Saturday, May 9, 2009


Everyday across Nigeria, on at least half a dozen or more occasions, one occurrence elicits wrathful oaths and unprintable profanities from people of both high and low breeding. It is that moment when a power outage cuts short work, leisurely activity, a football game or something as serious as a surgical operation. At such times, whether with a scream, a groan or a sigh, the word “NEPA!” escapes our lips like an expletive directed at the air as if invoking some spiritual entity. NEPA is Nigeria’s National Electric Power Authority, and arguably no organization in the world attracts the same unanimity of public odium. What is interesting though is that NEPA ceased to exist several years ago. The organization that has been in charge of our power supply for years is the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). Not that it matters. For over two decades, power supply in Nigeria has essentially fluctuated between erratic and non-existent. Consequently, the rebaptism and change in nomenclature has made no difference.

NEPA’s ineptitude is so seared into the Nigerian consciousness that nothing short of a revolution in PHCN’s service delivery will redeem its reputation. NEPA is a compelling example of the staying power of a negative brand and is especially relevant to the Yar’Adua administration’s current campaign to rebrand Nigeria. With typical Nigerian superficiality, government spin doctors have reduced national branding to sterile sloganeering: “Good People; Great Nation.” Professor Dora Akunyili, the minister of information and the chief apostle of the rebranding campaign has attacked her assignment with customary gusto. She has been making the rounds on the local and international media to vociferously argue that all Nigerians aren’t fraudsters and to condemn the delinquent minority whose vile acts have given the country a bad name.

But in fact her campaign misses the point. The social theorist Marshall McLuhan coined what we might regard as the cardinal principle of branding when he said: “The medium is the message.” Professor Akunyili while entirely justified in her vilification of fraudsters is mistaken in casting them as the archenemies of the Nigerian brand. The people whose acts cast the most doubt on her campaign are none other than her fellow travellers in the current administration. It is the government itself that is doing the most to discredit the rebranding exercise. President Yar’Adua’s lack of leadership, his government’s failure to move beyond a now esoteric seven-point agenda and urgently invest in the critical sectors – power, energy and public infrastructure, constitute the most potent blights on this rebranding campaign. Add to this the administration’s apparent indebtedness to corrupt politicians, its disgraceful hounding from office of an anti-corruption czar in violation of his statutory tenure and the president’s refusal to repudiate the electoral heists perpetrated by his party, the Peoples Democratic Party. Akunyili may find it easy and convenient to inveigh against faceless fraudsters but if she is truly interested in tackling the biggest fraudsters in Nigeria, she needn’t look further than Abuja. Half of our national budget goes towards maintaining our public officials. Their wage bill last year amounted to 1.3 trillion naira. A member of the National Assembly earns more than the president of the United States. At the same time, members of the National Youth Service Corps who are expected to serve their country often in indecent conditions and in remote locales receive a paltry N9, 775 as monthly allowance. Last year, a proposal to increase the allowance to N20, 000 was shot down in the National Assembly. Meanwhile the national minimum wage is N11, 130. The Nigerian Labour Congress which is campaigning for an increase in the minimum wage has observed that between 2006 and 2007, workers’ salaries were raised by 15 percent while those of political office holders were increased by 800 percent.

A more cognitive government would have recognized the connection between high unemployment and crime. By one estimate, 40 million Nigerians are unemployed. The fraudsters that Akunyili has had cause to condemn belong predominantly to the demographic bracket of the ages of 20 to 35 years. This is the bracket that supplies most of our teeming army of unemployed youths, as well as the militants and brigands that are often used as cannon fodder by political operatives. Confronted by mass unemployment and the growing spectre of mass unemployability owing to the collapse of public education, the government’s most imaginative response has been “Good People; Great Nation!” The PDP’s only contribution to the debate has been its announced readiness and intention to rule Nigeria for sixty years.

