Lecture delivered by Obiora Okonkwo Ph.D at the Annual Sam Epelle Memorial Gold Paper Lecture of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) in Asaba, Delta State on September 2, 2021.
I am very highly honored to be part of this very special event; more so for the opportunity to speak on the topic of reinventing Nigeria’s unity for global relevance in the 21st century. The fact that this event is organized by the Nigeria Institute of Public Relations (NIPR), a non-governmental professional body underscores its concerns about Nigeria’s current trajectory and the urgent need to reposition her for national stability and global relevance.
May I sincerely appreciate the Government and people of Delta State for hosting this important Lecture in Asaba. No doubt, this is a clear demonstration of the understanding and admiration of His Excellency, the Governor of Delta State, Senator Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa, to supporting platforms that foster creativity and generation of solution-focused ideas for national engagement, nation building and sustainable development.
I particularly appreciate the fact that this lecture is holding in memory of Sam Epelle, unarguably, the father of public relations in Nigeria and our forebear in the project of positive imaging of our dear country. The NIPR deserves commendation for instituting this annual lecture in his honor because all too often, we fail to live by the words of our national anthem – the labours of our heroes past, shall never be in vain. If Nigeria has come of age globally, Sam Epelle helped in no small measure to achieve that through his effort in driving a positive narrative about our country.
The journey he began is now with us. He ran a great lap and handed over the baton to us and we must do our bit to hand it to the next generation. The exponential growth of the PR industry in Nigeria today speaks to the legacy of Sam Epelle and his generation. And nothing else attests to the appreciation of the work he did during his time than the number of NIPR Members, Associates, Fellows and their friends who have gathered here both to honor him and to contribute to the discourse on reinventing Nigeria in the 21st century.
I therefore thank all of you who have gathered here today, especially those who came from outside Delta State for your commitment to Project Nigeria. Your presence at this event is a testimony to your desire for a change in our national trajectory; a new dawn in which Nigeria’s diversity coalesces into a great resource for national integration and social development. In a few years, questions will be asked as to what those who inherited public relations practice from Sam Epelle did to sustain his effort. Then, people shall point to efforts, such as this lecture, and other emergent initiatives by the NIPR, especially those around citizen engagement.
The NIPR deserves commendation for its outreach programs aimed at engaging Nigerians on the myriad governance challenges the country faces as well the need to project a positive, optimistic view of the country to the world despite the challenges. No country is completely perfect or completely flawed; it depends on the dominant narrative that emerges. This is not to excuse the immense governance failures of Nigeria which will be addressed shortly, but a recognition that the world will not know of any positives about Nigeria, however small, if Nigerians continue to peddle only the negatives about their country. This is where the NIPR, journalists and other communication professionals have a huge role to play.
In this lecture, I am required to interrogate the critical issues of identity, governance and stability in the context of Nigeria’s unity and relevance in the world. The topic is profoundly thought-provoking and centers on the core challenges of nationhood in Nigeria, especially the ability to effectively manage our diversity as well as address our massive governance deficit. After all, it is only strong and (relatively) unified countries that can project power and influence globally earning acclaim and respect as a result. Given our population, put officially at little above 180m, and unofficially, above 200m, Nigeria on that score alone, already occupies place of relevance in international circles. For the average producer and manufacturer, Nigeria is a huge market. Any manufacturer that wins just 10% of the Nigerian market size is in big business. That is, in part, why Nigeria matters to the world. That is also why the effective management of issues of identity, governance and stability, is a primary concern of the international community because of the domino effects any major crisis is Nigeria would have on not just the West African sub-region but also the continent at large.
Reflective of the title, I intend to do the following in this lecture:
- Interrogate the concept of national identity in the context of an intensely diverse country like Nigeria and the immense challenges of bringing it to fruition;
- Reflect on the perennial crisis of political governance and leadership in Nigeria and its implications for national unity and stability;
- Discuss the challenges of reinventing Nigeria for global relevance in the 21st century by reviewing past initiatives in that regard as well as the pivotal role communication sector, particularly the NIPR should play in this regard.
