(Paper delivered at the 2019 Annual General Meeting of the Lagos Chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations(NIPR) on June 19, 2019)
I want to thank the Lagos chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations for giving me this unique opportunity to challenge our minds on the future of our country.
I also congratulate you on your Annual General Meeting. It gladdens the heart that organisations like yours, which if you permit my expression, warehouses the country’s best at perception building, is indeed thinking about the image of the country. This is coming during these unusual times when men, women and professional bodies are giving up on the country and pursuing their individual personal ends. I am confident that posterity will be kind to you for this.
You must have that noticed that I opened by saying that this meeting speaks to the future. I said that because what we present to people matters, and by people, I mean Nigerians (especially those we are bringing up now) and none Nigerians alike, would ultimately shape the future of the county.
Imagine a scenario where we allow all Nigerian children think that there is no hope for the country. We would most certainly lose them all to countries with better promises and such brain drain does no county good. If we were also to let foreigners see our country as that unworthy, unsafe one where anything goes, and nothing works, we would end up being an island, metaphorically speaking. A country that no one wants to travel to or do businesses with. And we can now ask ourselves whether we really aren’t already seeing snapshots of this type of future and if they reflect the kind of future we want for our country.
So, in speaking about “Projecting the Nigerian Narrative: The Role of the Media, PR and Politicians,” as I have been asked to, the first questionn I asked myself was whether there is really anything we can call a Nigerian narrative? And If yes, what could that be? Since I am someone who tries as much as possible to be honest with myself, I am still unable to convince myself that there is what we can call a Nigerian Narrative.
Of course, I am aware of the sentiment that a lot of our compatriots express about the need to project those things that bind us together rather than those that divide us. People say we should speak about the positive, creative and resilient energy of the average Nigerian instead of the negative energy of just a few amongst us that have sent the wrong signals to the outside world and I agree. But I do not think these suggestions which cannot even be said to be consensual are enough to qualify as a national narrative.
So, what is a National Narrative
The idea of a national narrative involves an all-encompassing ethnically or politically based story that unites a whole nation. Often, a national narrative is based on a widely accepted founding story. These forms of stories give shape to the beliefs, the aspirations and the sense of identity of national groups or nations as a whole.
According to enotes.com, in the United States of America for instance, people talk about two main national narratives, both of which are supported by history.
The first is America-First nationalism, which prioritises the American Constitution over international law. Some proponents of this narrative argue that the government should focus on employing American residents over foreign nationals while others think that the national budget should emphasise domestic, rather than international concerns in the military, political, and/or economic spheres.
There is also the globalised or multicultural narrative which recognises the identity of groups according to their descent. This philosophy is for open borders and places emphasis on a globalised, integrative view of immigration. Its proponents argue that America can only atone for its racist, hegemonic past by prioritizing inclusivity. This narrative emphasises identity politics over a homogeneous, nationalist ideal.
Every now and then, you see proponents of each of these narratives standing up to identify with their ideologies and protest policies and tendencies that contradict them.
One example of this took place on December 7, 2017 when thousands of people marched on the United States Capital to protest governments attempt to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy which allows some individuals, illegally brought into the US as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for work permits. These protests were precipitated by the revocation of work permits of undocumented immigrants by the Trump administration.
So, there are one or two codes that guide the conscience of the average American, something that unites the people and makes them believe in and even fight for their country.
The Nigerian Narrative
So, can we say Nigeria has such unifying ideology or ethic guiding the conduct and diposition of a significant number if not all our 180 to 200 million population?
Is it not true that things are not the way they should be in Nigeria? Is it not a matter of fact that we have for so many years run the country as a mono-product economy and that this product we depend on has now gone bust on us owing to our dishonesty and lack of creativity? Have ethnicity and religion, ordinarily objects of unity, not become weapons of manipulation in the hands of our elites? Are we not grappling with serious issues of insecurity marked by insurgencies and all forms of domestic conflicts?
Aren’t our people poor and our country grappling with such a huge burden of out-of-school children?
I am of course not competent to define the duties of public relations for this august gathering of practitioners, but I am aware that the ethics of your profession prescribe honesty and not spin. It is also trite that the media (and this is not just peculiar to Nigeria), is not by its nature expected to reflect anything other than how society is. And just like every human being, aren’t media men and women affected by what psychologists called negativity bias especially when you factor in the commercial instinct?
