Statistics quoted by Peter Obi
My today, the concern is how the mainstream media interprets the statistics that Peter Obi cites in his public statements. It’s perfectly understandable – and fair – that we question the accuracy of the statistics he effortlessly churns out. Fact-checking by the media is the answer. However, it is equally important that we do not perform fact-checking to hide the message embedded in the statistics Governor Peter Obi cites in his public speeches. There are disturbing signs on what we can read and hear as soon as the INEC denounces an official campaign.
Governor Obi unveils facts and statistics to demonstrate his expertise in what Nigeria needs to become a production economy. But there is something fundamentally wrong with the way he does it. It is this failure that motivates the media attention he receives when it comes to fact-checking. Before we get into what is fundamentally wrong and how to fix it, it’s important to look at some of the factual stories about the man. There are three main ways in which fact-checking misleads, rather than educates and guides, voters. Let us illustrate with the following examples.
First example: AFP, a respected global news agency, verified Obi’s statement that Morocco made more profit from its exports than Nigeria in 2021. The fact that Obi tried to establish was that Morocco, a less populated country without natural gas, should not do better than Nigeria but does. His message was that Nigeria was not doing well because of leadership failures. The fact and the message are materially true. AFP admitted as much in a sentence that read, “Morocco is a smaller country with higher exports than Nigeria in 2021.” So what was the purpose of fact-checking? The agency established that Obi had underestimated how much Nigeria was earning, not that his message and conclusions were wrong. By chasing this red herring, fact-checking unfairly targeted the credibility of the candidate.
Example 2: We have witnessed cases where the mainstream media has used fact-checking to editorialize in news stories. Newspapers with leanings towards one of the candidates are the biggest culprits. The function of fact-checking is to establish whether politicians are misleading voters; it is not a license to abuse candidates. Citizens who read verified reports will make up their minds about credible candidates based on what they read. Therefore, to go from verifying the veracity of politicians’ claims to insulting them is unprofessional. A newspaper used the words “serial liar” to describe a candidate, based on facts he misrepresented. Is it the journalist’s duty to tell the public that every candidate is a liar? Only opinion writers and columnists benefit from the license but not the journalist.
Example 3: Responsible media organizations have also fact-checked supporters and reported their findings so that some can attribute the opinions as those of the candidates they support. In one instance, online media verified the following statement allegedly made by a prominent church leader: “I will give Peter Obi eight million votes from my church. I have never supported any political candidate before. But Peter Obi is more than a political candidate. This is a move under which Nigeria will become great again. This statement clearly represents a personal opinion rather than a corporate opinion, given the “I” factor it contains. Those peddling the statement on social media have also never provided information on where and when someone posted the statement. However, supporters of candidates often do not need to meet with them or contact their parties to do so. So what was the means of fact-checking? The best a professional reporter can do is run the story (I wouldn’t) but add that the outlet hasn’t independently verified the claim. This outlet never published the original story but went to great lengths to debunk it, making it look like the claim came from the contestant himself! This is another instance where a report unnecessarily targeted a candidate’s credibility.
As we get closer to the electoral belt, many more of these misguided and mischievous fact checks are inevitable. Publishers will publish out of ignorance or willful mischief. The fact that this is happening now, before full-fledged campaigns, reveals something fundamentally wrong with candidate Peter Obi’s preparations.
It exposes poor or absent research and communication strategy in the campaign. Such a team will have the facts and statistics on the subject for any public discourse. Second, it also exposes the reality that Obi has not yet disciplined himself to work from a prepared script. There is a benefit in acquiring the discipline of writing speeches. A screenplay is not just a set of words and figures on paper. It automatically triggers fact-checking of numbers and statements, as any good editor knows. Third, with so many facts and statistics fighting for space in his brain, there’s always the chance that the message will come out confusing and inelegant. This often happens with his speeches. The stakes are too high to continue with this fluid style that gradually impresses fewer and fewer people with its knowledge of statistics.
As for our editors and publishers friends, Obi will remain the main object of a dominating fact-check. He is the leader of the thematic discussions and seems more charismatic than his opponents. We can therefore only cite cases where professionalism has failed to put the emphasis on the man. Professionalism in political reporting is about being loyal to the people who will choose a leader and not to the candidates who are fighting for the people’s mandate. Professionalism fails where the fact-checking statistics that Peter Obi (or any other candidate) cites fail to take into account its contexts and message, where editorialization results, and whenever a report tends to indict candidates for the sins of distant supporters.
There is always something unique about charismatic Nigerian leaders in politics. Four of these outstanding leaders, in order of their surnames, are MKO Abiola, Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Peter Obi. Each of these visionary leaders amplified their charisma by using factual and oratorical devices to explain their vision of life and leadership.
Awo used facts and logic to gather his thoughts on each topic. Ordinary people marveled at the facts, leaving the intellectuals to analyze the logic. Zik was big on logic and most efficient in public delivery. Commoners and intellectuals alike united in praising his oratorical prowess but not much with his logic. MKO burst onto the scene to explain life and leadership with common sense and colorful local proverbs. We stumbled over the proverbs, which explained the life we lived with such force and clarity. Today, as we enter another defining moment in our democratic history, Peter Obi interprets the Nigerian condition and its leadership imperative through facts and statistics.
In three cases, people, including intellectuals and historians, wrote the interpretations because the antagonists disciplined their public appearances. How could Obi present profound truths but degrade them with dubious numbers? Thinking what he needs is as simple as putting his thoughts on paper, subjecting them to internal fact-checking, and using manual or technological props to present them. This requires a little more discipline and formality on the part of the leader in his public outings.