Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rebranding a ‘Good People and a Great Nation'

By Obi Nwakanma

ASIDE from oil, Nigeria’s other major national exports are bad news and farce. Crime, corruption, instability, disease: signs of human and material decay and trauma. Add Nollywood and the picture would be fairly complete.
Nigeria is an awesome contradiction. It is an enormously rich country but it has one of the world’s highest public manifestations of poverty: unliveable cities; increasingly inhospitable and impolite people driven mad and desperate by lack – mostly the lack of what the poet and novelist, Gabriel Okara, in his great experimental novel, The Voice, would call an “inside”- a soul. For sometimes indeed, what Nigerians suffer is far more poverty of the spirit rather than of the stomach. But let us be clear also, Nigerians live in some of the worst human conditions in the world.

Take urban housing. These are mostly hovels that pass for human habitations; humongous slums which should put any decent nation to shame: Nigerians live in conditions which would be intolerable to any other people elsewhere in the world.

Take this sordid picture of Onitsha floating on the internet. Once the “gift of the lordly Niger,” but now the true picture of catastrophe: it is a picture of these blocks of apartments near Silas Works, besides which is a massive pyramid of sludge and refuse, with pigs scavenging visibly atop it.

This picture situates the condition of the city and of the nation: the decay and destruction and absence of municipal services makes that picture acute: the world sees how Nigerians live in close organic relationship with disease bearing sows. It is the true metaphor of the wilderness encroaching, and the sad part is no one bats an eyelid. It has become too normal to shock.

Nigerians have possibly the ugliest cities in the world. Someone, an American visitor who had once visited Nigeria when she was a student at Harvard, and who came to Nigeria to do doctoral research on the Igbo village life as a model for politically and ecologically sustainable systems based on her readings of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart once described Lagos to me: “it is like looking up and seeing despair, as if everything is crumbling....” She swore never to return to Nigeria.

She was also terribly disappointed that the Edenic image of the Igbo village preserved in Achebean lore had totally disappeared. Not anymore the so-called village democracy; or the distinguished conclave of elders and titled men, or the shrines and the sacred groves or even the calm dignity of people. Ogidi - the model for Umuofia - has not preserved these elements.

Laura is not the only one often disappointed on visiting Nigeria. My mother-in-law swore that she would never, ever visit Nigeria again, following her experience of Lagos. In vain have we, my wife and I, told her that Lagos is not the sum total of Nigeria.

That there are in fact places where the air is cleaner, like my village, although increasingly, the heat from the not too distant gas flaring in Izombe about 80 kilometres away, is also turning its once paradaisal, tropical coolness into something of a hell on earth.

Nigeria shocks anyone who visits it. The shock is numbing until you of course get used to the incessant and contradictory liveliness of the people. But in terms of the visual encounter with its built places, we must face the fact, and tell Dora Akunyili, Nigeria’s minister for information and communication, that Nigeria in its current situation cannot be rebranded because indeed, there is nothing to rebrand. It has far too much ugliness.

It of course has great beauty too. But it is beauty which we are now forced to look at closely in order to see because the ugliness is just too prominent and overwhelming. We must, therefore, look at this Dora Akunyili project of “rebranding Nigeria” for what it actually is: another misguided government programme which shows a thorough failure of imagination.

And that is, above and beyond the issue of corruption, the real problem with Nigeria: a massive failure of the imagination. Great governments are the product of strategic thinking and consent building. Nations depend on an able thinking community with an able, and efficient bureaucratic system to transcribe thinking and instrumentalize it and transform their societies.

Current Nigeria is not the product of high thinking. It is the reflection of mediocre thinking and a mediocre bureaucracy. Dora Akunyili’s farce - and that is exactly what this project to rebrand Nigeria is, a great farce - will not create a representational turn-around for Nigeria where the four horsemen of the apocalypse - war, hunger, pestilence and death - roam freely.

Nigeria, where a drunken corporal on roadblock could shoot anyone to death for failure to “drop” N20, where there is great unemployment; where nothing works – hospitals, refineries, power stations, municipal services and so on and so forth.

To rebrand Nigeria, Dora Akunyili and co will have to go beyond mere slogans. We have been there before: Ethical Revolution, WAI, and the last was the needless profligacy of the “Nigerian Image project” which had been launched also by the Ministry of Information under the Obasanjo administration. None of these will work.

These will all remain futile efforts until Nigeria deals with the fundamental situations that have brought it dishonour among nations. Let me remind us all of a particular axiom: a good product sells itself. In its current situation Nigeria is hardly a hot item of merchandise. No one wants to come to Nigeria. Why?

Well, simply because suffering and ugliness is not exactly great tourist attractions. People come to places to see beauty; to be enriched by art; to hear great music in the open air or in fine musical halls; to visit great galleries and great sites of history; or great, original cultures preserved over time.

They want to encounter great built spaces; beautiful and eclectic cities; go out and sense the night, and feel safe and secure, and smell clean air, eat great food, and encounter fine people who are not beggars, shafts, thieves – whose greatest instincts are welcoming and hospitable; who respect other people and other cultures because they respect themselves; and are not servile or religious fanatics, or ignorant or bigoted.

Ultimately, a nation models and brands itself, not quite in the ways that Dora Akunyili’s rebranding farce proceeds to “re-brand” Nigeria. Let me draw attention to what Nigeria can do to rebrand itself, using the example of India. In the 1960s and 1970s, India had the same image problem as Nigeria currently does.

Its people were dispersed into a diverse diaspora, seeking work across the world, and taking many menial positions in many countries because of great economic and political crisis.

The Indian was accused of everything - dishonesty, making fake drugs and fake everything; cheating and, yes, 419. Indian education was derided. But it had far more going for it than was immediately obvious.

The Indian government invested massively in science and technical education, and research. Today, the Indian Institute of Technology is one of the world’s elite universities, recruiting the finest and training a generation that, with the stimulation of a burgeoned Indian diaspora, launched what today is India’s social, economic and technological miracle.

Today, India is considered among the new great powers of the world - no longer a 419 nation or a nation of fake products and cheats. It did not set apart trying to “re-brand” itself with mere words and fake images. It went to work.

Indeed, in the 1970s, India led the charge for the New International Economic Order through the South-South commission and through the Uruguay round of talks. By the 1980s, according to a RAND report, India’s foreign policy had shifted from the moralistic to the self-interested.

This is a brief summary of course, but there ought to be a lesson there for Nigeria. As we have been told, a tiger does not go about proclaiming its tigritude, it pounces. Serious nations do not go about like Akunyili puppeteering about “rebranding a good people and a great nation.” They go to work.

They rebuild their broken cities. They re-arm their centers of knowledge. They produce value and are not dependent on the goodwill of others. A great nation is self-advertising. Nigeria is not a great nation.

I do not know about being a good people. It is like other nations and other people: what you see is what you get. And what we see currently in Nigeria is not pretty. Dora Akunyili should not waste our time and our resources in this grand deception.

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