I received a message on Whatsapp a few days ago. It goes thus:
Dubai has the Burj Khalifa
France has the Eiffel Tower
America has the Statue of Liberty
What does your country have?
Very good question! What does our country have? Which monument can we boast of, which gives our country and our Federal Capital City a unique identity? If a visitor comes to Abuja today, is there any monument or building he wants to stand around and take pictures so people know he was in Abuja? Are the relevant people even thinking of the need to create or project a unique identity for our country by way of destination branding? The so called Giant of Africa does not have giant monuments to boast of. In our usual poverty mentality and visionless pontification, many would say this is not our priority for now. We have more pressing needs. They would say we should rather spend such money on roads and schools and healthcare. Perhaps, this is the way our leaders are thinking hence they don't appear to be doing anything along these lines. This line of thinking is shallow. You can kill two birds with one stone by imbuing public buildings with our cultural identity.
A people without an identity are a lost people. What has been happening over the years is a gradual erosion of our identity. This has nothing to do with priorities, but rather vision, purpose and commitment. When major projects are being planned, the public officials involved are too preoccupied with selfish gain, to the detriment of those projects. At the end of it, we never get value for money spent. Worse still, such projects are not designed to project our national or cultural identity. They are not implemented to tell our story as a people. When we marked 50 years of independence, there was no monument to commemorate that historic occasion. What we heard were stories about a golden jubilee committee and how people spent billions or rather, shared billions. Anyhow, we haven't seen any structure or monument which has been bequeathed on the nation to mark that historic anniversary. There has been no legacy.
Identity is one of the fundamental elements of branding. Every day, people talk about our rich cultural heritage. Yet, we do not leverage this rich culture to build a compelling brand identity for our nation the way other great nations have done. It wasn't always this way. Not until we started having Unidentifiable Ruling Objects running the affairs of our nation. Because they lack understanding of identity, history and origin, they have failed to project a national cultural brand identity for the nation and give us things to be proud of. This is why the negative stories about corruption, profligacy, crime and drug trafficking have been the predominant narrative about our national identity. Iconic monuments and landmarks create indelible visual identities for nations in the minds of people. Where there is none of such monuments, that nation has a weak identity which is left to the whims of people to sum up whatever they perceive. And because bad news travels fast, such negative information will certainly feed the minds of people and create negative perceptions that progressively become almost impossible to change.
For example, when the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, MMIA was built, it was adorned with priceless artistic embellishments. The airport and other Public buildings commissioned in the 70s had an unmistakable cultural identity. The best Nigerian artists were commissioned and their works in these edifices gave them a truly Nigerian identity. The artists include legendary architect and artist, Demas Nwoko, the incomparable Professor Ben Enwonwu, the incredible Erhabor Emokpae and the uniquely amazing Bruce Onobrakpeya. Others are Uche Okeke, Emmanuel Ifeta, Isiaka Osunde and Samson Uchendu.
That was the trend in those days, when modern architecture was excellently merged with indigenous artistic talent to create public buildings with a unique identity. Today, it's a different story. To make a bad situation even worse, renovation works at the MMIA virtually destroyed the artistic treasures that gave the airport its unique identity. In their greedy, rabid quest for graft, our Unidentifiable Ruling Objects have lost all sense of heritage, charity and identity. Today, our culture officials wear over starched traditional attires and strut around like peacocks while our cultural identity suffers under their watch. Our great artists, like other national treasures that do not deliver immediate cash for them to steal, have since been neglected. Only recently, a painting by Ben Enwonwu, titled TUTU, was auctioned in the United Kingdom for more than £1million. This same Ben Enwonwu, whose works are being destroyed at our dilapidated public buildings such as the National Theatre, MMIA, NITEL Building, etc. Meanwhile, we have relevant agencies charged with the preservation and promotion of our cultural and tourism assets. They have yearly budgets allocated to them. What remains to be seen is what they do with the money.
We must reverse this embarrassing trend and develop public buildings and monuments that show the world who we are. Even if we do not spend millions of dollars like Senegal did in building the African Renaissance Monument, we must return to the good old days of embellishing our public buildings with our art, such that such buildings make an indelible mark on our landscape and project our cultural identity. This is just one of the many ways we can tell a better story and create a positive national image for the world to behold.
- Muyiwa Kayode is CEO at USP Brand Management and author, The Seven Dimensions of Branding. Brand Nation is a platform for promoting national development based on the universal principles of branding.