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Nigeria: Bloggers debate Nigeria's negative image

photo from Oluniyi Ajao: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niyyie/2212651560/It's well known that Nigeria has an image problem – 419 Internet scams, corruption, oil piracy in the Delta region – for many people, these are the associations that come to mind when Africa's most populous country is mentioned. However, the last year has been especially hard on Nigeria's reputation abroad: over the past few months, a series of events depicting Nigeria in a questionable light have triggered discussions throughout the blogosphere.

In September, Sony released an ad for Playstation 3 which included the line, “You can't believe everything you read on the Internet – otherwise, I'd be a Nigerian millionaire by now.” The ad was met with consternation from many Nigerians, and the Federal Government requested that Sony make a formal apology (Sony did apologize and later withdrew the ad).

Around the same time came the release of District 9 – a sci-fi blockbuster which was critically well-received but irksome to many Nigerians. The Nigerian government took offense at the film's depiction of Nigerians as criminals and cannibals, banning the film within Nigeria and asking the Censor's Board to confiscate it from theaters. Online, the movie provoked varied reactions, with some taking the view that the film presents a racist view of Nigerians, while others defended it as a fictional representation with little bearing on reality.

Adamu Waziri at EVCL points out that often Nigerian depictions of Nigerians are equally unflattering:

Nollywood, our indigenous movie industry, has portrayed us in a much harsher light to both national and international audiences. There was a time where you couldn’t get Nollywood movie that didn’t include one of the following or a combination of them; fraud, juju/witchcraft, armed robbery, incest, adultery, cannibalism and of course our favourite, corruption. Nollywood has been pumping out thousands of movies with these themes for years with no real opposition from the general public or any Ministry.

… Banning films sets the wrong precedent; in fact it can be dangerous. Let us the public debate the issue. We are mature enough to do so. In fact our Minister has succeeded in giving the movie more publicity which I’m sure she didn’t intend to do.

Nicole Stamp comments on race in District 9:

The thing that really upsets me is that most people who see this movie won’t question, or even notice, this incredibly racist portrayal…. Why can’t the Nigerians just be people with logical motives like money and weapons? Why do they have to go out of their way to be ooga-booga savages? ….it is impossible to disregard the charged portrayal of Nigerians which when viewed in a larger context, is beyond damaging or defamatory but is dangerous.

Read more on the debate at Nigerianstalk.org or google “district 9 race”.

More recently, Time magazine published a slide show by the South African photographer Pieter Hugo which featured scenes from Nigeria's “Nollywood” movie industry. Though not so controversial as District 9 or the Playstation commercial, the photographs nonetheless prompted debate in the blogosphere, with discussions over whether such depictions of Nigeria fall under the category of artistic freedom or cultural bias.

Solomon Sydelle at Nigerian Curiosity writes:

I definitely understand the need to push the envelope, after all that desire has led to some of the most creative masterpieces and accomplishments of all time. However, with these pictures, I struggle to develop an appreciation of them and/or what they represent and believe that they unnecessarily relied on biases that will only confirm certain stereotypes for Hugo's mainly Western audience.

These events are especially ill-timed as they correspond to a new initiative launched earlier this year to “Re-brand Nigeria.” The initiative is sponsored by Dr. Dora Akunyili, Nigerian Minister of Information and Communication, and has been met with both praise and criticism (see here for the discussion at Global Voices).

Bunmi Oloruntoba at  A Bombastic Element discusses the re-branding campaign in the context of a recent BBC discussion on the subject:

The minister has a good case when she argues that Nigeria is overlooking a lot of positives, has not been telling her stories and is making the mistake of letting the world define her image based on its notoriety alone. And she has some good examples of the positives. But the BBC sought out a few PR and branding experts who counter by saying, if the country wants to rebrand itself, it needs to give any PR team a lot more to build on. Those interviewed said, consistent power supply and an end to a diesel generator economy will make rebranding Nigeria “effortless.” And to prove their point, 13:40 mins into the program… well, you don't need to be a Nigerian to figure out what happened.