Conceptualizing National Identity and Unity in Nigeria
On the surface, identity comes across as a simple word but it can also be complex and replete with meanings and symbols. It is at the core of who we are; what defines us and how we are viewed by others. According to the Meristem-Webster dictionary, identity is the set of qualities and beliefs that make one person different from another. These range from personal names, character traits and beliefs which can derive from culture, religion, politics, occupation, gender, among others. As Sharon Lynn Wyeth explains everything we do, or view, or say, or know, comes via our concept of who we are in relationship to our world. That idea of who we are is our identity or ID. Our identity colours our experiences and our interpretation of those experiences. It also colours our reactions.
However, for our purpose here, the primary focus is on national identity and the enduring tension between it and other identities, particularly, regional identity. Even that raises the fundamental question – what is a nation? There are usually two distinct, but often overlapping usage of the term by social scientists.
The first refers to a community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, values or history. This is exactly what we mean when we refer to various ethnic groups in Nigeria as nationalities (e.g. Igbo Nation, Yoruba Nation, Ijaw Nation, etc.). However, the second application of the term refers to people who share a common territory and government irrespective of their ethnic and cultural differences. This is what political theorists generally refer to as a nation-state of which Nigeria is a prime example of.
In its varying meanings and connotations which have changed over time, the idea of a nation presupposes a social reality used to organize history; what the influential political theorist Benedict Anderson called ‘imagined communities’. For Anderson, the idea of a nation is primarily an imagined political entity because it’s impossible for members to know most of their fellow members, yet the idea of the nation remains alive in their consciousness (imagination).
In a nation-state, such imagination is usually nurtured and sustained through deliberate government initiatives, especially when they begin to wane due to major divisions or conflicts that pit groups against each other or against the government. This is sometimes broadly referred to as Social Engineering– i.e. efforts by the state to manage social change and regulate the future development and behaviour of a society. However, given the tendency of some governments to use such initiatives in dubious and self-serving ways, Social Engineering for some, has become a pejorative term.
In the context of Nigeria as a nation-state, national identity demands the recognition and reasonable accommodation of the multiplicity of ethnic groups, cultures, languages, religions and other identities – big and small- that constitute the country. National integration, as it is sometimes called in the recognition and awareness of the possibility of a common identity amongst citizens of a country, along with deliberate and sustained effort to harness such an identity in pursuit of national unity. However, it starts with the recognition of entrenched differences and how such differences can be coalesced towards a common identity and interest to help foster a united, strong and prosperous nation.
Most nation-states (like Nigeria) are composed of multiple languages, ethnicities, races, religions, cultures, among others and national integration initiatives strive to find ways to harness entrenched diversities to forge strong national solidarity. In practical terms, how for instance, do we get Igbos, Yorubas, Hausas and other groups to prioritize their identity as Nigerians over their ethnic and regional peculiarities? Attempting to square this circle is the challenge of national integration efforts not just in Nigeria, but the world over.
In reality, various countries have tried to resolve the perennial tension between the National and the Regional by embracing some form of Federal system of government unique to their situations.
Leading up to independence in 1960, Nigeria practiced a robust Federal system of government composed of a Central government with three regions loosely along the lines of the major ethnic groups; a system that persisted until 1966 when the military toppled the elected government of Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Consequently, and reflective of its centralized command structure, the Military through decrees eviscerated the autonomy of the regions and retained Federalism in name only. Unfortunately, this has remained the situation ever since, despite 21 years of uninterrupted civilian governance since 1999.
Since this is an event primarily for communication professionals of which Public Relations is a key part of, permit me to go back to the 1956 establishment of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) to underscore the immense difficulty of national integration in practical terms. Composed of a national board of governors and three independent regional boards, the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation Ordinance of 1956 tasked the corporation “to provide, as a public service, independent and impartial broadcasting services by means of wireless telegraphy and by television for general reception within Nigeria” and “to ensure that the services which it provides, when considered as a whole, reflect the unity of Nigeria as a Federation and at the same time give adequate expression to the culture, characteristics, affairs and opinions of the people of each Region of the Federation” (Emphasis mine).
As previously observed, nation-states with vast diversities have often found federalism an effective political tool in managing differences because it starts with the particular region and builds out to the national. Put differently, Federalism strives to forge a national character out of individual and regional identities which perhaps, helps explain the political aphorism – Unity in Diversity, the emblem in Nigeria’s Coat of Arms, which was captured in those immortal words of Nigeria’s first national anthem- though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand (Must also add Sisterhood in the interest of gender equity). This federalist ethos has also found eloquent expression in the official seal of the United States of America- E pluribus unum (meaning Out of many, one).
