Does Nigeria have an image problem?

Lagos carnival participants - Nigeria, 2012

Related Stories

Some years ago, a British filmmaker discovered an exotic site in Nigeria: An entire community of human beings subsisting on mountains of refuse.

And not in some remote state, but in Lagos, the country's commercial nerve centre - a city of fast cars, luxury shops and sleek folk, with women in Brazilian hair weaves and men in Ferragamo shoes.

Shortly after the Welcome to Lagos series aired on the BBC in April 2010, Nigerians around the world went berserk.

"There was this colonialist idea of the noble savage which motivated the programme," Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka said of the documentary.

"It was patronising and condescending," he added.

Start Quote

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

The Nigerian just has to kick up a tornado whenever he is perceived unpalatably”

End Quote Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

Nigeria's High Commissioner to the UK Dalhatu Tafida described it as "a calculated attempt to bring Nigeria and its hard-working people to international odium and scorn".

Online forums also went ablaze. "They are giving us a bad image," many Nigerians fumed.

Then the Lagos State government submitted a formal complaint to the BBC, calling on the organisation to commission an alternative series to "repair the damage we believe this series has caused to our image".

These patriots were not distressed that their compatriots in the oil giant of Africa were living in such squalor - that development had somehow eluded those Nigerians.

They did not rally with cries of: "There are people in our country living like this? What shall we do? How fast can we act?"

No, no, no.

The majority of voices were harmonised in one tune: Anxiety over their country's image.

line
Nigeria in a word
  • BBC Africa asked people to describe Nigeria in one word using the hashtag #onewordnigeria. This is a word cloud of the responses:
Graphic word cloud showing short descriptions of Nigeria
line

Similarly, Nigeria was reluctant to accept desperately needed foreign assistance to fight terrorism, despite the country's armed forces being clearly overwhelmed.

We were more worried about how requesting help might affect Nigeria's image than about forestalling the wanton destruction by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

In October 1960, Nigeria was loosed from the shackles of imperialism when the colonialists packed their bags and left.

Africa Debate banner

Tune in to the BBC World Service at 1200 GMT on Friday 27 June to listen to The Africa Debate: Is Nigeria ready to lead Africa? It will also be rebroadcast that day in Africa at 1900 GMT.

To take part on Twitter - use the hashtag #BBCAfricaDebate - Facebook or Google+

But over five decades later, Nigerians remain in captivity: Foreigners control our self-image.

What the West thinks of us often takes manic precedence over who we really are, what we know and feel about ourselves.

The Europeans who first landed in Africa were unconcerned when the people they regarded as monkeys equally assumed that the white interlopers were ghosts.

The Germans can shrug it off when they are stereotyped as humourless; the Russians can dismiss it when they are described as cold.

But the Nigerian just has to kick up a tornado whenever he is perceived unpalatably.

He is touchy because he has no alternative image on which to base his confidence.

Like many Africans in the diaspora, a number of Nigerians abroad have erected careers out of defending their people's image.

With indignant frowns and stern tones, they strut from one global stage to the other like superintendents, dismantling stereotypes and whitewashing sepulchres.

A woman having her hair done at a hair salon in Lagos Island, Lagos, Nigeria - April 2014 Lagos is home to a burgeoning middle class....
Children playing in the Makoko slum in Lagos, Nigeria (Archive shot) It also has many poor suburbs to accommodate the rapidly expanding population of the city

This passion probably sprouts from a desire to blend into their host communities, to not be perceived as savages from some nihilistic jungle.

Unknowingly, they reinforce the subconscious message that has been passed down to generations of Nigerians and other Africans: That the West's opinion of us is paramount; that enlightening and convincing foreigners matters more than discerning who we are and who we want to be.

Fret and panic

And so, when the West claps for us, we get excited.

When they tell us off, we get upset.

When they applaud one of us, we automatically join in applauding the person.

We frantically monitor foreign opinions and we panic at the slightest hint of a negative perception of us.

Nigerian reading newspaper headlines in Delta State - April 2011 Nigerians are anxious about how they are portrayed in the international media

We fret about the many uncomplimentary stories from our land making the rounds on international media circuits, more than about the actual negative circumstances that birth those narratives.

From politicians to intellectuals to entertainers to terrorists, Nigerians have been socialised to rate themselves in the light of Western perceptions.

And as some of us have discovered first hand, the most effective way to draw the attention of our own people to any issue, is to speak to them through a Western medium.

It is unhealthy for a people's self-image to be hinged almost entirely on outside forces.

Nigeria expends too much valuable energy on sweeping dirt under carpets and stuffing skeletons inside closets.

Consequently, we deny ourselves the opportunity of frank dialogue, cultural criticism and self-examination—processes that are vital for a society to advance, by which the imperious West itself has developed thus far.

Nigeria can lead the rest of Africa in freeing our people from this image bondage.

line

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a writer and the author of I Do Not Come to You by Chance.

line

The Africa Debate - Is Nigeria ready to lead Africa?- will be broadcast on the BBC World Service at 12:00 GMT on Friday 27 June and again at 19:00 GMT in Africa - and will be available to listen to online or as a download.

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Africa stories

RSS

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • LollyFake flavours

    Artificial flavours are more complex than first appears. BBC Future investigates

Programmes

  • Dog wearing GoPro camera harnessClick Watch

    A camera harness for dogs, calls for more social media safeguards plus other tech news

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.