A bright spot in the discussion of Nigeria's image was a widely circulated video of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking on “The danger of a single story.” Adichie comments on the pitfalls of a monolithic image of Africa as a site of catastrophe; she cautions that limiting ourselves to a “single story” flattens experience and creates stereotypes. For many bloggers, Adichie's remarks resonated with their frustration at the depictions of Nigeria prevalent outside the country.

Shade NonConformist  writes of the connection between Adichie's speech and Nigeria's image:

I believe this is what Chimamada Adichie meant about The Danger of a Single Story lecture she gave at TED. It becomes a problem when the only portrayal of Africa that we see is one involving dead animals, poverty, disaster, death, corruption, celebrity adoptions…you know the whole nine yards. Now I'm not saying Africa does not have these issues. We can all agree that we do. I'm arguing that these issues are not specific to African countries.

… I/We will never stop criticizing depictions of Africa that are unbalanced and prejudiced. Presenting a balance depiction of Africa is crucial. As Africans we also need to act as vessels who are willing to be instrumental in the change we want to see (and will see) in our beloved continent.

6 comments

  • This is a brilliantly crafted write-up, Eremipagamo. And such a timely topic too. Shade Nonconformist puts it best by saying many of the problems Africa is beaten down on are not specific to Africa. Whenever Africa is depicted in these unbalanced ways in the West, there’s always an element of prejudice involved. And therein lies the difference between Africans criticizing their own countries as an optimistic cause, versus others criticizing African countries out of perpetual, prejudiced disdain. It is through the power of “branding” that depicts Western countries as the paragon of development and civilization, despite the corruption, crime, youth violence, depression, high suicide rates etc prevalent in these very Western countries. I am in support of Nigeria’s Rebranding initiative, and believe it should be adopted for the whole of Africa. As Dr. Akunyili puts it in the BBC documentary, it’s much more than just rebranding and image; it’s also about people themselves being the change they want to see happen.

  • Alex Perisic

    Great post, Eremi. I agree with everything that has been said, I’m just wondering a little bit about the re-branding initiative. Isn’t that still defining yourself for the West? It seems to me that it entails creating an image for someone else, and in the end strives for the approval of that someone else. Also, to a certain extent, rebranding seems to be taking values considered Western and trying to show that they exist in Africa, versus starting from African countries themselves. Why should African countries need to prove anything to anyone? The West (which is a very vague term in itself but will do for the time being) does not seem to be particularly concerned about how it is perceived by African countries, nor would it ever consider re-branding itself for them.

    • masihi banda

      Alex

      It is naive to think whatever Nigerians want they could do, right or wrong. It is getting so old, constantly blaming the West for every thing. Honestly, it is self-defeating. Its time to rise up and take a stand against the corruption that has befallen Nigerland. In today’s world whatever happens in the tiniest of countries has an effect globally. Without a question, I believe you have to have faith and pride in your own unique value system. However, when the country is going through some negative image it should be addressed without blaming others. Fix it, it’s your problem.

  • agrasha muoo

    I think Adamu Waziri missed the point when he stroked the issue of possible censure of Nollywood films. It will amount to gross abuse of freedom of expression, which is a Human Right. Nollywood only portrays the society it operate in. Films from other nations also express the society. If you feel ashamed of the story lines, then it is time to go to work against those ills in the country. Nollywood is the least of Nigeria/Nigerians’ problems. Have you had opportunity of reviewing travel advise issued by developed countries in respect of Nigeria? You will wail for her.

  • Thanks for your comments, you all make very insightful points.

    Alex, I suppose you are right that re-branding ultimately buys into a West-defined marketing logic rather than critiquing it. Though I suspect that in the end it comes down to a question of power — whether it is possible (or desirable) to exist outside a system dominated by Western values.

    At the same time, I’m not sure that re-branding necessarily means striving to appeal to the West. It could also be interpreted as taking ownership of Nigeria’s image rather than allowing it to be dictated by outsiders. I think you are right that this will be more successful if the new rebranded image is authentically Nigerian, not just Nigerian reconfigured to conform to Western standards.

  • The quality of writing at globalvoicesonline is so consistently good…amazing. It’s a pity there isn’t more commenting, which suggests that more people should be reading.

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