Nigeria's new information and communications minister, Dora Akunyili says: "I know everything is not perfect with Nigeria. I know we have problems with energy, roads and other things. But is there any country that does not have problems? If we wait to fix all these things before working on a positive image for Nigeria, we might as well wait till eternity." Osasu Obayiuwana went to interview her.
Q: You built an excellent reputation for yourself as the head of Nigeria's food and drugs control body, so many people expected you to, naturally, become minister for health. But you are currently the minister for information and communications. How did you react to what was obviously a surprise appointment?
A: To tell you the truth, when the appointment was announced, I literally broke down, because I did not expect it. But a few minutes afterwards, I got myself together and reminded myself that nothing happens without God's approval. For weeks and months, I had prayed to God that he should not let me go where he would not be. And I also told him that if I am not able to do better in any new assignment than I did at NAFDAC [the food and drugs control body], I should not go there. So, after praying for so long and ending up where I am now, I am convinced that it is God's will that I am in this position and I have to make the best out of it.
In my first interaction with the media after the appointment, I was asked why I was in this post, as they said Nigerians were angry about my appointment, and how was I going to manage the image of Nigeria. I just spoke straight from the heart and said we just have to make Nigeria a good product, as you cannot sell a bad product.
As you have rightly implied, Nigerians trust me so much and I do not want to play with that trust. I have vowed that [as minister for information] I will never tell any lies to Nigerians, who have always believed that this ministry has always been one for propaganda. I promise that this is an era when this ministry will give them accurate, credible information ... We need to bridge the gap between the government and the governed.
I will also fight corruption in all its forms, which is why I told my staff that any of them who had taken free mobile phones and free digital satellite dishes and decoders from companies selling them had to return them before the end of February. This was to enable us to have the moral standing to carry out our oversight functions. The areas I have to oversee in my ministry are huge. In telecoms, we have had a boom over the last seven years but the quality of service has not been the best. The cost of services being provided is really on the high side. Considering the fact that we have a huge population, one expects that phone calls should be cheaper. An immediate task [for us] has been how to get the telecoms companies to reduce their tariffs and improve their quality of service, especially lessening the rate of dropped calls [calls that do not go through or are interrupted], number portability, and other issues relating to the quality of service.
As the chief image-maker of Nigeria, I am not just responsible for the image of the government but that of the ordinary Nigerian outside this country. Our image outside this country is pathetic. Every Nigerian is literally seen as a fraudster or a criminal until you prove otherwise. And even in this country, we do not even believe in ourselves. We have been so battered [psychologically] that many of us believe we are no good.
But I am determined that something can be done about it [repairing Nigeria's image]. For too long, foreigners have been telling our story. We need to tell our own story; we need some form of rebranding. We have had the "Heart of Africa" campaign, but it did not work.
Q: Why did it not work? Millions of dollars were spent on that campaign.
A: Well, if it did work, there would be no reason for us to deviate from it, as government is a continuum. But you see, even the slogan, the "Heart of Africa", is contentious. Malawi has been using this slogan long before us. Secondly, the 2004 launch of the "Heart of Africa" project was...