As the world comes to realise that this is just the beginning of the soft power of Nigeria, which by 2050 can become a behemoth, the Nigerian government needs to make this a national priority: from establishing a policy framework that connects significant ministries into a platform of focus, to generating strategies for the country’s different cultural industries to establishing partnerships with the private sector to drive investments that support the different craft capacities within local and international markets.
If there is any year set as the benchmark of the near future, it is 2050, at least on global terms. For Nigeria, it is projected to be a year of destiny. Nigeria will be the third most populous country in the world by many estimates in or by 2050, just behind India and China. As defining a issue as the projection that half of the global population of young people will be from the continent of Africa, Nigeria by then will be one the largest congregations of these young people. Nigeria’s youthful population by 2050 may not be as young as Niger’s, next door, but it will most certainly be a truly substantial part of that generation. This essentially means that Africa, with Nigeria in the lead, will most likely determine the taste and direction of world culture.
The full import of this emerging population should not be obscured by the gloss of inferiority complex that drives our present wanton consumer addictions. The sheer desire for Western validation will not last forever. It will be replaced by the originality of choices and design. As the proliferation of knowledge, achieved through the internet, continues along with interaction through travel and education, the West will be increasingly demystified and all the indoctrination that comes from the content of our formal schooling will come apart from its contact with reality. Inevitably whatever we are going through at present as a country is about to go through a massive amplification of self-confidence, as well as self-adulation, in the incoming generation. This matters significantly because Nigeria has to start to develop the clarity of purpose and intentionality that harnesses the emergent soft power that it manifests.
In this first half of the twenty-first century, Nigeria’s soft power now has a force to be reckoned with. Almost and always, in spite of a lack of clear intention or coordinated approach. Also it is often obscured by the ever-present subtext that the country is branded as underperforming by influential media and commentators, both in country and internationally. But, against what standards? About 65 years since independence and in the face of extreme challenges towards nationhood, it is already the largest economy in Africa. With arguably the largest middle class in the continent, whose penchant for international travel, education and migration is unrivalled, it has one of the most flagged passports in the world.
So, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, possibly because of the appalling nature of Nigerian television and the limited access to international films, Nigerian film production evolved into an industry that is now badly named Nollywood. The industry is unfortunately treated as a monolith that ignores its diversity of stories, told in different languages with a minority of English titles. In this very short time scale, it is now the second most prolific film industry in the world, with 2,500 movie titles annually on nearly all major platforms, as well as most airline distribution channels. It is also the fastest growing movie production industry in the world generating billions in dollars. The quality of its productions have improved. More significantly, it is the standard source of film and television entertainment across Africa, the Caribbean, parts of United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. This is the case, despite a lack of promotion. In less than 40 years, this industry with very little investment or government support or institutional platform, has become a global competitor, not just in volume but with increasing credibility and especially in terms of influence. The cinema in Nigeria is a global force and strand of Nigerian soft power in the world.
The most amazing dominance has been in music. Yes, saddled with the generic and poorly constructed name, “Afrobeats”, in three decades Nigeria has gone from that country which could barely attract international acts to domestic concerts, to a country that now tops global charts. If there is a soundtrack to the world of the 2020s, it is the polyrhythm of Nigerian contemporary music, with millions of downloads, powering TikTok and Instagram.
For decades, and especially from the colonial times, the art associated with Nigeria has often been the incredible sculptures and pieces from the Nok, Ife and Bini civilisations. It is almost as if the design and craft sensibilities died with the ancestors, whose world conquering creativity was not even designed as objects of aesthetic exploration but as pieces of historical record and spiritual worship. In the past decade, Nigerian painting, graphic art, as well as sculpture, are now targets of millions of dollars. Sotheby’s New York sold “Bush Babies” by Njideka Akinyuli in 2017 for $3.4 million and “Tutu” by Ben Enwonwu for $1.6 million. The works of artists are now known by the names of their creators. The last commissioned painting of the late Queen of England was to Nigerian, Oluwole Omofemi. The same is true of sculptors, with their influence now global. Both local and international galleries celebrate them for their distinct qualities and technical abilities. With the trading of Nigerian contemporary arts on global platforms, another strand of Nigerian soft power is leading Africa to world competitiveness.
