Out of the 17 African countries turning 50 this year, information ministers for 16 them have one thing in common – they wake up every morning and thank the heavens they don’t have Dora Akunyili’s job. Akunyili, Nigeria’s information minister, has the Sisyphean honor of debunking managing the country’s notorious reputation in a digital age. What other African information ministers are mounting massive PR campaigns to “rebrand” their country’s image or are constantly pushing back against the foreign media rush to stereotype every Nigerian as an underwear bomber, an alien munching cannibal or an advertising punchline for the PS3 video game platform.
After the failed attempt by the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutalab, to blow up a plane in Detroit last Christmas, one could say (in Hollywood-speak) that Akunyili and many Nigerians pushed back against the American media and government by making the case that even though Abdulmutallab was the Nigerian actor in this straight-to-dvd terror sequel, Britian and Yemen should share the director and co-producer credits for providing the schools of indoctrination for the stunt he pulled. Nigeria, at best, should only get an acting credit.
Nigeria may have won that bout with the U.S. government finally acquiescing and scratching the country’s name off its “terror-watch list,” (and recently from the list of major drug trafficking countries), but Nigerian notoriety is alive and well on the collective American screen. African bloggers have long claimed that Nigerians have replaced cold war Russians as Hollywood’s new go-to bad guys in 2009 – see 2 ’09 blockbusters, District 9 and opening scenes of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In other words, Nigerians are the new “ridiculous super villains of the modern age.” This editorial, which ran in Nigeria’s ThisDay newspapers last year, rightly points out that, apart from Abdulmutallab’s underwear shenanigans, District 9 and PS3 ad campaign cited earlier were both produced by the American entertainment conglomerate, Sony. But the editorial failed to mention in what it claims to be a “war” between Sony and Nigeria, that the depicting goes further back. In 2003, Sony, via Columbia pictures, also released the Antoine Fuqua action flick, Tears of the Sun. You would recall it starred a poker faced Bruce Willis, who, along with some bad ass Navy Seals, are dropped into Nigeria Igboland to rescue Monica Bellucci from some Hollywood concocted genocide. Like Akunyili, the Nigerian ambassador at the time to the United States also sent Sony this letter condemning its depiction of Nigerians as machete wielding villains, and he also included the silly request that the film be withdrawn from circulation.
Nigeria’s 50th independence anniversary is just around the corner (Oct. 1st). So how is Nigeria perceived on the gut-level of American pop culture? I thought it will make a good read to extract some points from a just concluded research paper looking at evolving trends in the depiction of Nigerian notoriety in American television and film. But first, lets get on the same page. A culture/entertainment industry, at least the American version of it, is a capitalist, ideological and speculative–as in an ideas and innovation generating–space. At its best, it takes early cues from a very diverse culture and comes up with new uses for stereotypes or other cues of mass understanding in ways that can change how Americans perceive themselves – and others. At its worst, it simply recycles old and harmful stereotypes and ends up deepening every manner of ideological entrenchment. cough-Fox News-cough. Because of the global reach and sheer scale of the American culture industry, it’s safe to say it serves mass understanding on a global and unprecedented scale.
Slowly eroding from the American television landscape are the depictions of generic Africa princes. Back then in Coming to America (’88), Eddie Murphy came from somewhere called – Zamunda? Even till 2000, in season 2, eps 4 of the West Wing, the late South African actor Zakes Mokae ruled some HIV/Aids ravaged place called Equatorial Kundu. Numerous iterations of the African prince character type showed up time and time again, often as a love interest in 90s African American sitcoms. You can find glimpses here and there in everything from Living Single to A Different World. A more recent take on the character is Leonard Howze’s role as Dinka in Tim Story’s 2002 sleeper hit, Barbershop. But today, Prince Akeem from Zamunda is probably less of a pop culture reference in comparison to exiled Prince Nkomo from Nigeria, who emails you spam in the name of Jesus because he needs your “help” to retrieve his royal loot from Nigeria. This season 34, ep. 18 SNL cold open lets you measure to a fraction a brain synapse the degree of instant recognition American audiences now have for references to so called Nigerian princes. American pop culture mainstream is literally littered with references to email scam jokes, all prefixed by “Nigerian.” You can drop “Nigerian” before anything; even “monkey-pox“. Thanks Boondocks. Try telling an email scam joke without the Nigerian prefix. It’s not as funny. But there maybe a twist to the joke. According to Variety back in ’08, SNL alum Tracy Morgan was to star in the comedy Fresh Roommates. The plot feels like the evolution of Akeem into Nkomo as well as the merging of both ideas into one:
“…what if one of the emails isn’t a scam. Story kicks off when a young man answers one such email during a drunken stupor. Soon thereafter, the spoiled son of a deposed African dictator (Morgan) shows up at his door, looking to secure his inheritance.”
Nigerian notoriety is also easy fodder for various crime shows, especially the Law and Order franchises. As the deep voiced narrator claims, these stories are ripped “straight from the headlines.” As early as 1992, plots revolving around Nigerians and storylines about heroin drug mules started appearing in Law and Order season 3 eps like “consultation” (arguably pulled from a U.K news headline) or on Homicide: Life on the Street season 5 episode “deception.” It is interesting to note the proximity of the appearance of these storylines to a 90s’ Nigerian economy clobbered to a pulp by the fallout corruption, military coups and from the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) policies badly implemented in the mid-80′s. Don’t remember SAP? Don’t bother with the wiki. Watch Onion News’ American political pundits discuss the topic and Nigeria in harrowing detail.
Charles Tiv wrote in his book on 419 that the transition of 70s era “OBT” con men (acroynm for “obtaining” in Nigerian government documents) to 90s’ 419 scammers started in the mid-80s. This was largely in response, he argues, to an economy reeling from IMF loan conditions that called for free markets, no protections, no subsidies and the devaluation of naira. Exacerbated by corruption, the resulting depreciation of the naira, high inflation and shredding of whatever social welfare net was still there left many Nigerians to their own devices. There have always been the drug mules, mail fraud and then email scam artists. But the economic nose dive of the late 80s and 90s added a new generation to the criminal ranks. By 2004, Nigerian storylines involving ritual killing debut on the season 5 Law and Order Special Victims Unit (SVU) episode, “ritual.” Ironically, one of the results of SAP and Nigerians left to their own devices was Nollywood. And one of the fallouts of the growing popularity of Nollywood films around Africa and rest of the world is the association of Nigerians with the bizzare, and with ritual killings.
But like plots in Hollywood or punchlines in pop culture, a static, non-evolving Nigerian notoriety also becomes a cliche. Like the premise to the proposed Tracy Morgan flick, we’ve already begun to see new twists. Add to the list this Identity Guard commercial and the 2009 pilot episode of Leverage. There isn’t enough time or space here to thouroughly go over a Hollywood curiosity like the film Mister Johnson (1990). Based on a book by colonial expat Joyce Carey and directed by Bruce Beresford, who had lived in Nigeria at a time, the cast included Hubert Ogunde, Tunde Kelani, Femi Fatoba with Maynard Eziashi playing Johnson. Set in the colonial 20s, the character Johnson comes across as persistant, clueless, a bad bookeeper, creative, innovative, has a zero grasp of nuance, childish, ambitious, audacious, reflexive, and always too happy; or you could say, always happily scheming. Though Johsnon was stuck in the colonial era, the character seems a walking, complex microcosm of Nigeria at 50.