What Does the World Really Think of Nigerians?

As I walked into the restaurant of my hotel in Kigali for breakfast, I noticed there was no queue in front of the eggs-to-order stand. “Muraho”, I said to the chef with the confidence of a third time visitor to Rwanda. “Nimeza”, she replied in a kind voice that welcomed me while instructing me on the proper Kinyarwanda intonation. “Please, may I have two fried eggs, only slightly runny,” I asked? As she cracked the eggs on to the skillet with gusto, she asked, “Where are you from?” I asked her to guess. With each try, from Liberia to Sierra Leone to Cameroon, I nodded in disapproval. “Ghana?”, she eventually blurted with certainty. “No, I said.” Then I asked, in the same half-joking way any Nigerian – high on their horse and following a comparison to Ghana – would; “I’m Nigerian, how can you guess Ghana but not Nigeria?” Bemused, she flipped my eggs and declared: “You have no weave and no makeup on. How can you be Nigerian?”

Representation like these are often scanty in mainstream media

My initial shock turned to thought. I did a quick mental scan and realised that the major media materials churned out by Nigerians feature women with long, silky, Brazilian or Indian hair, with invisible lace fronts and the sort of flawless makeup that celebrity culture is made of. There’s nothing wrong with this picture until it becomes the only picture of the Nigerian woman. And if Nigeria were a factory, we are guilty of churning out “the same, the same” things. If you want to know how the world truly perceives your country, ask your taxi driver or breakfast chef in another country: they have no need to patronize you. The general perception of Nigeria in Africa is that she is that lottery winner in the family who hasn’t cashed the check but goes out of her way to look rich.

I started travelling across Africa in 2015, after I had already visited dozens of countries on other continents. The entire Africa is fascinating and no two countries are the same yet the culture shock in some aspects of Africa is alarming. One may expect the wild-eyed-wonder of Japanese villagers when they see a black person and the blissful ignorance of an Appalachian octogenarian when she asks to touch an afro. However, the true understanding of a country’s reputation comes from those who should know more about you but don’t. You can tell what people really think of you when you were not performing for them but they were watching you anyway. So, the celebration of Nigerian men by women across Africa is exciting until they sit down at happy hour, fueled by liquid courage, to unload their true feelings: “we love Nigerian men because they will spend a lot of money on us.” It conveniently perpetuates the image of Nigeria as rich, boisterous, big and perhaps reckless.

Eko Atlantic Futuristic Rendition

To be Nigerian is to be proud and for good reason. We are unequivocally the giant of Africa in terms of overall GDP and the prowess of our oil industry. Most Africans can point to Nigeria on a map of Africa and we are known for sending peace-keeping troops to war torn neighbors. We even successfully averted disaster on our shores during the ebola outbreak of 2014. We are leading the rates of smartphone penetration and startup investments on the continent. There are 200 million of us and our numbers can be a source of strength. Can be, because size is not everything. As countries open up their borders, they seem to be increasingly shutting them to Nigerians. In 2018, Tanzania removed Nigeria from the list of countries eligible for visa-on-arrival, the USA recently toughened its visa process for Nigerians, and Jordan has unofficially banned us. It begs the question: “is our sense of pride a bubble waiting to burst?” I am reminded of my primary school definition of currency as a unit that can be used to store and exchange value. Are we building a reputation that we can trade with beyond our shores?

Nigeria has two big exports; both intangible and both incredibly far-reaching. The first is entertainment. Nigerian music is poised on a global stage and if you hear Nigerian music, you will fall in love with it. Our biggest names are Fela, Tiwa Savage, Davido, Wizkid, TuBaba, Yemi Alade and Burna Boy. One of our sweet spots in music is Yemi Alade, who has single-handedly cornered the Eastern and Southern African markets with her pan-African style of music. The world’s largest gospel concert is The Experience – an annual festival of worship, song and prayer that brings 700,000 people together from around the world. Nigerian music is a low hanging fruit for PR and tourism and yet, we treat it as if it is just music. In a country worth its giant status, Nigeria should be hosting Experience – style music festivals frequently and tourists should be trooping in for the sort of lifetime musical experience that only Nigeria offers. Everyone I know who has visited Nigeria has raved about how exciting, safe and memorable it was yet majority of the world will not choose Nigeria because the visa process is complex, the perception of security is unsavory and “what’s happening in Nigeria?” they ask. When we can, we remind people that Lagos is just as safe as cities of its kind and size.

