Not a few were surprised when Mr. Folorunsho Coker who suffered a setback in Lagos bounced back on top of a federal agency, overcoming stormy weather which threatened to upturn his career vessel that just started a fresh journey. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports

We were in the middle of breakfast at the Lagos Motor Boat Club on Awolowo Road, Ikoyi-Lagos that Sunday morning when Hon. Habeeb Fasinro, co-chair of the Lagos @ 50 celebrations, owner of Smooth 98.1FM and former lawmaker representing Eti Osa Federal Constituency at the National Assembly arrived. From a distance, he was already throwing banters at Mr. Folorunsho Coker, former night club owner, restauranteur, conservationist, promoter of culture and director general of the Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC). Both men are successful in politics and in business and have enjoyed an enduring roll with Lagos high society.

For instance, Coker has retained membership of the Lagos Motor Boat Club, one of the most prestigious clubs in Nigeria, for over 20 years. His love for the aquatic ecosystem follows from his study of Geography in the university.

This affection has come at a cost, sometimes painful. The agony of both men was obvious with the loathsome presence of flotsam and jetsam on Lagos waters, particularly trash constituted by used plastic. But Coker was struck by how clean the water itself was. “Come, I want to show you guys something.” We followed him and leaned over the jetty. Pointing at a place that was not covered by debris, we followed his direction. “You can see the white sand. The water is not dirty, we just have to find a way to stop our people from dumping thrash into the water,” he said.

Looking up into the sky, he envisaged a good boating day. But he was not considering that recreational activity at the moment. He promised to show me “some parts of Lagos that we don’t often see from the waters” in the future. Families started arriving, ready for a time leisurely travel on the waters. Many stopped to exchange pleasantries with him, before sailing on.
We returned to the table. While, Fasinro excused himself, we continued our conversation. The interview had started before I had a chance to switch on my recording device. Entertainment would be a safe place to start the discourse. For over 15 years, Coker ran a hugely successful upscale night club in Victoria Island until, by his own admission, he “became tired”.

As the chief marketer of Nigeria’s tourism potentials, it is humourous that he is drawing from the experience of that entertainment background. “To market Nigeria, is like marketing any other product. You need to create a strong brand and identity and you create events around that brand so people can identify with it. If people identity with the brand, then you can promote that brand to like-minded people in West Africa, East Africa and around the world. It is the Nigerian soul that is the brand of Nigeria, not just the cultural dances and the festivals. Marketing consumes money. Marketing isn’t cheap. You also have foreign countries competing to have Nigeria’s over 200 million population. Dubai has big budget for marketing that destination to Nigerians. They pay travel agencies money to push Dubai, they entice journalists, celebrities, legislators with all-expense paid trips to that destination. That is what I’m facing in terms marketing Nigeria. I have this tsunami from everywhere else focusing on the Nigerian population.”

With the conversation fully in progress, Coker went full throttle at what his goal is. “I’m trying to say to Nigerians that the cheapest holiday is a Nigerian holiday,” he said as he emphasized with gesticulations each mention of Nigeria. “You don’t need a visa, forex or to roam your phone. You probably understand the language and probably drive your car there. With the cost of the dollar, your cheapest holiday is a Nigerian holiday. I am Nigerian. I love Nigeria, but I don’t know Nigeria. That is why there is so much negative attitude from Nigerians to Nigerians. How many people have travelled around Nigeria? How many people will say that they know this country? We have that disconnect. The concept of Tour Nigeria is beginning to pick up momentum with the millennials. It is in the growth of that, that we begin to see the foundation of a domestic tourism industry. You can’t connect an international ticket to some of these local destinations. Some of them will fail. Some will succeed greatly because the foundation of international tourism industry is a solid domestic industry. Nigerians must consume Nigerian tourism assets up to a point that those assets are stronger and multiplied. That is when somebody can take the decision to connect an international ticket with which to complete local operations.”

Before Coker got the NTDC job, he was relieved of his appointment as Culture, Tourism and Arts Commissioner in Lagos under controversial circumstance by Governor Akinwunmi Ambode. Having remained in the corridors of power in the state, holding different offices since 1999, including deputy chief of staff in the Bola Tinubu regime and special adviser to former Governor Babatunde Fashola. The rumour mill is still abuzz with diverse versions of how he bounced back at the top, following a shocking set-back in Lagos. Considering his response carefully, Coker said he can only thank God. He denied knowledge of who may have influenced his new office, but conceded that it could not have been without the knowledge of leaders of his party, the APC, in Lagos. “Someone called to inform me that I had been appointed DG of the National Films and Video Censors Board. In the morning of the next day, the same caller came through again to say that I would actually serve at the NTDC.”

His short stint as culture commissioner in Lagos had opened a window that created a few opportunities of interaction with the NTDC. However, assuming headship of the federal tourism promotion agency brought a rude awakening.