Nigeria is in dire need of real Federalism, not as a magical solution to all our problems, but as a platform for an honest and robust engagement with our differences by giving the federating units a deeper sense of belonging on the basis of which they can willingly, and hopefully enthusiastically, buy into the national project. To continue to ignore a federal system of governance is to play the proverbial Ostrich with head in sand even as its vast body is embarrassingly exposed. It is like pretending that our ethnic and other differences do not exist or that they will quietly fade away if we ignore them.
With the exception of the National Youth Service Scheme (NYSC) which is a mandatory by-product of the civil war and the Unity Schools, Nigeria has been very poor in consciously developing integration strategies to foster national unity. We seem to have thought national unity would somehow magically happen. Well, it hasn’t happened and we have got our work cut out for us.
The challenge for the federal government is to develop, in genuine partnership with the federating units and relevant professional bodies like the NIPR, creative, robust and sustainable bottom-up integration programs based on justice and fairness. This is particularly germane in situations or contexts, as is the case in several parts of Nigeria today, where regional agitations for secession are very strong and support for national unity largely muted.
Further, since national identity speaks to the sense of a nation as a cohesive whole, its components must reflect a mosaic of heterogeneous cultures and traditions from the federating units – e.g. costume, food, dance, folklore, language along with cultural events and rituals like marriages, burials, child birth et al. You cannot reasonably talk of a national identity, to which one freely agrees to subsume his or her cultural identity without appreciating the beauties that every unit of the federation brings to the table. This is central to the notion of Cultural Pluralism propounded by Crawford Young, the pre-eminent American sociologist who spent his entire life studying African politics and culture.
In a May 2018 paper titled The Value of Diversity: Restructuring to Save Nigeria which I delivered at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, I argued that in projecting the Nigeria of our collective dreams, one which every Nigerian can proudly present to the world, we must appreciate our diversity which is an essential beauty of our nationhood. And this we must do by emphasizing our commonalities – the values we share, while playing down our differences.
Our failure as a country to sufficiently do this, along with the injustices associated with the politics of exclusion and the pseudo federalism we practice, are largely responsible for the sometimes violent ethnic agitations and other forms of insecurity we are faced with today. Add to that our zero-sum game, winner takes all political culture; a system with no defined parameters for entrance, mentoring/apprenticeship and participation, that rolls out the red carpet for mostly dodgy characters who have failed in other endeavors, and you can begin to better appreciate the enormity of our challenge as a country.
However, the point must be made that ethnic identity is not necessarily a problem by itself; rather it is the constant manipulation of ethnic identity by the elite in Nigeria that constitute major impediments to national unity and integration. As the distinguished political scientist Prof. Eghosa Osaghae observed “the elite are still the predominant ethnic actors largely because they are in the forefront of political and economic competition and it is they who use ethnicity to get the big things and attract attention – contracts, appointments and promotion to top positions in public and private sectors, securing electoral victories and so on”.
One can say that these ethnic entrepreneurs or profiteers, if you will, who exploit ethnicity for political and economic favors and instigate conflicts for pecuniary interests are as responsible as the government in our failure, thus far, to foster any strong sense of national consciousness, which in turn, breeds intense feelings of alienation, disenchantment, anger and in some instances, violence.
However, it needs emphasizing that it is the collective responsibility of all of us, not just the government, to work towards fostering a robust, inclusive sense of national identity that every Nigerian can be proud of.
The Question of Governance and Stability:
Governance is a technocratic term and it will save me a lot of trouble to approach it primarily from that perspective. Businessdictionary.com defines governance broadly as the establishment of policies, and continuous monitoring of their proper implementation, by the members of the governing body of an organization. It includes the mechanisms required to balance the powers of the members (with the associated accountability), and their primary duty of enhancing the prosperity and viability of the organization.
But for our purpose here, we are primarily concerned with political governance, which increasingly, in the context of developing countries like Nigeria, is framed by the global development community as good governance. According to the World Bank good governance “is epitomized by predictable, open and enlightened policy-making, a bureaucracy imbued with professional ethos acting in furtherance of the public good, the rule of law, transparent processes, and a strong civil society participating in public affairs. In contrast, it frames poor governance as a political system characterized by arbitrary policy making, unaccountable bureaucracies, unenforced or unjust legal systems, the abuse of executive power, a civil society unengaged in public life, and widespread corruption.
