Baghdad, 2003; the American invasion was in full-force. The entire might of the US military had just been unleashed on Saddam Hussein’s forces as the US war machine rolled across Iraq.
Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi Information Minister, told the world: “Now, even the American command is under siege. We are hitting it from the north, east, south and west…at the end we are the people who are laying siege to them. And it is not them who are besieging us.”
A few days later, the Americans took control of the Baghdad International Airport. Al-Sahhaf responded: “They’re coming to surrender or be burned in their tanks…no I am not scared, and neither should you be!” “Be assured, we have them surrounded in their tanks”. A short while later: “We have retaken the airport. There are NO Americans there. I will take you there and show you. IN ONE HOUR!”
American gains, he said, were a strategy by the Iraqis to trap the invaders. “Our armed forces, according to their tactics, are leaving the way open”. “Whenever we attack, they retreat. When we pound them with missiles and heavy artillery, they retreat even deeper. But when we stopped pounding, they pushed to the airport for propaganda purposes.’’
Even as US forces were approaching the Iraqi capital, al-Sahhaf insisted, “They’re not even (within) 100 miles (of Baghdad). They are not in any place. They hold no place in Iraq. This is an illusion … today I have visited whole Baghdad city, no invaders (were) found. You go and see how we have ousted them from this city. They are outside and waiting to receive bullets. They will be killed shortly…the situation is excellent, they are going to try to approach Baghdad…and I believe their grave will be there.”
And when the Americans had taken control of the city, al-Sahhaf claimed that there were no American troops in Baghdad, and that the Americans were committing suicide by the hundreds at the city’s gates. At that time, American tanks were patrolling the streets close to where the press conference was being held. “Be assured, Baghdad is safe, protected.” “After we finish defeating all of those animals we will disclose that with facts and figures.” “There are only two American tanks in the city.” “We are winning!”
The Minister was dubbed ‘Comical Ali’ for his deadpan insistence that Iraqi forces were crushing the invading Americans. He refused to retract his wartime claims, saying only that his reports came from “authentic sources”.
Comical Ali has since become a symbol for corporate communications and government information systems that obstinately refuse to acknowledge facts. Al-Sahhaf’s colourful appearances during his press briefings led to the nickname ‘Baghdad Bob’. His stubborn denial of Iraqi setbacks even in the face of indisputable proof caused him to be named Comical Ali.
So serious was Comical Ali with his claims that even the Iraqi military was itself fooled. After the information minister claimed that Iraqi forces had retaken the Baghdad airport from U.S. troops, a commander was dispatched to check out a rumor that four or five American tanks had survived the Iraqi counterattack. He returned to his headquarters in a panic. “Four or five tanks!’’ he told his fellow generals. “Are you out of your minds? The whole damn American Army is at the airport!”
Ten years before the Iraqi invasion, Nigeria was in the middle of political crises following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections. Information Minister Comrade Uche Chukwumerije took government propaganda to another level. Like Sadam’s information minister to come, Chukwumerije merged facts and farce seamlessly. One year later, it was the turn of Walter Ofonagoro, whose job as information minister was simply to discredit MKO Abiola and NADECO by all means.
Under Obasanjo, Information Minister Professor Jerry Gana was so adept at double speak that his voice triggered many to turn off their radios and TVs, frothing at the mouth as he did, to defend his paymaster.
Enter, Frank Nweke. How this hustler made it to the cabinet is another story, but he spewed so much dribble to promote Obasanjo’s third term bid that many wondered if his oath of office was to Nigeria or Obasanjo. It was probably neither: he was only preserving himself, having learnt from the sack of Chukwuemeka Chikelu.
More recently, it was Dora Akunyili, who rebranded and defended everything – all the way into her political dustbin.
And now, Labaran Maku: another command, another comrade. The fuel subsidy coup against the masses in January brought out this comrade’s true hue. And now he is beginning to froth at the lips like Jerry Gana….
Back to Iraq: After the reality of the occupation sunk in, Comical Ali was proved to be a master of deception. In an interview after the war, he said, “the information was correct, but the interpretations were not. I did my duty up to the last minute”.
What is it about the Information Ministry that transforms professors and comrades alike into charlatans like Comical Ali?