INTERVIEW: How journalism experience has helped me as commissioner –Egbemode (I)

INTERVIEW: How journalism experience has helped my work as commissioner –Egbemode (II)
Funke Egbemode

Mrs. Funke Egbemode is a household name in the media in Nigeria.  A great columnist who rose to the post of the Managing Editor of a national newspaper, she was also the president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. About two years ago, she took up appointment as Osun State Commissioner for Information and Civic Orientation under Adegboyega Oyetola’s government.  In this interview by SAKIBU OLOKOJOBI, she speaks on her experiences as a government’s spokesperson, the challenges and how her experiences as a journalist had at different times helped her. She also speaks on the achievements that make her principal qualify for a second term in office among other things.  Excerpts:  

It’s over two years since you left the newsroom for the political terrain as Osun State Commissioner for Information and Civic Orientation. How would you describe the experience so far?

It’s been a totally new experience. It’s one thing to report politics and politicians, it’s another to be in the midst of what is going on. It is a huge responsibility to be in government; whichever ministry you are handling, all your decisions impact lives, your errors can change the destinies of others. The great things and positive things that you do also help to move up those that are down. So far, the experience has opened my eyes to a lot of different things and it’s definitely more tasking than being an editor. This is a lot of work, it takes a lot of joggling of balls; I’m taking decisions; I’m supporting decisions, I’m part of decisions that impact other people’s lives. Yes, you take responsibilities too being in the media but this is a lot different.

What would you say are the similarities or dissimilarities between Journalism and Politics?

They are intertwined. There are similarities and dissimilarities.  For example, what a journalist says is believed or disbelieved, impacts on the lives of millions of people and in politics, a governor or politician impacts a lot of lives.  A lot depends on what we do; whatever we do will determine the outcome and the kind of effect that we have on our society. There are risks on both sides, but handling an office like that of a commissioner, especially when you are a Commissioner for Finance, Information or Political Affairs; the responsibilities are huge; the hours are long.  People tend to underrate what people in the political arena do but apart from the hard work and the long hours, it’s been quite an experience.

No, being a good journalist is being a good journalist. Being a good journalist does not necessarily mean that you are going to make a good spokesperson because it is like the driver and the conductor in a bus or on the train.

What does it mean, in the practical sense, working as a spokesperson for a government?

It means keeping an eye on every sector of that government that you speak for. It means reading up on what you don’t understand. It means asking questions. It means going around and it means asking questions. It also means defending what the government and the governor are doing.  It is very tasking emotionally; very tasking physically.  Infact it involves deploying a lot more mental energy because what I can liken it to is like your production day in a newspaper house, falling on the day the president dies. You have to be on your toes all the time. You know, on a day like that, you are doing more than one edition; you are probably doing different angles to a story. The job of a spokesperson is to look at all the angles, pick the ones you want to disclose for the good of the government and also advise the system on the ways to go. It is very technical in some ways because it is not just about issuing press statements.

Sometimes, I read a seven paragraph press statement for more than one hour. After I finish reading it, I go on to do something else; I leave it unsent and then come back to it and look at it again to be sure that no word is untold , no word is wrong, no word is going to rub off on anybody the wrong way. That’s why I said it is very tasking. It’s draining emotionally because you have to continue to project and tell the truth; you have to balance those two aspects. You project your government in  positive light and tell the truth to preserve the integrity of that government; integrity of your office as somebody who tells them the truth; somebody that the people of the state, for instance, can trust.  If you speak for a state you must be that person whose words they can take to the bank.

Does being a good journalist make anyone a good spokesperson for a government? I’m asking this question against the backdrop of the argument that being a good journalist does not necessarily mean being a good spokesperson or Public Relations person.

No, being a good journalist is being a good journalist. Being a good journalist does not necessarily mean that you are going to make a good spokesperson because it is like the driver and the conductor in a bus or on the train. They are both handling very important jobs but they have to make sure they stay on their mandate.  The mandate of a bus conductor is different from the mandate of a bus driver.

For instance, even if you are not sure of certain things happening in your state, your job is to ensure your government looks good. So, you project and then correct what is not going well. You must as a spokesperson know that the bulk does not stop on your table. But in the newsroom, it gets to a level that as a line editor, the head of a desk can decide certain stories that need to be dropped and worked on for another week; he or she can decide that an investigative story can be worked upon for about three months.  That can make you a good journalist because you can balance your act, you can look at all the angles to a story and you can deliver on time. Now, the time that you deliver as spokesperson is different because the balls you are joggling are different, heavier and must not fall. You cannot say what should not be said; you must continue to look at the emotional and the political correctness of what you are doing. If you do not have the grace to look at all those angles and to put your own comfort aside, you cannot be a good spokesperson. So, being a spokesperson is a lot different from being a journalist. However, the things that you had done in the newsroom help you to do the job. As we often say in the newsroom – if you have managed a newspaper or a newsroom, your experience will help you work as a spokesperson.

