Protecting The Ugly Duckling

What do you do to a child that has gone deliberately bad? Get a cane, of course, and give them a whacking on the bottom. But a Hausa saying tells you, “Hannun ka ba ya rubewa ka yanke ka yar,” i.e. you don’t cut off your hand and throw it away just because it is rotten. The saying is rooted in the traditional family system which encourages family members to protect their own even if the person happens to have gone bad or astray. Consequently, if a family member commits a heinous crime such as theft, adultery or even murder, members of their family are expected not to disown them; after all, as a Nigerian parlance says, blood is thicker than water.

Our diplomats who work in our foreign missions have since adopted this blood-tie protectionism of the average Nigerian person as a work to rule requirement. Hence the speed with which they stoutly resist any portrayal of Nigeria as leader in corruption and insecurity. Since last year, three events have happened that showed our distaste for negative portrayal. Let’s start with the recent one, which happened only yesterday. Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Dr Dalhatu Sarki Tafida, has sent a letter of protest to the BBC complaining about a billionaire businessman’s comment about Nigeria on a television programme. The founder of Amstrad computers, Sir Alan Sugar, had suggested on his own reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” currently running on BBC TV network, that Nigerians are not to be trusted when it comes to dealing with financial promises. During a recent episode of the programme, Lord Sugar asked a participant on the programme why he should not fire him, and the latter responded: “If you give me one hundred grand a year, I will deliver to you 10 times that and if I don’t – take it all back. A money back guarantee, I’m confident.” To this, Lord Sugar answered: “I had an offer like that from Nigeria once and funnily enough it didn’t transpire.”

Tafida didn’t like it one bit. In his letter, he fumed: “It was an unprovoked, damaging remark on a sovereign and independent state of over 150 million people, based on his alleged sordid and isolated deal with a Nigerian individual. It is indeed demeaning and unfortunate.” Apparently, Dr Tafida had read in Lord Sugar’s comment another attempt to demonise Nigerians through negative portrayal on prime time television. Perhaps if he had ignored the glib comment, the matter would have petered out almost unnoticed, but he fired a salvo to the BBC, which the British press celebrated yesterday, at once putting Nigeria on the world map once again, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

A similar incident had incensed Ambassador Tafida recently, with the BBC caught in its web. On April 15, the BBC broadcast a documentary entitled, “Welcome to Lagos,” on its UK network. It was an uncomplimentary portrayal of life in the country’s most populous city. After watching it, I was persuaded to believe that the images shown were not false; the BBC’s offence was that it showed its viewers an aspect of Nigerian life our leaders would not want the rest of the world to know. And Lagos being a microcosm of Nigeria, the world would now see the country as grossly underdeveloped, a nation where poverty and violence combine to create a monstrosity far removed from the picture our leaders and diplomats are stiving to convey.

After the first of the three-part series was aired, Tafida took up the matter and conveyed a letter of protest to the controller of BBC2, Ms. Janice Hadlow. He expressed “dismay and disappointment” with the “sinister” documentary. “The (high) commission would therefore like to register its strong rejection of this documentary as a deliberate distortion of life in Lagos, and totally unwarranted,” he said. He believed that the documentary was an attempt to bring Nigeria and its hardworking people to international odium and scorn.”

In a similar incident in September last year, Sony Pictures Entertainment, an arm of the global filmmaking franchise, had released a movie it shot in South Africa entitled “District 9.” In the sci-fi flick, Nigerians were portrayed as common criminals and prostitutes and the leader of a criminal gang was called Obasanjo. I remember information minister Dora Akunyili running from pillar to post over the movie, spewing comments similar to the ones Tafida made over the Lagos documentary.
It is easy to surmise that these three incidents have established a pattern of Nigeria demonization. Major media corporations are eager to exploit the notorious stereo-typed view about Nigerians in their bid for a chunk of the entertainment and news market share.

Which leads me to ask: Where are our security organisations when foreign journalists come in and shoot documentaries? It is only in Nigeria this happens without official guides. Secondly, is what they are showing the world the truth and nothing but the truth? The answer is Yes and No. No, because Nigeria has made great contributions to various spheres of human endeavour – in the academia, literature, sports, peacekeeping, administration, business, entertainment, etc. It is, therefore, wrong to categorise all Nigerians as crooks and the country as a nation of scammers as one former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria once did.

But, Yes, these shining achievements are being dimmed by the bad works: the unrelenting pursuit by some other Nigerians to commit various unwholesome acts – from corruption to prostitution, illegal immigration, advance fee fraud (419), fake weddings, kidnappings, religious crises, murder, robbery, etc. This country is a leading member of the corruption league, with many of its leaders being caught red-handed in corruption offences. Look at the mind-blowing revelations in the banking industry and the capital market. Look at Halliburton. Look at the bombing of Abuja by MEND. Only recently, two of our boys were caught with drug use in the 19th Commonwealth Games in Delhi. And Amos Adamu has just proved that our sports administration is also a gold winner in the global corruption index. The actions of our political leaders, who promote the culture of get-rich-quick, are being emulated by other Nigerians. Hence the propensity by young Nigerians to make both ends meet in any way they can, including through acts that would paint the nation black. To many people overseas, the Nigerian is the ugly duckling from Africa. Why should we play the ostrich and pretend, through letters of protest, that these things do not happen?

Anyone familiar with the stereo-typing of Nigerians abroad would quickly link Lord Sugar’s comment to the advance fee fraud phenomenon known as ‘419,’ which is perpetrated by young Nigerians desperate to make money. Hundreds of unsuspecting foreigners have fallen prey to criminals who send fake claims via E-mail offering mouth-watering business deals in return for secret payoffs, which can run from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars or pound sterling. Lord Sugar, the 61-year-old British peer who is worth an estimated £830 million, could have been a victim of such scams. His undisclosed experience, which happened only “once,” would be familiar to many other Britons who were victims of similar scams.

Nigerian leaders should do more on improving the living condition of their people. They should commit themselves to education, job creation, and good investment climate, including provision of security and electricity. Doing this would help make Nigerian citizens stay in their own country and not force themselves into countries where they are unwanted. This is a more pre-emptive measure in checking the ceaseless negative portrayal of Nigeria by the foreign media and other institutions than sending protest letters.

Publıshed ın LEADERSHIP last Saturday

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