Vacation in sunny Nigeria?

LAGOS, Nigeria — Holiday in Nigeria? Nigeria: a good investment bet? That's what the Nigerian government would like people to think.

West Africa’s oil giant — best known for its endemic corruption, collapsed infrastructure and crime problems — is being re-branded. In a bid to generate national pride and attract foreign investors and tourists, the government is sprucing up the country’s image under the slogan “Nigeria: Good People, Great Nation.”

Unlike previous branding campaigns, the government is targeting Nigerians at home, rather than immediately aiming at overseas audiences. Ownership and participation of this latest branding campaign is central to its success, said new Minister for Information and Communications Dora Akunyili.

“You cannot brand a country with an intervention that the people cannot comment on, that the people cannot identify with, that people cannot understand,” Akunyili said. “Any government policy that is not accepted by Nigerians cannot work.”

Previously the government tried to brand Nigeria under the slogan “Heart of Africa,” but the campaign was widely seen as a merely an opportunity for corruption, with the bulk of the multi-million dollar budget going towards international travel for top-ranking officials.

This time around, says Akunyili, re-branding will be principally funded by Nigeria’s private companies, especially from the growing banks and telecommunications sectors. The campaign includes some billboards, ads on television and radio and text messages sent out to cell phone subscribers. Akunyili says she would also like to see campaign buttons and T-shirts emblazoned with the new slogan and logo.

But in the streets of the commercial capital Lagos, where some 15 million people do daily battle with the city’s faulty utilities and violent crime, residents say it will take more than a re-branding campaign to improve Nigeria’s image.

T-shirt designer Malcolm Datondji, 20, understands the importance of a strong brand. He stamps each of his hand-printed shirts with his logo, which he says is a sign of quality. Nigeria, he says, could be a quality product too, if only the government would invest in some of its people’s basic needs.

“It is a great nation and we do have good people, but they [the government] don’t utilize what we’ve got very well,” said Datondji, who’d been snoozing the afternoon away after a power cut made work impossible. “I don’t see any reason for them to re-brand — how can they re-brand when our people are not comfortable?”

Open sewers with black bubbling filth line the streets of the Obalende district of Lagos, where Datondji and other tailors, welders and carpenters work. There’s rarely any electricity, so small gasoline generators clatter out fumes and enough electricity to power basic tools and the odd light bulb or fan.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, with 140 million people, but one that few holiday-goers or business people care to visit. For Western tourists planning a holiday in Africa, Nigeria — with its rampant crime, deadly malaria, strict visa policy and lack of wildlife — is not a popular choice. Foreign investors are similarly cautious, with few willing to sink capital into this often chaotic and volatile nation.

Critics of the re-branding campaign say the government should first address the country’s fundamental problems of power shortages, crime, poor governance and corruption.

And, if properly utilized, the money is there to address these problems. Nigeria is one of Africa’s top oil producing nations, earning billions of dollars each year from crude exports. But a series of corrupt military and civilian governments have allowed leaders to amass personal fortunes while leaving the country’s roads, power grid, schools and hospitals to crumble.

Akunyili, the information minister, is firmly in the driver's seat of this new campaign. Through re-branding, she wants to highlight some of the good things about Nigeria, without glossing over the country’s failings.

“For one criminal we have 10 great people to talk about, for one slum we have a great establishment to show,” Akunyili said in the federal capital Abuja. She said she wants to foster national pride and promote Nigeria overseas. “We want to tell the international community to please try to see the positive side of Nigeria, because it appears as if we are only in the news when something bad happens.”

One of the unexpected outcomes of the campaign is the heated political debate the re-branding exercise has generated.

“The fact that everybody is talking about this is positive for us, even the criticism,” Akunyili said, adding that such discourse is essential to the growth of democracy.

Nigeria returned to civilian rule after decades of military control in 1999, but elections have been marred by widespread allegations of fraud and voter intimidation. Many of those ruling Nigeria today have been in positions of power since the military era and few among the electorate have faith that their ballot can effect political change.

Talk of re-branding has fomented a rare period of discourse in the national press, on talk radio and television discussion programs. Nigerians are asking where their country’s failings lie, and how to make improvements. Everyone has a different solution, but some views are repeated more often than others.

“To improve things, we need to get people who have a good heart into politics, not because they want to steal,” said Femi Oyegun, 30, who works in the oil and gas sector in Lagos. “Stealing politicians are the main problem we have. If we resolve that, then change can happen.”

More GlobalPost dispatches about Nigeria:

Surviving Lagos Mega-city

Nigeria tries to settle oil protests

Nigeria boast colorful fashions



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