As the President Buhari administration launches what is at least the 8th re-orientation program in Nigeria, we are all invited to participate actively in it because, you know, these things do work if only you people would buy into it.
Looking at it, a cynic might infer that each government has to have one in order to feel itself legitimized. Or else you might not be a real president because, as everyone knows, a real president always comes with a re-branding campaign, nice logo, and a choice phrase. And so some copywriter somewhere is hired to concoct a set of words that, when arranged in a particular order, have the power to reconnect the neurons of anyone with Nigerian DNA in them. But I have been cynical of one re-orientation campaign already, so this one I will take seriously.
And just to dispel the idea that there is something uniquely different about this campaign’s objectives compared to others, here is a quote from Prof Dora Akunyili, the then-Minister of Information and Culture, from around 2009:
The Re-branding Nigeria project is anchored on attitudinal change, re-orientation, revival of our beautiful old cultural values and instilling a renewed spirit of patriotism and hope in all Nigerians. – Prof Dora Akunyili on Rebrand Nigeria, c. 2009
OK, so we’ve established that there isn’t anything particularly new about this campaign. But that hardly matters. What we ought to consider is where the others failed and whether this is The One, the campaign that will succeed where the others could not.
It appears that the source of the polarized debate is what comes first; public policy or public opinion? Essentially, there are those who believe that the change must begin with the government, and there are those who argue that we the people must change our attitudes otherwise things will remain the same. It’s the classic question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.
First the argument for public policy coming first, before public opinion can be expected to follow. There is a great article, well worth reading, that breaks it down so nicely I would plagiarize it if I thought I could get away with it (hahaha). The author begins with a Yoruba phrase that translates as “It is pointless preaching to a hungry man.” That quote, I think, is especially appropriate in this case because what Mr Lai Mohammed (and by extension, Mr Buhari) is essentially doing is preaching to the poor.
“Repent!” he says, “Turn from your evil ways to the light, and there shall yet be hope for you.”
As well, it is this writer’s opinion that by pursuing such a campaign, President Buhari is overlooking the not-insignificant attitudinal change that brought him into office in the first place. He seems to also be dismissing the goodwill that Nigerians have shown by accepting his removal of fuel subsidy (something the previous administration was unable to do) without much fuss, the patience they have shown with his tennis-like economic policies that have caused untold suffering to millions. None of these things should be taken for granted or dismissed as trivial.
The other side, of course, is the argument that an attitudinal change in the people is necessary for true societal reform, and this argument does have its merits. To be fair, I have also faulted our attitudes as Nigerians and I do believe we need to change that significantly. However, one must pay attention to more than just the Nigerian psyche, because that is little more than a symptom, a consequence of environmental factors which have impressed upon us that we must do whatever it takes to survive.
Regardless of which side of the debate you subscribe to, what this writer is wondering is will this campaign, in its current form, succeed? Will “Change Begins with Me” become a mantra and catalyst for effecting real change? Or will it just end up as a funny quote used in a mocking fashion similar to how the previous campaign of Rebrand Nigeria was adopted by some who joked that if your generator spoils, don’t fix it, rebrand it!
The problem is that such an approach as that which the government is taking hardly works. Research has shown that public opinion is formed by the discourse between elite intellectuals and that it is the aggregated opinion of those intellectuals which influences public opinion. Based on that, it is deceptive (though admittedly very tempting) to imagine that a government rebranding campaign targeted at the general public has much chance of success if the intellectuals and elites (when I use the word “elite” I am not referring to politicians) are not inclined to hop on the wagon.
But anyway, we should probably first start by describing who are these elites and intellectuals that have the power to sway public opinion. If you think about it, you can probably name a handful of people whose opinions on such issues you trust very much and you seem to find yourself agreeing with them more often than not. I know I can. This is neither a good nor bad thing, it just is. And while Mr Mohammed probably reached out to “influencers” to help propagate the message, I’m not sure that it was a significant part of the pre-launch campaign and, if it was, I do not see that he reached out to the right people.
You see, what a lot of “leaders” miss is a good grasp of how new and emerging technologies have changed Nigerian society. One can hardly blame them, though, because even we who are supposed to know the tech inside out have trouble seeing the ripple effects. However in this case, it is simple enough to note that the influencers are not the same category of people that they used to be. The rise of instant communication and social media have ensured that those who truly have influence can quickly and easily communicate their thoughts over great distances to many more people than was possible at any previous point in history. Also, those who are emerging as influencers are better able to, for lack of a better word, garner a following. These are the people whom you would want to have on your side for a rebranding or attitudinal change campaign, not the Tiwa Savages or Pete Edochies of this world. Yes, Mr Edochie was drafted in for one of the previous re-orientation campaigns and Tiwa Savage was approached to help this current campaign. It seems someone hasn’t been following her adventures of late.
Of course, finding and engaging these influencers is not difficult, but can be quite perilous. The difficulty is in getting their support because, when you approach them with your campaign, they will have ideas on whether it is good enough or not, and you’re going to have to listen to that feedback and see if your message needs tweaking. But is that really such a bad thing?
Another valid point from the article linked above is that it is important, if you intend to succeed with your message, to craft it with as few references to ideology and philosophy as possible. This sounds a little counter-intuitive because when you want to change attitudes and values, you would tend to believe that ideological and philosophical arguments are best suited to work. However, the point here is that your audience is not a single entity, but rather a multi-layered and mixed bag and so, by appealing to the gods of ideology and philosophy, you have immediately created a barrier between your message and a particular setof people. This is because for every ideology, there is at least one (usually more) other opposing ideology and so you have diluted the effect of your message. This is why there is already the argument about who the change begins with, showing up the division that results from ideological appeals. Anyone who took debate class knows you need to stick to the issues, using empirical evidence and hard facts, because appealing to people’s emotions and ideologies is a fool’s errand that is unlikely to last past the short term, if that.
Finally, and this is arguably my cynical nature rearing its ugly head, a government attempting to change public attitudes and opinions so blatantly is one that is courting disaster. What politics and elections worldwide over the past few decades have shown us is that in order to be successful, politicians need to use public opinion, not fight it. Trying to so drastically change public attitudes can be like attempting to change the flow of a running river. This government should be well aware of this; it was partly their ability to influence public discourse without trying to change it that brought them into power. Because at the time all they really had to do was guide public opinion the same way you would divert a stream and this brought them victory in the 2015 elections. As an aside, it is also part of the reason why PDP’s attempts at being loud opposition comes off more like heckling, which nobody really likes. So, to buttress the point, a way to bring about this attitudinal change would have been to guide public discourse toward it, rather than hurl it out in a massive campaign complete with borrowed lines and all. Historically, that has rarely, if ever, worked. Of course, the more subtle approach takes significantly more effort to accomplish.
So strive for re-orientation and attitudinal change by all means, but a logo and a slogan without putting in the effort to actively engage the citizens first and foremost will end up in the same garbage heap as the previous ones. Real, lasting change is not drawn up by designers but by everyday people like the Bring Back Our Girls group who are sacrificing daily for the sake of this country. Because until the system acknowledges and rewards upright citizens as opposed to rewarding fraud as it currently does, very few people will shoot themselves in the foot for a slogan.