‘We Have Challenges, We Are Managing Them, But Let Us Stop Abusing This Country’

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong holds a conversation with Mr. Folorunsho Coker, Director General of the Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation on the sustained efforts to repair Nigeria’s battered image and other sundry issues related to good governance

Are you concerned about the ability of politicians to deal with the issues that caused the EndSARS riot?

No I’m not. I think it’s a wake up call- not just politicians, public office holders and the public themselves. Everybody suffered. Everybody lost in the protest. And I think everybody is now mindful of what to attack, what affects you. Mindfulness is the vaccine, I believe, for impunity. If we are mindful that this thing affects this person this way. Mindfulness is an antidote to impunity. If I’m mindful about your well-being, I cannot do anything anyhow. So mindfulness is what I preach, mindfulness to work situations, to domestic situations to so many things that are the genesis of all those problems. EndSARS is a protest that has been going on to end SARS, as the response to police brutality. But it went beyond that. And if you look at it, what were the things they were agitating for? What were their demands? And at the end of the day the government met those demands but the protest went on for a bit too long. And other elements of society that were disgruntled about other things and some were just pure opportunists used that opportunity to hijack it, and carry out their own plans. EndSARS didn’t mean burn police stations EndSARS didn’t mean burn policemen. EndSARS was a statement. They wanted SARS to end because of some of the issues concerning SARS. They wanted it to end but look at the dimension it took.

How much work will be put into building Nigeria’s battered image?

I think the first thing I will say about that is development journalism. I think we, as a people, need to speak more to our positives. I’m not saying, ignore negatives. Don’t sensationalise our negatives but push, talk more about the positive things about Nigeria, because if you don’t talk about the positive things that you’re doing, you will find out that nobody’s going to come and research your positives and echo them for you. So the first thing is developmental journalism. The next thing is public education. When I say public education, I don’t mean school, academic, I’m saying public education. You cannot defecate on the road. That is public education. You cannot drive against traffic. That is public education. You cannot just drive on the Third Mainland Bridge, going in the opposite direction because there’s traffic, that is public education. These are your rights, if somebody stops you and the person is unconstituted authority, you must be educated about what your rights are and it is in that education, education of the public. I think that is where we differ with a lot of African countries. The investment in public education is very different from the investment in academic education. Public education is what makes me know that this is wrong, this is right, and public education is not just the responsibility of government. Public education is the responsibility of families, of parents, of their teachers. I mean, a lot of things that make you who you are today, were handed to you, not only through your formal education in school but your domestic education that had a component of public education. When you see an elder you must greet. There’s also something I have to say. If you use your mouth to consistently say the negative about something that is uniquely yours, it is going to happen in that negative way. Let us stop abusing this country. We know we have challenges, we are managing them consistently. I don’t call the president, the president, I call him my president. We must own him. I don’t call the governor, the governor. Mr. Governor, I call him my Governor. It is that sense of belonging, that sense of ownership and I think that it’s very important to control some of the negatives that are always coming out. I don’t abuse my father. I don’t abuse my mother. My elder brother, I don’t abuse him. Nigeria is our country. It is an embodiment of everything that is so much greater than our individual self even though that we make up..we the collective make it up. So, in terms of public education we need to reimagine who we are, what our country is and how we are going to push forward in that positive light. I feel that’s very, very important in repairing the battered image of our country. It is about just showing positive images of Nigeria that are constantly echoed, and if we show enough of those images, positive side, it starts to echo and drown out the negative, and amplify the positive and I think a lot of that work has to be with you the creatives that have the skill and know how to meander this treacherous journey. It has also all gone digital now. It’s all in the public space. The printers are not printing, printing presses are not selling. Everything is now online. That means a man in Siberia can read your newspaper and see your opinion about your own country and that may help him make the decision that he is curious enough to go to that country. What we say and how it is amplified is so important in terms of restoring our image. A lot of the images are not from foreign journalists.

Without trying to sound defensive, it’s my industry, I try to check in places where this profession has been established over the years, centuries in some cases, how they have handled…let’s take, for instance, the infamous assault on the Capitol. How did the American media handle it? Certain things happen and there’s no other way than just to show exactly what happened. Except we want them to say, it didn’t happen or to spin it, even in spinning, you have to be careful otherwise you lose your credibility.

