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Lai Mohammed at 70: The stripes of loyalty

By Leo Sobechi, Deputy Politics Editor, Abuja
19 December 2021   |   4:00 am
Seventy Years ago when he was born, it was as if his parents knew that he would become a lawyer: They named him, Layiwola. It is not that Layiwola translates to a lawyer, but with the abbreviation of the name...

[files] Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Seventy Years ago when he was born, it was as if his parents knew that he would become a lawyer: They named him, Layiwola. It is not that Layiwola translates to a lawyer, but with the abbreviation of the name, alongside the dictates of the legal profession and the job he does for Nigeria through the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, has become a name on so many lips. 
 
For a greater part of his 70 years on mother earth, Alhaji Lai Mohammed has been engaged in advocacy, albeit outside the law courts. He has been standing in for and speaking on behalf of legal persons and organisations.

Over the years, and perhaps out of natural flare, the septuagenarian has developed a creative way of speaking his truths, a reason some people describe his testimonies as often filled with lies.

As a lawyer, his eyes are constantly in search for other perspectives, or what is commonly called technicalities. It is this knack for looking at the other side to create alternative realities therefore, that has shaped Mohammed’s public image. Some see him as an entertainer, even though he seldom betrays mirth, because it is hard to differentiate his smile from his scowl.
  
Others believe that he is so attached to his duties to the extent that it could be imagined if he has a soul. This mix of contradicting perceptions about Nigeria’s current Minister of Information and Culture stem from the man’s perceived indifference to public estimation. He does not seem to care about public adulation so far as his job is done.

Surprisingly, not many people remember that apart from his training as a lawyer, the man from Oro in Kwara State also studied Public Relations. And, accentuated by his earlier study of the French language, which exposed him to the etymology of many words as well as the etiology of social occurrences, Mohammed has a way with words, which puts him on the windward side of public perception.

For his first degree, Mohammed studied French in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, before moving to University of Lagos, where he studied Law. He is also a fellow of Nigeria Institute of Public Relations (NIPR), which enabled him to serve as Public Relations Officer of Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) formerly NAA.

Subsequently, in the course of carrying out his responsibilities, whether as Public Relations of opposition Action Congress of Nigeria or All Progressives Congress, or even as the Federal Government’s spokesman, Layiwola Raufu Mohammed has been caught up in many crossfires.
 
The first baptism of fire for him was when he misheard a question of which country’s jollof rice was best, to which the Minister responded Senegal. No sooner had the response hit the airwaves than Nigerians started calling for his head on Twitter.

However, it took a clarification from Richard Quest to douse the twitter storm. The CNN anchor explained that “the Minister misheard; he thought I asked, who first created jollof rice, his answer Senegal, was correct.

Four years after that nationwide crossfire, Mohammed was back on the slab over the #EndSARS panel report on the Lekki Toll Gate. There again, the Minister of Information and Culture was at the attacking line against the US-based Cable Network News (CNN), especially against the background of the many footages the international media platform released on the massacre of Lekki tollgate protesters.

The Minister described CNN as promoting fake news, even as the CNN challenged the Minister to supply tangible evidence to prove that the clips they broadcast were fake.

Further, following a leakage of the panel report, the Minority caucus of the House of Representatives descended on the minister, asking him to resign since according to the lawmakers, he described the Lekki toll gate as “massacre without bodies.”
  
In a statement by the minority leader, Mr. Ndudi Elumelu, the House of Representatives caucus said: “The confirmation by the Lagos Panel that there was indeed a massacre at the Lekki Tollgate during the 2020 EndSARS protests in Lagos and that APC government-controlled security forces carted away bodies and mopped up evidence, places a huge burden on the Federal Government, which had vehemently denied any killings.

