Who stole our cultural identity?

Olusegun Obasanjo

In 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo created the Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism. It was created from two ministries; Information and Culture, and Commerce and Tourism. The newly created ministry I understand, was “saddled” with the ‘promotion of our nation’s immense and rich cultural heritage’. The phrase ‘rich cultural heritage’ is one of the clichés in what I call ‘Government-speak’ in this country. They told us the ministry was going to harness our culture and tourism potential for huge economic benefits. They told us that one of the reasons for creating that ministry was that past administrations were unable ‘to fully identify and promote our rich cultural heritage’. That was in 1999. Eighteen years later, we are still looking for ways to generate non-oil revenue. Meanwhile, culture and tourism is not even on top of the Agenda. An all too familiar story!

It is obvious that we do not see the connection between brand identity and culture. I call it Cultural Branding. If we are serious about turning our ‘rich cultural heritage’ into a huge tourism revenue earner and job creator, we should adopt Cultural Branding. Let’s take a quick trip to Dubai. In that city, you will find many iconic buildings including the incredible Burj Khalifa which is still the World’s Tallest Building. These buildings yearly attract millions of tourists to Dubai. But there is one striking element that gives Dubai’s iconic buildings their unique identity. They are mostly inspired by ancient Arabic Architecture. From the incredible Atlantis The Palm to the breathtaking Burj al Arab, Dubai’s most iconic buildings carry that distinctive feature of Arabian architecture.

This is not a strange concept as far as Nigeria is concerned. In the early 70s, we had national buildings that incorporated our cultural identity. In fact, it was a regular feature and I will give a few examples. The National Theatre was one of the most recognizable iconic buildings we had. Even though the shape was inspired by the Palace of Culture and Sports in Varna Bulgaria, the edifice was lavishly embellished with Nigerian art and craft. The legendary Erhabor Emokpae, one of the greatest artists to ever come out of Africa, was commissioned to embellish the building. The works he did in and around the edifice remain some of the most valuable treasures of Nigerian Art till today. As an undergraduate in the 80s, I would go to the national theatre and spend the whole day just walking around and marveling at these masterpieces!

Many of us remember the NET Building on Marina Lagos. Thankfully, it is still standing. It is not necessarily an architectural marvel, but it was iconic and made more so by that famous drummer sculpture, made by none other than the incredibly legendary Professor Ben Enwonwu, one of the greatest artists this country and indeed Africa has produced. The drummer is very significant in our culture, because we use the drum for communication and celebration. It was such an apt concept for the then Nigeria External Telecommunications, NET. It later became NITEL and today, it is NTEL. Oh well.

I will also mention the infamous NEPA! National Electric Power Authority. Their Head Office at Marina Lagos had a gigantic statue of the mythical Sango, god of thunder and lightning! Then of course, there was and still is the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. When it was opened, it was a bold statement in cultural identity with the lavish murals that adorned it. In those days, public buildings usually had elements of our arts and culture. This added beauty, uniqueness and value to the buildings.

When we had the opportunity to build a new federal capital in Abuja, one would expect our leaders to draw up a master plan with strong cultural identity which would make public buildings more iconic. But what did we see? A bland federal capital. You can look at Lagos and you will see in the former federal capital more iconic buildings than you will see in Abuja. The public buildings in Abuja lack character and uniqueness. They tell no stories. They’re simply boring! I cannot point to any building in Abuja that people want to visit and pose for pictures around it. Even the Presidential Villa is not iconic. It is just plain, white and boring! This is the Presidential Villa of the World’s largest Black Nation for goodness sake! We all know how iconic the White House is. And of course, Buckingham Palace! Imagine when these buildings were built! Yet here we are, in the 21st Century and see what out Presidential Palace looks like! A big shame.

In building Abuja, we simply failed to realize that our cultural identity should inform the architecture in our cities especially our federal capital. This is a compelling way to promote culture and tourism, because people will always be attracted to iconic monuments and buildings. These are the things that show where you are. The world famous Eiffel Tower in Paris is an iconic monument and if you have not taken a picture around it, you have not visited Paris. Similarly, Nigerians go to Dubai every year and take pictures around the iconic Burj al Arab Hotel. As dilapidated as the National Theatre is, people still take pictures around it. Yet, nothing comes close in our Abuja despite all the billions spent.

I remember visiting Ivory Coast about ten years ago. Going into the city from the airport, you will see a massive monument. It consists of two giant elephants whose tusks form an arc over the highway. A relevant monument considering how that country got its name. That image has remained engraved in my mind ever since. When you drive into the city from Abuja airport, is there any iconic monument to welcome you? None. Just a flat concrete structure designed to look like a city gate, and it is not even as iconic as the ancient city gates our ancestors built centuries ago. We need to get serious.

All those who had the opportunity to use the federal capital as a platform to advance our cultural identity but failed to do so, because their focus was on what they could steal from all those fat contracts, are the ones who stole our cultural identity. In so doing, they have robbed us of a huge foreign exchange earner and a strong national brand. As with most things, it is never too late. We need to develop a brand strategy right from the desk of President Buhari. Only then can we make real progress in turning our cultural brand identity into a source of national pride and glory.Muyiwa Kayode is the CEO at USP Brand Management and Author, The Seven Dimensions of Branding.

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Olusegun Obasanjo
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