What happened with that attack on the Capitol, is that it was an attack on what America stands for. There was a bipartisan rejection to it. Democrats said no. Republicans said no. Every young man, woman, they all said no. They were going to kill the Vice President of America. You broke the sacred image of the Capitol Hill by attacking it, and you are only one section. All the immigrants that called themselves Americans, they don’t count. There was a bipartisan rejection of that incident. Secondly, the whole world was also shocked and they started to mock America. And Americans don’t like that. So they went into overdrive, to show people what happened, to show that this wasn’t America, and this was not the America that they stood for. They’re still trying to reconstruct that image. In the reconstruction, as you said, the multiple injections into one viral story means a lot says a lot about what you believe. Sorry, CNN took Trump down. They amplified his negative and suppressed his positive.

Let us also look at the way Fox News, which is supposedly pro-Republican handled it. One or two persons resigned after that.

Because they couldn’t sell that news anymore. And they needed the credibility post-Trump. And because they left, they have their integrity intact. While those who stayed till the end, the Trump administration, some resigned before he left. I read one article where CNN carried a story: Have you seen what these people did with Trump, and you are an American, can you employ them in any capacity, again? They went that far to say no, this cannot happen in America. They say, those who stood and watched the Germans kill the Jews are just as guilty as the Germans who killed the Jews. They said they cannot forgive the people who stood by and did not speak up at the right time about the wrong and the atrocities. He was making calls to governors, to rig, giving pardons to people that should not be…all sorts of things that … it wasn’t Trump. It was the institution of the President of the United States of America that was now at stake and needed to be protected, affecting the sanctity of elections that Americans cannot go out and vote.

But again, it just shows to me that people are the same everywhere.

What was EndSARS? To some extent. It was community action. Community actions that started to say that we must do more for ourselves, we deserve better. On my street, we have a community action, we have an estate group where we talk about issues, the local government, state government, too many miscreants and we concerned about carrying the garbage. It is community action. It is not a negative thing, it’s actually a positive thing. But it should not result in violence, loss of life, loss of property. That is heading towards anarchy which is not something that any democratic institution like ours will subscribe to. Take note of cancelled flights, international, domestic, the figures are huge. They’re still recovering, if they can ever recover. I mean the whole dimension has changed now. Greater efficiency must be brought to the dwindling assets that we have. Look at Ibom Air, Ibom flights come on time. Can we look inward and see how we can amalgamate our airlines to form one solid domestic airline?

Can we look at it and say, why do some airlines fly only within one region?” If an airline is flying efficiently, is it wrong for me to give that airline a licence for it to expand its operations if it’s making pure commercial sense to it? Is it wrong for me to say, okay, it looks like they know how to fly, come let’s partner? Let’s make the money together. Not that you just come here and be flying my passengers in and out. It’s time for us to reimagine aviation. It’s time for us to reimagine the marketing of hotels and airlines. Most people who are flying somewhere, maybe fly to Abuja, they are going to stay in a hotel. Look at the transportation between the airport, is it something that you can sell as one package like you buy a package to Jerusalem, to Mecca? Can you buy one package to Abuja where the political and business community are considered very transit. I see Nigerians constantly market on social media trips to Dubai and Kenya. I have only just started seeing packaged trips to Lagos, packaged tours of Abuja, packaged tours from Abuja to Yankari, Ikogosi. You know, and that is the spinning and application of technology into it that makes for one price. I can get a brand and get a good quality holiday. That is the growth and development I’m pushing for. The digital promotion of multi sectoral packaged affordable holidays. I know that things are tough, where everybody can take a holiday. If I drive to Epe now, there is a lodge I can go to. I can take a short break from the city. That is what I think needs to be promoted more. COVID-19 cancelled conferences but COVID-19 made Zoom, Google Meets and conferences where people meet, sit down and exchange ideas and listen to what’s going on in the world, it hasn’t stopped conferences, it’s just changed the dynamics of conferences. I don’t need to get up and attend the conference. I can, in one day, attend three conferences. So the cost of those things…certain industries have fallen by the wayside because they’re not there to be consumed anymore. They are tourism assets but those tourism assets need to reimagined. That is what the application of technology is. If I have an event centre, and I’m waiting for Alhaji to come, rent it at the weekend for his daughter’s wedding. And he doesn’t come anymore because of COVID-19 compliance. Maybe I should have an art exhibition. Call local artists to come and display their art in the place where they can sell it. Maybe I should have a socially distant recitation of classical music or look at our local drummers. The Festival of the Drums, not in huge ways but to keep the business alive because you have nothing else but the bottom line is that your rent is still there. So you’ve got to reimagine the use of your assets. If there are incidents that threaten the peace, it is for me to identify that incident but it is not for me to resolve. That is a bigger issue than my agency, but that is something that I have had conversations with other heads of agencies that have the command and control of what happens on the roads to innocent travelling citizens. Destruction, looting of restaurants, department stores, quick dining restaurants and bars was very unfortunate. I pray to God that a lot of them carried some insurance. I suspect that a lot of them did not. So, those losses were total losses.

