When perception rules

“Actually I think we are to blame. We of the older generation because of our frame of mind. Often we define Africa as a pool of problems, not a pool of opportunities.”

These are the words of the outgoing African Development Bank president, Dr Donald Kaberuka, during an interview with a Nigerian magazine Kilimanjaro recently.

He had been asked about how Africans are not aware of the potentials that exist in other parts of the continent in a context where outsiders were also said to be ignorant of the continent’s economic potential.

I would like to agree 100 percent with Dr Kaberuka that Africa has tended to focus more on its challenges and not what it has.

The continent has generally presented a picture of a region in turmoil either through wars, diseases, poverty and other negative factors and yet the positives resident on the continent far outweigh the challenges.

Most leaders have used international platforms to rumble on about the sad stories from Africa, paying little attention to what the continent offers.

Small wonder the world has generally seen Africa as a poor continent while Africans are viewed with such indignation and suspicion.

Indeed, the wrong perception about Africa is largely about the narrative that we as Africans have allowed, deliberately or inadvertently, to occupy space on the national stage.

In our own way we tend to amplify the negative and we have thus fed international media with such poisonous perspectives of this continent.

Nigeria, for instance, is now known more for the rebel group, Boko Haram, and to some extent the deadly Ebola virus. Not much is being said about its economy and other positive and progressive factors.

In fact, my trip to Nigeria this week has been very revealing in terms of the issues that as Africans we choose to focus on at the expense of celebrating what each unique economy is bringing or can bring to the table.

Of course, such issues as Boko Haram and Ebola must not be swept under the carpet but must surely be discussed and solutions sought but not to the same extent as developmental issues.

As I sought to embark on this trip, my family, friends and colleagues were discouraging me from coming to Abuja on business, saying I was entering dangerous waters. Boko Haram and Ebola – there could be no deadlier combination!

My own sister Merilyn said she would only visit me in May, six weeks after the “quarantine”.

She would ensure I was placed under quarantine.

The other one Jackie said she was busy importing the regalia that doctors and all those that attend to Ebola patients wear for the entire family so that they would be well protected when they receive me when I get back.

We laughed it off but would I blame anyone for thinking this way? Who would want to take chances with a deadly disease?

This was all to show that countries like Nigeria are more associated with the Boko Haram insurgency and the Ebola virus that has afflicted a few African countries with great intensity.

The fears are understandable given the stories that we read, especially as we feed off largely Western news agencies that are convinced that nothing good will come out of Africa.

Together with colleague journalists from Zimbabwe, we have been pleasantly surprised that the reality on the ground here is far from what we have been made to believe.

Of course, there is talk about Boko Haram in Abuja and newspapers do cover the issue but the insurgence is not as widespread or as intense as we feared.

The rebels are mainly concentrated in northern Nigeria, about six hours drive (here distance is measured by hours taken and not necessarily in terms of kilometres or miles) although Abuja, a city with four million overnight population, remains on high alert with tight security at hotels and all public places.

Security has been further tightened and this has given the Zimbabwean delegation some comfort.

Life on the streets, shopping centres and at workplaces is normal here and entertainment joints are still full of patrons some would even ask you Boko what?

The situation is not as bad as the picture that has been painted and there is so much else that is happening in the Nigerian economy worth talking about or writing home about.

The Nigerian economy, particularly here in Abuja, is ticking.

The city is under massive construction. Many buildings and housing units are being built as the city races to shape up to the capital city status it took over a few years ago from Lagos.

Indeed, there is so much that needs to be done to spruce up the city in terms of dilapidated buildings and zoning, but it’s a very tidy and clean city despite its four million overnight population.

Some of us have not been exposed to such cleanliness in a long time. What with Harare fast turning into a huge dump site.

Nigeria has overtaken South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy in terms of GDP growth. Nigeria has a GDP of $510 billion while South Africa’s stands at $470 billion.

The country receives $3 billion a month from crude oil exports alone, so you can imagine. More foreign currency is earned from manufacturing, agriculture and other key economic sectors.

However, on the international scene, much of this positive information is muted by the negative issues. Investors and tourists are forced to make decisions based on the negative stories coming out of Nigeria. This obviously has a large bearing on economic development.

It does not need a rocket scientist to realise that the Nigerian economy could be bigger were it not for the perception issues that it needs to deal with.

Issues to do with corruption are high up and some journalists here were generally in agreement that corruption levels are indeed high.

However, they were quick to say that the bulk of Nigerian investors making forays on the continent, Zimbabwe included, were bad ambassadors of their country as they gave the impression that Nigerians are crooks who are always seeking to cut corners.

Zimbabweans have often complained that Nigerians have taken up much of the retail space in Harare because bribery and corruption are their greatest business principles.

The Nigerian journalists here said those were “school dropouts and social misfits” that had failed to find space in their own country.

But the wrong perceptions about Nigeria and Africa in general resonate well with Zimbabwe’s case where the perception out there is far removed from the situation on the ground.

The perception of Zimbabwe as a country in political, social and economic turmoil, one in which foreign investors are an endangered species has perpetuated for too long and has proved very costly to the economy.

This effectively affects the country’s ability to attract capital.

It compromises our global rating hence potential business partnerships, and trade and investment deals are affected, retarding and impacting negatively on growth.

My experience here over the past few days has really made me appreciate more the impact that perception can be so damaging and so constricting.

What is required is for Africa collectively, and respective countries individually, to bombard the international market with its positive story.

The continent has to change its narrative. African themselves need to appreciate each other and be deliberately aware of what respective economies can offer, so intra-African trade can improve while parallel efforts are made to bring out the positive stories of progress, hope and opportunities as opposed merely to disease, poverty and civil strife.

“I think the future is very bright but it is not a given. It depends on what we do – all of us as Africans.

“We have space to determine our own future,” said African Union Commission chairperson Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma recently.

In God I trust!

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