Rebranding Nigeria: Good
people, great country.
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Nigeria's new information and
communications minister, Dora Akunyili says: "I know everything
is not perfect with Nigeria. I know we have problems with
energy, roads and other things. But is there any country that
does not have problems? If we wait to fix all these things
before working on a positive image for Nigeria, we might as well
wait till eternity." Osasu Obayiuwana went to interview her.
Q: You built an excellent reputation for yourself as the head of
Nigeria's food and drugs control body, so many people expected
you to, naturally, become minister for health. But you are
currently the minister for information and communications. How
did you react to what was obviously a surprise appointment?
A: To tell you the truth, when the appointment was announced, I
literally broke down, because I did not expect it. But a few
minutes afterwards, I got myself together and reminded myself
that nothing happens without God's approval. For weeks and
months, I had prayed to God that he should not let me go where
he would not be. And I also told him that if I am not able to do
better in any new assignment than I did at NAFDAC [the food and
drugs control body], I should not go there. So, after praying
for so long and ending up where I am now, I am convinced that it
is God's will that I am in this position and I have to make the
best out of it.
In my first interaction with the media after the appointment, I
was asked why I was in this post, as they said Nigerians were
angry about my appointment, and how was I going to manage the
image of Nigeria. I just spoke straight from the heart and said
we just have to make Nigeria a good product, as you cannot sell
a bad product.
As you have rightly implied, Nigerians
trust me so much and I do not want to play with that trust. I
have vowed that [as minister for information] I will never tell
any lies to Nigerians, who have always believed that this
ministry has always been one for propaganda. I promise that this
is an era when this ministry will give them accurate, credible
information ... We need to bridge the gap between the government
and the governed.
I will also fight corruption in all its forms, which is why I
told my staff that any of them who had taken free mobile phones
and free digital satellite dishes and decoders from companies
selling them had to return them before the end of February. This
was to enable us to have the moral standing to carry out our
oversight functions. The areas I have to oversee in my ministry
are huge. In telecoms, we have had a boom over the last seven
years but the quality of service has not been the best. The cost
of services being provided is really on the high side.
Considering the fact that we have a huge population, one expects
that phone calls should be cheaper. An immediate task [for us]
has been how to get the telecoms companies to reduce their
tariffs and improve their quality of service, especially
lessening the rate of dropped calls [calls that do not go
through or are interrupted], number portability, and other
issues relating to the quality of service.
As the chief image-maker of Nigeria, I am not just responsible
for the image of the government but that of the ordinary
Nigerian outside this country. Our image outside this country is
pathetic. Every Nigerian is literally seen as a fraudster or a
criminal until you prove otherwise. And even in this country, we
do not even believe in ourselves. We have been so battered
[psychologically] that many of us believe we are no good.
But I am determined that something can be done about it
[repairing Nigeria's image]. For too long, foreigners have been
telling our story. We need to tell our own story; we need some
form of rebranding. We have had the "Heart of Africa" campaign,
but it did not work.
Q: Why did it not work? Millions of dollars were spent on that
A: Well, if it did work, there would be no reason for us to
deviate from it, as government is a continuum. But you see, even
the slogan, the "Heart of Africa", is contentious. Malawi has
been using this slogan long before us. Secondly, the 2004 launch
of the "Heart of Africa" project was done outside this country.
So the campaign is disconnected from the ordinary Nigerian. And
when the public does not connect with a government programme, it
will not work well. So I was convinced, after talking to my
staff and knowledgeable people, that we need to rebrand.
I know everything is not perfect with Nigeria. I know we have
problems with energy, roads and other things. But is there any
country that does not have problems? If we wait to fix all these
things before working on a positive image for Nigeria, we might
as well wait till eternity [before embarking on a rebranding
campaign]. Look at Angola. They have come out of war and have
successfully launched the "Angola, I believe" campaign.
Perception is everything.
We cannot rebrand successfully unless we have a slogan from the
Nigerian people, not copied from another African country. So we
had a competition in which Nigerians were asked to submit
slogans and logos of their choice and at the end of it, we
picked the best one: "Good people, great country."
We launched the campaign in mid-February and the president
unveiled the new logo and slogan on 17 March, during which he
honoured the composer of the national anthem and the author of
the national pledge.
For us, it is important that we continue to take this campaign
to the grassroots, so that we remain on the same page with
Nigerians. As long as we do that, they will fly with what we do.
I know this, because of what I did when I was with NAFDAC. Once
they believe in a campaign, they will take it over.
Q: There are a lot of people who think you are on a mission to
nowhere. Isn't the best way to rebrand Nigeria to ensure that
the country's basic infrastructure and system in general work?
If that happens, non-Nigerians who see these evident changes
will be your best ambassadors ...
