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Akunyili: The real deal ?

By John Ogunro

IT definitely seemed like a mismatch when the announcement was made in December 2008.  A professor of Pharmacy was going to be Nigeria’s  Minister of Information and Communications.

A lot of people, including this writer, felt it was a clear case of a round peg  in a square  hole. Journalists were particularly incensed. Their grouse was that each successive government by-pass experienced media and public relations professionals in considering the chief spokesperson of government.

The examples are many. But no case in history seemed as extreme as the appointment of Prof. Dora Akunyili. As far as anyone knew, she had no formal experience or training in media management. Besides, she was recruited from a position in food and drug regulation where she had  performed excellently and to great acclaim.

It was therefore assumed that she would be made the Minister of Health or at least given a cabinet position close to her area of training and expertise. When this did not happen and she was instead made the Minister of Information and Communications, there was widespread criticisms.

But get this right. The criticisms were not directed at the person of  Ms.  Akunyili. She was (and I believe, still) widely loved by Nigerians, who commend her for the revolutionary work she did at NAFDAC.

The condemnations  were against  the government for its seeming lack of wisdom; in casting, to  use football terms, a striker as a defender. The consensus was that the government missed the opportunity to add verve to the health sector, and had somehow demoted Akunyili, if not set her up for grand failure.

The Minister herself, I gathered, was not too happy about the posting and  had told a gathering that she almost wept when she heard the announcement.

One year after, it is proper to review Akunyili’’s tenure and see whether she had meet up to grade. She appears to be a fast learner who on assumption of office, quickly threw herself into the job. The passion  and  energy that served her well as the director general of NAFDAC were clearly on display.

On her first day on the job, she reportedly had a meeting with the staff of the ministry, where she articulated her vision. And vintage Akunyili, she instructed all staff of the Ministry to drop the toll free lines and complimentary cable dishes that service providers had given to them.

According to my friend who works in the ministry, the minister said it was unethical for the staff to collect toll free lines from the telecoms service providers and yet do their job impartially as regulators. So out went the free lines and the cable dishes. This fact did not make it to the media.

At least, I did not read or hear about it until my friend told me, which suggests that the  minister  was not  seeking  cheap publicity  but  was really concerned about the potential conflict of interest that may arise when the staff are compromised by gratis from MTN, DSTV and others.

That decision by  the minister was very significant and critical to having a professionalised and corruption-free workplace. In a culture of widespread corruption such as ours, it was only someone like Akunyili that would raise issues of ethics in government.

But that would not be the most significant thing that would shape  Akunyili’s one year  tenure as Minister . What did  is the Re-branding Nigeria Campaign. When the minister assumed office, Nigeria’s image programme –– the Heart of Africa Project – was in a shambles. I did not know even know that there was an image programme going on. It was that low-key.

May be because the initiators concentrated on  selling the project Overseas and did not do any significant campaign in Nigeria. Akunyili unsurprisingly ditched the Heart of Africa Project and instead started the Re-branding Nigeria Campaign.

According to her, the objective of the campaign is to project a healthy and positive face of Nigeria to the world. Realising that this cannot be achieved on the platter of gold, Ms. Akunyili explained that her campaign would be primarily targeted at Nigerians , and that it would focus on achieving a character re-orientation and attitudinal change.

And did she mean business! Where Heart of Africa was virtually unknown, in a very short time Rebranding Nigeria became a sing-song on everybody’s lips. It was very inclusive – the design  of  the logo of the campaign were thrown open to ordinary Nigerians through a competition. The best were selected by a committee made of eminent Nigerians, including Tonie Iredia, the former DG of NTA and famous actor, Pete Edochie.

The minister thereafter pushed hard to sell the project –– with its good people, great nation slogan -to various groups through stakeholders and town hall-meetings. She also launched the local chapters of the campaign in several states. School clubs  with the rebranding Nigeria theme were also launched.

All this made the project have a home feel, what the typical Nigerian would call “our own thing”. But the campaign also received knocks, especially from Nigerians who believe it was a distraction or an attempt to paper Nigeria’’s cracks.

The critics of rebranding argue that Nigeria’s bad image was as a result of the country’s many ills –– especially corruption and the inability of government to provide necessary infrastructure. So they  want the government to tackle these challenges, rather than re-brand. Good points, no doubt.

But the minister explained that the campaign did not in any way stop the government from providing critical infrastructure, fight corruption or execute any of its development targets. All those, she argued, could go hand-in-hand with an efficient management of Nigeria’s image.
Mr. Ogunro, a public affairs analyst,  writes from Abuja.


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