From Soft Life to Soft Power Reconsidering Nigeria’s Regional and Global Influence

Nigeria is currently experiencing a creative and cultural renaissance. According to UNDP’s Imagine Nigeria report, a document developed by the Federal Government of Nigeria in collaboration with UNDP, Nigeria needs a new economic roadmap. One in which the creative economy is center stage.

At independence in 1960, many observers both within and outside Nigeria expected Nigeria to become Africa’s first superpower. Businessman, Onye Kamanu, who attended the independence ceremony in October 1960 as a schoolboy, still remembers the resounding roar of triumph that went up from the crowd as the British Union Jack was lowered and the green-white-green Nigerian flag was hoisted in its stead. Shortly after witnessing this historic event, Kamanu travelled to America for his university education. He recalls telling his classmates ‘Nigeria is going to be a world power in the next few years’. His optimism was not misplaced. Nigeria had Africa’s largest population, a strong economy, formidable political and cultural influence and one of the best trained military forces on the continent. The reasons for Nigeria’s steep socioeconomic decline since then are as puzzling as they are obvious. A devastating civil war, military incursion into politics, mismanagement of oil wealth and endemic corruption all share the blame for Nigeria’s underdevelopment.

These challenges notwithstanding, many political scientists today still believe that Nigeria should have a stronger regional and global status. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and the world’s most populous Black nation. Nigeria also boasts one of the most accomplished diaspora populations around the globe. The big question is why has this potential not yet propelled Nigeria to its deserved position of influence in Africa and around the world? The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Imagine Nigeria report, a document developed by the Federal Government of Nigeria in collaboration with UNDP, takes an in-depth look at this question, and explores the possibility of a brighter and better future for Nigeria.

‘A LION WITH CAT CLAWS’

As far back as 1958, Chinua Achebe was prophetic in surmising Nigeria’s most persistent challenge in his novel Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s appraisal of the Nigerian condition, as well as a potential solution, are contained in the statement, ‘Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.’ Until Nigeria and its leaders leverage the tools at its disposal to craft a coherent and positive national narrative, Nigeria will continue to suffer the consequences of being part of a system designed to serve Western agendas. Nigeria’s image problem and the corresponding loss of soft power is what led researcher and lecturer, Fife Ogunde to describe Nigeria as ‘A lion of Africa with cat claws’. While Ogunde believes that ‘any enhancement of Nigeria’s socio-political power is also inextricably linked to Nigeria’s economic growth and prosperity’, he also questions whether the Nigerian political elite has the will to achieve this lofty aim.

A RIGGED SYSTEM

Nigeria is one of the few countries to have a specific criminality named after it. The ‘Nigerian Scam’ is so fiercely identifiable to Nigeria that the phrase permeated popular culture, with references to ‘Nigerian scams’ appearing in international movies, TV shows, cartoons and other forms of media entertainment. It has unfortunately become a prism through which Nigerians are seen globally.

Interestingly, Nigeria is not even among the world’s top five worst cyber-criminal offenders. While there is a significant volume of cybercrime activity from Nigeria, an overwhelming majority of the more sophisticated and devastating cybercrime attacks originate from the ‘Global North’. This paper mapping ‘the geography of cybercrime’ shows the US, China, Germany, France and UK topping the list of countries where cybercrime originates. If this is true, then why is Nigeria synonymous with cybercrime and internet fraud when it does not measure up in scale or sophistication of cyber criminality to many developed nations? This is just one example of how a failure to arrest a dangerous and false narrative has real socioeconomic implications.

To clarify the correlation between a nation’s reputation and its economics, Vicky Valet of Forbes explains that:

Events that make front-page news play a big role, as do economic and environmental conditions and so much else. Consciously or unconsciously, people rely on these reputations when deciding where to set up a business, where to live and where to travel on vacation.

A positive reputation means increased potential for foreign trade, investments and tourism, while a negative one guarantees the opposite. Nigeria’s lack of global clout has led to restrictions from participation in global financial markets, stringent travel and emigration restrictions and loss in foreign direct investment.

SHIFTING SANDS AND A BRAVE NEW WORLD

Just like the world in which Achebe’s novel was set, where colonialism created an existential schism, recent events of great geopolitical import have reshaped the contemporary world order. COVID-19 triggered a global health and economic crisis. The pandemic also exposed the cracks in economic and social structures in many nations around the world.

Concurrently, efforts to combat climate change are altering the way we produce and consume energy. Consumers are more climate aware; manufacturers are phasing out the use of fossil fuels in their production and countries are pledging to eliminate the use of hydrocarbons altogether. All this will have a huge impact on the global economy, especially carbon intensive sectors.

While these changes can be threatening, they also present a fresh chance for emerging economies like Nigeria to display agility in reacting to global trends. Equally they offer the opportunity for such countries to reposition themselves for diplomatic leadership on the continent and beyond, especially as Eastern and Western power blocs tackle a myriad of domestic challenges.

Positive self-representation will be a crucial first step in maximizing the opportunities presented by these changing global systems.