A: I have heard this before. As we are providing these
facilities, nothing prevents us from showing the good things we
have done already. That's what rebranding is all about. We are
not all criminals, there are good things happening in this
country. We have good places for foreigners to see. Everything
is not negative, down and out. Angola has come out of war and
they did not wait for everything to be okay before rebranding. I
have been to South Africa and right from the airport, you have
to hold your bag close to your chest, because of the level of
criminality. But they have rebranded and they are proud of their
country. We are still going to strive as a government to deliver
the goods to our people and at the same time complement this by
projecting ourselves in a better way to the outside world. What
people think of Nigeria and what we actually are, are two
different things. Six foreign ambassadors in Nigeria have told
me that what they have seen of Nigeria and the perception they
had before coming, are completely different.
This campaign will also help our people regain confidence. What
I promise is that there will be transparency and accountability
in this rebranding campaign. Starting from June/July, we will
publish full accounts of what is spent on this rebranding
campaign. I understand why Nigerians are sceptical about these
campaigns, but we just have to keep moving.
Q: I must ask you about the perception ordinary Nigerians have
of President Yar'Adua. Many feel he does not speak often, is
rarely seen in public and is not responding quickly to the
yearnings of the people. There is a feeling of dissatisfaction
in the air. Do you feel the president is misunderstood?
A: I think the president has already addressed this issue. At
the beginning of the year, he talked to us as a country and said
he is going to fast-track government activities. This means he
appreciates that the pace of work is slow. He has consistently
told us in cabinet of the need to fast-track government
activities, so the people can feel the presence of government
[in their lives]. He has also told us of the need to fight
corruption and follow the rule of law and due process.
This president has his own style. He may not be someone that
likes to talk every day but it is important to note that he has
given ministers the required authority to drive the process of
government. That is as important as him coming out to talk every
day. This is what I believe. As a minister, I have a free hand
to do what is necessary to move things forward. It is not
critical for him to be talking every day. If it is his style to
talk every day, there is nothing wrong with it. But if he has
empowered his ministers to do their jobs, that is good enough.
Q: There is no doubt that the lack of sufficient and regular
electricity in Nigeria is a huge problem. And the telecoms
companies insist their high tariffs are a direct result of
having to generate their own power. What is your response to
this? A: Have you also heard that the kind of money that they
make in Nigeria in one year, they may not make in a developed
country in 10 years? Despite all these challenges, they are
making a kill in Nigeria. They are making so much money that
they have no reason to complain at all. I am not saying that it
is okay for them not to have electricity or to spend so much on
security, what I am saying is that they are making huge returns
on their investment.
As a government, we are working very hard to improve the
country's infrastructure and the level of security, especially
in the Niger Delta. I will not go into specifics regarding
energy, because I need to be briefed by the minister for energy
regarding their activities. But I can promise that very soon, we
shall come out with information as to what they have done and
what will be done to tackle the issue of energy.
In fact, we need to do a better job of communicating to
Nigerians what the government is doing to improve the lives of
the people. There has been a vacuum in this regard. As a
minister, it is my responsibility to bridge this gap.
Q: You know ordinary Nigerians have never had any trust in their
governments. They feel those in government never tell them the
truth, do not care about their plight but are mostly concerned
about their (ministers') own interests and that of the elite.
How are you going to convince them that this government is any
A: The Nigerian people trust me and maybe that is why I am in
this position. The president has placed me here to change that
perception. Nigerians believe in what I tell them and I have
also said I will never lie to them. I will not betray that trust
that they have in me.
You are right, the people have had little or no trust in their
governments. The distrust is very deep and has been caused by
long years of military dictatorship when the people were
deceived over and over again. They have reached a point where
even when the government tells them the truth, they do not want
to hear it. 1 am appealing to the Nigerian people that we are in
a new era and they should start believing in government again.
This is the only country we have, and we must salvage it
If the [Nigerian] people believe in me, they must also believe
in the government that I am serving. I will never lie to the
people and it is on that basis that we are going to establish
trust between the government and the people. For the next two
years that I will be in this position, information will be made
public in a responsible and truthful manner.
Q: Democracy in Nigeria cannot grow without electoral reform. It
has taken nearly two years for the president to be confirmed in
his post and some governors had been in office for nearly two
years before their elections were overturned and the rightful
winners sworn into office. With Nigerians demanding
transparently credible elections, can you guarantee that the
reforms recommended by the panel headed by the former chief
justice, Mohammed Uwais, will be implemented in full?
A: Let me say that it took a lot of courage for the president to
admit, on the day of his inauguration, that the election that
brought him to office was flawed. It is not easy for an African
leader to do what he did. It shows transparency, humility and
The committee headed by Justice Uwais has submitted its report,
which is a good one, and the government subsequently set up a
committee to come out with a white paper, which is the normal
practice everywhere in the world. We are still deliberating on a
final position, but in the end we will come up with a result
that will satisfy the Nigerian people.
By the way, we have adopted a majority of the recommendations in
the report, amended a few of them and introduced some things.
The final result will help us to have more credible elections
and reduce post-election tension in the country. However,
everything we [the cabinet] do is subject to what the National
Assembly will do.
Q: As a minister, you have now become a politician, as opposed
to your previous job, which was in your area of professional
competence. You are in a totally different terrain ...
