Jemi Alade is a tourism and cultural expert. With over 25 years in business as a destination management company under the name Jemi Alade Tours, he has efficiently demonstrated professionalism in handling of in-bound visitors to Nigeria; ranging from groups and individuals, trade delegates, conferences and business travelers.
He is one of the frontline personalities in the vanguard of tourism development in Nigeria and has stepped up the call for cultural renaissance with a tourists' hub called 'Brazilian Market' in Nigeria. In this interview, he speaks among other things, the ills of the nation in relation to tourism oversight, and how this sector can fast-track economic and cultural development in the country. Excerpts:
In brief, can you give us your insight about the country called Nigeria and what you think that has gone wrong in a speedy development after independence?
When Nigeria was put together as a country, the locals didn't have any input in the mater. It was something that was done by the British government who were the colonial leaders then. The funny thing was when they said, okay, let's call it Nigeria, it wasn't' a deliberated discuss among the locals rather, the name came from a journalist Flora Shaw, who happened to be the girlfriend of the then ruling governor in Nigeria, Lord Frederick Lugard.
At that time, she was writing a story about the Niger area, and on hearing Lugard suggesting a name to be given to the country, she said, 'Look! Why don't you call it Niger area?' The name somehow clicked and that's how the name "Nigeria" came about. Local chiefs were not called at any time neither was there any formal meeting by the elders in the entire land where they all decided to be merged together as a country. It was just a situation where the British decide to call it a country after a conference in Berlin, and that's how "Nigeria" came about.
From that perspective, finding out what the people wanted was never sought and necessary. Through that process later on, the entire entity called Nigeria fought a civil war, just to put the country together. But in actual fact, when you pry into peoples' mind to know who they really are, you will hear, 'I am an Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa,' meaning that in their subconscious mind, Nigeria is not what they envisaged. And this is one of the underlying challenges that have put the country in a snail-like pace in terms of development, cohesion and cultural integration since independence.
You may also discover that most of us don't even know our country, Nigeria well enough. The people just assume that they know, perhaps verbally but not in the true context. A lot of people read about Nigeria as a book but don't understand it from the point of physical experience which local tourism can offer. Most of the tribes do not know other people's culture.
As a country, what are we trying to achieve? If you look at China as a nation, they have designed exactly what they wanted. Before now, the perception has been that any third world country with a large population can never develop. Chinese have proven that notion wrong because they formulated a goal for their country and maintained it. In the case of Nigeria, we have not been able to do that.
We need to sit down, deliberate and ask ourselves what we really want. It is not a question of fighting and quarreling. Nigeria is the most populous black nation on earth endowed with natural resources, friendly ecosystem and rich cultural heritage. From the North to South, East to West, the people have an enviable heritage waiting to be tapped and it is only through tourism promotion that we can integrate and understand ourselves better.
Do you see the civil war that Nigeria fought as a mistake?
Well, it wasn't a mistake but an adventure. At that time, we were all busy trying to put together the geographical expression called Nigeria. That's the time the people could have come together and question about the true unity of the country, but we never did. Unfortunately, the only slogan we know was "No victor, no vanquish." But in actual fact, some people lost their lives.
In Nigeria today, there has been much focus on politics and less on the economy. Everybody is aspiring to gain power and to be able to control the resources, to the extent that even in our constitution, we have what is called an 'exclusive of materials,' that cannot be touched unless by the presidency. That tells you, the people who have the resources do not have access to it. This is one of the things that led to the war in the first place. For example, in the Niger Delta, you may ask; how can a foreigner come to exploit their land and then gives the people peanuts.
One of the most destabilising laws in Nigeria today is the land use decree, brought about by Obasanjo administration. We have to review that law because, when you dispossess a person of his land, then he has nothing. That is one of the undoing of the so called Nigerian state. Now what was the war all about in the first instance; the Igbos wanted exclusivity to the resources that belong to them. But in the case of Nigeria, the resources belong to the entity called Nigeria.
I think it is about time we come together as black people and unite. Everywhere in the world, every black person is seen as an African regardless of ethnic origin. But it is very unfortunate that blacks are also seen as backward people, labeled as poor nation. Rising above this belief is one of the things we should be fighting for and the quickest way is to go back to our tradition and culture and develop it. This is where tourism will play an important role in terms of economic development, human capital development and liberation from the stigma of backwardness. Africa is rich in all ramifications. We haven't tapped half of our resources yet.
You talked about going back to the roots. How easy could that be in this technology accelerated growth and how best do you think tourism could play that role?
They key thing is a cultural renaissance. I have looked at Nigeria and come to conclusion that ignorance is what is driving the people. When you ask a typical Nigerian about the deep meaning of his language, you will be amazed that he doesn't know, rather, he operates in ignorance. Many historians and cultural experts have advocated for the use of mother tongue as an essential tool in preserving our culture. They have also decried that indigenous languages may go extinct if we continue in the way we are training our children.
Let us go back to understand our culture, modernize, bring it back and adopt it. Japan for instance has maintained an intact culture despite being one of the world's most industrialized nation. Another example is China. Almost all goods produced in that land carries Chinese language before any other interpretation. We can replicate the same here in our country.
In America, what makes them great is documentation that helps to retrieve information for innovations. The growth of technology today is based on documentation. In Nigeria, a young person of about 20 years today does not know anything about the Nigerian civil war because of lack of proper documentation. History for now has been removed from school curriculum. How then can the children know about the history of their land? Tourism education also has roles to play here because when you take children on tour during their school holidays, they will learn a lot about their culture. Even if history is not in book anymore, it will register in their mind, things they saw and know.
