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The government should have capitalised on a recent embarrassing incident in which an official was exposed as incompetent to mount a major PR coup against its critics. But it is too optimistic to expect state bureaucrats in Nigeria to see rare opportunities thrust right under their noses

Nigeria has persisted through fourteen continuous years of a tumultuous democratic experiment, and to date that is what it continues to do: persist. Through the apparent corruption and graft, through the wasteful spending and government extravagance, and through the failing infrastructure and security, Nigeria persists. Despite constant reports of impending doom and collapse, Nigerians find levity in most things; it is perhaps an escape from reality and a skill that was necessitated after the failure of many administrations. Perhaps it is also the reason the entertainment and leisure industries have thrived in the country during recent years.

One such moment is the ogaatthetop internet phenomenon that has swept the country in recent weeks. The story’s background follows as such: a state commandant of a paramilitary organisation called the NSCDC (Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps) appeared on a popular local morning talk show to address allegations of fraudulent recruitment practices within the corps and to shed light on some of the activities of the corps. During a segment of the show he was asked to provide website details for the corps; he could not. In spite of this, he did put up a brave face and excused his momentary lapse by stating that such details could only be provided by his Oga (a Nigerian colloquialism for Boss) at the top. Hence, he birthed an internet phenomenon and inadvertently provided several comical clips and various spinoffs.

There are many ways to look at this, and arguments have been made all around. There are those gloating about government incompetence and inability; they have certainly made their point. There are also those who have drawn attention to the fact that most government functionaries are computer illiterate, arguing that the commandant should be given the benefit of the doubt. I agree with the latter group: while I find the commandant’s mannerism and gesticulations quite comical, I know that the civil service is largely inefficient and unwilling to change. It is nothing short of a behemoth that refuses to adapt, yet it will not go extinct. This observation can be applied universally to the Civil Service Institution. But that is not what this entry is about; I see in this a sorely missed opportunity and the continuation of a deliberate or assumed policy to ignore a problem while treating its symptoms.

What only savvy internet entrepreneurs and marketers realized from the situation and its subsequent reactions was that it was seizable. A good percentage of Nigerians were for a moment less worried about the threat and reality of domestic terrorism; less concerned about dilapidated or non-existence infrastructure; less moved by corruption or mismanagement; and for a brief moment, we were all concentrating on this one addictive human folly, and it was a teachable moment. In the moment, the government could relearn something about itself and its functions, and re-educate its citizens and followers.

No one is more remiss than the NSCDC itself. The truth the commandant slipped while answering a question about the website of the NSCDC is instructive: there are still many who do not know what the NSCDC is about, why they were created and what their functions are. In a country with so many armed paramilitary organisations and a bad record of human rights and extra-judicial killings, many are suspicious and wary about the introduction of yet another armed organisation. This was a golden moment to educate the general public . The media budget for the NSCDC for the financial year 2012 was N105M. (approximately USD $665,946); Such an amount allocated in two places would still not have generated the amount of interest generated by the viral video, and this publicity was absolutely free. With a little self-deprecating humour the NSCDC could absolutely have turned the moment to their favour; their internal discipline and reprimand structure aside, this is not about debating whether the commandant should have been suspended or not. The ogaatthetop phenomenon gave them an enviable marketing and public relations platform to use.

Billboards turning the joke on itself, asking 'What is the website for the NSCDC?' with a link to the actual website, should have gone up within the week of the incident. I can wager that they would have enjoyed the most hits they have had since the inception of the site. The ogaatthetop domain should have been registered immediately by the NSCDC with an automatic link to the actual site. Campaigns on the radio, on electronic media, and on website banners should have begun in earnest introducing the NSCDC as the ogasatthetop. They could have gone a step further and introduced merchandising, T-shirts, mugs, bags, notepads and the rest. Governing can be that simple sometimes.

Governments everywhere are finding ways in this digital age to connect with people, to get them or keep them interested, to keep them for being apathetic. The amount of campaigning done via social media during the last two American presidential elections is a testament to this. In a country like Nigeria, and in fact most African countries, where the citizens are naturally distrusting of government, moments like this do not come often. Governments are going to have to find better ways to connect with their audience, to meet them, whether it is online, through the social media or perhaps even through the home videos that have become so ubiquitous.

I will concede a few things. Firstly, the people who watched the video only did so because they wanted to watch a train wreck, to witness the schadenfreude because they wanted to laugh at government; this may be true, but it is human nature and not peculiar to Nigeria and if they are going to be laughing anyway, why not laugh with them and inform them of something at the same time. Secondly, only governments that have something to say would think of seizing the moment; while I will admit that by nature every government has something to say, they may just not be saying what anyone wants to hear. This is evident in Nigeria by the amount of time Press Secretaries spend reiterating, clarifying or defending. Perhaps the time has come for government to play offence. Thirdly, this cannot work for every situation, such as when people lose their lives needlessly to sectarian violence, or when people who have been trusted with public office mismanage funds and the privileges of their offices. This time around, the gaffe not being one of those usual instances made the ogaatthetop phenom so rare, so special. It was not violent. It was not scandalous. It was simple human frailty and it was a very good opportunity.

Marketers are forever trying to figure out likes and dislikes, interests and potential areas of engagement with consumers in this fast changing digital world, and while there are no sure-fire formulas as of yet, one thing remains true: people are communicating, sharing and engaging via different platforms like never before. Governments in the developed world have realised they are behind the curve and have begun to catch up; as the digital divide in Africa is gradually closing, it is time that African governments begin to think of creative ways to engage as well. The NSCDC should have completely owned the ogaatthetop incident. For better or worse they already do. That is all.