The following article was published in Vogue Italia’s Rebranding Issue (May – June 2012). Read on
It’s Thursday, January 5th when we land in Abuja, capital of Nigeria. Today the Muslim’s ultimatum to the Christians expires. We have a police and military escort to ensure total security. We’re headed to the presidential palace and don’t have much time. We have to take off by 6 pm at the latest. There’s no real danger, they assure us, but it’s best not to take chances. The streets are calm, with none of the confusion one might expect. Abuja is beautiful, with lots of greenery and imposing villas hidden behind high walls.
The city has an air of wealth, and is spotlessly clean everywhere. We’re late for our appointment due to the flight before ours, as well as all the security checks. First stop for the car, second for document check, during which we’re photographed, and finally for surrendering all our cameras and cell phones. The situation is rather complicated in Nigeria right now, and everyone performs their job with attention to every detail.
The fact that they won’t let us bring any photographic equipment is a real disappointment.They understand that this is a problem for us, so they offer us a book full of photos of the President. We can choose whichever ones we want, they tell us. “No”, I reply politely, “we take our own photos. Vogue has its own style and we want to maintain it”. I stand there with the book in my hand and everyone’s eyes on me, wondering what I might say or do next. “Ok, let me speak with the President and see what I can do”. Between the disappointment of the photographer and cameraman and the lack of reassurance that the President would even be there, I feel like it’s all my fault.
A guard and the Chief of Protocol come to lead us to the Oval Room where we were to meet the President. I turn and see my whole team looking vaguely defeated. “Smile, please. And that’s not a request!”. Then Goodluck Jonathan, President of Nigeria, elected on 16 April 2011, enters the room, returning our smiles with his own. Elegantly dressed in a blue suit composed of a tunic and trousers with a gold pocket chain and his signature wide-brimmed hat, he is followed by the Vice President, who is Muslim, while Jonathan is an evangelical Christian. We are also joined by the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, a gorgeous and elegant woman – who also happens to be a princess – dressed in traditional robes, with a Master’s from Cambridge and the distinction of being the first woman to run Nigeria’s most important ministry, given that it is the world’s 8th largest oil exporter.
Lastly, Edem Duke, Minister of Culture and Tourism, enters the room, with his authoritative bulk and wide-brimmed hat like the President’s. We all sit. I’m next to the President, who invites Alison-Madueke to say a few words. She offers a detailed illustration of our F4D project and our idea to dedicate a whole issue to Africa, but with a positive slant in order to convey an image of the continent that’s not all famine and death, but that is full of potential for growth and expansion toward new development initiatives. President Jonathan warmly supports both projects and he casts me a gentle look that needs no reply. “Your turn, and be convincing”, his eyes seem to say. So I begin.
“Mr. President, thank you for having granted our request for an interview.It is true that we are a magazine of images, but I think that there is a lot to do in terms of your country’s image, which at the moment does not come across as wealthy and stable, despite having oil and other great prospects”. He interrupts me and informs me that the country’s motto at this time is ‘Rebranding Nigeria’. “I couldn’t agree more, truly. But I would like to revive your textile industry, which used to be strong but have been overshadowed, though not forgotten, since the discovery of oil. Why sell the tie-dye patent to the Chinese, who will end up producing it there? In the course of a couple of generations, knowledge of your tradition will disappear. At least if it were produced in Nigeria there would be work for the local population and your culture wouldn’t be lost. You have amazing potential – just look at what happened in Brazil, or at how many European and American companies make their goods in China. Why can’t all this be done in Nigeria?”.
He smiles and nods in agreement. I go on: “All the richest Nigerians spend their money abroad because there are no shops here, no hotels with a chic African flair, no hip restaurants or clubs. Why not build an African Rodeo Drive in Lagos or Abuja, with boutiques carrying both imported and Nigerian goods?”. I stop, perhaps I’m going too far. He looks at me and says: “You know our designers. They’re talented and very creative”. “Of course”, I continue. “You have Duro Olowu, who is famous as Louboutin in America and Europe, and many others. There’s also Mercedes, which sponsors a lot of fashion weeks. We could talk about doing one here. In any case, there is no shortage of ideas, but we need to act, and quickly. In the northern part of the continent, Nigeria is the country with the greatest potential. Why not take advantage of it?“. I stop. The President looks at his ministers with a satisfied smile and appears to agree with what I said. He then states that he will do everything to help us, and to make sure that all this isn’t just talk. “I agree, and this will serve as a basis for reflection. We have problems of various kinds, some of them very serious, but this will not impede our country from moving forward and changing our image. I thank you for having spoken openly and frankly.
Is there something I can do for you, even if you’re only here for a few hours?». I laugh, relieved, without missing a beat: “Certainly – a photo, taken by us in the Vogue style. Give us the sign and they’ll bring in the equipment”. He looks around with that shy, kind smile. “How can I say no?”, he exclaims. As the Minister of Tourism leaves the room, he says: “It’s true that dynamite always comes in a small package”.
Photo by Francesco Carrozzini