The new President of the Federal Republic who is being sworn in today, what name is he going to be known by? This is a matter of the least concern for social media writers but for old-time media practitioners, this is a serious matter of professional etiquette.
In 1976 when the little-known Georgia State Governor Mr. James Earl [Jimmy] Carter began his run for President of the United States, American newspapers did stories asking, Jimmy who? He won the race and on the eve of his inauguration in January 1977, the White House announced that he should be known as President Jimmy Carter. Another furor immediately erupted in the media, which Time magazine summarized in a story titled Who Carter?
The BBC Board of News met in London for 12 hours and debated whether it was appropriate for a serious news medium to refer to a president by his informal nickname. The BBC editors then heard that the Board of Editors of New York Times had been meeting non-stop for 24 hours over the same issue. The BBC editors then adjourned their meeting and decided to abide by the New York Times’ decision. The next day, NY Times’ lead story referred to the new leader as “President Jimmy Carter…” BBC and all the world’s media then followed suit. Sixteen years later when US President William Jefferson Clinton said he should be known as “Bill” Clinton, there was no fuss because a precedent had already been set. Or when the current US President is known as “Joe” Biden, something that would have been unthinkable for the media in the 1960s.
Which Editorial Board in Nigeria has given a thought to the name of President Tinubu? Since 1992 when he burst into the political scene as a senator of the Federal Republic, and especially since 1999 when he became governor of the country’s most populous and most cosmopolitan state, every media house in Nigeria has called him Bola Tinubu. More recently, when he became his party’s presidential candidate, his middle name “Ahmed” began to appear frequently in the news. The new president however has another name, Adekunle, which hardly features in news stories. And for that matter, Bola is not a full name. His full name is Abimbola. If the Nigeria Guild of Editors is alive to its responsibilities, it should set up a committee of veteran editors to receive from Aso Rock an official statement about the name that the new President wishes to be known, debate whether it is an appropriate name and adopt the name that the media should use.
Name is only the beginning of the problem. What about the size of the crowd at Eagles Square that will witness the swearing in ceremony this morning? Remember that in January 2016 when he was sworn in as US President, Donald Trump created controversy when he estimated the crowd that attended his inauguration at one and a half million. The media estimated the crowd at 250,000. The US Park Service, which has charge of Washington DC’s National Mall, has a method of estimating the number of people that crowd into the mall because on previous occasions, organisers of some events often exaggerated the turnout at their rallies. In Nigeria here, which agency do we have that can reliably estimate the number of people at Eagle Square? In any case, the number of people that turn up today at Eagle Square is not a measure of the new President’s popularity because strict security measures are in place, including the declaration of a work-free day, cordoning off of the Federal Secretariat and all the adjoining roads and strict security checks at the gates, so not every well-wisher can go in.
The next problem is, at precisely what time will Tinubu become President of the Federal Republic and Commander-in-Chief? Everyone has been saying that he will become President on May 29. Since there are 24 hours, 1440 minutes and 86,400 seconds on May 29, we should be more precise than that in order to avoid a constitutional crisis. On January 20, 2009 when Barack Obama was being sworn in as 44th US President, the official program had it that the Chief Justice of the United States will administer the oath of office on him precisely at noon. But there was some delay in the program and when the clock struck noon, they had not reached the point where Obama will take the oath of office.
However, at the stroke of the hour, all the television networks zeroed in on Obama as he patiently sat on his chair. They declared that he was now President of the United States, oath of office or no. This was very important because if, God forbid, someone launched nukes at the United States, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will know who to take orders from at the stroke of noon. Our National Assembly should therefore buckle up and pass a law to fix the precise hour, minute and second at which the new president will take over, even if the Government Printer forgot to send a copy of the oath of office to Eagle Square.
What about if there is a mistake in the oath? On the day Obama was being sworn in, Chief Justice John Roberts told Obama to recite after him, but he made a mistake in reading the lines. Obama, who is very smart, noticed the mistake, smiled and recited the correct sentence. US newspapers later reported that the Chief Justice went to the White House the next day and administered the oath anew on Obama, this time correctly. In Nigeria here, if such a mistake is made in administering the oath, however minor, Obidients will rush to court and ask for the Inauguration to be declared null and void on account of it.
The Nigerian propensity to go to court after every election, when will we ever overcome it? On the day he lost the US presidential election in November 1960, Richard Nixon’s aides had some reason to think that the election results from Illinois were rigged. Northern Illinois, which is urban including the huge city of Chicago, usually votes Democrat while southern Illinois, which is rural and conservative, usually votes Republican. At some point the race for Illinois was neck and neck and television networks projected that whoever won the state will win the election. So, a nervous Democratic candidate John Kennedy put a call through to Chicago Mayor Dick Daley, the original political godfather. With results still uncertain, Daley told Kennedy, “Mr. President, don’t worry. You will win this state.” But when his aides advised that he should contest the Illinois results in court, Nixon stoutly refused, saying it would harm America’s image abroad. Those people here who are busy writing to the White House not to recognize Nigeria’s election results, did any American write to foreign countries in 1960 and asked them not to recognize Kennedy’s victory because of what Dick Daley may have done in Chicago?
When President Tinubu is settling down in his office, which newspaper articles should he be worried about and which calls from media editors should he personally answer? Well, there are some guides, again from the United States. In 1977, new US President Jimmy Carter read an opinion article critical of himself in the New York Times. He picked his pen, wrote a rejoinder, signed it and sent it to his Press Secretary, Jody Powell, for dispatch to the paper. Powell decided that it was beneath the President’s dignity to respond to a letter to the editor, so he put Carter’s letter aside and wrote his own.
Editors can be very imperious. In 1964, Managing Editor of Time magazine, Otto Fuerbringer, phoned the White House and asked to speak to President Lyndon Johnson. He was told that the president was attending a function, so he said, “When he returns, tell him to call me back. It is important.” Johnson was annoyed when he heard the editor’s order, but he called back. With his well-known habit of mutilating people’s names, Johnson said, “Who is that Foos-binger who said I must call him back?”
Smart Press Secretaries also know that it is not every presidential order that is to be obeyed. An order issued by the president in a fit of rage, one that could ruin the presidency, is not to be quickly obeyed. US President John Kennedy, who was very smart, was once so angry with CBS television network that he ordered his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to call Federal Communications Commissioner and tell him to revoke CBS’ TV license. An hour later, President Kennedy emerged from the Oval Office, accosted Salinger and said, “Have you carried out my order?” Salinger said, “No, sir.” Kennedy said, “Thank you!”
For that matter, an editor should not cave in to every presidential threat. In 1961 when New York Times scooped the story of the CIA’s impending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, President Kennedy called Times’ publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger and said if he published the story, American soldiers’ blood will be on his hands. Times withheld the story and when the invasion failed, Kennedy said Sulzberger should have published the story, which would have forced a cancellation of the invasion and would have spared the President terrible embarrassment.