AS Information and Communications Minister, Prof. Dora Akunyili, pushes the ‘Rebrand Nigeria’ project with zeal and vigour, a hand of partnership has been extended to stakeholders in the film industry popularly known as Nollywood.

The minister, last weekend, at the Banquet Hall of the Ikeja Sheraton Hotel, Lagos interacted with the motion picture industry as she sought to find out what filmmakers could offer the nation, especially in the on-going search for better image perception.

But the meeting provided both parties a rare opportunity not only to know each other better but a moment of sober reappraisals for two agents of image making for the country.

If the minister thought she would just lay her script on the table and expect Nollywood to act it out, she had another thing coming. Rather, it turned out a time of learning some of the intricate and confusing issues that make the industry thick. But the professor of Pharmacy is not new to surprises; in fact, she was ready for the image making industry’s tale of woes. It’s a tale of flagging fame requiring urgent attention to avert the collapse threatening the industry.

Prof. Akunyili went to Nollywood to enlist its support in rebranding Nigeria. Instead, Nollywood enlisted her to tackle its seemingly intractable problems, which do not seem obvious to the outsider. Forgetting to don her Ankara for which she is famous, Prof. Akunyili said she opted for a Western designed dress like the stars she had come to meet. And she looked like one in her shimmering beige gown with black frills.

She told the gathering that Nollywood was arguably Nigeria’s cultural ambassador and that she was an avid follower of the industry, which she said changed the entertainment tastes of Nigerians for foreign films. “As far as I’m concerned, Nollywood is the biggest,” she declared to the cheering admiration of industry buffs. “The impact of Nollywood is felt and appreciated. You project Nigeria’s cultural life to the world. Nollywood remains one of Nigeria’s major employers of labour, even for the physically challenged.

“With the advent of Nollywood, Nigerians stopped going to see Indian films. You successfully brought the theatre to the homes of Nigerians”

The minister therefore sought the cooperation of the film industry to change the negative image the nation now has, arguing that Nigerians were responsible for the country’s current bad image. “Negative perception about Nigeria is generated by Nigerians because we don’t believe in ourselves, even in the press,” she charged. “If nothing is done, the image we have as a country of 419-ers, where nothing works, failing leadership, it becomes a liability. The most systematic way is to re-brand, to tell our story and prevent others from telling it the way they want to tell it.” She was therefore counting on the great spirit of volunteerism Nigerians always displayed in enlisting Nollywood for Nigeria’s re-branding effort.

Prof. Akunyili argued that it was Nigeria’s inability to tell its story properly that had affected it negatively and that it was the reason why Nigerian citizens often suffered in foreign lands. She said the fall of Apartheid in South Africa was due largely because of the financial sacrifices Nigerian citizens made as workers’ salaries were deducted at source to help fight that evil regime. Regrettably, the minister said, many South Africans do not know this otherwise they would not have engaged in xenophobic attacks against Nigerians a few months ago while protesting against foreigners in their country.

Nigeria’s inability to tell its story correctly, the minister further said, was threatening to rubbish its historic role in the establishment of ECOMOG force that worked to end the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Lamentably, she stated that the United Nations was wrongfully appropriating Nigeria’s supreme role even as the country sacrificed men and materials for the peace that now reigns in those two countries. Most worrying to the minister was the lack of respect shown to Nigerians in those countries, which it rescued from their wars of self-destruct. Again, she stated that Nigeria’s Technical Corps was working hard to assist other African nations to develop but that it was hardly reported or acknowledged unlike what foreign media do to such events around the world.

The campaign to rebrand Nigeria, she noted, was not about slogan – Good People, Great Nation – but about attitudinal change among Nigerians to be patriotic and have pride in themselves, saying that Nigerians must learn to live up to that name. “We have to believe,” Prof. Akunyili declared.

Nigeria, the former NAFDAC boss told the gathering of Nollywood stars, had so many positive things that could be showcased, starting with the Nollywood stars whom she said she could brag about as extending the frontiers of the nation’s culture as well as natural sites and institutions. “Why talk only about failures?” she asked. “Fortunately, Nigeria has many unique selling points; it has scored many firsts. We should bring these to the notice of Nigerians and foreigners alike.”

She argued that if Nigeria was as bad as it was being portrayed, why then did foreigners refuse to go after staying in the country for a while but instead, going as far as marrying Nigerians as wives. Yet she said it was the same people that joined in condemning the country because Nigerians themselves spoke badly about their countries. “We are saying no with this rebranding mission,” she said.