LEADING AFRICA

According to the Imagine Nigeria report, Nigeria lacks ‘a coherent strategy to convert various sources of influence to a smart power package’. These sources of influence include Nigeria’s impact on continental trade, regional diplomacy and the creative sector. With a GDP of $514.05 billion in 2021, Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy. Nigeria’s robust economic advantage and the ingenuity of its people has helped propel its creative sector, especially music and film, to global reckoning. Nigerian artistes such as Wizkid and Tems are making history and setting and breaking international streaming records almost on a daily basis, while Nigeria’s movie industry is second only to Hollywood in size.

With these strides already being made with little institutional support, as the report proffers, it is clear that much more can be achieved by ‘rethinking economic strategy and leveraging significant soft power resources through a proactive approach for the creative sector’. A robust approach cutting across key sectors of domestic and foreign influence is required to facilitate socioeconomic transformation and development for the continent, including Nigeria.

MAXIMIZING CULTURAL IMPACT

In the 1970s Nigeria’s cultural influence was displayed at the Festival of Arts and Culture, where Nigeria played host to 16,000 participants representing 56 African nations and countries of the African Diaspora. FESTAC ‘77 was important in promoting intra-African solidarity and establishing Nigeria as a force within the global ‘Black consciousness’ movement. Nigeria is currently experiencing a creative and cultural renaissance, with the Nigerian literature, music, movies, tourism and media industries receiving international acclaim. Unfortunately, the lack of support structures, access to finance, and intellectual property protection continues to put Nigerian creatives at a disadvantage when compared to their foreign counterparts. If Nigeria’s creative industry has made strides thus far without concerted governmental support, then it will flourish with the application of a coherent creative industries strategy. It is time for the Nigerian government to take proactive steps towards shaping the direction of the creative industry and use this as a tool to grow its local tourism and attract foreign investment, while also telling stories that will shape the national Nigerian narrative.  

FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY

Nigeria is one of Africa’s most attractive tech hubs. It is home to countless startups, two of which—Flutterwave and Paystack—have collectively secured nearly $400 million worth of investment in just the past year, with Flutterwave attaining ‘unicorn’ status. The role of technology in securing geopolitical influence cannot be overstated. Yet, the Nigerian government has displayed an ambivalent, and sometimes even antagonistic attitude towards the tech sector. In August 2021, Nigeria’s Central Bank froze the accounts of four fintech platforms, purportedly for operating without a license and trading unethically sourced foreign currencies. The same month, the Nigerian Information and Technology Development Agency (NITDA) proposed the introduction of tax levies and licensing fees for tech companies, and recommended prison sentences for defaulters.

In a nation struggling with widespread unemployment, the current administration’s attitude towards the tech sector—an industry with immense potential to create jobs—is misguided. The government will need to rethink its current rent-seeking strategy, and instead develop a robust roadmap to empower and incentivize stakeholders in the industry to compete favourably, even across international markets.

DEVELOP A COHERENT DIASPORA STRATEGY

Nigeria’s diaspora population is among the most accomplished globally. Asides being one of the most educated ethnic groups on the planet, people of Nigerian descent hold sensitive and influential positions across the globe in both public and private sectors. They also hold immense economic power, with remittances to Nigeria exceeding $20 billion annually.

Yet, these achievements have not translated into collective influence, comparable for example, to the highly organized Indian or Jewish diaspora. Cultivating a strategy to maximize diaspora influence is essential for building soft power. A case study can be made from Ghana’s ‘Year of Return’ campaign, which designed incentives to attract people of African descent back to the continent and Ghana specifically. The campaign attracted over 200,000 tourists to Ghana and injected $1.9 billion into the Ghanaian economy. Public figures such as Idris Elba and Naomi Campbell were so enamoured by the experience that they became unofficial ambassadors and advocates of Africa in international circles. Nigeria is considerably more influential than Ghana in the global entertainment industry. Based on this fact alone, Nigeria is already positioned to have even greater pull should it decide to embark on a similar bridge-building initiative.

The Imagine Nigeria report has also put forward several proposals for diaspora engagement including citizenship-by-investment programmes, whereby diaporans become eligible for a second international passport by spending beyond a proposed financial threshold. Such programmes have been extremely successful in nations like Malta and Grenada. The report also recommends exchange programmes across Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the US and universities in Africa to facilitate skill and knowledge sharing. The HBCU Africa homecoming is a good example of such an initiative. Furthermore, the report suggests national awards to recognize accomplished Nigerian diasporas and ‘back to Nigeria’ acculturation trips and excursions to help diasporans appreciate Africa’s culture and history.

THE TIME IS NOW

Countries like Rwanda are quickly learning the advantages of this ‘strategic posturing’ long mastered by Western countries. In 2018, Rwanda signed a sleeve sponsorship deal with English Premier League team, Arsenal, worth an estimated $39 million, as part of its ‘Visit Rwanda’ campaign. The campaign has lifted overall tourism numbers in Rwanda by eight per cent, attracted money and jobs to the Rwandan economy and raised Rwanda’s international profile.

The time is right for Nigeria to arrest the haemorrhaging of its international stock by controlling its own narrative and making investments to enhance its soft power. This can be achieved by deepening Nigeria’s ties with its diaspora population, enabling its growing technology sector and maximizing its potential for cultural impact. A Nigeria that is awake can seize on its cultural power and goodwill to exert more positive influence across the continent

This essay was produced in partnership with UNDP’s Imagine Nigeria report team.

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