Letter from Washington

June 18, 2009

Clean up Nigeria before inviting visitors

By Emma Okocha
Before inviting visitors to your home, it is routine and normal for you to clean up your house, polish your furniture, and spray good-smelling fragrances — all to make the house suiting and inviting. The real reason is, of course, to make your visitors comfortable, so they can have something good to say about you and your house when they return to their home.

But this pre-invitation preparation is not limited to individuals alone; it could also apply to a country, too. Of late, news of the so called re-branding of Nigeria has saturated the airwaves both at home and abroad, and the reason, if I’m not mistaken, is to encourage and promote tourism in the country, to give visitors something good to say about Nigeria when they return their home countries. But this is not going to be an easy feat, and for reasons known too well to the spear-headers of the re-branding campaign.

Specifically, because of the severe damage that criminals and roguish officials of government have done to tarnish the country’s image the world over, Nigeria needs more than re-branding: Nigeria needs cleaning up. Nigeria needs scrubbing. Nigeria needs waxing.

Nigeria needs furbishing. And, above all, Nigeria needs to be respected in and outside Nigeria before her leaders can rightfully engage in the so-called re-branding and tourism promotion campaign that is long overdue. And to make any meaningful inroad in this worthwhile endeavor, this cleaning up must start from the top!

As a proud citizen of Nigeria, I know that Nigeria has potentials. I need not be told this, and no Nigerian who knows the country well needs to be told this because we know who we are and we know our worth. But Nigeria’s image has been so damaged, dragged through the mud that even patriotic Nigerians are sometimes reluctantly but unashamedly willing to deny their heritage.

These people do not want to be associated with the bad news that has become Nigeria! They want no parts of her and as such no longer see anything nostalgic about a country they once loved and proudly waved its flag in college campuses in the United States and around the world.

Why is this? For many of these people the dissociation began when the Abacha’s reign of terror became a reality. It solidified after Abacha and his cohorts ignored the pleas of Nigerians at home and abroad, as well as the pleas of civil organizations and governments around the world, to free Ken Saro-wiwa and the Ogoni nine. The damage this single event did to the image of Nigeria abroad is so severe that it would take more than re-branding to repair, for it tore Nigeria’s image into shreds and made all Nigerians abroad and at home look like lawless criminals.

This, of course, mushroomed into the current, never-ending militant saga in the Niger Delta. The news of what Nigeria is doing to her own citizens and to that part of the country in the name of oil continues to make her a pariah in the eyes of the world.

And so despite what her leaders may claim or say about cleaning up the environment, the voice of the militants are still heard louder and clearer around the world than that of the people screaming about the re-branding of the country, for in the eyes of the world their stand is the moral stand of true patriots, despite what the government and politicians might rage and rave about the ugliness of their fight!

The pain of the damage done to Nigeria’s name during the Abacha years affected me personally a few years back when a couple in the United States came to me to inquire about Nigeria because they felt I must know more about the country since I was a citizen.

They had been assigned a research project in a well-known Nigerian university and they were eager to know more about the country before they embarked on the journey. Proudly, I told them all the good things I know about my dear country, and how they would enjoy their stay and, perhaps, may never want to come back to the United States if all things go well.

Of course, as African Americans who also wanted to know more about their motherland, as well as identify with and be a part of it, they were ecstatic about my promotion of my country and it gave them the moral boost they needed to make what they called “a life-changing decision.”

And off they departed to Nigeria one week later. One year later, after they returned to the United States, this couple, my own friends, would not even say a word to me. I was astounded. However, I learned through our mutual friends that their experience in Nigeria was so “disgusting” that they didn’t even want to talk about it—at least not to someone who painted such “a rosy but deceptive picture of Nigeria”!

In short, in the eyes of these people, I was a liar and I lied to them; I lied to them about my country, Nigeria, as nothing they experienced came close to the picture I had painted of the country I thought I knew.

Then, upon my further inquiry, all the truth came out: To drink water they had to bribe someone; to have electricity in their home, they had to bribe someone; to buy fuel for their car, they had to bribe someone; to repair a phone in their home, they had to bribe someone; to dispose of their trash, they had to bribe someone. And to make matters worse, their home was burglarized twice throughout the duration of their stay. How worse can it get?

Then, as can be expected, they went on to gossip about the dirty roads, the traffic, the police, the soldiers, the educational system, 419, and the leadership—with General Abacha at the helm! Now who would hear these things about Nigeria and still plan to visit her. And who knows how many people—potentials tourists—these people may have shared these ugly truths with.

Now, I am not one bent on dwelling on the negative aspect of a country I love, for no one, not even a country is perfect, yet the truth must be told about Nigeria. And that truth is that Nigeria needs to clean up her acts, so it can claim its rightful place as the home of the world’s most proud, most elegant people! Indeed, as one of the most educated countries in Africa and even in the world, Nigeria and Nigerians have every reason to be proud. Nigeria is rich in culture, people, and natural resources—and the creativity of her people is world-renown!

And while we are in the business of cleaning up, we should not forget the one area where Nigeria can shine even brighter than it does today: Sports. Nigerians are triumphant in sports, and the world knows it. Yet the government is not doing enough to promote sports in the country.

All one has to do is watch Nigerian football on NTA to see how dilapidated the football fields and stadiums look. These, and more, are things that need cleaning up.

Lest we forget: What about these recent escalations about kidnappings in the South South and in the South East regions of the country? Is this not another product of the Niger Delta militant activities? Why can’t Nigeria try to put these problems to rest once and for all? Are we also waiting for expatriates to help us solve it, too? Who would hear this bad news about the country and still plan to visit her?

It is time Nigeria faces her problems squarely. It is time we grow up and face up to our shortcomings. Indeed, if all these problems are attended to with sincerity and resolved, Nigerians are willing to honestly engage in cleaning up the image of the country, Nigeria needs not spend a penny to campaign for tourism, her proud citizens all over the world would proudly do her that august service free of charge. I can guarantee it!

•Dr. Kpalukwu is a native of Rumuji, Odegu, in the Emohua Local Government Area of Rivers State. He is also an Assistant Professor of English and Writing at both Howard University and the University of Maryland University College, respectively.