Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, August 12, 2016

Perceptions

Our perceptions and prejudices affect the way we understand things. How do we perceive Nigeria? What things influence our perceptions? Are well-off Nigerians right to worry about how Nigeria is presented in the media? Are they more worried about perceptions than reality?

Privileged Nigerians shouldn’t downplay poverty just because it makes us look bad
During a recent trip spent traveling across Nigeria, a banker friend of mine advised me to “keep things positive” if I ever shared my observations in “western media”. I pointed out Nigeria is currently in dire economic straits; many civil servants haven’t received a salary this year, pensions are going unpaid, people are struggling to feed their families and children are actually starving to death in the country’s north-east. “Writing about it won’t help those people. And you know negative western media stories on Africa only make these white folk and others look down on us,” my friend replied…

When it comes to western media coverage of Africa, the continent’s privileged classes are usually more concerned with the perceptions created than with the realities depicted. They find images of suffering Africans annoying because these “perpetuate negative stereotypes”. The actual suffering rarely elicits as much outrage as the fact it is being exposed for the world to see.

Meanwhile, whenever I chatted with regular Nigerians, once they heard I’m a journalist (in Europe), they’d say something like: “Make sure people over there know we are suffering here,”…

62.6% of Nigerians currently live in poverty, compared to 27.2% in 1980. Yet for some Nigerians, “balanced media coverage” amounts to talking up the latest individual success story as evidence that the country is “making progress”. What kind of progress sees the percentage of people living in poverty more than double since 1980?…

In 2014 the World Bank reported that Nigeria had the third highest number of poor people in the world. The then president Goodluck Jonathan bristled at the suggestion, saying: “If you talk about ownership of private jets, Nigeria will be among the first 10 countries, yet they are saying that Nigeria is among the five poorest countries.”…

Jonathan’s ludicrous response aptly illustrates the prevalent attitude within the privileged classes. It is a combination of denial bordering on the delusional coupled with a post-colonial hangover – emotional responses which attempt to shout down unpleasant statistics and imply that whenever the western world talks of African poverty, the aim is to paint the continent in a bad light.

Then there is the irritation stemming from the knowledge that the constant reports about violence, famine or dysfunctional governments, however well-intentioned, help nurture the racist-colonialist narrative that Africans are generally incapable of efficient self-rule. This is at once extremely frustrating and worrisome, especially for well-educated Africans who, as individuals, feel no less capable than their European or Asian counterparts…

Nigeria, being Africa’s most populous country and largest economy, remains its greatest potential. But the country’s privileged classes must first stop trying to downplay the extent of Nigerian poverty just because it makes us look bad. This is not just selfish, it is dangerous, for the poor are not going anywhere. On the contrary, their numbers are growing thanks to Nigeria’s current population boom. Add to this a ballooning youth unemployment rate and the 350 million illicit handguns the UN says are circulating in the country, and you have a ticking time-bomb.

It’s time the well-off in society stopped trying to sugar-coat Nigeria’s harsh reality and expect the status quo to continue undisturbed. Otherwise, that reality could soon explode with a vengeance. By then, western media coverage would be the least of every Nigerian’s problems.

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