Is the Tinubu administration fuelling or fighting information disorder?

15 April 2024
15 April 2024

The rapid spread of information through online/offline platforms has brought unprecedented challenges within and outside Nigeria. Information disorder has become a phenomenon characterized by the spread of false, fake, misleading, manipulated, and inaccurate information that can mislead and deceive the public.

The Nigerian government, under Bola Tinubu, has seen information disorder take center stage. Personnel announcements, policy rollout, and presidential positions have been affected in an era where governments are faced with the challenge of increased access to information – and misinformation.

While numerous observers attribute the crux of the issue to the government’s poor and clumsy handling of communication and (public) engagement,  others contend that certain machinery and non-state actors exacerbate information disorder through sponsored activities. To what extent can we lend credit to these conclusions? Where can we put the Nigerian government on the spectrum of fueling and fighting information disorder?


Governing is not Campaigning

For a team that battled propaganda during the 2023 elections and tackled it swiftly, one would expect an increased strategy in government. However, some of the announcements and events in the past would show some unexpected naivete.  

When the president announced during his inauguration that “Fuel subsidy is gone,” his confidence betrayed the fact that there was barely any coordination in this policy rollout. Most early personnel appointments came within a week of his inauguration, but even the few in the post were unable to sufficiently explain how this policy would be handled, the reasoning behind the immediate rollout of the policy, the impact on the nation’s purse and, during harsh economic realities, plans towards cushioning the effect of the subsidy removal. This insufficiency of government communication was compensated by a proliferation of fake news and reports about the reality of the subsidy removal. It also nurtured some skepticism about the preparedness of this government in terms of media management. The challenge of dealing with this at the onset of government meant a poor early impression was made.

For a team that battled propaganda during the 2023 elections and tackled it swiftly , one would expect an increased strategy in government.

Within weeks, in July 2023, Tinubu was named ECOWAS chair and soon faced with managing a military coup in Niger. The Tinubu government’s approach in handling the coup has been criticized for being over-handed and failing to follow through on the threat of military intervention – a threat some might argue needn’t have been made. Yet, a major media challenge was a widely circulated leaked memo on deploying ECOWAS soldiers to Niger following the threat. The subsequent about-turn was a sign of a government unable to manage leaks within the government and effectively counter reports. Furthermore, the inability to clearly communicate the president’s limitations in deploying the military and the need to seek parliamentary approval was poorly articulated. As a result, before the Senate communicated its disapproval of deployment, news had spread across the country with the narrative that the president had finalized plans to invade Niger. This misleading narrative was mirrored as a Nigeria versus Niger combat; a mis/disinformation of such magnitude went on for days, unchallenged.  

On 8 January 2024, the head of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), Babatunde Irukera, and his counterpart at the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), Alexander Ayoola Okoh, were reportedly ‘sacked’. This news was met with mixed reactions, as many believed Irukera had performed credibly at the FCCPC. This affected personnel changes, which is a very sensitive spot for a new government. However, another statement by a presidential aide clarified that they had been ‘relieved’ of their duties – 24 hours after citizens had responded to the earlier report. These incidents showed a government struggling with the weight of effectively managing sensitive government communications.


No News can be Bad News

A major concern is that the more fake news spreads, the faster it is accepted as truth by the people. While many citizens may not understand the damage of a piece of information, some actively do so and are aware of the potential impact. However, when it comes to government relations, there are different implications, and more considerations need to be made in handling these challenges.

In the aftermath of keenly contested elections that was impacted by information disorder, the government must have been aware of the possibility for information to be mistakenly and intentionally weaponized to produce devastating effects. Already, the government has had to deal with misconceptions around the federal government’s palliative measures to states and the president’s visit to Qatar for a Business and Investment Forum. The first event led to governors seeking to correct the misconception, while the second ubrewed diplomatic tension until the earlier approved memo was renounced.

Reports have also shown that some instances of the breakdown of law & order, violence, and civil unrest can be traced to the spread of fake and inaccurate information. One viable example is the farmer-herder crisis, a long-running security issue that has lasted for over a decade in Nigeria due in part to misinformation and fake news. Perhaps most potently, information disorder has contributed to economic meltdown and hardship for the people. The unplanned announcement of fuel subsidy removal led to hardship, long queues across fueling stations, a hike in food prices, increased cost of transportation, and rising inflation.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge is the risk of a society distrusting the state. If citizens cannot trust the messaging from the government, then the risk of anarchy and illegitimacy can creep in. The impact cannot be understated, and the government cannot afford to add information disorder (on a full scale) to the plethora of socioeconomic and security issues bedeviling the country.


Other mechanisms include supporting fact-checking teams/hubs by providing access to information and empowering them to enlighten the public in real time
Tackling Information Disorder

The first process to tackling information disorder is streamlining the government’s communications team. The multiplicity of roles and functions has often led to conflicting narratives, as seen in the Irukera case. The government should clearly define the roles of every individual as to who has the final say and should verify every announcement before disseminating it to the public.

The government has several institutions, including the National Orientation Agency (NOA), that should work on improving citizenship engagement and sensitization. Before the government rolls out a plan or policy, the NOA should familiarize the people with the implementation processes and the benefits to the people. Those institutions should preempt questions that could fuel mis/disinformation and provide concise answers.

The government must expand beyond the weekly press briefings after the federal executive council meeting and include frequent press conferences incorporating the activities and programs of all government ministries, departments, and agencies.

Other mechanisms include supporting fact-checking teams/hubs by providing access to information and empowering them to enlighten the public on plans, programs, and policies, thereby combating information disorder in real time. Combining these strategies keeps the government multiple steps ahead of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news purveyors.

In seeking to address the original question, while no government necessarily benefits from information disorder, the Tinubu administration appears to be overwhelmed by the growing dimensions around information disorder. Yet, this is the responsibility of governance; and the administration must be more proactive and deploy concerted efforts to fight information disorder. There should be a clearer and more transparent level of engagement with the public on national issues and a concerted effort to improve the relationship between the state and society. Beyond the fact that it is the government’s responsibility, it is also expedient for any administration with an eye on re-election. 

Aluko Ahmad is a fact-checker at the Centre for Democracy and Development

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