The Question of Patriotism
It is at this point that I am sure the question of patriotism will arise. Would anyone who wants to be truly honest with themselves say that there are no positive things about Nigeria?
Is it the incredible human capital that the country has been blessed with or the unparalleled accomplishments that our people are making daily across the globe? Do we not have abundant stories from the unusual natural resources that litter all over the country or the resilience and hospitality of our people? Is it the modest but steady progress that the President Muhammadu Buhari administration is making to change the culture of compromise and entrench integrity in our psyche as a people or the unprecedented multi-layered and massive deployment of state resources to reversing Nigeria’s infrastructural deficit? So there are indeed a lot of positive things to say about Nigeria to change the negative perception the world has about us even if for sheer patriotic reasons.
So, what is the problem?
This takes us back to point we started from. Does Nigeria have a national narrative? Is there something that binds us together as a people? Is there an ideology story or purpose with which every Nigerian can identify and for which we are willing to go the extra-mile? Do we have a common story as to the motivation of the founding fathers of Nigeria?
Is there a universal sense of love, devotion, mutual attachment and alliance with other citizens of the space called Nigeria that makes us feel like we have a common destiny?
Such ideas are the foundation upon which patriotism is built and it is this patriotism, rooted in ideas that in turn, gives birth to countries. I am saying that a country is not its natural endowments, it is not the rocks or the waters or the food that people eat. It is not even the people who occupy that country until they are at least united in one single or series of stories that inspire reverence for the sacrifices that their forebears have made on behalf of the geographical area they occupy. And until we can bring our country to a place where its people feel like one, there would indeed be no national narrative to project.
Blame the Political leaders
Of course, I can imagine that if we were to conduct a poll, nearly everyone in this room would place the blame for the situation Nigeria has found itself on political leadership. And when I say political, it does not matter whether it is military or democratic, we just would naturally conclude that Nigeria is where it is today because it has been unfortunate with leaders.
It is not a point I am about to contend because I agree that visionary leadership is indeed pivotal to the emergence and survival of nations. But while on that point, there is one thing I will quickly like to draw our attention to.
It is the fact that the Nigerian politician is not significantly different from the politicians in every other part of the world. I don’t know how many of us are familiar with what former French leader and Statesman once said about politician. He said: “politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.”
I would imagine that he is talking about the ability of the politicians to somersault, to manipulate situations in the favour of themselves and their parties, to steal from the resources of the people or exploit their primordial biases in their own favour.
James Freeman Clarke, an America theologian and author also once said that “a politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.” Issues that have played out on the United Kingdom and the United States lately would also show that politicians would do anything to survive and stay in reckoning. No society is therefore safe when it entirely puts itself at the mercy of politicians.
So, what do we do?
The penchant for politicians to want to survive is why political theorists from Locke to Hobbes, Hegel, Marx and Gramsci talked about the idea of a third sector of society, which should be independent of government and business. Even though a number of these thinkers settled for the civil society as third sector, this, in my humble opinion is where I think Media and Public Relations practitioners are most relevant.
Of course, the media already earned its place as the fourth estate of the realm, but we also know that any intervention that must make sustainable impact must be subjected to an analysis with eye on the possible consequences derivable and the effect that I think same would have on the generations of that society. Enter the public relations practitioner.
The power behind the throne of democracy in the world is not the politician but the citizens who have been vested with the rights to vote for people and vote them out. But for as long as we do not recognise this power and exercise it judiciously, it would be impossible to define what Nigeria represents to its people and get them to love her.
So here, in my humble opinion, is what I think the Public Relations and Media practitioner must do:
- Let the people know that there is no absolutely good or bad politician;
- Let the people know that they are an essential part of democratic governance and that they must not abdicate their role as a constant check on politicians without which democracy cannot grow.
- Find the thread of unity and promote same across the country.
- Draw people’s attention to the selfishness and hypocrisy of the political elite that promote the ethnic and religious division and use the people as cannon fodders.
- Constantly remind politicians of the oath that they took and the very important need to deliver a truly united Nigeria.
While I am confident that we have a lot of things to say to the world about our country, I think what the media and communicators should concentrate their efforts on currently is the integration of Nigeria, in making the people believe in their country and coming to an agreement on what national narrative we want to project to the world. We must have a country before we speak to the world.
Thank you for listening and God bless.
(Hadiza Bala Usman is Managing Director, Nigerian Ports Authority)