Minister of Culture, Tourism and National Reorientation, High Chief Edem Duke, found time out of his busy schedule to have a down-to-earth chat with Demola Ojo on issues confronting the sector, and sought more interest and support from all stakeholders
It was no mean feat catching up with Chief Edem Duke. Not surprising, considering the nature of his job. He had been crisscrossing the country the week this reporter finally got to see him, from Kano at the beginning of the week to Calabar, Uyo, then Osogbo for the Osun Osogbo Festival. Then from the festival to Abuja via Lagos.
The spanking new Radisson Blu Anchorage Hotel on the Victoria Island bank of the Five Cowrie Creek provided the perfect backdrop to a conversation that centred on how to make Nigeria a leading player in tourism. It was a Sunday morning, just enough time squeezed out between church and the airport. In the spirit of the day, perhaps, he started on a note of gratitude.
“I consider myself privileged and lucky (to be appointed minister) and I ascribe this to God, because there are people with competences all over the country,” he said.
The minister was seated calmly at the head of a table a few feet away from the balcony overlooking the creek. He had a couple of green and white booklets on the table. He thumbed through them at intervals. Apparently, they were Vision 20:2020 booklets. “Tourism has long been sidelined,” he continued. “Over the years, when ministers were assigned to this particular ministry, it was like being sent to Siberia. It was rather strange to find a minister who was excited about this posting. But I really am.”
Without doubt, he understands the enormity of the challenges in the sector. “When I look at our country over the years, I wonder why those saddled with the responsibility of enunciating the economic policies of government never thought about the potentials of tourism.
“How do you explain that the biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa is driven by tourism which is the greatest contributor to GDP in South Africa, not the solid minerals sector? And we, the second biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, are a mono-product economy.”
He further added that if Nigeria can add the advantages of culture and tourism to that derived from the oil sector, the country will easily overtake South Africa. “We've got the population and the market,” he explained with unconcealed passion.
In his view, this market is not limited to Nigeria but the West African sub-region and Nigerians in the Diaspora. “Yet, over the years, nobody has actually thought seriously that this is a sector that can be developed. When I think about it privately, I wonder; is because culture and tourism appears intangible, not like an oil well that can be owned to the exclusion of others and give the owner a feeling of self esteem?” he asked with the slightest hint of bewilderment in his tone.
“But tourism is the biggest economic sector worldwide. Tourism is about prosperity, and we love prosperity. We actually enrich the economies of other countries by our adventurism and the pursuance of a good life. The South Africans realise this and have invested enormous resources and have established a desk to target Nigerians. The agenda of South African tourism is to liberate the dollars from Nigerian pockets.
“We contribute a lot to the tourism arrivals in Ghana, Gambia, Dubai, London, America, etc. So why don't we call on all our economic eggheads to turn around and spare a minute to look at the enormous opportunity in Nigerian culture and tourism? My vision is to encourage and promote culture and enterprise,” he stated emphatically.
His task would include convincing these economic eggheads that tourism and culture is the new frontier for the diversification of the Nigerian economy and for employment opportunities.
He went on to make the argument that the culture and tourism sector is not just able to accommodate all kinds of professional competences but is also a sector with a low entry barrier. “So whether you are skilled or unskilled, you will be able to find employment directly or indirectly in tourism. Tourism is pro-poor.” He picks up a nicely-decorated ceramic tray from the table. “If you are a talented guy and you can paint this stuff, or you can put up a good comedy show, or you have the talent to act or you are such a pulsating drummer which can get you an appearance on a stage in say, Atlanta, or a dexterous female dancer, you can be spotted overnight and picked to perform anywhere in the world. That is the power of culture and tourism.”
Duke is of the opinion that the moment things simmer down in North Africa, the number one focus in those countries will not be for the grains to grow but for the tourists to return, especially in a country like Egypt whose tourism sector contributes more than 50 percent of the country's GDP.
“We have such a wonderful country,” he said, almost dreamy-eyed. “We have about two hundred and fifty ethnic nationalities; we have thirty six states in one country. We can have a festival every month. The possibilities are endless.
“But when we look at even our art and craft, there is no serious mentoring programme for our artists. We must develop the creative industry in that direction. Why is it that our craftsmen's products - whether from Benin City or Zaria or Kano or in Abuja or any other part of Nigeria - are not on the shelves in the ethnic product shelves of Walmart? Why not? You will find products from Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines, China but not from the biggest black nation on the face of the earth! We must find a solution.”
Filling the Vacuum
The tourism ministry would build the connection to support these creative talents and would control the quality and standards of the products, he revealed. “We will show them the prospects and possibilities of organising themselves into cooperatives of bronze workers, of bead workers, calabash workers, leather workers and raffia workers, and provide a channel of marketing so that even on the internet, there will be an organisation to help sell their products to the world.