A: You know what? People hardly realise that my previous job was
a political post, because I handled my job in a professional
manner and it was in the area of my core competence. I have been
in politics since the early 1990s, being appointed to one
position or another. But I believe, as a manager, if you have
the fundamentals of management, you can be successful wherever
you are sent to. What is important is not just my field of study
but commitment and believing in this country. The trust
Nigerians have in me makes me the right person for this post. I
know that it is the trust that Nigerians have in me that has
made them give the government a chance on this rebranding
project. They know I will never deceive them on purpose.
Q: An assassination attempt was made on you because of your
fight against fake drugs. Your children refused to publicly
acknowledge you as their mother, to protect themselves from
kidnappers. Your family has gone through hell. Has serving
Nigeria been worth it? A: You know, sometimes I do not even want
to remember what I went through. But suffice it to say that it
is a miracle that I am alive to tell the story. I was always
praying that they would not kill me. But they shot at me, the
bullet shattered my scarf and burned my scalp. It was like a hot
water burn. It was too close and it is unbelievable that I
survived it. Even after that shooting, my family wanted me to
leave the job. But I was convinced that it would be more
dangerous for me out of that job.
I could only leave that job if I could leave the country the
same night. Staying in that job, I had security from the
government. If I tendered my resignation, as I kept telling my
family, it meant I had to leave the country that night. These
criminals are still very bitter towards me because I ruined
their businesses and felt that it was me, rather than the
system, that was their problem.
But what is most painful about the shooting is that since 26
December 2003, when it happened, the case is still in court
today. Despite all the evidence presented before the court, the
matter has not been concluded. My children were scared about
what could happen to me. In fact, my son who was at Igbinedion
High School (in Benin City) was almost kidnapped by two hefty
men, but was quick enough to tell them that he was not my son
but my nephew. I felt really pained when I heard that.
My husband used to hide a lot of things from me, in order to
reduce stress. It was when I wanted to go to Benin City to see
my son, that he [the son] sent a message that I should not come
because he had convinced people that I was not his mother. He
was my only child in the country but after that attempted
kidnapping, he went to join his other siblings in the USA, as I
had won the American Visa lottery in 1996.
My second daughter also participated in the "Idols" singing
competition and when she was asked if she was my daughter, she
simply said that I was a relative! When I asked her why she did
that, she said: "Ah mummy, to acknowledge you publicly is too
dangerous. It is better for me not to associate with you
My last child is 21 years old, so they are all adults. But I
miss them, as I see them only once a year. It is my husband I
feel for the most. But as he is a medical doctor and loves his
job, he manages not to feel too lonely. He visits once in a
while. I have no regrets though for serving my country,
especially in the war against fake drugs, which was very
personal for me. My favourite sister died as a result of being
given fake insulin.
Q: What's the difference between working with the former
president, Obasanjo, and the incumbent Musa Yar'Adua?
A: They have completely different personalities. President
Yar'Adua is a very quiet but very effective person. But I am
working in completely different capacities, so it is difficult
to compare. I am now working directly under him, whilet I only
worked indirectly under President Obasanjo, as I had ministerial
Q: What would you regard as "mission accomplished" in this job?
A: If we are able to carry out this rebranding campaign to a
point that it becomes a movement for all Nigerians, then I will
say that I have succeeded. If I am able to get the telecom
operators to deliver better and affordable services, then I will
say I have succeeded. If I am able to get our Nigerian
Television Authority to improve, even if it's not up to the
level of the CNN but something close to it, and also improve the
state of our radio stations and post offices, as well as our
national archives, then I should be able to say I have
Q: When you are not working, how do you relax?
A: One thing I find difficult to do is to tell lies, because
they are difficult to keep pace with. I don't have any form of
relaxation, unfortunately. That's why my staff are very angry
with me and insist I must get enough rest. I only listen to the
nine o'clock network news. I have to admit that it is getting
very bad. Because of the level of stress I have been under for
so long, it has been very difficult to rest.
Q: Don't you think it is time to acquire some new habits?
A: I don't know ... Maybe when I retire. Pray for me ... [she
bursts into loud laughter] ...
Q: You will return to being a private citizen one day. What are
your post-government plans?
A: My family has an NGO called the Paul & Grace Foundation. I
would like to make it bigger. The NGO provides food, medical
treatment and clothes for the poor. I want to serve the poor
because as a little girl, my parents sent me to our village and
I lived with poor people. I have experienced poverty but I know
what it is like to live in plenty, because my father was a very
rich man. I empathise with the poor, I want to retire early so I
can work for the poor. I would not want to remain in government
after I am 65 years old.
Q: What would you want to say to the international community
that they have never heard before from a Nigerian information
A: I am appealing to the international community to please give
us a chance. Do not paint Nigerians with the same brush. We are
not all criminals. There are many good people in this country
that would never agree to be compromised, even at gunpoint. Yes,
we have some miscreants but they should remember that they are
in the minority. We are working hard to fight corruption, as
evidenced by the two anti-corruption bodies [the ICPC and the
EFCC]. We are bent on giving Nigeria a better image than it has