Let’s be honest. As of now, the Yar’Adua administration has no moral right to preach probity to Nigerians. It isn’t the acts of a few delinquent fraudsters that impugn the national brand; it is the piracy of a delinquent political elite and the continuing culture of impunity, hypocrisy and graft in high places, which in turn feeds graft in the lower places. None of the high ranking politicians and officials implicated in bribery scandals involving Siemens and Halliburton have been exposed. The corruption cases brought by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) against some governors, among them the president’s known political associates, have conveniently vaporized. The EFCC itself has been neutered and is steadily sinking to the same operational efficiency levels as NEPA. Just this April, a report on Nigeria in The Economist portrayed the stark reality of Nigerian politics as “back-room deals that ensure that the top job alternates between the elites of the largely Muslim north and Christian south: a “gentleman’s agreement” to allow the ungentlemanly feasting on the country’s billions of dollars of stolen and mismanaged oil resources. Nigeria is still one of the world’s most corrupt countries.” This perception of Nigeria in the west has nothing to do with 419 and neither stale slogans nor hackneyed preachments will alter this perception. That President Yar’Adua and his administration are supposed to be symbols of the Nigerian brand readily makes this rebranding campaign an unqualified farce. The medium is the message.

As for Professor Akunyili, we may well be witnessing the self-immolation of one of the country’s most capable public servants. When she agreed to become one of the public faces of the Yar’Adua presidential campaign in 2007, many Nigerians excused her involvement with the PDP as conscription rather than a voluntary inclusion in the party’s gravy train. By assuming such a high profile in the campaign, she was, it was felt, lending her public reputation to a presidential campaign of such unhygienic provenance. (In retrospect, we might surmise that she was simply staking her claim to power in the nascent presidency). To Nigerians who had fallen in love with Akunyili following her impressive crusade against fake drugs as the nation’s food and drugs czarina, it was almost as if she had been abducted by the PDP and forcibly deployed to the frontlines of their electoral campaign. If this is so, then she may now be a victim of Stockholm syndrome, the peculiar neurosis that causes abductees to identify and bond emotionally with their captors and adopt their causes. Little else can explain her acceptance of a brief that requires her to defend an administration that is indefensible on many counts.

Had she defined herself solely as a minister of information, then perhaps her position, however much of a disservice to her person it is, would have been tolerable. Akunyili remains quite popular with many Nigerians. And Nigerians are very forgiving of public figures that they love and very understanding of their frailties and errors. But her insistence on the role of the chief apostle – as a medium of a government that really has no message, strains credulity. This role calls for a dangerous level of self-righteousness because it involves preaching to the disillusioned on behalf of the irredeemable. To say that Akunyili is throwing stones from a glass house is an understatement; her very pulpit is an Aegean stable. At the moment, it doesn’t look as if Akunyili will leave government with much of her reputation and stock of goodwill intact. This is the price of yoking her personal brand to a political brand that was always suspect at best.

This brings us right back to the subject of rebranding. No amount of re-baptisms and changes in nomenclature can transform NEPA’s image in the national consciousness. Like the police, the customs service and much of Nigerian governance, what is needed isn’t rebranding but rebooting. Serious exemplary leadership can change the tone of these organizations and infuse our institutions with a new spirit of excellence and service. This will happen only when the right balance is struck between rhetoric and purposeful action. So far, the Yar’Adua administration has simply dished out bankrupt rhetoric and has demonstrated a pitiable lack of ideas and political will.

In the final analysis, whether Nigeria is advertised as the “Heart of Africa” or simply a “Good People” and a “Great Nation” is inconsequential. No amount of creative sloganeering can challenge the reality that greets visitors and citizens at our airports, the filth on our roads, the impunity of law enforcement agents, decrepit infrastructure and allied evidence of a broken system. Given the scale of these challenges, the rebranding campaign is a criminal waste of funds. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, a future administration will find it useful to prosecute those who are now conspiring to squander much needed resources on a pointless rebranding exercise.

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