By Peter Burdin – CNBC Africa
Is it time to reimagine Nigeria?
It’s Africa’s largest economy and hosts some of the world’s largest proven oil and gas reserves. It’s poised to double its population to 400 million by 2050 and is home to a vibrant culture famed for its music, arts and literature.
According the UK’s Department of International Trade the potential of Nigeria’s “markets, human capital and natural resources is enormous”. Nigeria also has more than its fair share of social, economic and humanitarian difficulties, and its those challenges that are usually uppermost in our minds when we think of Nigeria.
It’s not difficult for international media outlets to produce a catalogue of bad news. The focus on difficulties can, and I would argue has, produced a distorted picture, one that is overly negative and overlooks some of the reasons to feel positive about the country and its development.
The focus on Nigeria’s difficulties is hardly a symptom of a cynical ‘bad news sells’ mindset – far from it. Rather it is because such stories are easy to cover. When it comes to terrorist attacks or natural disasters, they are immediate and newsworthy. Tales of economic difficulties conform to a stereotype, one that is neatly packaged into reports by international institutions.
Counterbalancing the dominant media narrative with success stories of Nigerian entrepreneurship and innovation, or of figures that are leading the country’s global cultural success, is simply more difficult. They are often stories of gradual progress, or on a smaller scale. In an era of squeezed revenues and budget constraints for media organisations, more resource-intensive stories can get drowned out.
Telling more positive stories about Nigeria is, however, essential. Perceptions in our world count for a lot and perceptions of success can stimulate progress. For that reason, positive developments, whether economic, cultural or political, should carry more weight in our media.
In Nigeria, there are so exciting many stories to tell. The country’s tech start-up scene is one of the fastest-growing in Africa, led by Lagos which can claim to hosting the closest thing to Silicon Valley in Africa. No wonder Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg is investing heavily in Nigerian Tech Incubators.
Nigeria is arguably the beating heart of African culture on the world stage. Nigeria’s ‘Nollywood’ film industry dominates the continent – it is second largest in the world, bested only by its Indian cousin. Meanwhile, Nigerian music has exploded across the world led by international stars like Burna Boy.
You might think that a tendency to cover negative stories doesn’t matter. But it has real-world, damaging consequences. When international media outlets fail to see the wood from the trees in countries like Nigeria, so too can international investors, governments and other institutions. In fact, an unflinching spotlight on a country’s challenges can have a stifling effect on efforts to solve them.
Take the example of terrorism, with which Nigeria has struggled in the past decade due to the emergence of the Daesh-aligned terrorist group, Boko Haram, and more recently the proliferation of armed bandit groups. The horrendous abduction of schoolchildren in Nigeria received media attention all over the globe in 2014. Yet such mass kidnappings continue to this day, and within the last week nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from a school in north-western Nigeria, in Zamfara state.
These atrocities are committed by armed bandit groups, and international media focus on terrorist attacks has in many ways made life more difficult for authorities who are under even greater pressure to pay ransoms to the armed groups responsible.
Negative perceptions of a country can also depress foreign direct investment. Even before Covid-19 hit, foreign direct investment into sub-Saharan Africa was on the decline, falling 10% in 2019. In Nigeria, capital in-flows declined by a whopping 91% when the pandemic struck. In a country that desperately needs foreign money to support infrastructure development and to seed capital for its fast-growing start-up community, a relentless drip of news about the security situation without the counterbalance of reports on positive developments is highly damaging.
The bad news cycle also percolates up to the top-level of government.
As Dr Nicholas Westcott, Director of the Royal African Society, pointed out in the Financial Times recently, Africa is excluded entirely from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan for an expansion of June’s G7 to become a ‘D10’ democracy summit. Mr Johnson saw fit to invite Australia, India and South Korea but not two more of the world’s largest democracies – Nigeria and South Africa, both of whom are larger than Australia. Their exclusion is a diplomatic oversight that undermines the credibility of the initiative from the outset. It is also a missed opportunity to elevate countries that can show a path forward for other nascent democracies in Africa this century. But it also reveals a mindset that media narratives help to sustain: that Africa is a box of problems that is best left to one side.
-Burdin, is the BBC’s former Africa Bureau Chief