A consensus has since emerged around the following as the eight core elements of good governance – rule of law, transparency, responsiveness, consensus oriented, equity and inclusiveness, effectiveness and efficiency, accountability and participation.
Further, central to good governance is its capacity to guarantee the three key pillars of Human Security – freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom to take action on one’s behalf.
From the foregoing, Nigeria will probably not score highly based on any objective good governance criteria. This brings us to the enduring challenge of political leadership in our dear country for we cannot effectively discuss governance in isolation of the leadership question.
In trying to address this, permit me to draw from two interventions by my most illustrious kinsman, the globally acclaimed novelist and man of letters, the late Chinua Achebe. Many Nigerians are probably not aware that Achebe entered party politics during Nigeria’s short-lived second republic (1979-1983) and was the Deputy National Chairman of the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) led by Mallam Aminu Kano. Following the abrupt end of that rather brief republic, Achebe wrote a short but powerful book titled The Trouble with Nigeria. The opening sentence of the book reads – ‘the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership’. It continues– There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else… Nigerians are what they are only because their leaders are not what they should be. A true patriot will always demand the highest standards of his country and accept nothing but the best for and from his people. Achebe concludes – With good leaders Nigeria could resolve its inherent problems such as tribalism; lack of patriotism; social injustice, the cult of mediocrity; indiscipline; and corruption.
I don’t know about you, but I think he was right on the money there. Perhaps the only thing missing from the analysis, which he addressed later in the book, is the democratic responsibility of citizens to hold the leadership accountable for as my people, the Igbo’s say, the rat can only take over the cooking pots of those who are asleep. For too long, our citizens have been asleep, even adulating the same career politicians that have pauperized them for decades so much that today, a state governor who pays staff salaries every two months is celebrated because some of his colleagues are several months in arrears. If only Nigerians know how much security vote and other revenue these folks collect and fritter away. But that’s a matter for another day.
The failure of political leadership in Nigeria takes me to the second Achebe intervention I want to briefly share with you – our perception of Nigeria, which obviously will vary relatively to our experiences, especially to what extent our identities, rights and interests as citizens have been recognized and respected. In a 2008 lecture to mark the silver jubilee of the Guardian Newspaper titled What Does Nigeria Mean to me?, Achebe articulated the frustrations of many Nigerians with the country’s failure to fulfil her enormous potentials thus-
Our 1960 national anthem, given to us as a parting gift by a British housewife in England, had called Nigeria “our sovereign motherland’. The current anthem, put together by a committee of Nigerian intellectuals and actually worse than the first one, invokes the father image. But it has occurred to me that Nigeria is neither my mother nor my father. Nigeria is a child. Gifted, enormously talented, prodigiously endowed, and incredibly wayward.”
While some may quibble with the incredibly wayward tag, a 60 year old is by every standard, a senior citizen and in many cases, already in some form of retirement. How to unlock the potentials of this enormously talented and prodigiously endowed man-child is unarguably the acid test of transformational political leadership that Nigerians have yearned for over the past 6 decades. Good political leadership alone may not solve all of Nigeria’s problems, but without it, not much can be achieved. All too often, we wonder why Nigerian professionals excel abroad, but not at home. The answer lies in the inability of Nigeria’s political leadership to foster an enabling environment for such professionals to thrive. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, we have long abandoned political governance to mostly scoundrels whose lack of vision and character have imperilled everyone. Yet, as the great French statesman Charles De Gaulle warned – politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.
The perennial failure of leadership has also led to massive trust deficit between Nigerians and their political leaders, so much that anything government is greeted with a great deal of cynicism. Further, the mutual distrust among the federating units over issues like resource control, marginalization and even downright exclusion – which in some cases are exacerbated by government policies, actions and perhaps inactions – push people towards their centrifugal impulses, which in their parochialism attempt to erode national unity and stability. The greatest impetus to patriotism is undoubtedly good and inclusive governance; not politics of exclusion and marginalization. When leaders lead well, the followers follow well.