Does the government have the revenue in-flow, inclusive of oil to try and compensate or give grants to all those people? I don’t think so. Does the government have the power to for example create tax credits that will encourage you to go back? What we can’t give you in terms of cash, out of the cash you make, we will give you a credit. Can the banks look at softer, cheaper loans and say okay government owes that bridge, all of this infrastructure, those infrastructures, can some commercial value be extracted out of them, or be used as guarantee for cheaper loans.

That is possible.

That’s why I’m suggesting it. But what government doesn’t need to own, they make a concession to somebody that will do much more. Nigerians in diaspora do a lot for Nigeria. They amplify the things that sometimes we cannot amplify here. Their remittances are a huge source of income especially foreign exchange are a lifeline to a lot of families here. I think what I would like to pitch to the Nigerians in diaspora. I lived abroad for many years before I came home. And whether I like it or not, I would like to think my presence, back in Nigeria adds some sort of value to the country. I think highly qualified individuals who are taking low paid jobs abroad should consider coming back home. It’s not a bed of roses but nobody’s going to build it for you. The loss of one man, one trained Nigerian to the diaspora is more than him, it’s the wife and the children and the education and all they could be. If I could give you a figure, that is what is lost to another nation. If you look at the academic records of immigrants in America, Nigerians are at the top. If you look at sports in basketball, Nigerians are there. I know a Nigerian who is the head coach of the Raptors in Canada, a Nigerian is the World Boxing Champion. We need to own him. We need to give him a national award, we need to grab some of these people and entice them back here. Give them a Nigerian passport, give them citizenship straightaway. Even give them access to land to build. The other day I heard Stevie Wonder say he is moving to Ghana. Wonderful. We need to facilitate those returns.

Nobody has tried to come back Nigeria. Ghana has always put in place policies that help. Rita Marley owns an estate there.

Ghana sells a very beautiful slave story. But if you watch the ‘Journey of an African Colony’, you will find out that more slaves came out of Nigeria than Ghana. Nigeria’s relevance to the slave industry is greater than Ghana but because we have had oil and all the other assets, selling our slave story was not our priority but now it must become a priority. If you do the DNA analysis of all the people who have returned to Ghana, taking Ghana as their home, you will find out that most of them are Igbos and Yorubas from the Bight of Benin and Gulf of Guinea. So it’s another game that we need to change, and it is from our museums and from the cultural policies that we use to drive our cultural heritage and the immigration and taxation and legislation and regulations that all come up to make it an attractive package for a Stevie Wonder to come and live in Banana Island, Ikoyi-Lagos or wherever he chooses to live in Nigeria

What is the impact of the widespread violence that followed the EndSARS campaign on tourism in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos and Cross River State?

First of all, we look at where we were at that particular time. We were in the middle of a pandemic. The pandemic was something that the government and the private sector were struggling with. We were already in a difficult situation with the pandemic and EndSARS now came and just compounded it. What’s tourism? It’s the transportation, it’s the hospitality, it’s the entertainment industry. And what violence does to those industries is to bring them to a halt. People were not moving around, shops were not open, hotels were not open, restaurants were not open, and the image-which is one of the most damaging things was that the image that it portrayed in the pandemic, violence in these cities of Lagos and Cross River- was most negative. Some people would look at it that okay, it was an expression of the frustration of a particular demographic group in Nigeria. Some people would look at it as it was not against just the police. It was against constituted authority. There are many dimensions to it. To say that tourism benefited from the pandemic would be a foolish thing to say.

We were in a bad situation with the pandemic, EndSARS just deepened it. And the worst people who are affected if we look at the damage to life and property were those same demographic who were agitating.

Nobody’s saying that in a democracy where there’s free speech, people cannot express their opinions and demonstrate, but when it comes to the murder of police men the wanton destruction of both private and public property, it is difficult for anybody to support them. We live in an organised society where your rights are enshrined in the law, like my rights are enshrined in the law. For you to say you are aggrieved, take a position that is detrimental to my own well being, it’s why we have the Constitution and the laws, enshrined, you know, the fabric of what makes our country. Without the law, without the constitution, without the police, and all those things, your life is just as threatened as mine, irrespective of the grievance. So, I felt it just deepened the negative conversation about Nigeria and it also worsened the effect on tourism assets that Nigeria is trying to build.

Can you estimate the cost of the two weeks of EndSARS protests on the local economy and destruction of tourism establishments?

It’s near impossible to give a figure. There were established businesses, there were new businesses, there was the attitude now that it is truly unsafe to go anywhere, and you must understand this is also happening within the ecosystem where we have things like herdsmen and farmers issue.

