By Ogroh Douye
WHENÂ I received the invitation, I was reluctant to go. My diary was booked, as we Nigerians say, and the last thing on my mind was a dinner on the Island that may last well into the night. The invitation was, however, tempting, very tempting. It was to attend a dinner in honour of Christopher Kolade, who unarguably is one of the most respected Nigerians alive.
In a career spanning decades, Kolade has distinguished himself in positions ranging from Director General of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria to being Nigeriaâ€™s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
It was, however, in his newly reincarnated form as Pro Chancellor of the Pan African University that I was invited to sup in his honour at Victoria Island recently.
To go or not to go. That was the tug of war that took place within me. One part of me argued that my presence would make no difference, while another urged me to go, have some fun and rub shoulders with the high and mighty that would certainly grace the event. What decided it for me was not Kolade, not the prospect of sharing tables with men of â€˜timber and caliberâ€™, and not even the fact that there would be a lot of free food and drink!
It was the fact that the Special Guest of Honour and keynote Speaker of the event was Professor Dora Akunyili. I was an admirer of Professor Akunyili when she was the Director General of Nigeriaâ€™s food and drug regulatory agency, NAFDAC. Her successes in that agency have been well told and need no recounting here.
But as Minister of Information and Communications, I felt Akunyili was playing outside her natural turf. I thought she would have been better placed in theÂ Ministry of Health.Â My respect for her dwindled when she started the re-branding mantra. Like some Nigerians, I felt what Nigeria needed was not re-branding but a serious attempt toÂ tackleÂ the developmental challenges that we have.
But Akunyili has pushedÂ the Re-brandingÂ Nigeria Campaign with so much gusto and conviction that I have been forced to listen up, and to give the matter a second thought.
So for me attending the dinner at VI was an opportunity to listen to the Minister firsthand and hear her articulate her re-branding vision. And did she do a good job? Her speech was one of the best I have heard from a public official for a long, long time and it did the job of convincing me that maybe, just maybe there is something the Madam Minister seesÂ thatÂ some Nigerians cannot, orÂ refuse toÂ see.
The crux of her argument, which I couldÂ not fault,Â was that Nigerians are not as bad they are portrayed abroad. She told of distinguished Nigerians who are usually embarrassed at foreign airports through specific and humiliating search. According to her: â€œThisÂ negative perception about Nigeria is so strong that virtually every Nigerian is regarded as a potential fraudster or criminal.
Nigerians are denied the benefit of the doubt at foreign embassies, airports and foreign countries. The need for re-branding Nigeria therefore arose from the deplorable reputationâ€.
The Minister was right. I should know. During my visit to New York in November 2007, my green passport was my albatross.Â On the queue with nationals from different countries, when it was my turn at the counter, the lady in charge officiously told me to stand aside.
What followed was a thorough search and – if you will permit me -â€˜re-searchâ€™. So I understood the Minister when she explained that we should not allow the few bad eggs amongst us to control our image. After all, I was not a 419er or a drug pusherÂ and had no intention of staying longer in the US than my visa permitted. But I was treated worse than any of these.Â The reason was because Nigeriaâ€™s bad image had gone ahead of me, and whether I was a Professor of neuro-surgery or robotic engineer,Â it didnâ€™t matter.
The Minister went on to state that there was no alternative to re-branding, and that Nigeria should not allow theÂ bad ones among usÂ control our image. SheÂ reminded us of great Nigerian brands such as Soyinka, Achebe, Chimamanda and , of course, Kolade. These people like most Nigerians, she said, are good and are not 419ners or fraudsters. She insisted that Nigeria like every country in the world has its fair share of problems, and so should not be judged only from the prism of its challenges.
Great speech, no doubt.Â What really caught my attention was the â€˜revelationâ€™ about Nigeriaâ€™s contribution to the abolishment of apartheid in SouthÂ Africa. Akunyili disclosed that Nigeria wasÂ considered a frontline state because of its contributions to the struggle of the Blacks of South Africa, even though it was thousands of miles far from the South African border.
Then the punch line: â€œ Nigerian civil servants inÂ the 1970s donated a percentage of their salary towards the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa”. This was news to me, a pleasant one. Like mostÂ young people of thisÂ generation, no one has really impressed it on meÂ about the great contribution Nigeria made towards the abolishment of Apartheid and the democratisation of several African states. Plus theÂ good work the Technical Aid Corps is doing across the continent.
I was giddy with pride, and for the first time started seeing Nigeria in a new light. Not as that big, bumbling giant bent on taking the path of self- destruction, but as a country with a glorious past, which yetÂ is struggling to remake itself in this harrowing new world.Â I was proud of Akunyili, andÂ believed she couldÂ easily become the best Minister of Information and Communications this country has ever had.
But her work is well cut out for her. What she did at the event in Lagos was to implore us to see the cup as half full. Yet the other part of the cup â€“ the half empty part â€“ isÂ Â as much a reality as the full part.Â And the government seems bent on projecting the negatives â€“ think Ekiti â€“ and thus make the work of Professor AkunyiliÂ more difficult.
I left that event with the conviction that Nigeria needs the healthy and positive image the Minister is advocating for in the re-branding campaign, but also believe that the President and other ministers must exhibit remarkable leadershipÂ andÂ above all prove with their actions that they are committed to making Nigeria a better nation. Akunyili is doing her job, let them do theirs!
Mr.Â Douye, aÂ social critic, writes from Lagos