JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – Anyone who has ever gotten an e-mail asking for a safe bank account to hide some of that leftover loot belonging to a dead Nigerian dictator, and another from that dictator’s brother, or attorney, or pet goldfish, can understand just how difficult it must be to be the public face of Nigeria.
Stereotypes against Nigerians are so virulent in South Africa that a recent science fiction box-office smash, District 9, featured Nigerian gangsters so cartoonishly evil that they made the cockroach-like extraterrestrial invaders look (almost) cuddly.
So pause, for a moment, to consider the job of Gen. Mohamed Buba Marwa, Nigeria’s ambassador to South Africa. Presenting a positive face for Nigeria, in this country at least, is a monumental task.
“In a country of 150 million people, you can’t say there will be no criminals, because every country has its own shady characters,” says Ambassador Marwa, speaking from his office in Tshwane (Pretoria). “Ninety-nine point nine percent of Nigerians are good, honest people. But unfortunately, in the business of news media, bad news seems to be more interesting than good news, and these stereotypes seem to get the better of us.”
The sad fact of the matter is that the 0.1 percent of the bad Nigerians are a very busy lot, and they seem to have excellent publicity agents. Credit card fraud is so virulent that many credit card companies simply shut off one’s credit card account after even one (legitimate or otherwise) purchase in Nigeria. E-mail scams are so common that even Des Moines grannies, checking their e-mail, can be heard to mutter, “Sani Abacha, again?”
In this correspondent's first trip to Nigeria, a few years back during the presidential election, I was struck by how entrepreneurial Nigerians seemed to be, as a whole. No traffic-jammed highway was complete without literally hundreds of young salesmen, weaving between cars with everything from cold sodas to toilet seats. Yet I also saw a certain amount of thuggery in the rough-and-tumble oil-boom-town of Port Harcourt, and also brazenly open vote-buying by corrupt politicians on the presidential election day.
It is, of course, unfair to judge an entire country by the misdeeds of a few, just as it is wrong to judge all Saudis by the actions of Osama bin Laden, or all Americans by the latest Wall Street brainiac to bring down the global financial system. But what to do?
Ambassador Marwa has a plan.
First, he began by hosting the first annual Nigerian achievement awards ceremony – attended by top South African political and business leaders, the Nigerian vice president Goodluck Jonathan, and a few earnest South African journalists – to celebrate the deeds of top Nigerian businessmen, professionals, and philanthropists living in South Africa. This, Marwa says, “emphasizes that we are good people. Look at us; it’s not just a few.”
Second, Marwa has begun to engage the local news media to remind them of Nigeria’s contributions to the African continent.
Did you know, he will often ask reporters, that Nigeria contributes the lion’s share of United Nations and African Union peacekeepers to other African hotspots, and that it has chaired the UN peacekeeping committee, off and on, since the early 1960s. Or that Nigeria stood at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement, giving shelter to many South African opposition leaders – such as former President Thabo Mbeki – and scholarships to many black South African students. Or that all Nigerian public servants were required to give 5 percent of their salaries to a “South African Relief Fund.”
Third, Marwa has thrown energy into a South African-Nigerian Friendship Association, to forge closer ties between businessmen from both countries. Government officials between the two countries have close ties, Marwa says, as do business people. But ordinary citizens still have their reservations, and that can only be changed over time through building friendships and relationships based on trust.
Marwa recognizes that stereotypes don’t disappear overnight, especially if e-mail scams continue and if the occasional Nigerian drug dealer gets caught at Oliver Tambo International Airport with a suitcase full of stuff that isn’t palm sugar.
“With consistency, this can be changed, from the president on down to the office worker,” says Marwa. “It’s a collective thing. All people, whether leaders or followers, must do their part. That’s how countries move.”