That is something that has been going on for a long time, but when you add those things, which is a critical mass, critical load, in terms of negative inputs about Nigeria, it becomes worse. We don’t own the vehicles and engines that carry these negativity. They’re carried by global international platforms to help reinforce negativity. Who are the content creators? We are. Who are the people that put them on those social media platforms? We are. Without pooling our own positive platforms we are doing ourselves so much more of a disservice. In terms of value, I would hate to guess but I know that the National Bureau of Statistics put out some figures.

Lagos State government put it at trillions and that was just the Oba’s palace, the police stations, the shopping malls. You can quantify those things in terms of physical structures that need repair. But the man in Lekki who lost his shop, that he just came back from America to open is not included in that loss. The man whose family are now looking for bread and butter because he was one of those killed, the policemen that were attacked, random citizens who lost a lot of properties, supermarkets that were attacked, etc. It’s difficult to put a figure to that. Even if we put it at trillions of Naira, we are looking at physical assets, we’re not talking about the psychological effects of people who are no longer free to go out at will. We are not looking at brand loyalties that have been lost where people have now gone to alternatives, because they are not able to get to those places because those businesses don’t exist anymore. So to give you one compass figure is very difficult. But to assess physical structures like City Hall, etc. the government can compute that easily.

What lessons can tourism professionals learn from the EndSARS riots?

Again, I go back to building a domestic tourism industry. A domestic industry generates employment. It generates taxes. It engages. Tourism is the largest employer of particular demographics, women and youth. The people who were agitating are the youths. So, if they’re the ones agitating, tourism is a healer. Tourism healed Rwanda. After 9/11, tourism healed America. After the global economic meltdown, a lot of countries used tourism as a tool with a commonality of focus between government and the private sector like Dubai changed their laws. A man and woman who are not married can now share a hotel in Dubai.

Dubai allows alcohol. Saudi Arabia has enabled a tourism law and they are marketing. Now these are traditional countries with a religious barrier to such behaviour and they have changed the laws to look at tourism. If we can look at the corporate governance, and welfare issues of tourism, if we can look at the human capital as well as mental capital that is now required to drive tourism. If we can look at events that we allow especially in government spaces, stadia, where social distancing and orderly behaviour are required. The largest tourism assets are in the hands of the government. We’ve got to look at how we can give greater access in places like Abuja Stadium, Abuja Dome, National Theatre, Tafawa Balewa Square. Those places where you can still have a semblance of what it used to be like, but with the requisite COVID-19 compliance requirements that allow people to aggregate but in space.

Does Nigerian tourism industry have the resilience to withstand such occurrences in the future? And what should be done to strengthen it?

Nigeria is a resilient country. The Nigerian tourism industry is a resilient industry. It is treated as a backup to other industries. But it should not be a backup, it must be reimagined. If you’re a travel agent, your focus can no longer be selling tickets to Dubai, to log on to South Africa, where Nigerians are going to plug into foreign economies, your focus should be what exists that you can give an expression to a hotel and an airline. Create packages to move Nigerians. There are two hundred million Nigerians. Domestic tourism is six times bigger than international tourism. And it is seasonal. And as we grow it, it becomes mature. it generates. It starts to recreate itself. And it is within that growth, that organic pan African growth that, Nigeria’s tourism will be able to resist any sort of shock in the future. It is a domestic industry that can resist global shocks like the pandemic. The internationals fall away immediately. The airlines don’t come. Look at the COVID-19 compliance, we were only allowed to travel within our country, at some point . I can fly to Kaduna tomorrow. You can come from Uyo. So we must understand that our dependence may be on our domestic tourism. International tourism is just an airline ticket that is plugged into our domestic economy. And what we have in our domestic economy in terms of business, in terms of tourism assets, in terms of soft power is big enough for us to consume. The internationals will come. It’s a question of time.

QUOTE

Nigeria is our country. It is an embodiment of everything that is so much greater than our individual self even though that we, as the collective, make it up. So, in terms of public education we need to reimagine who we are, what our country is and how we are going to push forward in that positive light. I feel that’s very important in repairing the battered image of our country. It is about just showing positive images of Nigeria that are constantly echoed, and if we show enough of those images, positive side, it starts to echo and drown out the negative, and amplify the positive and I think a lot of that work has to be with you the creatives that have the skill and know how to meander this treacherous journey. It has also all gone digital now. It’s all in the public space. The printers are not printing, printing presses are not selling. Everything is now online. That means a man in Siberia can read your newspaper and see your opinion about your own country and that may help him make the decision that he is curious enough to go to that country. What we say and how it is amplified is so important in terms of restoring our image. A lot of the images are not from foreign journalists