How can we use tourism as a tool for development?
It all depends on cultural orientation. To tell you the truth, Nigerians do not even know the Nigerian space very well. The country is so huge that you cannot exhaust its tourism potentials in a year. Tourism is different from visiting. I doubt if the word 'Tourism' is in our indigenous vocabulary, so to speak, because if you ask a Nigerian to explain the meaning of tourism in his local language, he will definite refers to visiting.
For example, there is a remote village in Niger State with rich cultural heritage that is unexplored for tourism development. So also, there are many places in the country with interesting festivals and cultural programmes, done annually without anyone noticing. Tourism is not yet developed in Nigeria. I can categorically say I am one of the people in the vanguard of developing the tourism industry in the country. A lot of people just talk about tourism without the full knowledge of what the industry is all about. Even some so called educated Nigerians believe that tourism is all about embarking on visits to South Africa, Dubai, or other developed cities of the world.
When you ask them how many places of interest they have visited in Nigeria for leisure purpose, you will hear none. They may not even know the economic benefits that can be harnessed while in such local tour. Besides what we can do for ourselves, environmental friendly tourism practice will attract foreign investors to the country. With Nigeria known as hospital people and also endowed with human capacity, investors will find it favourable for business growth.
Tourism is not about going to places, it has to do with events. There are fantastic cultural festivals in Nigeria that people are not aware of, and even when they are, they may not have interest to visit, with notion that it is idol worshiping. We have arrogated something bad and negative to our cultural values. That is why we are losing it so fast. We need cultural education in this country to be able to appreciate what we have.
What is the way forward for the tourism industry in Nigeria?
It is a process that has to start somewhere. We have to create value for what we have. For example, one of the projects I am working on for now is to develop a Brazilian market for the growth of tourism in Nigerian. The project is solely managed by my company, Jemi Alade Tours. It is going to be a cultural hub for tourists and will serve as a place for display of arts and cultural artifacts, showcasing our rich cultural values for the international world.
This will also serve as a cultural pilgrimage for foreigners into Nigeria. We call it 'Brazilian Market' because Brazil is one of the places where you have a diaspora culture notable with the Orisha cultural heritage of the Yorubas of Nigeria.
During the slave era, those who were taken away by force from Africa to America where able to create their own culture in the forest and it survived till date. The cultural values they took along with them have been intact and practiced from generation to generation. It will amaze you to know that the Orisha culture is more embedded in Brazilian land than in Nigeria.
The Brazilian blacks practice the authentic Orisha culture than you can get in Yoruba land, so to speak. It will be weird to see a man on the street of Lagos boastfully saying he is an Orisha man, unlike in Brazil where they display their identity with pride. The Brazilians have also embedded the Orisha culture and tradition into Catholic doctrines, and also their text books at the primary level. They have Orisha houses named after the Yoruba gods: Osun, Oya, Shango and many others. Orisha culture is also made into comic books for children to read. In Brazil all Orisha cultures are revered, but in Nigeria we still see it as absurd because of borrowed religious culture that dominates.
In the state of Bahia in Brazil, the government donated a house to the Nigerian consulate called 'Nigerian House.' But so sad, the house was neglected by the Nigerian government. In as much as our people can go to Jerusalem, Mecca and other foreign countries for pilgrimage, I am developing the Brazilian market in Lagos, so that the foreigners can come to Nigeria for the same cultural pilgrimage. These countries make a lot of money from cultural tourism, it is what we need to develop and earn same money.
On the part of Government, they are not meant to develop a people's culture. It is the people, the indigenous people. It is not a government mandate. Their duty is security, basic infrastructure, good health and things that will make you thrive.
What are other things that can help develop tourism in Nigeria
Our environment of course is one of it. We did a survey in 1990 when we brought in Nigeria about 34 professionals from different fields to Nigeria and have them traveled round the country to give an insight for the development of our tourism. At the end of the tour, we had a meeting to inquire about their observation and how to improve our tourism. But the first thing they noticed was the unhealthy state of our public toilets.
This among other observations can mar visitor's interest in coming to Nigeria for tourism. In china, they have tourists' toilet that are graded. There are two to four-star graded toilets. These are simple things that attract visitors to a country, in absence of your rich culture. The way we handle our public space and infrastructures goes a long way to boost our tourism attraction. Simple hygiene also goes beyond what government can do.
But it is rather unfortunate that everybody believe that government should do everything for us. Most of the development done in the western world today is by volunteering. Individuals, out of interest engage in one project and take it to another level but so sad that Nigerians wants government to do all. Let us leave government out of it.
Take people in tourism for instance, most of them are not in it for money rather for the interest of developing the institution; showcasing our cultural heritage. Here, our assumed mentality is that government will do everything for us. Anybody can do it when the interest is there. However, when the people who voted the government in are handicapped to do things for themselves, then the need to put pressure on the government can come. This is where we need to educate ourselves. In the olden times, people rally around the local government for such needs but today, everyone goes to the Governor to fix roads and attend to basic infrastructure.
How sad that everything we are doing now is borrowed, including the religion. When our culture and religion are not good enough for us, then, we are going nowhere, because we keep borrowing ideas all time. The irony sometimes, is that we allow ourselves to borrow everything, to the extent that we borrow things that were taken away from us including culture.