Richards Mofe-Damijo (RMD), Commissioner for Culture and Tourism in Delta State, is an acclaimed actor. In this enlightened discourse with CORRESPONDENT, Harris-Okon Emmanuel, Mofe-Damijo speaks on government’s plans to harness its rich cultural heritage and vast tourism potentials, Delta giant strides in infrastructure development, re-branding of Nigeria and Nollywood, coming down hard on those who view the industry as projecting the nation in fetish ways. Excerpts:

How did you feel upon your appointment as the Commissioner for Culture and Tourism?

I was elated. I was quite shocked at the announcement, but typical of me, my life is ruled by God. I just thanked God. I felt unworthy of His love and everything because this is not something that I worked for, but I got it by His grace. I just thanked God.

What policy initiative do you have in the offing on capacity building?

In terms of capacity building, we have already started receiving proposals for training and re-training of our people. What I am trying to do is not just to achieve laudable programmes for the Ministry, but also to give a complete re-orientation to the workers in the Ministry. This Ministry is a very specialised one. So, it is something that for you to be able to operate in the Ministry, you need to be able to know the trends and all that. We have been having meetings; all aimed at re-engineering the departments and that involves tourism, culture, arts and entertainments.

How serious is the state about the development of its tourism potentials?

The state is very serious. I think part of the assignments is to eliminate the unseriousness of the state in that area. Being a potential revenue spinner, I think typical of the governor; he wants to lay the foundation for the beginning of the Delta without oil. So, what we are doing is putting in place the blueprint for revenue generation in the future. It might not be something that will stare us in the face in the next one or two years, but if the foundation is solid and we do it seriously, overtime, it will be obvious to everyone that we are serious about it, make sure that we can generate revenue for other sources other than oil.

As a Special Adviser, you had this bright idea of tapping the budding talents and nurturing them into stardom. Have you ditched the plan or what have you done so far?

I am surprised that you ask me that, because we have concluded the first phase of the programme about two weeks. That was the musical phase where a winner emerged. Her name is Ruth Ejiro from Sapele. We have already presented her with a car. So, we are in the process of getting all that done. We are starting comedy, and it audition will start in April.

In what way do you think Culture and Tourism could be used as tools to re-brand the state in particular and the nation at large?

People are ultimately judged by their culture. When you have a culture that is vibrant, friendly, colourful, attractive, people are naturally drawn to it. I give you a typical example, the phrase “Warri no dey carry last”, is a reflection of the spirit of excellence in our culture. Really, that is what it means. Today, it is no longer a question of “Warri no dey carry last,” it is “Delta no dey carry last,” which is what we amply demonstrated at the KADA games. It is that spirit of excellence that drives all of us in our individual efforts wherever we find ourselves, whether in the classroom or corporation or whatever. It is not by accident that we have people in the banking sector, and we have people in the media. It is something that is in us, an in-built in our culture. It is a culture of excellence, and a culture of hospitality.

In those days, when the means of transportation was through waters, we were quick to receive people into our midst. We have the natural propensity to be in the hospitality business. We are very open to visitors. Now, when you have a culture that speaks of all these qualities, you can begin to tell the world that this is who you are and if it is attractive to the world, then it would attract people to you, and they would come to you. Today, that same spirit of excellence is driving our infrastructure developments. Let me break it down simply, tourism can be said to be getting to a place and liking it. When you like a place, it makes you want to come back. When you come back often and often, you start thinking of, can I even stay here? If I want to live here, can I raise my children here? Am I to do business here? Can I find leisure here? So, when all these questions are answered, that is where tourism begins to build. That is where we are right now.

We are in the process of revealing to the world what our culture is and if the world accepts our culture, it then attracts people here and it is that process that generates the revenue because our airports would be busier, transportation, hotel business, food, housing would boom. It would just have multiplier effects on every sector of the economy.

What is the level of infrastructure development given the fact that tourism goes hand-in-hand with first-rate infrastructure?

The infrastructure is there to see. Our roads are being expanded. We have an international airport coming up here that is going to open the gateway to the entire East. We have the Warri Airport and it is going to be expanded. Like I said, we are in the process of creating specially created media events, you know, like festivals, fiesta, concerts, carnivals because we also found out that outside of the natural endowment that nature has bestowed on you, it is the created media that forms the basis of bringing people together annually, quarterly, monthly or weekly. We lack that right now and that is why I said that I would initiate the process of starting Delta State Festival of Arts and Culture again. I would like to initiate the process of winning the hosting right for the National Festival of Arts, expand some of our fishing and musical festivals, boat regatta and all of that.

