"I Want to Change How Nigerians See Themselves and How the World Sees Us"

Reno Omokri, founder of the Build Up Nigeria Project, speaks to Think Africa Press.
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Example to follow: Drs Isa and Amina Odidi of Intellipharmaceutics become the first Africans to open the Toronto Stock Exchange, having earlier opened NASDAQ.

Among many in the world - including Africans who rightly rail against stereotypes of their continent - there seems to be one country above others that it is permissable to repeatedly project sterotypes against: Nigeria.

The Build Up Nigeria Project (BUN) is a non-governmental initiative founded by Reno Omokri with the objective of promoting - and repairing - this image of Nigeria, both at a local and international level. Omokri told Think Africa Press about the reasons behind his setting up of Build Up Nigeria, and his involvement with i-Witness Nigeria, one of several social media platforms used by citizens to monitor and report on the recently concluded elections.

How was the idea behind ÔÇśBuild Up Nigeria' conceived?

I went to school in the United Kingdom, and I recall that when I wanted to rent a room as a lodger in a house in Walthamstow, in London, my landlady, a Sri Lankan, had serious reservations about renting the room to me on account of my being Nigerian. She said to me, "people in this country do not trust Nigerians". She eventually relented and rented the room to me only because according to her she did not want to stereotype, seeing as she had herself been a victim of prejudice. This experience stayed with me and did not sit very well. I did not want my children to be born into a world where such cynicism was attached to their nationality. I wanted to change the stereotype, but I was a student and my circle of influence was limited.

After my studies I moved to California with my family, and again I had to rent an apartment. The apartment manager met me and instantly took a liking to me because of my accent, which gave him the impression I was British. When he found out I was Nigerian, there was a change in his countenance and I noticed a subtle hostility. Eventually I asked him what he had against Nigerians and he said that, "he had heard...". This time I was prepared. I asked him if he had ever had any negative personal experience with a Nigerian, and he answered in the negative. So I encouraged him not to rely on the stereotype he had been fed by the Western media and to give me a chance to prove to him that the stereotype was wrong.

Well, I stayed at his complex for three years before buying my own place, and in that time I was his best tenant and never missed or was late on a payment, and I even carried out many favours for him. I successfully changed his impression about Nigerians, and I felt that if I could do it with two landlords in two continents perhaps I could do it with hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions.

That was how I got the idea to start up the Build Up Nigeria Project, through which I wanted to change first how Nigerians saw themselves and then how the world saw us.

What are the main goals of ÔÇśBuild up Nigeria'?

The main goal of the BUN Project is to project positive things about Nigeria that are already happening, and in so doing change the way Nigerians see themselves for the better. In other words I wanted to facilitate a paradigm shift. Then my second goal was to act as a catalyst in changing the stereotype the outside world has about Nigeria. Nigeria has a lot of positive things happening and I do not think we are selling ourselves enough. I want to sell Nigeria.

Why do you think negative stereotypes about Nigeria and Nigerians exist, and how does BUN go about changing such perceptions?

They exist because Nigerians are by nature rather cocky and this nature particularly stands out when they leave Nigeria. I will give you an example. At a function in Lagos in 2007, former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlins told a joke about a Ghanaian leaving the UK through Heathrow who was told by the immigration officers at the airport that his visa had expired. He was asked for an explanation and he began to stammer. It just so happened that a Nigerian passed by and his visa had also expired. He was also challenged by the immigration officers. The Nigerian responded by saying, "Who gave your forefathers visas when they came to colonise Africa? Please stamp my passport and let me get out of here!"

It is this "can-do attitude" of Nigerians that intimidates some Westerners. And Western nations have solid media organizations that can project their agenda, so the field is rigged against Nigeria because like many developing nations she does not have a strong voice within the international media. But that is changing.

And we should not delude ourselves - we also have issues. We have a miniscule portion of the population, a small syndicate involved in email scams and fraudulent activities, and this has been blown out of all proportion to make Nigeria a byword for scams. But like I said in my documentary " Fact V Fiction", if you combine all the monies lost by victims of email scams that have emanated out of Nigeria - a good number originate from other countries - it is still lower in value than the amount stolen by one man, Bernie Maddoff, an American. So crime exists in all countries and we really should exercise care in stigmatizing a country.

What have I done? I have tried to spread the truth in order to overtake propaganda by shooting short movies and documentaries, as well as interviews of Nigerians who are good role models. In doing that I am projecting the type of Nigeria you do not see in the mainstream Western media. I am giving voice to the unseen Nigerians who are tenaciously and creatively making headway in life under circumstances that would have overwhelmed the average Westerner. That is what I am doing. For instance, among other things, in "Fact V Fiction" I said that the wealthiest black person in the world is Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian. I was ridiculed and scorned, but apparently Forbes magazine listened to me and investigated - early this year they made it official when they listed Mr Dangote as not just the wealthiest black person in the world, but the 51st wealthiest man in the world. This is the type of thing that happens when you tell your story instead of having it told for you.

