Nigeria: So much more than scam artists

The media present only a wretched picture of Africa. People mistakenly believe that's all there is.

Quick: A wealthy foreigner needs help transferring millions of dollars and is promising a hefty percentage for your assistance. Ready to send your bank account information? By now most of us recognize this scam often allegedly from Nigeria. To state the obvious, this hasn't helped Nigeria's public image. Yet, believe it or not, Africa is ready to be taken seriously.

For many, Africa's greatest need is not more aid or sympathy; it is better public relations. Narratives about Africa in popular media have yet to evolve from spotlighting the exotic, impoverished, corrupt, and generally wretched. There are many positive sides to Africa that remain eclipsed by relentless depictions of deprivation and depravity. The danger of emphasizing the travails of the continent to the exclusion of its triumphs and promises is that if people hear it enough, they start to believe it.

While serving as Nigeria's minister for mines and steel development in 2006 and 2007, it quickly became evident to me that contending with the negative media representations and jaundiced public perception was one of the greatest obstacles to attracting foreign direct investment.

As part of a program to counter standard refrains of Nigeria as a no-go zone, I wanted to create a public service ad that would have culminated in the orchestration of a chorus that loudly asserts "We too are Nigerians!" on behalf of the millions of self-respecting, ethical, and hardworking Nigerians who are disadvantaged by the bad press.

Such a campaign might sound simple, but on some scale, it could help put in perspective the difficulty of reconciling media caricatures with everyday Nigerians doing extraordinary things under challenging circumstances.

Anyone who has been to Nigeria may concede that there is something to be said for the resilience and cheer of the teenage street hawker who braves the scorching sun to peddle some petty ware and still rebound with smiles when the sale offer is declined. The trick is to harness and make such resilience count for meaningful growth and development.

The media have the potential to help excavate Nigeria's hidden face and illuminate the country's complex dimensions as it strives to preempt counterproductive cultures embedded by decades of repression and unaccountability.

Arguably, Nigeria's challenges in the public relations arena exceed most of Africa's. Nigeria is ranked high among the most corrupt countries and identified as the source of vexing Internet scams that exploit vulnerable business prospects.

Even in the ministry where I worked, some civil servants seemed to take exceptional delight in shaking down those who would let them. Predatory bureaucrats and reprobate scam artists often fault the uncertainty and precariousness of existence in the country for their moral perversion without acknowledging how much their acts compound the problem.

Earlier in the course of my tenure as minister, I realized that the system was riddled with loopholes that exacerbated the incidence of fraud and inefficiency. Accordingly, I prioritized pipe-lining processes and institutionalized norms to reduce problematic behavior and help create an enabling environment for disciplined stewardship.

Needless to say, the effort did not earn me Brownie points from the vested interests that stood to lose from the reform. They went to great length to resist and subvert the project. But compelling evidence of inspiring reform initiatives abound. This news needs only to be reported in the media for a positive domino effect to take place. Without it, the trade-off is the hard sell of Nigeria's richly prospective mineral resources even to entities that are at ease with pursuing business interests in active war zones.

Nigeria is a nation in transition. Its fragile democracy needs the strategic partnership of the media to constructively showcase objective opportunities and constraints. With robust leadership and deepening democratic dividends, wealth generated from the natural resource sector will ameliorate dependency on development assistance. This is the key to nurturing a brighter future for Nigerians eager to avail themselves of homegrown opportunities for self-empowerment.

Leslye Obiora is a visiting law professor at Yale. She is a former government minister in Nigeria and the founder of the Institute for African Women, Children and Culture.

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