to understand the remote causes of insecurity, and appreciate that justice and equity, the availability of social infrastructure and a robust social welfare system, a generous provision for universal education and youth employment, as well as the amount of trust the leadership has succeeded in earning from the various segments of the diverse population, etc., are the most critical elements that make for security and peaceful co-existence in any society. The very serious trust deficit between the leadership and the people they lead today, the widespread perception of injustice and inequity in the distribution of opportunities and benefits as well as in the application of sanctions and penalties in the Nigerian polity – and especially the widespread perception of nepotism and sectional bias, to whatever extent it is true, or if such impressions are not satisfactorily addressed, the situation will often generate resentment, bitterness, and political tension, and this will ultimately culminate in the breakdown of law and order, which now and again require crisis management and the intervention of security agents towards restoring some measure of order.

The Place of Traditional and Religious Leaders
With regards to culture, my understanding is that what the framers of my part of today’s topic mean is “the role of traditional institutions and religious bodies in addressing the challenge of strategic communication for governance, security, and sustainable development.” Traditional and religious institutions are naturally supposed to be custodians and stabilizers of the fundamental values that nurture and sustain human societies. Traditional and religious institutions ordinarily hold the key to the realization of good conduct (among leaders and followers alike), and the promotion of social cohesion, harmonious interaction, peaceful co-existence, and wholesome development in the polity, as they help to formulate and disseminate such core values as truth and justice, equity and fairness, as well as the common good imperative in the society.

Since the onset of colonialism up to this day however, our traditional institutions have been progressively polluted and increasingly bastardized by successive governments, which unjustly appropriated to themselves the right to enthrone and dethrone traditional rulers at will, and the right to determine their salaries and allowances. Is it surprising therefore that the loyalty of many of these traditional rulers has often shifted from their people and what the legitimate demands of their people may be, to the will of the one who pays the piper? Is it surprising that ever since colonial days traditional rulers have often conspired with foreign and local conquerors to subjugate their own people? Is this not why many of these rulers have often lost the trust of their people, as they are now and again seen to be dancing to the tune of whoever is in power at any particular time? And to what extent can an institution that has been destroyed to such a level contribute meaningfully to promoting the higher values that make human societies thrive? To what extent can such a thoroughly bastardized institution play the role of custodians of truth and agents of social cohesion? And to what extent can such an institution (which itself is needing to be salvaged from the forces of degeneration), be engage in any reasonable measure of effective communication for security and sustainable development?

Religious organizations too and their leaders have not been spared this onslaught of decay and triumph of mediocrity in our society, as successive political actors have often sought to manipulate the religious sentiments of the people for their partisan designs. Some religious leaders have now and again been recruited by unscrupulous politicians to promote their nefarious agendas, sometimes even using the pulpit to disseminate sectional, partisan, parochial and divisive messages, and thereby heating up the polity, and worsening the already dangerous security situation. Instead of using their platforms for critical, constructive and objective analysis of societal issues and strategic communication engagement between the people and their leaders, a number of religious leaders have sometimes allowed their institutions to be reduced to platforms that simply project the positions of the government of the day – positions that have sometimes been found not to be on the side of the common good of the people. Rather than insist on our sacred mandate as custodians of lasting values and purveyors of truth, many of us religious leaders have often vacillated and equivocated, when now and again the hard, direct, uncomfortable truth needed to be told to power. True, when in the last few decades, traditional and religious leaders started to dance to the tune of whoever was in power at any particular time, Nigeria as a nation truly began to lose its soul.

Rising to the Challenge of Communication for Justice, Good Governance and Peace
Under our present circumstances, what can traditional institutions and religious organisations do to foster strategic communication in governance for security and sustainable development? The challenge is for those of us who are leaders in these institutions to get back to the drawing board and rediscover our identity and mission in society as custodians of lasting values (including governance values), purveyors of inviolable truth, defenders of the common good and promoters of justice and fairness. Religious leaders (in particular) have a transcendental reference point. This means that we have a divine mandate that should never be compromised or undermined if we are to be true to our calling. In a country like Nigeria that is today in dire need of moral leadership, we religious leaders must find our proper place as truth bearers, as prophets and as sentries, and work hard to earn credibility and trust in the eyes of the generality of the people.

We must constantly assert our independence and neutrality in partisan political matters and insist on our sacred mandate to defend the common good of all, to function as the voice of the voiceless, to speak truth to power, and to advocate for justice, equity and fairness, even when now and again such advocacy will rattle the people in power or make them uncomfortable. We religious leaders must see it as part of our duty to interrogate the persistence of feudalist orientations in our democratic governance. As teachers of good conduct and chastisers of those who oppress and exploit the people of God, we must be constantly addressing the staggering degree of corruption that thrives not only in the conduct of governance at all levels, but also in the leadership recruitment processes themselves. Yes, we religious leaders must clean up our acts, take our rightful place, and address courageously the crisis of legitimacy, the trust deficit and the widespread alienation and disengagement of the population that presently bedevil our political system.

Rev. Fr. George EHUSANI
Executive Director, Lux Terra Leadership Foundation

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