RETURNING to his country after an absence of more than a decade, a Nigerian friend said what had caught his eye first was the fact that Lagos had streetlights — and they worked. The streetlight project, which brings some light to a city of 15-million people, is one of the Lagos State governor’s early initiatives to start rolling back the decay of Nigeria’s commercial capital .
Street signs have been installed across Lagos, giving some self-respect to even the deepest slums, new public transport systems are running, litter is being removed for the first time in decades, and parts of the city are being greened.
Investors have responded positively to the governor’s “can do” attitude; new hotels, office blocks and roads are being built, development plans are being dusted off and international finance is being raised to fund them.
I was in the city last week to explore the possibility of replicating SA’s The Good News series with a similar publication on Nigeria at the invitation of a Nigerian optimist who believes it is time his countrymen started taking a different view of their country. A chapter on the improvements in Lagos State seemed like a good place to start.
But people responded to the concept with a mixture of surprise, scepticism and doubt. “What good news?” was a common refrain.
Where people did concede some positives, they quickly added that such examples were subsumed by the negatives and thus did not count for much. The struggle of daily life in Nigeria was such that people did not have the luxury to ponder those few small good things taking place, I was told.
My travelling companion, Steuart Pennington, founder of The Good News concept and publisher of the SA and Africa books in the series, is not surprised by this response. “Bad news is in your face; good news is incremental, often below the radar and easy to miss,” he maintains. His Nigerian partner believes the challenge is to coalesce all the pinpricks of light poking through the surface layer of darkness into a critical mass. But this process needs something to drive it. The media could be, but is not likely to be, such a driver.
Africans are quick to blame the western media for portraying the continent in a negative light, but we need to accept responsibility for the fact that our media tends to do the same. It is hard to find good news stories in Africa’s newspapers as most editors, like their foreign counterparts, subscribe to the view that bad news sells. This feeds the negative perceptions people have of their world — and international perceptions of the continent.
Thinking positively empowers people. Negative thinking blocks change. In Nigeria it is a mindset built up over years. It has become a coping mechanism, almost an old friend. And it feeds, rather than counters, poor governance.
The ministry of information is busy with campaigns to sell the country to both Nigerians and the international community. People generally dismiss these as “image laundering”. What is needed, they say, is action in areas that count.
There is no campaign big enough to counter the fact that Nigeria, a country of 160-million people, is forced to survive on 3000MW of power — compared with more than 40000MW for SA’s 48-million people. Nigerians do not want more government in their lives; what they want is more power — the electrical sort. The country hums to the beat of generators, a costly substitute for the defunct national grid. They also want law and order and infrastructure. If the government simply delivered on its promises, expensive branding campaigns would be unnecessary.
Nigerians may not have the power they need, nor the government they want, but positively acknowledging what they do have may start a process of renewal that will drive change. Nigeria is a country of large opportunity. Africa is a continent of great riches. The biggest barrier to realising the opportunities is not poor government, logistics, external scepticism or other such problems. It is the Afro-pessimism within Africa that blinds its own people to positive change.
Games is CE of Africa @ Work, a research and consulting company.