Recently and consistently, Nigeria now ranks high among most credible fragile and failed states indices amid concern that state failure in Nigeria could drag down the entire West Africa region. For example, the fragile States Index published by Washington D.C based Fund for Peace, in its 2019 ranked Nigeria 14 out of 178 countries on the index of fragile nations. Nigeria was also 14th on the 2018 index. It is marked as ‘alert’ country alongside Zimbabwe, Guinea, Haiti, Iraq, Burundi, Cameroon, Eritrea, Niger, Guinea Bissau, Uganda, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Kenya, North Korea, Republic of Congo, Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia and Mauritania. Key indicators for this ranking include “mounting demographic pressures and tribal, ethnic and/or religious conflicts; massive internal and external displacements of refugees, creating severe humanitarian emergencies; widespread vengeance-seeking group grievances and chronic and sustained human flight”. The report also has economic indicators which include “widespread corruption, high economic inequality, uneven economic development along group lines and severe economic decline”. Finally for political indicators, it gives “delegitimization of the state, deteriorating public service, suspension or arbitrary application of law; widespread human right abuses, security forces operating a state within a state often with impunity, rise of factionalized elite and intervention of external political agents and foreign states”.
The assignment for you here is to review if these indicators are true or false and why a country so richly endowed will even be mentioned in any discussion of fragile, not to talk of failed states.
Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen, these reports cast a slur on Nigeria’s global relevance. They are also the direct outcome of systemic failure of governance which alongside the poverty index, that placed Nigeria at the apex of the poverty ladder, create more stability problems for the country.
It is important to note, that a country is stable and peaceful is not the absence of conflicts; rather it is the effective management of conflicts which is a primary responsibility of a nation’s political leadership; judiciously mediating in disputes among the federating units. As someone said rather humorously, the most peaceful place in the world is probably the grave yard, yet no one wants to live there.
Re-inventing Nigeria for 21st Century Global Relevance
We are now at the crux of today’s lecture – reinventing Nigeria for 21st century global relevance. To reinvent literally means changing something so much that it appears entirely new. Well, in carrying out this arduous task, I wanted to suggest that we first talk to Lord Fredrick Lugard who did the original creation in 1914 – to help us better understand Nigeria’s DNA code. But since we can’t and you’re stuck with me, I will do my best.
The question then is – why do we want to reinvent Nigeria? I guess it is because we are not particularly happy with what she projects to the world, especially given your concern for her global relevance. This is what those of you in Public Relations and other marketing communications call Branding and Rebranding; because to reinvent Nigeria is somewhat to rebrand it. I use these terms broadly considering that they are polysemic and do not yield themselves to simple definitions.
The American Marketing Association offers a rudimentary definition of Brand ‘as a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers. From a consumer perspective, Brand is the idea or image people have in mind when thinking about the products and services of a company or organization. Branding then is a form of purposeful communication that strives to create strong positive perception of a company, its products or services in the minds of people, particularly its target publics. Concomitantly, the public perception of a brand determines its reputation.
Since the advent of sophisticated marketing communications over a century ago, Branding is most commonly associated with the private sector. However, government and public sector agencies have gradually embraced the practice.
In an increasingly globalised world marked by the acceleration and intensification of worldwide socioeconomic interactions; what the Canadian Communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan referred to as the global village- countries, especially the most powerful ones have, for decades, developed initiatives aimed at propagating their values to peoples of other countries in pursuit of their strategic interests. This practice generally called Public Diplomacy or Peoples’ Diplomacy strives to influence public opinion in the recipient country; to develop and maintain a positive image in the minds of the citizens of that country.
Key instruments of Public Diplomacy include international government-owned short wave radios like the Voice of America, BBC World Service, Radio France International that broadcast directly into the recipient countries. The Voice of Nigeria (VON) (formerly the External Service of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) is supposed to play a similar role for Nigeria, but has been hobbled by maladministration since it was established as an autonomous agency in 1990. Other common Public Diplomacy initiatives are international cultural agencies like the British Council, the French Cultural Centre, the Confucius Institute (China) etc.; scholarships and exchange programs and development projects. These are all geared towards building goodwill among the citizens of the recipient countries.
The concept of Soft Power developed by Harvard University political theorist, Joseph Nye jr. also speaks to the branding of political governance in the context of international relations. Nye defines power as the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes you want and goes on to identify three possible ways such an influence can be exercised – Coercion/Force, Inducement/Incentives and Attraction. Nye identifies Soft Power as the power of attraction which inspires rather than induces, coerces or commands. According to him, Soft Power is the ability to shape the preference of others which in international politics relies on the values a country expresses in its culture; the examples it sets in its internal practices and policies and the ways it handles its relations with others (international engagement). Given our myriad governance challenges, especially with respect to human security, Nigeria soft power record is at best average.
