Media and Nigeria’s Soft Power Conundrum

Rafiu Ajakaye, CPS t

Media and Nigeria’s Soft Power Conundrum

Rafiu Ajakaye

I thank you for the honour of asking me to keynote this event. I also thank you for the rare privilege of asking me to speak to any issue of my choice as long as it touches on this noble profession. I have chosen to share with you my thoughts on ‘the media and the Nigerian soft power conundrum’. The title looks a bit complicated. But I’m in the midst of very experienced media professionals and so there is no point in me defining what the media is — including the fact that the term has taken on wider meanings within the context of the internet age. My use of the ‘media’ shall, in this discussion, include all shades of meanings that the media has assumed in the 21st century. In other words, the media will refer to the conventional print, broadcast or multimedia platforms, as it does to all variants of the new media that were birthed by the internet: Facebook, X (Twitter), instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, LinkedIn, TikTok, and all others.

All of these platforms serve to send messages to wider audiences in nanoseconds. In the process, media stakeholders determine what people read or see, shape opinions, and influence how people perceive or relate with any particular phenomenon. In all of these, the media can determine the fate of individuals, brands, nations, and the world.

Throughout history, different civilisations have developed the art of using the media to shape how they are seen by outsiders through strategic image laundering. This is in the realisation of the global race for scarce resources. From the East to the West, countries have also been intentional in determining what is available to their populations through the media. Most of the sleek videos we see about cutting-edge technology in China or elsewhere are excellent image laundering projects, perfected to constantly give certain impression of their society, thereby attracting capital investments, talents, and quality traffic to their tourist centres. Similar efforts are made to reduce to the barest minimum, or gloss over, what outsiders see of the imperfections of their society.

Today, how we see nations or brands have deftly determined our relationships with or perceptions of them. Such perceptions dictate many decisions we make everyday. Some countries have succeeded in projecting themselves as tourist havens, tax haven, bastion of democracy and human rights, destination for world-class education, friendliest business place, humanitarian support, the hub of technology, entertainment, beautiful culture and arts, best place for talent grooming, military prowess, or invincible security network. This outlook, or how we perceive them, has helped them to shape global opinion around them and anything concerning them. With it they get things done. Because of it, we are persuaded to act in a particular way towards them without any military force or threat. This, ladies and gentlemen, is called soft power.

The term soft power was coined in the 1980s by political scientist Joseph Nye Jr., who defined it as the ability of a country to ‘influence others without resorting to coercive pressure’. The Foreign Policy , a publication based in the United States, says soft ‘power usually originates outside government in places like schools, religious institutions, and charitable groups. It is also formed through music, sports, media, and major industries like Silicon Valley and Hollywood’.

Soft power could well be the alternative to brute force. It is, in fact, the opposite of raw military power. In between the two is what is called smart power, which is a combination of both. However, soft power is said to be more effective for nations to achieve their national interest on the global scene, rather than military force, which most times backfires and instigates hostilities against the invading force and their countries. Many examples attest to this.

But soft power is not built overnight; it takes conscious efforts and campaigns to get, and is achieved through national branding, which is a collective effort of everyone, especially the media. In a world driven by fierce competition for scarce resources, human and material, nations arm themselves with the right tools to be the top investment destinations. National branding comes in here. What do we want our country to be known for? How do we want outsiders to perceive our country? Let us be clear: there is no society that is free of violent crime, corruption, and other social vices. However, what nations do is to manage their reputations and embark on aggressive country brand to gain global relevance. Nations create a perception about themselves. This is not the exclusive duty of a government. Indeed, as has been mentioned above, soft power is better projected through the third party, especially the media. A nation is not the property of a government; it belongs to everyone living within its space.

Over the last two decades, and even since time immemorial, we have seen different nations of the world embarking on nation branding in different forms. The Incredible India campaign is an example. While it was launched in 2002 by the government of India, we have seen how Indians, irrespective of their beliefs and affiliations, have helped to carry the message to every corner of the world. Our television screen is blessed with different positive portrayals of India. And this has paid off as India has emerged from the ashes of poor reputations of its past. Essential Costa Rica is another great example of nation branding, as is Enterprise Estonia.

“The effect of a nation’s brand on its economy cannot be understated. While a nation’s brand certainly affects its tourism industry, the brand also has powerful effects on the value and volume of the nation’s products and foreign direct investment, which have a direct effect on the nation’s GDP,” David Reibstein said in a publication titled ‘Improving Economic Prosperity through nation branding’. Perception, which is a product of branding, means a lot in how a people are treated. It is immaterial that perception is not always the reality.

Esteemed colleagues, I am urging all of us to take ownership of the Nigerian brand. Our population is surging every day; yet we have limited resources to get everything we need, especially human capital and foreign investments in our economy. But we cannot attract the right investments and human capital if we do not project Nigeria as safe and right for all. If all we do is to record the vilest videos of unsavoury development and splash same on the internet or make it the banner headline that everyone sees across the world, we will be telling the world that our country is not safe. We can tell ourselves about our problems and work together to solve them or make scapegoats of the culprits. What we should stop doing is to put constant spotlight on the downsides of our society. No other nation does that.

Distinguished colleagues, deaths linked to violent crimes in Nigeria stood at 15,245 in 2022. In 2021, deaths associated with gun violence alone in the United States stood at 48,830, a 23% rise since 2019. But while Nigeria is often portrayed as a scary place to be, the United States is seen as a paradise where all is well 24/7. The difference is in the narratives that come with these statistics. While the US media establishments are quick to explain away the violence in their own country, sometimes calling it the acts of lone wolves or depression, the narrative here is often that this is happening because this is a failed system, ran aground by failed and corrupt governments.

The image we carve for our country is what sticks to it. If we call it a failed state because of its imperfections and crises of nation building, which are hardly exclusive to it, the result we get is what we call it. All of the nations we call the bastion of democracy or glamorise with every positives have or have had their own failings or down moments — perhaps worse than ours — which they paper over with nice narratives and excuses in their pursuits of national branding. British author Otto English aptly said this in his work titled Fake History: “The truth is that history is a contested space, and it always has been. It is a battleground of ideas, a place where different interpretations of the past jostle for supremacy.”

Now, I am neither asking the media to abandon its noble roles of being the watchdog of our society nor saying it should renege its duty as the fourth estate of the realm. But I am asking that we strike a deliberate balance between being journalists who report developments and being patriotic citizens and stakeholders who, along with our generations unborn, are also affected by whatever happens to Nigeria. If many cable networks in the ‘democratic’ west deliberately do not convey to the international audience everything that goes wrong in their society or frame such in manners that do not damage their national brand, I appeal that we also de-emphasise negative profiling of our country. I ask that we filter out to the global audience every little downsides of our society. As the Yoruba say, bi onigba ba se pe igba e, la o baa pe. Bi o nigba ba pe igba e ni akufo, a o pe ni akikara.

Esteemed colleagues, editors, and media stakeholders, what we call ourselves is how and what others will call us. Please let us endeavour to give ourselves and our country good names at all times. We owe it a duty and responsibility to ourselves and our children to stand by this country that has given us so much.

Thank you.

•Rafiu Ajakaye, Chief Press Secretary to the Governor of Kwara State, gave this keynote address at the Annual Press Week of the Correspondents’ Chapel (NUJ, Kwara State Council) in Ilorin on November 29, 2023

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