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Nigeria: So much more than scam artists

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

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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.


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