Efforts to brand Nigeria is not new. Indeed, every government since independence has in various ways tried to promote Nigeria’s image globally. These were mostly done through the Ministries of Information and Culture, and Foreign Affairs, although there were barely any coordinated inter-ministerial effort behind such initiatives. As observed earlier, the Voice of Nigeria also had same task of branding Nigeria, first as the External Service of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria respectively, before it became an autonomous agency in 1990.
Arguably one of the most prominent efforts to brand Nigeria happened in 2009 under the late Prof. Dora Akunyili as Minister of Information and Communication. Launched with much fanfare, the National Re-branding Campaign was anchored on three pillars – attitudinal change (re-orientation), revival of old cultural values, and instilling of patriotism in our citizens. The campaign sought to give some ownership to citizens by organizing and open logo and slogan competition which produced the slogan – good people; great nation.
However, the Re-branding Nigeria campaign was met with a great deal of cynicism even by stakeholders who saw the need for it. Particularly instructive was the trenchant critique of the initiative by Charles O’Tudor, a branding expert who faulted the campaign on several grounds – brands cannot be conjured or invented by mere logos or sloganeering; only real personal, corporate and institutional reformation can change Nigeria’s corporate brand identity; such an effort must begin with an empirical understanding of Nigerian brand DNA from the standpoint of its socio-economic and political realities and external projection should not be a priority as Nigerians must first come to terms with themselves and their country.
Mr. O’Tudor proceeded to pose such weighty questions as – is rebranding Nigeria the function of a mere logo or slogan? How will this resuscitate the battered image of Nigeria? How do we as a nation hope to sweep the decay of several decades under a beautiful carpet of logos and catchphrases? What happens when another Minister comes and jettisons the current rebranding project for a new one?
He continued – ‘we talk about rebranding a country where corruption still holds sway in all segments of our individual and corporate beings. We talk about rebranding when the most basic amenities of life continue to elude government’s delivery capabilities—we want to brand Nigeria when citizens of our country cannot walk about safe and secure from hoodlums and sometimes even the law enforcement agents that ought to protect them’.
Nigeria, he argues, is still a hard sell, even to its own people. For him, national branding is not a one-off thing but a continuous and evolving process which must have longevity, transcend election cycles and special interests, capture the core of the country and its people and what they offer the world and engage citizens and national organizations at home while winning recognition and respect abroad.
I have quoted Mr. O’Tudor extensively because of his incisive analysis of the futility of national branding without making serious efforts to address our debilitating governance problems. We have often tried, but genuine patriotism cannot be legislated by fiat or contrived through some government communication campaign. The most that will emerge from such efforts is propaganda, which has never been an effective marketing or Public Relations strategy.
Therefore, in reinventing Nigeria, we must adopt a long-term approach by first focusing on initiatives that can help address our governance deficit. One such effort is greater sensitivity by the media in reporting conflicts and other forms of insecurities, especially the violent ones, which have exploded in the past decade giving Nigeria a black eye globally. Rather than gin up conflicts as the media often do because of their orientation, sensitive and responsive communication places a high demand on the media to use its reportage, influence and platforms to help deescalate conflicts, even prevent new ones from taking root. Nigeria will benefit a whole lot from conflict reduction given the massive loss of lives and destruction of property that these crises engender along with their grave impact on the economy.
Similarly, while good journalism, true to its time-honored watchdog role must hold public officers accountable to the citizens, great journalism is also constructive and solution-oriented in helping find answers to societal problems. This is what has spurred a new global movement called solution-based journalism and given our seemingly intractable governance challenges, journalists can be of immense help in that regard. It’s not enough to attack, journalists can also be part of the solution.
The communicative effort to rekindle Nigeria must be driven by optimistic narratives about the country and its peoples; not overly romanticized, but hopeful that a new Nigeria is possible. Emphasis should be on our commonalities as Nigerians; not the differences. There has to be concerted effort to target the younger generation who tend to live on hopelessness in the face of Nigeria’s ongoing challenges, in contrast to their parents’ generation who live on nostalgia. Our first major challenge is how to get Nigerians to again believe in Nigeria. It is not an easy task in the face of our enormous governance challenges, but quitting on our country is definitely not an option.