You have always described yourself as being lucky to have Oyetola as your principal because he does not have image problem. What did you expect in that area at the onset of the appointment?

Fortunately for me, my thought about who a spokesperson or what I will do as spokesperson did not come suddenly. Yes, the appointment was immediate in a lot of ways because the governor called and we spoke. I was able to listen to him. We sat in his Lagos home for about two hours and he told me exactly how he wanted the job done. I was able to gauge a lot of things. I was able to figure out what he wanted done; he gave me a lot of room to manoeuver from day one that we sat in Lagos and discussed the job. He told me he didn’t want any lie to be told. He told me what he wanted to do with the ministry. He told me he would not condone any kind of negativity in disseminating information. Before the cabinet list was announced, he had told me what he expected of me.

When you sit with a politician, having worked with many and having interviewed many over the years, you can hear what they don’t say and I knew that he was not going to be difficult to work with. I have found that he is a lot easier than I even thought. He is a man who is not afraid to own up to whatever is not good that is happening; he is willing to explain.  What attracted me to the job was seeing and hearing a man who just wanted to make a difference and so he made the job easy. I would say I’m one of the commissioners that assumed work unofficially before the swearing in because he told me to go and bring my work plan and stay back in Osogbo.

I was able to speak with people and I had access to him. He answered my questions, he explained my fears and it has been like that.  He is a man that is only interested in doing what is right. He is not desperate. He just wants to lead. He is not like your regular politician and that’s what everyone now knows. When we first told everybody that he is quiet, a lot of people felt that it was a matter of time.  Even I was afraid at some point that the office would change him, but the office has not changed him. He remains a quiet man.  He does what needs to be done without talking about it. Even when he has done something good and you say “okay, it’s time to hit town with the stories”, he will say “it’s part of what we promised, there is really no reason to make a lot of noise.”  So, you have to find a way to make as much noise as you want as the spokesperson. Once in a while there are things we get to celebrate and he calls you to do it. He is a man that is down to earth. He is a leader that is there and you know he would tell you exactly what he wants done.

You certainly must have had challenges managing some situations. Which of such challenges tasked you the most and how did you go about it?

I think it was the COVID-19 situation that was most tasking. While everyone was putting on weight because they had to sit at home, managing the COVID-19 situation was really tasking for us. Why it really tasked me was that coming from a background of celebrating all the things that the people wanted done and had been done, one suddenly found oneself in the middle of a pandemic. In that instance, you are campaigning, you are trying to convince people, you tell them that they have to wear mask and all that.  They are saying the water is not deep, meanwhile it was a huge ocean.

And then, there was the life-threatening EndSARS issue. I was in the middle of it. I saw bullet flying.  I felt broken glasses right on my lap. I was numb.

Then, you woke up one morning and there was the case of a contingent from Cote D’Ivoire and everybody (in government) was running helter skelter. Where are they now? Are they in Ibadan already? Is the bus in Ejigbo?  How are we going to protect them?  How are we going to be sure they did not alight on the way?  Should we push them into the isolation centre in Osogbo or keep them in Ejigbo? All kinds of angles were explored. People said all kinds of things they did not have information about.  As information manager, we were wholly engaged to ensure that we kept a lid on all the bad publicity. The governor will always say that he got into office because it was what God promised him and that God would back him on every decision. We had meetings upon meetings throughout that time and we were able to handle the situation successfully.

And then, there was the life-threatening EndSARS issue. I was in the middle of it. I saw bullet flying.  I felt broken glasses right on my lap. I was numb. I could not believe that some people would sit in their homes or wherever, take some cheap substance, infiltrate a procession by young people who just wanted to protest what they felt was not right.  The youths wanted the governor to speak to them and suddenly there was an attempt on the governor’s life. It was very tasking seeing your life flashed right across your face like that; seeing that that could be the end. That was life-threatening and it was a day that showed the other side of governance. It was also a huge lesson for me. The hours were long.

Also, I respected my governor more from that day. Even though there was an axe hanging on one of the vehicles of his convoy, even though a huge stone was thrown through the back of the vehicle he was sitting in, even though lies were concocted within minutes about people dying – somebody even said the governor brought out a gun and shot – he was not bitter.  I don’t know what I would have done if I was faced with people turning on me like that. And he had power.

I respected also our security forces. I escaped from the scene in the vehicle of the Secretary to the State Government, Prince Wole Oyebanji. His security detail had gun and he left it on his lap. I was looking at it from the back. He was still, he did not shoot. Governor Adegboyega Oyetola had no bitterness. He just shook his head when we all expressed our anger at the situation. It was his life that was in danger but he had no anger at that point. Those were two occasions that if I write a book about my experience, they will get more than one chapter.

*Concluding part on Friday.