The most amazing dominance has been in music. Yes, saddled with the generic and poorly constructed name, “Afrobeats”, in three decades Nigeria has gone from that country which could barely attract international acts to domestic concerts, to a country that now tops global charts. If there is a soundtrack to the world of the 2020s, it is the polyrhythm of Nigerian contemporary music, with millions of downloads, powering TikTok and Instagram. It wafts from coffee shops, bars, and drives the dance floors of night clubs. The music charts are not complete without at least a couple of Afrobeats tracks and, make no mistake, this is Nigerian music! With relatively small marketing budgets, individual musicians fill stadiums and concert halls with audiences of all nationalities.
Of course, we can also talk of the increasing emergence of Nigerian cuisine as part of the global openness that is occurring in what we eat. Aside, the numbers and successes of Nigerian digital businesses are becoming notable, not just on the continent but also in terms of the markets for these new companies which, for many reasons, are underserved by the rest of the world and primed for the gaps in provisions locally. These are aspects of soft power, both global and continental. Often, soft power has been the pre-requisite for hegemonic power. In fact, it is the intangible trend that starts to manifest in tangible ways.
The incredible soft superpower of the cultural productions of African-Americans in the United States has been sublimated by the wider culture with, at best, grudging credit and the diversion of their greatness by the constant racist game of validation. There is Jamaica and its cultural contributions through reggae and athletics. The colonist fallout of class also seemed to enable the kind of government support that would have amplified the power of this incredible creativity. The clearest expression of these has been both China and India and arguably the US.
In the case of Nigeria, soft power has happened without much design and it is worth mentioning again, despite much vilification by the world, the potency of the national brand. The media, both local and international, as well as many Nigerians, have defined the country through corruption and stereotyped the nation as a place for fraudsters, even though the comparative numbers ought to identify other countries with more perpetrators, before branding Nigeria on such issues. In no way does this excuse any fraud, but it is worth putting in perspective in the example of Nigerian doctors who also proliferate across the world.
The twenty-first century will see the end of the importance of kinetic or military power because the cost in money and lives will be prohibitive, especially on a global scale. Economic power, which itself is a form of soft power, will also be greatly reduced in this multipolar world. Cultural power as soft power will take prominence, rather than continue to be an afterthought.
Once the unfortunate challenge of terrorism arose, the country became a byword for insecurity. No matter how many mass shootings happen in the US or the amount of street crime in South Africa, they are never reduced to these pathologies as brands. The choice to identify these pathologies in comparison with Nigerian software developers, nurses and legitimate business people who are spread across the world, is partly due to leaving Nigerian soft power to circumstances, rather than intention, as well as policy. Without a clear brand destination and unique definition point, Nigerian soft power gets defined by the latest controversies or campaigns of calumny, driven sometimes by stereotypes and tropes.
In spite of all these, the expressions of Nigerian soft power continue to flourish. In fact the current emergence of Nigerian cuisine in the last decade and the presence of the country as home to some of the great sports performers in the global sports of football, basketball and even the US favourite of the NFL, is quite noteworthy. This is without government policy, strategy or investment. This lack of government intentionality has often made the sustained growth of Nigerian soft power vulnerable.
The twenty-first century will see the end of the importance of kinetic or military power because the cost in money and lives will be prohibitive, especially on a global scale. Economic power, which itself is a form of soft power, will also be greatly reduced in this multipolar world. Cultural power as soft power will take prominence, rather than continue to be an afterthought. Nigeria stands at the threshold of this new world and space, almost in spite of itself. It will be based on its own choices that it will become the first accidental soft power leader.
As the world comes to realise that this is just the beginning of the soft power of Nigeria, which by 2050 can become a behemoth, the Nigerian government needs to make this a national priority: from establishing a policy framework that connects significant ministries into a platform of focus, to generating strategies for the country’s different cultural industries to establishing partnerships with the private sector to drive investments that support the different craft capacities within local and international markets. The employment opportunities that this will generate will be incredible, from marketing to logistics and design to development.
It is critical, for example, that each geo-political zone of Nigeria has a world class cultural district that has theatres, music halls, galleries, and museums as spaces for creatives to produce and compete. Nigeria needs to be intentional in amplifying and exposing to the world the cultures of art, cuisine, and craft of her 375 ethnic groups. The Nigeria brand will then become defined by its pursuit of excellence, as well as amplifier of its many aesthetic mirrors of our humanity. A soft power the world needs, even if it does not want, and one that will give humanity unprecedented options against the corrosive trap of racism and white supremacy.
Adewale Ajadi, a lawyer, creative consultant and leadership expert, is author of Omoluwabi 2.0: A Code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria.
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