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District 9: Deconstructing Brand Nigeria

Not a few Nigerians were incensed with Oprah Winfrey when she maligned Nigeria and Nigerians in a TV discussion about the global scourge of cyber crimes. In an attempt to lend credence to her inflammatory pronouncement, Oprah purportedly played the video clip of a popular Nigerian hit-track that celebrates cybercrimes (Yahoo-Yahoo) to millions of viewers hooked on to her Oprah Winfrey Talk Show worldwide. Whatever that meant, I believe Oprah is entitled to her own opinion.

Only last week, Sony Corporation issued an apology to Nigeria over a TV commercial for its latest PlayStation which attacks with innuendo, the reputation of Nigerians. The Sony apology came shortly after Nigeria’s official image maker, Information and Communications Minister, Prof. Dora Akunyili issued a release condemning and demanding an unreserved apology from Sony Corporation. Good for Nigeria and kudos to Madam Dora, Sony has withdrawn the commercial, but not before it had been posted on YouTube, entrenching our global reputation in the liminal limbo between death and dying.

And just as Nigerians were still smarting from the attack delivered by the Sony advert came a new assault, this time from the world’s movie capital – Hollywood. In District 9, a 2009 science fiction directed by Neill Blomkamp, written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, and released on August 14, 2009, Nigerians are portrayed as voodoo experts, gangsters, drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, cannibals and an unintelligent bunch of weapon traffickers. For the sake of our cinemas, let me avoid a sheepish regurgitation of the plot within this discourse.

I saw District 9 on the evening of September 9, 2009. Shot on location in Chiawelo Soweto, South Africa, District 9, apparently another Hollywood sell-abroad in the league of movies like the famed Indian Slumdog Millionaire, grossed $US 37 million on the weekend of its release and has been attracting reviews some of which have critiqued it for its apparent selection and demonization of the Nigerian people. This is where I have a problem. Whether the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Sony and now Neill Blomkamp acted in good faith or whether they were right in their assertions about Nigeria is first, not as important, as telling ourselves the truth about Nigeria and the need for us to do something serious about it. Before we be begin to roar in outrage, before we begin to call for the heads of those who amplify our national notoriety, let’s do a bit of introspection here. Are we truly not what they say we are?

Talking about cyber crimes (Yahoo-Yahoo), we rank third globally. Corruption nko? Until Nuhu Ribadu appeared on the scene in 2004, Nigeria was globally reputed as one of the most corrupt nations of this world. Sadly, in the last one year, Nigeria has begun a steady relapse into the dark days of the past. Or is it prostitution? Let us leave Italy out of this matter. Our electoral process is reality stranger than fiction! Since independence, our leaders have been powerless about the power issue plunging the entire nation, particularly our manufacturing sector into the recklessness of fruitless darkness. Our terrible roads are probably too long an issue to discuss here. Or is it our sharply declining per capita income or lazy theories of seven sleeping agendas? Maybe we should talk about the deprived communities of the Niger-Delta and the resultant carnage unleashed upon us by militant youths who should be in school to make their families and our nation proud. Tell me; where else in the world do people get slaughtered over cartoons they know absolutely nothing about?

It is this same Nigeria of rock star bankers in shiny suits and armoured car convoys dishing out may-God-forgive-them loans in billions of dollars to their friends, families and well-wishers. It is this same Nigeria where people live and die to understand that the police who ought to protect them could indeed, be their worst enemy. Can we just wake up from this lame sentimental slumber and picture a country whose Minister of Education wasted over 150 million naira on his birthday and wedding anniversary party at the Transcorp Hilton in Abuja while millions of Nigerian undergraduates are wasting away at home over government’s inability to provide better welfare for university lecturers? And then, when some overfed over-inspired overseas buffoon begins the lame game of name-calling, we cry blue murder! Are we not worse than what they even call us? Has our own Nollywood not portrayed Nigeria and Nigerians in far more injurious perspectives than this Hollywood flick we have made so popular by our untamed crocodile tears?

More worrisome is how far all these will go to validate the doctrine of rebranding Nigeria. These are perhaps some of Madam Dora’s brightest moments. And for all the self-styled consultants and apostles of branding and rebranding Nigeria, this is one glorious opportunity to step up their game; sell new ideas to the government, and get paid the Abuja way – all at the expense of taxpayers’ money. “Why I dey vex? Is it my money?”

If Nigerians can devote the same amount of energy and attention they expend on ignoble distractions like District 9, Nigeria will have moved a few more miles away from Hades. Our worst enemies are not the Oprahs, the Sonys or Blomkamps of this world. We are our own greatest enemies, and interestingly too, our greatest messiahs.

Regardless of the foregoing, for whatever it is worth, I am averse to the creative recklessness of Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, director and writer of the movie District 9, respectively. If it was contemptuous labelling the gang of neighbourhood terrorists in District 9, Nigerians, it was far more distressing calling their leader ‘Obasanjo’. At its best, this was creativity debased and by all means a demonization of our cultural dignity and identity.

By singling out Nigerians and the immediate past president of the country for such undesirably bizarre and stereotypical castings, District 9 comes crashing down the pedestal of ‘great’ science fictions placing the movie at the very heights of self-conceited racial prejudice. Coming from a South African director, and viewed from the lens of prevailing socio-political and cultural realities in the African continent, one can hardly deracinate its thematic preoccupation from its hideous xenophobic expression. Whatever good, satirical or allegorical outcome the makers of this movie planned to achieve, they rubbished with their audacity of slanted imagination.

By daring to depict the world’s largest conglomerate of black souls in such despicable candour, Neill Blomkamp plunges his audiences globally, into the paradox of distorted worldviews of not just Nigeria, but South Africa and the African continent as a whole. Let somebody remind the young South African director that this same Nigeria produced Africa’s first Nobel Laureate for Literature, the legendary Prof. Wole Soyinka. Philip Emeagwali, regarded as one of the fathers of the Internet, is a Nigerian. The Chinua Achebes, Emeka Anyaokus, Gamaliel Onosodes, Nuhu Ribadus, Chimamanda Adichies, and the Asas of recent memories are not from space like Blomkamp’s aliens in District 9. They are all Nigerians. Ikponmwosan ‘IK’ Osakioduwa, current host of the Big Brother Africa TV show ongoing in South Africa, is a young Nigerian. It is also on record that a Nigerian university, the University of Ibadan emerged winner of the recently concluded Zain African Schools Challenge. But all these are facts, the Oprah Winfreys, Sonys and Neill Blomkamps of this world chose to ignore because the good among us have allowed the bad and the ugly to take prime positions in our fatherland. Perhaps, more instructively, this is a lesson to future filmmakers.

For us as Nigerians, we have a long way to go. We are the embodiment of aspiration, audacity, ability and achievement in the entire African continent but we have this constantly nagging challenge of good governance which has brought the nation to its very knees since independence. Today, the way out may not be etched in a bloody revolution. No, maybe not yet. But before us, especially my generation of young people lies a formidable opportunity to kick out our bad leaders using the ballot box. If we can get it right with the quality of candidates that emerge as our leaders; if we can identify our potential leaders as candidates and begin to mobilise for them; if we can register to vote at the polls; if we can stay with our votes to ensure that they count, then the good men can have a chance to emerge and clean up decades of rot and rubbish in both high and low places. Then we will have no need for rebranding; we will begin to receive befitting welcomes in airports world over; we will have good, great movies named after us. Then, our story will become an inspiration to the world.

Ohimai Godwin Amaize
September, 2009

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