The vast majority of Nigerians are intrinsically good people; even as we have our fair share of a few bad and flamboyant ones. Why should we allow the malfeasance of a few bad people to become the dominant frame about our country? The nation that produce the bandits and yahoo boys is the same nation that has produced all the accomplished Nigerians both at home and in the diaspora. We should do a much better job to ensure that these bad actors are not the mirror reflection of us as a people.
All over the world, cultural identities are great marketing tools for countries that are deeply conscious of that reality. If you review the Chinese media, you will discover that a huge percentage of what they publish to the world audience are rooted in their culture and other ethnographic identities including dress, festivals, natural plants and herbs even floral endowments and aquatic life. The China Daily will always show you pictures of beautifully manicured floral lawns and seasonal plants that are indigenous to China on its twitter handle. These are tempting invitations. Why are we over-looking those in Nigeria? As I argued in my 2018 lecture at the University of Nigeria cited in the earlier part of the essay, Nigeria’s greatest gift is not oil and gas but its diversity, especially in the cultural sphere which we are yet to fully harness to help tell the story of our dear country.
The picture, at the moment, looks gloom for us as a country. But I ask; is there still hope for Nigeria to change the narrative and draw the world to itself, rather than the caricature that is sometimes projected not just by outsiders but also despondent Nigerians.
First, the media is a critical tool here. As we know it, the conventional function of the media is to educate, inform and entertain. There have also been developed an additional function which is surveillance. This entails keeping regular focus on government and holding it to account for its policy administration.
Therefore, in using media as a tool to change the negative perception on Nigeria, I strongly suggest that the NIPR works in alliance with media owners and practitioners, film and comedy producers; not necessarily to tell them what to do but to collaborate in content generation and development. This way, you can lead the media towards producing content that drives the essential message.
There are a lot of Nigerians who have never been to the United States. But they have very good stories of the beautiful life in the US. They tell you how effective the Police system is. Some even look forward to joining the US Army if the opportunity come their way. These people did not read those stories about the US in books. Those views were formed mostly from images they gleaned from Hollywood. Through that we see beautiful streets, paved streets, beautiful houses and schools. You are never shown places where the homeless live. You don’t carelessly see poverty in Hollywood productions. Don’t they exist in the USA? Besides, the United States of America is ranked number 25 on the Democracy Index 2019 with 7.96 points behind the likes of Japan, Portugal, Chile, Mauritius, Ireland, Canada and France among others. However, on perception, many believe the USA is the number one democracy in the world. This is largely the creation of their media. The Power of narrative.
Growing up, many people saw India as the land of romance, flowers and love. These largely emerged from depictions of India in Bollywood movies which were very popular in Nigeria at a time. Bollywood movies barely make the debilitating poverty in India and such other cultural issues like the entrenched caste system the subject of their movies. Aside from romance and glitz, more recently Indian movies have increasingly framed the country as the IT hub of the world exporting IT professionals across the globe. These are examples of changing national narratives through strategic communication and effective perception management.
In Nollywood, we see a different sort of presentation of Nigeria’s cultural identities. Nollywood gives us an image that could be considered negative depending on the worldview that one holds. For example, Nollywood generally makes you feel that mother in laws are evil and perennially wicked. That is negative stereotyping. While some mother in laws may be terrible, a vast majority of them are most loving of their daughters-in-law. But that is not what you get in Nollywood which also makes you think that almost every rich Nigerian met with a babalawo or a witch doctor before he became rich. If those depictions are what the world ought to know about our cultures, then, I believe there is need for a redefinition of our values. Such redefinition ought to come from an institute like NIPR which should draw a new narrative that positively represents our cultures and values and use the same medium of Nollywood to market them to the world audience. This is one way of helping change global perception about Nigeria.
We have also seen the advent, growth and impact of social media on society which is both positive and negative. On the positive impacts, we have seen social media used to galvanize public participation in governance like in last October’s #EndSARS protests. The possibilities of positive social media use are limitless as we can deploy it effectively to drive a better narrative about Nigeria. As we can also all attest to, the social media also pose enormous challenges by its negative use for fake news, hate speech, spam and cyber fraud, among others; some of which have grave implications for governance and national security. However, I am not so sure that wholesale government regulation of social media as is sometimes proposed is the answer. The truth is that technologies are always decades ahead of policies and legislations. It takes sometime after a technology has become widely diffused to see its full implications and respond with policy, even as newer and more complex technologies take hold. NIPR as a professional body, should be in the vanguard of every effort to use social media to rebrand Nigeria.