“But first and foremost, we must try to develop self belief within the sector itself, that these are possibilities. Because oftentimes, we might look at some of these postulations as if they are in the realm of dreams or are farfetched. Even in the public sector, things look so farfetched because over the years, our parastatals have been activity driven, not objective driven; nobody is held to tasks and deliverables,” Duke pointed out.
He moved on to an issue that had apparently been bothering him. “The president comes with a transformation agenda which transcends the Vision 20:2020 and articulates the direction the country is being taken to in the next four to five years and the key priority projects of government, and the new Minister of Culture and Tourism,” now speaking about himself in the third person, “picks up the document and does not find a single reference to culture and tourism. And yet there are people who are celebrated as being champions of the sector.”
He gave examples of such avenues that had been overlooked in the past. “The American government through the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which has been extended beyond 2015, provides opportunities for over 4,000 products, certified quality-controlled products that can enter the America market duty free. But because till date, culture and tourism has not been seen through the entrepreneurial eye, nobody is taking advantage of this.
“These are the kind of things I will like to do. Therefore I'm going to have to reach out to the private sector because they will have to be the pivot for this actualisation. I know Rome was not built in a day but we must find the ability to provide the regulatory framework, the incentives to encourage these new frontiers of growth.”
The minister talked about the need to liaise with the Ministry of Education on the necessity of cultural and tourism content in school curricula and also with the Foreign and Internal Affairs Ministries to revisit our visa regimes. “The issue of reciprocity should be selective because we need people to come and spend money in our economy.”
He also stated his belief that it should be easier for Nigerians in the Diaspora who may be carrying Canadian, British, American and other foreign passports to gain access to the country because they are of Nigerian extraction. “There are some Nigerians there who have never been to their country; they are in colleges all over the world, and ever since they were born, they have never visited Nigeria.”
Paramount too, is the need to convince the Ministry of Works that it is critical that the road leading to the Obudu ranch resort be given priority and that power should be extended to “Nigeria's premium tourist destination.”
Reorientation and change of attitude of the citizenry towards cultural relics is just as critical to boost tourism in the country. “The average citizen living in say, Abeokuta, at the foot of Olumo Rock should be enlightened. He should know not to wake up in the morning and defecate at the foot of the mountain because there are tourists who love to pay money to climb mountains.
“I was at the Osun Osogbo Festival the other day; huge crowd, lots of noise, and all of that but they were not generating tourism revenue. Nobody was buying anything; nobody was paying to go to the grove. There were no T-shirts and caps. Susan Wenger is dead but there is nothing celebrating her life, no mementoes!
“We need to look at it from the eye of entrepreneurial ability; we can't see where the money is trickling down. I don't see the food courts, the barbeques grills. But right at the entrance of the grove there is somebody with a plastic table selling chewing gum. Nobody is looking at the merchandising opportunities,” he said wistfully.
Mecca of the Black Race
The minister revealed some of the plans he has to place Nigeria at the forefront of the tourism market. “I'm going to rest the Abuja Carnival because I look at the content and see that it is not being driven in the direction that it should be. I want to replace the Abuja Carnival with a world black and African festival of arts and culture, a FESTAC re-enactment. If the South Africans can host the World Cup, why is Nigeria unable to re-enact FESTAC after 34 years?
“We are the biggest black nation on the face of the earth; we must find a way of making people of African origin all over the world see Nigeria as their Mecca. The world festival of black and African arts and culture can grow to be our own Rio carnival. It can be our own version of Notting Hill. One product can grow to become an enormous economic activity that drives the sector to a large extent.”
He continued by sharing some facts. “Do you know that Barbados was founded by a freed Nigerian slave? That is cultural diplomacy waiting for us there. Today, the official residence of the prime minister has a Nigerian name. Nigerians don't need a visa to go there. They are asking for (Nigerian) TV content for the Broadcasting Organisation of the Caribbean. They are desperate to connect with us,” he revealed.
Continuing, Duke gives one instance for an entrepreneurial opportunity waiting to be unleashed. “A couple of years ago, I sponsored about 12 of them (Barbadians) to come and see the Calabar Carnival. I got a seamstress to make an Ankara outfit for the general manager of Caribbean broadcasting and when she took it back to Barbados and wore it, the women said 'No! You can't wear this kind of outfit to work. You must reserve it for when the prime minister calls for a cocktail'. Today as we speak, that seamstress has made over fifty outfits for clients in Barbados.
“So you can imagine if dozens of seamstresses have that kind of connection, not only in Barbados but in Jamaica, America, Brazil, Cuba and the rest. The potentials are just enormous.”
At this point in the conversation, the minister was notified (not for the first time) that it was time to leave for the airport. He smiled at the reporter as he stood up. “We can't talk about everything now. We'll talk some other time,” he said apologetically.
From the zeal with which he spoke about the challenges and potential of the culture and tourism sector, you can bet on this.