“You must understand something, NTDC has no assets and I have no fund to maintain asset that I don’t have. Those assets belong to people, arms of government (local or state), individuals or corporations. As much as we desire to showcase these assets, we are constrained because they do not directly come under our administration. For instance, Katampe Hills is the Centre of Nigeria.

We have made presentations. NTDC’s role is to promote. We have written some reports concerning all these things and we are waiting for sponsorship from the private sector. First of all, tourism needs to be recognised as a business. It is simply the business that encapsulates transportation, hospitality and entertainment. If we understand that it is business then we will understand that we have to invest in the factors of production for that business. We need to look at the corporate governance that surrounds tourism. What are the laws that surrounds tourism? What are the regulations? Are they old? Do they represent best practices for 2018? And will they be valid in 2025? Our law is 40 years old so it has to changed and that change must reflected at state and local government level for some of these things to really take hold. Every asset in a state is owned by the state or local government and if it is federal owned, territoriality will come into play as you can see with the stadium and museums around the country. Look at the regulations that affect entertainment, hospitality and transportation within the tourism environment. Human capital is in short supply in federal, state and local government institutions. If you are just training, but what kind of training? Is it digitally enhanced and appreciated? What kind of machines do they have access to? Is everyone still on a typewriter or slow, old computer filled with viruses? At what speed are they able to communicate? Then you have to look at staff welfare. You can’t pay someone N18, 000 per month and expect the staff to judiciously administer a collection system worth N10 billion.”

Not a few were surprised when news made the rounds that staff of the NTDC were up in arms against Coker so soon after he resumed work. On another front, stakeholders in the industry were also badgering him on account of reforms he was trying to bring to the sector. The internet was also awash with sleaze linking him to corruption in his previous duty post. His career vessel which had just begun a fresh journey appeared to be endangered on a tumultuous course, but he has deployed an amazing brinksmanship that has steered his craft to safety. Today, he is on the same page with the leadership of the Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria (FTAN) on some of the supposed contentious issues in the proposed legislation before the National Assembly. His staff have since embraced him. The fraud allegations have been dismissed as a ruse. Coker explained that he was a man of substantial means before he came into government. “We followed our Leader, Senator Bola Tinubu at a time of uncertainty in 1999 and we have remained with him. I am misunderstood by people who do not know me and we have mischief makers who may be envious of our modest achievements. I am not alone, success will always attract animosity. However, I am happy that my principal knows that I deliver on my assignment. Does it make sense if we have 36 different hotel grading system by 36 states? It will be one federal grading standard that will be recognised by international agencies.”

In order to score some quick wins, Coker has jumped on the goodwill train provided by a company like Dana Air that has made some of his programmes possible. “Abuja is ready,” he said as he expressed optimism on the success of the Tour Nigeria project. “It has the best infrastructure and therefore has the best tourism potentials, in terms of traffic congestion, security, sanitation. If you want to do MICE in Abuja, you can, because it has huge hotels with huge car parks, conference facilities, 500+ rooms. In terms of religion and entertainment tourism, I will say Lagos. In terms of destination, where you want to watch some sort of spectacle, I think Calabar is good. I think the Durbar in Kano is a spectacle to behold, as well. Within the parameters that I have already mentioned, the tourism that we have going for us can thrive on entertainment, religion and business. Abuja is a government town and business tourism comes to Abuja. In terms of nourishing the socio-cultural experience which is the soul, in Lagos, for instance, you have got the entertainment and the religion. Between those two, you can come to Lagos and say I want to feel the pulse or heartbeat of Africa. In those two industries, you will feel a tremendous pulse. In Abuja, we can arrange a great political tour because there is a myth surrounding power and politics. We take people on tour to offices of the legislature, Senate, House of Reps. We show them the Aso Rock Villa where the President lives. Some people are interested in that.”

Perhaps, the biggest reward to Coker since he became DG of the NTDC is his discovery of Kano. It is now his favourite Nigerian holiday destination. “I like the people, the market, the energy of the city. I don’t feel threatened in Kano. I love the culture and tradition especially during the Eid festive season. I like the woven clothes, I like the smell and sounds of Kano. I also like Lagos a lot. I like the energy of Lagos. I like the structure, peace and serenity of Abuja. These things don’t exist in the same proportion in one place. What I like about Lagos isn’t in Abuja and vice versa. If you like meat, Kano is the place. The way they clean their meat and hang it for one day, then cook it the next day, you can’t beat the flavour. We are also blessed with what I call new medium of cultural expression-food, music, film, fashion and sports. Add them to our cultural heritage and you have an explosive mix. We did Nigerian Flavours in Abuja which was a food and beverage festival, but it wasn’t restricted to food and beverage. There is Nigerian flavour in food, film, religion and everything. Tour Nigeria is the master plan, we have a soft brand which is the Nigerian flavour. People should understand the definition of Nigerian flavour because it is about the new medium of cultural expressions. These are the flavours we are sampling.”