To achieve this objective, NIPR must begin to use all PR tools available to it to drive a new narrative about the corporate project called Nigeria. It is a responsibility that falls under your mandate. Partnerships with Voice of Nigeria, the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria, among others should be explored and prioritized. I understand the usual turf wars in inter-ministerial initiatives but no single agency or institution can perform this massive task alone.
Lastly, one of the most beautiful stories about Nigeria is the story of its diversity; diversity of human and natural resources. This is a story that is yet to be told. I believe that beyond anything else, professional public relations practitioners from NIPR ought to begin to tell that story to the world. And the time is now.
Reinventing and rebranding Nigeria is an idea that cannot wait. We must not wait to fix all our governance problems before we take on this. In fact, if well managed, initiatives like NIPRs Citizen Summit, can actually help in fixing the governance issues. However, any effort at reinventing Nigeria must be mindful of the shortcomings of previous branding efforts which the likes of Mr. O’Tudor have brilliantly critiqued. In this regard, I challenge the NIPR to immediately set up a committee of some of its most creative minds, many of which are here today to begin work on this initiative, including the objectives and methodologies for the project. A key question for the project should be – if Nigeria were to be a brand, what exactly should it be projecting and how?
Given the pervading gloom over Nigeria and a growing distrust among its people, this is probably not the easiest time to preach national unity and stability. But we must because we have no other country other than Nigeria. Let me state unequivocally that Nigeria must be united. But Nigeria must also be a just and fair society; for there can be no unity and sustainable peace without justice and fairness.
Our situation invites us to a more robust inquest into what it means to be a Nigerian. It also challenges us to see beyond the façade of our presentation of ourselves as Nigerians and think much more deeply towards a broader perspective of being Nigerian. This should make inquiry into what exactly being Nigerian confers on us as a people and as individuals and also, what we give back in making Nigeria what it is or what it ought to be. As humans, we are vehicles that drive the wheel that will make Nigeria a nation with a distinct national identity, whose stability is premised on good governance.
It is because of my unflinching faith in the unity and potential greatness of this country that I named the airline which I floated in February this year United Nigeria with the slogan flying to unite. Those are not empty phrases, but borne out of conviction. It is a sentiment I am convinced most Nigerians share, including the distinguished members of the NIPR. If only our leaders can rise up to the challenges of governance and help unleash the enormous potentials of this unique country.
While much of my discussion today may have focused on government, reinventing Nigeria is the collective responsibility of all of us. It takes each of us doing our part to change the fortunes of this country. That’s why I am very inspired by the NIPRs emergent nation building project – Citizens Summit for National Integration, Peace and Security aimed at reopening conversation and rebuilding trust among Nigerians.
On my part, I have tried in my little way to add value to peoples’ lives both as a private business man and as a philanthropist through the Pro-Value for Humanity Foundation which I established in 2019. But realizing the limits of my effort as a private person and so much more I can do through public service, I have decided to present myself as candidate for the governorship of my home state Anambra in the upcoming November 6 election in the state. As I said earlier, we cannot continue to cede the political space to scoundrels who have nothing to offer other than to loot our public treasuries. Kindly remember me in your prayers so that the Almighty God who started this work will bring it to fruition.
Despite our ongoing challenges, let us rededicate ourselves, as Americans will say, to the task of building that more perfect union. God has given us everything we need; it’s now up to us.
Your Excellency the Governor of Delta State, Members of NIPR Governing Council, Past Presidents, Senior practitioners, members of the Institute, distinguished guests, respected ladies and gentlemen, may I conclude this lecture on the note of a declaration that, we need prosperity to defeat the debilitating effect of hunger in our nation, we need security to guarantee secured future and ensure a meaningful life for our citizens, however, and perhaps more importantly, we need hope to live and survive for the new day. As the great English poet of the Augustan era, Alexander Pope would say – Hope springs eternal. It is possible to reinvent Nigeria. We shall hold hands and work together, to see the reinvention of Nigeria manifest in our lifetime, to the eternal glory of God.
Thank you for your kind attention!