Ian Birrell: Never mind the rebranding – Nigeria needs rebuilding

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The Independent Online

Nigeria's minister of Information has launched a campaign to rebrand her country, attempting to lure foreign investors and tourists under the slogan "Nigeria: Good People. Great Nation". It is a valiant effort doomed to failure, just like the previous government's campaign ("Nigeria, Heart of Africa"). Not because the new slogan is wrong, but because this week's bloodshed will reinforce Nigeria's reputation as a dangerous land of crime and corruption.

As the violence dies down, the bodies are buried and security forces flood into the worst-affected towns and cities, there are now fears of a new Islamist front line, with lurid talk of Nigeria's "Taliban" fuelled by the fundamentalist group behind the stabbings and shootings. Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is a sin", want to see hardline Islamic law across the country.

In truth, this is just another sign of how successive governments have failed to tackle the poverty and problems that cripple a country which should be an emerging powerhouse, given the wealth of its resources and the vitality of its people. Violence flares up with sickening regularity. More than 10,000 people have died in sectarian strife since the return to civilian rule in 1999, with jobless young men manipulated all too often by political and religious leaders.

Take the tale of Ahmed Sani. Standing for re-election as governor of the crime-torn, mainly-Muslim state of Zamfara in 2003, he suddenly discovered religion, introducing full sharia law, urging the destruction of Christian churches and chopping off the hands of thieves. This led to riots, stonings, horrific bloodshed and nearly split Nigeria in two. It also got Sani re-elected; indeed, he nearly ran for President four years later.

Nigeria is a divided nation, the legacy of British colonial rule. The 140 million people estimated to live there encompass 250 ethnic groups. Half of the people are Muslim, most of the rest Christian. As in India, the British got on well with the Muslim nobles in the north and did deals to rule through them, while elsewhere the National Africa Company was allowed to run rampant, pillaging the wealth and exploiting the native people. Despite decolonisation, dictatorship and democracy, some would argue little has changed.

There had been hopes the end of military rule would mean an end to Nigeria's problems. No such joy. Umaru Yar'Adua, who became President two years ago after a dodgy election, promised political reform, an end to corruption, peace in the oil-rich regions of the Niger Delta and an improved energy system. One year later, turbines worth billions of pounds were discovered rotting away in ports because they could not be transported to the power stations. Meanwhile, electricity is a luxury in Lagos, just down the road from one of the world's largest oil fields. Piped water is a rarity and healthcare a disgrace.

When I was there last year, an American musician with me fell and sliced his lip open. A private hospital demanded £3,000 to stitch it up. At the public hospital, the matron angrily reproached him for travelling there without four armed guards, and then stitched up the wound, cutting the suture with a pair of broken, rusting scissors. The walls were filthy, and buckets of evil-smelling liquid dotted the floor. The musician, a tough guy from inner-city Chicago, blanched and offered up prayers.

Little wonder that polls have found Nigerians have less faith in politicians than other Africans. A Globescan survey in 2005 found only 15 per cent were remotely satisfied with their government, and 62 per cent very unsatisfied – more than twice as many as in Kenya, Angola and even Zimbabwe. And little wonder that most Nigerians hustle and bustle to survive, relying on themselves, their families, their churches and their kinspeople to get by.

A successful Nigeria could transform Africa. It is a country whose people have a dynamism and energy unmatched elsewhere. Instead, more than two-thirds of the people live in abject poverty and Angola has overtaken Nigeria as Africa's leading oil producer. On the face of it, this is because attacks by militants have cut production by about one-third. These attacks have spread, for the first time, to Lagos. But while the politicians talk, nothing has been done to tackle the desperate living standards and grotesque environmental damage of the delta region that ensures an endless supply of foot-soldiers for the militias. The attacks will continue.

Last week, the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka urged politicians to listen to the grievances of people in the delta. He was asked about the rebranding exercise. "If you own a rickety vehicle and only repaint it and put a new slogan on it, the engine will still knock," he replied. "What we've got to do in Nigeria is mend the vehicle, not to rebrand."

i.birrell@independent.co.uk

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