We are in the golden age of Nigeria’s cultural and creative dominion of Africa. From Cape Town to Cairo, and Blantyre to Bamako, everyone is dancing to Nigeria’s Afrobeats, watching our film stars on television, or consuming one of the varieties of the country’s creative productions. So steeply has Nigeria’s artistic influence grown that no party or show on the continent is complete without the music of Burna Boy, Davido, or Rema.
Also, Daniel Etim Effiong, Funke Akindele, Timi Egbuson, and other film stars are constantly on Africa’s screens and are easily recognizable in far-flung places like Limpopo and Lilongwe as they are in Lagos and Abuja. Nigeria also dominates the skit-making business, with creatives such as Mark Angel, Broda Shagi, and Brain Jotter, leading the pack with tens of millions of followers on Instagram and Facebook, and frequently getting millions of views for their sketches.
This is a soft power gold mine, which, if appropriately leveraged, can provide the country with an outsize influence on the continent and in the world, and also help to repair or at least mitigate its negative reputation.
Soft power is a concept that refers to a country’s ability to influence the behaviour of other countries and people through attraction and persuasion, rather than coercive means. It is based on the appeal of a country’s culture, political values, and foreign policies.
Joseph Nye, the US political scientist and diplomat who coined the term contrasted it with hard power, which is the use of force or coercion to exert influence over others. Such actions or threats may be in the form of military and economic power.
Over the years, Nigeria has lost considerable influence on the continent, far from the era when it played a significant role in the decolonization struggles of many African states and especially the fight against Apartheid in South Africa.
During the anti-Apartheid struggle, Nigeria was the only non-Southern African member of the Frontline States, the group of African countries that actively opposed Apartheid. Along with other Frontline State members like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Angola, Nigeria was crucial in the fight that eventually ended racial segregation and white rule in South Africa.
The country also once had a large and effective Technical Aid Corps, which provided technical assistance to countries in Africa and the Caribbean. The manifest objective of the TAC was to contribute to the socioeconomic development of Nigeria’s less endowed development partners by deploying Nigerian professionals and experts to share their skills and knowledge. However, its subliminal goal is to build goodwill for the country and increase its soft power. The TAC still exists but has become a shadow.
Through its fight against apartheid and TAC, Nigeria built considerable goodwill and reputation in Africa and beyond. But those days are gone. Because of its own internal contradictions, economic challenges, activities of some unscrupulous citizens, lack of skilled diplomats, and a clear foreign policy, Nigeria’s image has taken a beating and is in the mud as the country is often linked with fraud and criminality.
The efforts of the government over time to correct this reputational damage have failed. The Obasanjo administration through its Minister of Information, Frank Nweke launched the Heart of Africa campaign to change this distressing narrative about the country. So did the Jonathan/Yar-Adua administration through Dora Akunyili’s Rebrand Nigeria Project. Both failed.
Yet, there are vast opportunities to repair this reputational deficiency through careful exploitation of Nigeria’s dominance in the arts and culture, especially in music, film, and, to a lesser degree, fashion. This will entail a lot of work, patience, and long–term vision, as well as the articulation of clear objectives and goals, and working with the leading cultural influencers.
The traditional approach is to recommend that government invests in the creative industries by supporting Nollywood, Afrobeats, and fashion through infrastructure, training, and funding to enhance quality and global reach. That is good, but not sufficient. Nigeria’s creative industry has grown so exponentially without significant state support, on the back of the creativity and ingenuity of our young people. So, any overt attempt by the government to play a serious role now would be suspicious and probably resisted for fear that it would come with increased bureaucracy, censorship, and inefficiency.
But the government can yet tap into the strength of our vast cultural products to brand Nigeria positively. This should not be a media-centric campaign but a nuanced approach that leans heavily on the goodwill and patriotism of the leading filmmakers, producers, musicians, and artists. The Ministry of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy should engage these culture producers to explore opportunities for infusing positive elements about the country in their work.
It could be about beautiful and unique places in the country, the energy and resilience of the people, our unique attitude to entrepreneurship, football artistry, or grit. The point is that there should be a deliberate but subtle effort to promote the Nigerian brand in our cultural produce, in such a way as to pique curiosity or change a mindset. It will not be encouraging flat-out lies about the country or airbrushing its numerous challenges out of the picture but that despite all this, ‘’Nigeria is…’’
These collaborations between the Ministry and artistes should not be forced, but voluntary, leaning on the goodwill and patriotism of the producers. The Ministry can however seek ways to incentivize participation.
The other strategies the Ministry can adopt, in collaboration with Nigeria’s foreign service, may include cultural diplomacy, organizing and supporting events that promote Nigerian music, movies, and cultural festivals across the continent; hosting or supporting high-profile film and music festivals within Nigeria to attract global attention, and marketing Nigeria as a cultural destination, emphasizing its music, film, and arts experiences, among others.
The strategy is cross-sectoral, requiring the partnership and collaboration of various ministries, especially the foreign service. Hannatu Musawa, the Minister of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, is the best fit to lead the process, being primarily in charge of the arts and culture desk, and a person with an amiable exterior.
If well done, we can reap the fruits of our soft power in the form of an improved international image, enduring cultural impact, ease of travel, and better economic opportunities for Nigerians overseas. But growing and leveraging soft power is a complex and daunting task, requiring tact, patience, long-term vision, and planning – areas in which Nigeria is lacking.
Ogunro is a Nigerian journalist.