“The Minority caucus is therefore apprehensive as to what furtive motive must have made the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who ought to know the truth, to rush to the media, ahead of the judicial panel, to insist that there were no killings at Lekki Tollgate, even in the face of testimonies of witnesses at the sad event…”  
  


Perhaps, feeling that Mohammed has been cornered, Nigerians waited to hear from the Minister of Information. And, true to type, he came out with a bang. Employing his usual unsmiling focus on the issues, the Minister dismissed the Lekki Toll gate panel report, stressing that the report was “riddled with errors, inconsistencies, discrepancies, speculations, innuendoes, omissions and conclusions that are not supported by evidence.”
 
The lawyer in him also made the Minister to declare: “Never in the history of any Judicial Panel in this country has its report been riddled with so many errors…What is circulating in public space is simply a rehash of the unverified fake news that has been playing on social media since the incident of October 20, 2020.
 
“It is simply incredible that a Judicial Panel set up to investigate an incident has submitted a report laden with allegations, the same allegations it was set up to investigate in the first instance.

“Instead of sitting for all of one year, the panel could have just compiled social media ‘tales by the moonlight’ on the incident and submitted, saving taxpayers’ funds and everyone’s time. That report is nothing but the triumph of fake news and the intimidation of a silent majority by a vociferous lynch mob.”

After he addressed journalists on the matter, it was as if a sharp needle was thrust into the ballooning call for his sack or resignation. Many people chuckled, and in the privacy of their homes wondered why Lai Mohammed refuses to join the bandwagon in public affairs.

While the refrain on massacre on innocent youths was being echoed from various media outlets, Mohammed, as the master of alternative side, left a dampener by arguing that the “37 policemen and six soldiers that died across the country during the #EndSARS protest are also Nigerians and should not be forgotten.”

He added that “those who have engaged in premature celebration of the report in circulation should now go back and read it thoroughly and tell Nigerians whether it can pass any serious scrutiny.”
 
Does Lai Mohammed know how to create doubt? Yes, as a lawyer he knows that the jury can only convict only when the case had been proved beyond reasonable doubt. It is this quality of active intervention that made him the toast of the opposition in his days as the spokesperson of Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN).

By education, training and experience, Mohammed’s job has always been cut out for him. Although he aspired to govern his home state in 2003, after serving as the Chief of Staff to the then Governor Ahmed Bola Tinubu of Lagos State, situation and circumstances pushed him back to his first love: Public Relations.

At the completion of the merger arrangement among some opposition parties, which culminated in the birth of APC in 2013, Mohammed became the popular choice for the post of National Publicity Secretary of the party. From party’s spokesman he was to become the mouthpiece of Nigeria’s Federal Government as minister in the cabinet of President Muhammadu Buhari.

During the screening at the Senate plenary after his nomination for ministerial appointment something happened: The Senators recognised the yeoman’s job the nominee had been doing over the years as opposition party’s spokesman.
  
In a jocular manner, the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Akpabio, from the opposition PDP pleaded with his colleagues that before Lai should be allowed to take a bow and go, he should drop one propaganda for the Red Chamber.

No doubt, Lai Mohammed has shown himself as a loyal ally to work with and an irritating foe to war with. In the last six and a half years as Minister of Information and Culture, some of the people at the receiving end of the man’s queer verbal darts had called on President to relieve the man of the job.
  
But, as the self-effacing spokesman turned 70 years on December 5, 2021, it was an opportune moment for his principal, President Buhari, who swore him in as Minister on two occasions — November 11, 2015 and August 21, 2019 — to respond.  
  
Congratulating the former APC spokesman and current Information and Culture Minister for attaining such milestone, President Buhari recognised “the sacrifices and contributions of the minister in raising a formidable information machinery that went a long way in bringing change in the country.”
  
As if replying those that found fault with Mohammed’s methodologies, the President commended the Minister’s ingenuity, resilience and emotional intelligence, adding: “Mohammed works assiduously to create understanding and enhance the image of the country by bridging the gaps in information.”
  
As the President prayed for good health, strength and longer life for the Minister, it goes without saying that the flagellation Lai Mohammed receives in the course of his onerous duties are but the stripes for his loyalty and commitment.