When we start cultural and tourism expose, you will see that they are going to be on a larger scale, all aimed at making sure that there are expanded platforms to empower people within the industry. I said somewhere else that what we are trying to do is, apart from attracting people from outside, we want to attract people from within, domestic tourism so that you can find yourself in Isoko area because of what they have. For instance, most people braved the bad road to Umoru to attend the fishing festival. People that went there were shocked that we had that kind of festival. I have been told of Ishie Festival in northern Delta here, which has regatta and all kinds of things. There is the Ebu Wonders, a masquerade that can go to many heights. All these are things we need to look at and add value to them. It is the value that we add to them, it is the public presentation of them that will attract people within the geo-graphical locations that are in Delta today. An Asaba man should be happy enough to go to Warri to watch Okere Juju or Abasa Juju. We grew up dancing in the streets of Warri with these things. Outside of their religious connotations, most of them have been secularised. There are now secular festivals as you have carnivals in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago and Nothinghills carnivals. These are opportunities for people to wear all kinds of costumes, displaying some war dancing and we cannot deny our cultural heritage. The thing to do is to secularise it in such a way that they are not mystified. I keep talking to most of them that they should not mystify everything. The world has moved beyond mystifying things.

I am in the process of trying to educate all these people about making sure that the entertainment value of all these festivals are what we are interested in. They are what we want to throw up. It is when you throw them up that people would come from within your area to come and watch and people from outside would hear about it. I tell people that the grotto you find at the source of River Ethiope is as pretty as any grotto you find anywhere. It is the presentation. It is the throwing up and the media celebration of these things that becomes the core of our tourism and that is what we want to do, add value to them and celebrate them in the media.

What is the role of the private sector in all of these?

From the talent shows, you would see that most of the cars that we are going to be giving away are donations from the private sector. We have always said that government cannot do it alone. In sports, we have achieved a major breakthrough and that is what we are going to do with culture. I have written to most of the banks and we have already had some forms of participation in all our programmes that we have applied for this year. We did something at the Council for Arts and Culture and MTN was part of it. It is the beginning. We have not even scratched the surface. Yes, there is a global meltdown but overtime, when they realise that PPP must always be there, you will get bigger. There is a project we are pursuing right now. We have a team of people coming in from Europe to build one of the biggest water parks that this country has ever seen. We are hoping that we are able to meet some of the conditions that they are laying down for us. So, we are aware of the importance of having the private sector to do that. We are trying to copy what is happening within the other sectors of the economy. I mean, look at the Warri Industrial Park, PPP working at its best. We want to replicate that. We want to get people that can work at that scale, at that level. When we are able to achieve that, even if it is not at that level, but something close, people will be more attracted by what we have.

What is your take on the current attempt at re-branding Nigeria, do you think the project can work?

I think it can, but I won’t seat down here and pretend that I have all the answers. What is fundamental to me is that there must be a synergy for it to work. Re-branding Nigeria is not the celebration of what is positive in the media around. It is having fundamental change. It is having service delivery in every aspect of our lives affected and beginning to look at how you can throw these up; working with all these sectors: sports, tourism, sciences, literary arts and all that. It is a combination of efforts. The Ministry of Information just forms the outlet for telling the world what and who we are. Re-branding Nigeria is an essential thing that we need to do. Now, it has to be creatively done. We have to put people to pilot that process, people who understand what branding is. The only part I would have problem is when the process is politicised. If they can keep it out of politics, if the right people are there who understand it, it will work because branding takes time. It can only be done by those who have taken time out to study that process of branding or re-branding, because we are all witnesses to Malaysia, Singapore, and all those countries.

What you brand, if it is just a media celebration, it can only last for a short while. It is a real process of re-engineering or the real process of change, positive change within the entity, the geo-graphical entity that is perceivable, discernable. That is what you speak of when you are talking to the outside world, so that when people come in to check, there would be a remarkable difference with what they know, what the perception is and what is right.

The process of re-branding Nigeria for it not to be like our Federalism has to be a lot more fundamental than cosmetics. If what you want to do is more cosmetics, then it would be like every other project of branding for the sake of media branding. But for it to have any meaningful impact, it must be fundamental.

Are you worried about the influence of foreign cultures, especially pop culture on our youths?