The second is a bit more understated; surprising for a country whose wheels do not turn without the oils of this phenomenon. Religion. Religion is easily Nigeria’s second largest export and we don’t seem to know it. Nigerians did not invent Christianity but like our shawarma and our jollof, we’ve rebranded it and given it the sort of character that can be found nowhere else in the world. Nigerian Christianity, all variations of it, is an opium to everyone who resembles us in any way. That’s Mexicans, Americans, South Africans, Kenyans, Brits, Gambians, Indians…anyone with a need.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) has tens of thousands of branches in 198 countries of the world. For comparison, DHL – the international courier company serves 220 countries and there is no other African company that has offices or branches in 198 countries of the world. In a similar fashion, Winners Chapel hosts the largest church by capacity at its 50,000 seater headquarters in Nigeria and I have been on only a handful of flights into Nigeria where there were no identifiable pilgrims to see The Prophet. In Nigeria, Prophet TB Joshua of The Synagogue is controversial but his followership abroad is cult-like. All three churches are headquartered only 30-45 minutes from the international airport in Lagos.

It is often said that perception is reality. This is true but incomplete. In fact, perception supercedes reality which is why you are more likely to think of Atlanta as a bustling tourist destination rather than the 9th most dangerous city in the USA. It is also the reason why Rwanda has intentionally invested in setting itself up as a leading tourist destination, haven for women empowerment, conservation maestro and emerging hub for enterprise and people forget that the president, as forward thinking as he is, has been ruling for 19 years. Perception is more important than reality and Nigeria is failing at taking charge of either.

This means that even though the most famous Nigerians are successful in fields as diverse as our festivals, if this heritage does not translate to general public perception, we cannot take those accolades to the bank. If the word ‘Nigerian’ does not evoke thoughts of the Nigerian tech revolution, Our Bobsled Team, Bennet Omalu, Alhaji Dangote, Lagos, Chinua Achebe and Academic Excellence, we need to focus on intentionally building a new narrative to combat the existing one. For clarity, I’ve intentionally listed only a handful of people or entities who identify as Nigerian. We are who we are and we do not need to be validated for our identity yet in a world of ever-growing connectivity, our image is only as valuable as who the world thinks we are. In other words, your brand or product is only as useful as what your customers perceive it to be and how much they pay for it. If you do not intentionally control your narrative, as nature abhors a vacuum, it will be created for you.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the biggest Nigerian-identifying household names in the world and even though her excellent literature speaks for itself, she’s wearing Nigerian brands for her public appearances and flying the flag high in ways that are stellar and world-class. Yet, she’s a bone of contention among many Nigerians. Everytime she speaks, Nigerians find a way to dissect the Nigerian-ness of what she has to say. We throw our best frontliners under the bus with reckless abandon and then wonder why the rest of the world does so too. In a world where we do not control our own media representation, we seem to always be at logger heads on the few platforms where we control the narrative. For example, Twitter. Nigerian Twitter is fun, wild and incredibly humorous and infact, I use Twitter to learn and build a thriving network. However, Nigerians don’t always know how to agree to disagree and nowhere is this more apparent than on Twitter during discussions of straightforward topics like “Yahoo Yahoo is a menace in our society.” The meme culture has turned everything – including opportunities to rebrand – into a joke. My friend refers to this phenomenon as ‘the kraksnification of content in Nigeria’ named after a popular platform for sharing short, hilarious clips. We are kraksnifying the soul of Nigeria. We like to laugh and we depend on comic relief to maintain our sanity as a nation but we don’t realize that like with Kraks, the world is no longer laughing with us; they are laughing at us.

As the world moves forward, we will need to strip ourselves of the entitlement that is built from old glory, reflect on our image, and objectively articulate a vision. We need to build a new mindset where content is paramount, the brand image matches this content and a Nigerian identity is intentionally reintroduced to the world.

‘Funmi Oyatogun is a vibrant explorer and travel entrepreneur at TVP Adventures; a company focused on leading people to their dreams by designing creative and meaningful travel experiences within Africa. She is also an experienced travel writer whose stories are focused on breaking through African borders, uncovering the historic stories of her people and places, and presenting first-hand information about tourism and adventure opportunities. She has been featured on the BBC, CNN Africa, Arise TV and many more renowned platforms. Follow her on Twitter (@funmioyatogun).