What are some of the negative perceptions you want to change?

I want the world to have an accurate image of Nigeria and Nigerians. I do not want to project a false image, and I will not be still and allow a false stereotype be sold to the outside world as our image. In a nut shell, I want to change the perception of Nigeria as a backward country full of corruption and crime. That is not true. By the recent admission of Henry Bellingham, an undersecretary in the Cabinet of British Prime Minister David Cameron, Nigeria is now the fourth fastest growing economy in the world. Nigeria may not be a "developed" nation, but with the largest internet connectivity rate in Africa and more mobile phones than any other African nation, she certainly is not a backward nation. She is a developing nation, moving rapidly towards progress. Granted, in some areas the pace is not fast enough, but such is life.

Also, every nation has crime. We live in a fallen world and that is a reality that modern man especially has to face. In Nigeria, especially in recent years, effort has been made to strengthen the rule of law, and crime is being checked. But just to put things in perspective, in Pakistan you have certain tribal areas of the country where the central government has no control whatsoever and has actually not penetrated for decades. In Russia, you have some serious organized crime syndicates that some say even run a parallel government. In some countries, known mafia figures have influence on the government. How come none of those countries have been stigmatized as Nigeria has?

Which three Nigerians would act as examples of role models for Nigerians in diaspora?

In government, I would say President Goodluck Jonathan, because he has brought a new ambience to the political scene in Nigeria. We no longer have a "big man" in power who looks down on the people he leads. We now have a listening leader whose disposition has injected hope into the polity. He would be my first choice.

And next would be in the area of business and commerce. Here I would recommend Aliko Dangote, who has projected the brand Nigeria in the private sector in Nigeria and many African countries. He has thousands of staff in West, East and Central Africa. It projects to the world that Nigeria is more than oil, because he is into commodities and cement.

Finally, I would also want to celebrate Dr Isa and Amina Odidi, founders of Intellipharmaceutics, a successful Nigerian-owned, Canadian-based pharmaceutical firm. This couple recently became the first Africans to have been given the honour of opening trading at both the NASDAQ and the Toronto Stock Exchange where their company's stock is listed and thriving.

How are Nigerians in the diaspora reacting to Build up Nigeria?

The idea has been accepted, and I am grateful to God and the Nigerian people on the mainland and the diaspora for embracing this idea. Just to give you an example, our movies and documentaries are very popular on YouTube and some of the actors are now mid-level celebrities.

Would Build up Nigeria support diaspora voting?

BUN is championing diaspora voting, and I can say with all confidence that this is an idea whose time has come. I am equally glad that President Jonathan did say last year and again this year that 2015 should experience diaspora voting.

What role did Build up Nigeria play in the just concluded Nigerian elections?

On the December 2, 2010, I interviewed Professor Attahiru Jega and asked him if he would be open to a platform which collated election results directly from the citizens in order that they could be cross-checked with the officially released INEC [Independent National Electoral Commission] results, and which could provide evidence of electoral malpractice. I have Professor Jega on camera saying that he was open to such an idea.

On the February 22, I was a panelist at the United States Institute of Peace, where I gave expert opinion on the situation of things in Nigeria. Before that August audience, I promised that working with my partners, we would come up with a sophisticated platform where Nigerians themselves could monitor the elections at their polling units and broadcast what they observed, including the results and any malpractices to the world via their phones and other internet-accessible hand-held devices.

My partners and I did live up to our word. Principally driven by the genius of Philip Adekunle, a Nigerian patriot and all-round information guru based in Illinois, i-Witness Nigeria was launched and did all that we promised it would do. So, to answer your question directly, BUN helped to ensure that the INEC's efforts were complimented by keeping the elections honest through citizen advocacy.

How important is social media and the internet in Nigeria's political life, given its role in the recent election? Do you think there is the potential for it to provide greater democratization of both politics and society?

Social media is very important, if not the most important medium in moving the youthful electorate in Nigeria. And in Nigeria's peculiar situation, the youths form a majority of the electorate so any one who wins the social media contest is going to win the contest on the ground.

In May, I was interviewed by Imam Imam of ThisDay. I told him that Facebook was going to play a pivotal role in the 2011 elections in Nigeria. Imam sounded skeptical.Well, in the fullness of time, the same Imam Imam was forced to write another article. This time he stated that the "prophecy" I gave in May had been fulfilled in just four months, when all the Presidential aspirants launched Facebook pages and aggressively used Facebook to communicate with the electorate and sell their ideas to them.

Today, it is a fact of history that President Goodluck Jonathan became the first world leader to declare his intention to seek the presidency on Facebook. More than once in the month of April, 2011, President Jonathan was included among the ten most trending subjects on both Twitter and Google. This shows the type of buzz that social media created in Nigeria. Not just that, after Obama, President Jonathan has the most Facebook fans of any president in the world. These are amazing facts that tell you where the new frontiers in campaigning are.