Pop culture in itself is good. I mean we are parts of the global village. There is no pretense about it. There are more people who watch foreign televisions than Nigerian televisions. So pop culture is here to stay. It is what that rules the world right now, because in it you find all aspects of life from computing to IT, technological advancement and even space technology. It is the attitude to it. That is why you find that more CEOs, people like Bill Gates, you don’t find them wearing ties. It is a reflection of pop culture and all of that. The world is an MTV base or MTV culture, its reality television, its hyped geographical channel. So the entire world is drifting to a much younger and much vibrant generation. That is why you have an Obama there. He is 47, you know. You cannot eliminate that in itself. What we should be doing is to make sure that our younger generation feels the positive side of pop culture, see how you can use what the West gives in terms of technological advancement and ideas and use them to change your own environment. It is the application that I am more worried about. Television in itself is not bad. It is when you allow every kind of programme into the country that is where there is problem. That is why you have the NBC, and you have the regulatory bodies. GMS in itself is not bad. It is when the regulatory body allows the operators to get away with so many things, so you can operate the system for so many years and the tariff will keep going up instead of coming down, running a system where there are no emergency phones and numbers free of charge in most states. Typically, those things should be there. Running a system where the regulators know that the customers are being shortchanged but they are not doing anything about it. So, those are the things that are worrying, otherwise I am not worried about baggy trousers and all that. It is the effects that it has on our economy. Now, D’Banj is good for the economy because with him alone you have spurred the entire industry. Is TuFace good for the industry? Is Nollywood good for Nigeria? Today, you cannot re-brand without Nollywood because it is part of the highlights of what we have found that we can export. Are good sports men and women good for the country? For the fact that Kanu Nwankwo plaits his hair, does it make him less of a man? Does it remove from the fact that, single-handed, he has put Nigeria on the face of world map? So, pop culture is something you have to define to suit the positive side of the society. It is not in sex and drugs, no, it is not what I consider progressive pop culture. It comes from within, but when you have the chance to regulate, then you can regulate those ones so that you can eliminate pornography and the likes.

Talking about Nollywood, most Nigerians believe that it portrays the country as fetish. How do you react to this?

That is a myopic view of Nollywood. People just get hung up on a criticism and they cannot move beyond that. If that were all it is, it would not be where it is today. That is the truth. You and I know that that is just a scrappy criticism that people are holding to. The entire country is fetish, anyway. And if we have cinema that has portrayed that side of our culture, why are people making it look like the worst offence that any filmmaker can commit. I don’t see anything wrong with it. What people are saying is that people should use their privately earned money to launder the image of Nigeria through their films, but you cannot tell a man who brings his money the topic or theme of film to do. We tend to forget that I cannot champion your course with my films if I have not keyed into your course. If you want to champion your course with movie-making, then you better go and find out how you can get movie-makers to come out with it, sponsor it and let them champion your course.

We talked about re-branding Nigeria and that is what I am saying. Let me take a case for Delta. There is a New Delta, whether you like it or not. The roads are better. Infrastructures are springing up everywhere. Women and children are being affected. Women that could not get antenatal are asked to go to hospitals for free antenatal. Children, who could not pay school fees, are asked not to pay examination fees in schools. Whether you like it or not, there is an emerging Delta that is positive, strong and vibrant. Now, what do you do? You key into it. Tell Deltans today that there is a New Delta, you don’t need to keep beating their heads because they can see it, they can feel it. Warri Airport is being expanded. The road from Ughelli to Asaba is being expanded. They can see it. It is change that you can believe in, change that you can see, feel and touch.

If we are going to embark on a campaign about the New Delta, you don’t need much more than what is happening to tell the people for them to follow you. But if you are re-branding Nigeria and they can see that things are not changing in terms of infrastructures, fundamental changes, true federalism, electoral reforms and what have you, the people are going to have a hard time convincing those in the Niger Delta that there is something to re-brand, because they would still tell you that you have not even solved the problem of lack of infrastructures in the country. There are problems and you cannot just snap your fingers and everything would be okay overnight.

The intention has to be seen. There are a few people today in this country that you can point your fingers to, as agents of change and you don’t need to convince people much more than that. When people see that leadership is focused, followership becomes easy. We were all witnesses in this country that people obeyed laws. People queued, and people were not driving against traffics because leadership committed itself to making sure that we clean our environment and people obeyed. There are days I drive in this town pass eleven in the night and people are sweeping the roads. It had never happened before, but it is happening now. It means that they are people employed to do that. When people can see that change is fundamental, is serious, you’ve already convinced them.