Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It took everything in me to contain my disgust and disappointment at reading that Dora Akunyili's latest opponent is the term 'Naija'. Akunyili is Nigeria's Minister of Information and the nation's rebranding czar. She was once widely known as a champion of he people for standing up to importers and sellers of fake drugs and other items. Unfortunately, she is now also known for sometimes making inappropriate outbursts such as those made during the underwear bomber scandal that almost jeopardized already tense Nigeria-US relations. And now, Akunyili has set her sights on 'Naija' in what can only be further evidence of failed Nigerian leadership.

N. Naija until i die.jpg

The term "Naija' is one that has been used by Nigerians, and especially younger Nigerians, in reference to their country. Although it is a slang term, it conveys the effervescent spirit of Nigerians. It reflects a brazen attitude to the country and the expectations of its youth. Having been forced to exist in a nation that has failed on many levels, 'Naija' is an expression of confidence despite the challenges. Even when uttered, and it is always uttered with a distinctly Nigerian attitude, it reflects a a unifying declaration of hope and optimism in the face of tribulations.

In spite of that reality, Akunyili announced that the term is "offensive". To be fair, she was reacting to the use of the term in a formal presentation by a group of reality television stars. But had she simply pointed out that it was incorrect to use the term within that context, she might have appeared reasonable. Instead, she apparently scolded the group and went on to state that her office was in the process of bringing an end to use of 'Naija by companies and maybe everyone. She said,

"We are making plans to write companies to stop using the word Naija. I have heard that name Naija in adverts. I want them to go back and remove that word... We have to stop this word because it is catching up with the young. If we don't put a stop to its usage now, it will continue to project us wrongly."
Understandably, colloquialisms should not be used in formal presentations. And in the age of 'internet speak' where some prefer to use abridged words regardless of the circumstances, Akunyili's concern is legitimate. But, so also is the proper use of the term 'Naija' and to simply dismiss it's importance to millions of Nigerians who have no bad intent, as one would argue is the case with Akunyili, is unfair. After all, there are several successful Nigeria-related brands that are a positive example of Nigeria. One need only think of Uche Eze's BellaNaija.com as a perfect example.

As such, Akunyili overreaches when she calls the term "offensive". What is offensive in this situation is for her, as an official in charge of rebranding to have little or no evidence of any specific actions since announcing her pet project. When Akunyili revealed that she would be working to transform Nigeria's image, she was soundly criticized by many Nigerians who viewed this as another opportunity for a government official to steal public money. The announcement was equally mocked by the foreign press, which focused the many missteps and other surrounding issues.

Despite that, many individuals, myself included, held out hope that the rebranding project would have a positive effect not just on how the world viewed Nigerians, but on how Nigerians saw themselves. I, for one, initially hoped that is implemented smartly, rebranded Nigeria could be a success.

However, Akunyili threw that goodwill down the drain by failing to produce any verifiable evidence that she actually was working to rebrand the country's image. And now, more than a year after announcing the "Good People, Great Nation" logo, the supposed rebranding campaign has no website and no information is readily available about what has been done or will be done. This despite promises by Akunyili that the project would be transparent. And, when there was a website (it was short-lived and well criticized), the page was little more than a shrine to Akunyili.

Since the announcement of the project, Nigerians have learned more about Akunyili and her issues - real or imagined - through a series of public battles. She engaged in a well documented fight with the despised Michael Aondoakaa and managed to come across as a bully. Then, she accused the former Central Bank governor of sending thugs to intimidate her. That was then followed by a letter from her nephew who contacted her via a public medium because, as he said, it was the only medium she enjoyed. And her misguided comments after the October 1st, 2010 bombings cannot be ignored either. Akunyili's initial reaction was to misspeak (some say lie) and deny that the federal government had prior warning. She also went on to say that the bombings "failed because the celebrations were a resounding success," ignoring that the less fortunate were not jubilating as well as herself and her peers were.

It is therefore a shame that officials like Akunyili feel that the can ignore their failures and choose instead to criticize citizens for expressing themselves and the indomitable spirit of the Nigerian people. Rather than pick on the term 'Naija' and, in essence, the millions of people who use that term to 'own' their country in a manner that corrupt officials and politicians will not allow, Akunyili and others should focus on more important issues. They should do their jobs. In her case, Akunyili would do well to communicate the future of the rebranding

Until then, Nigeria's leaders should keep in mind that they do themselves a disservice when they demean the Nigerian spirit and call harmless expression "offensive". In reality, wasting the people's time and money by tackling this most inane of issues is the pure essence of offensiveness and a reflection of poor judgment and a lack of respect for those they should serve. There are undoubtedly more important matters for Akunyili to focus on and this 'Naija' matter,d espite her best intentions, is simply a case of misplaced priorities.

Related Articles of Interest:
- Nigeria's Re-branding Effort 
- Using Nigerians to Re-Brand Nigeria
- Re-branding Nigeria: Success is the Key
- Rebranding Nigeria With Britain's Help?
- The Nigerian Psyche 
- Persistent Psychological Paralysis
- The Significance of Persistent Psychological Paralysis

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