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).
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.