With this background explicitly made, the minister therefore asked Nollywood on board the rebranding campaign even as she acknowledged the contributions of the father of the industry such as Chiefs Herbert Ogunde, Eddie Ugbomah, Ola Balogun among others. She declared, “We need Nollywood on board. You are critical to this campaign. Almost everybody is watching you; you can project the image of this country. You can show negative things positively, constructively. Through the content of your films and videos, you’ll project Nigeria positively to show the world that we’re ‘Good people, great nation’. To tell our great stories, we need Nollywood. You’re one of our best icons and brands; speak to our country about this campaign. If you show Nigeria as a failed state or a country of 419s, that’s how the world would see Nigeria and Nigerians.”

As if prepared for what was to come from practitioners in the industry, the minister said there was a need to invest in the talents in the industry to make it viable, especially in the areas of scripting to make the stories better. “This entertainment behemoth is under-funded,” she declared. “We are talking to the World Bank; we will bring succour to the industry. In the months ahead, we will see the virtue of believing in ourselves; the rebranding is more for ordinary Nigerians.”

In response, star actress Joke Silver partly read a prepared address from stakeholders in the industry to the minister. She thanked her for believing that the industry possessed talents that could play a role in the task of rebranding Nigeria and stated its cooperation. Presenting the concluding part of the speech, president of Directors Guild of Nigeria (DGN), Bond Emeruah, said an improved Nollywood could play a part in a rebranded Nigeria but not the way it currently stood as a shadow of its former self.

Though successive governments had recognised Nollywood, he noted, they were not able to take the needs of the industry to the desired level, especially the failure in presenting the Motion Picture Council of Nigeria (MOPICON) bill to the National Assembly for passage into law for over two years now.

Emeruah reminded the minister, given her antecedents, of the challenges of an unregulated industry, arguing that the MOPICON bill “when passed, is the lynchpin, the impetus for rebranding Nollywood, an industry at your disposal to rebrand our great and beloved country, Nigeria.”

In effect, for Nollywood to play its part in the rebranding mission, which the minister had come to solicit, the minister had to help to rebrand the industry, which was in dire need of repositioning itself.

DGN President enumerated other problems facing the industry. These were the lack of a National Film Development Fund, the Nigerian Film Policy and the Film Village. The co-director of “Mortal Inheritance’ said the film fund was of more immediate and direct bearing on proceedings regarding Nigeria’s rebranding via the Nollywood way as the minister was canvassing. He also noted that the new distribution framework being proposed by the censor’s board needed being reassessed for effectiveness.

Concluding, he stated, “We hold a solemn conviction that Nollywood with its robust quality of writers, producers, directors, cinematographers and creative designers, whose works around the world show hope for our nation will surely create a fresh new window through which the world will see and believe in Nigeria.”

However, it was at the interactive session that Minister Akunyili got a dose of what she probably took for granted as the problems of the industry. First to fire the salvo was eminent director, Amaka Igwe. She was so clinical in her submission that whatever else that was said became an elaboration of her view. She pointedly told the minister that for Nollywood to partner with her in the rebranding project, it had to be a negotiated one with both parties mutually benefiting. Nollywood, the bulky director charged, was being plagued by piracy, a scourge that the minister must help the industry to deal with if any rebranding partnership was to work.

Other areas where Nollywood needed assistance, she said, were in film distribution network, “no bank is listening to us; there’s a Bank of Industry; what is it doing? Use your power to make SME funds available to us.”

Echoing Igwe on the piracy plague, Zack Orji told the minister that movies were not being produced in Nollywwod right now because of piracy. “Piracy is an affront to the effort being made to rebrand Nigeria,” he charged. “Alaba is the headquarter of piracy. They are so organized in their illegitimacy, our livelihood is being threatened.” He also lamented the inability to get government involved in producing movies, especially those requiring the use of airports and the police. Zik Zulu Okafor charged Prof. Akunyili to give Alaba the Onitsha drug market treatment as NAFDAC boss shut the market and insisted on compliance with the sale of usable drugs not fake. Zeb Ejiro pointed out the problem of electricity power in the country while Peace Fiberesima-Anyiam bemoaned the lack of government support for the different film festivals in the country.

In response, the minister said she felt distressed at the issues raised by practitioners as plaguing Nollywood. “Without Nollywood how can we rebrand?” She moaned. “We will force Custom Service to do its work. In this era, we’ll have to do something to reduce piracy; we want something different, something positive about piracy in the few months ahead.” The minister also pinpointed the absence of a council in the industry to enforce discipline as its greatest problem. She declared, “I see it (MOPICON) as an emergency. I intend to pursue it with all vigour. You are not speaking with one voice; there are too many groups, no unity.”

She therefore charged practitioners to set up a committee of five or six to work closely with her to push the MOPICON bill to the National Assembly for passage. She promised to liaise with the Inspector General of Police to make police props available for filmmakers so as to avoid negative portrayal of the force.

On funding, Prof. Akunyili said she would work with Nollywood to help practitioners assess all available fund opportunities starting from the Central Bank, the World Bank, SMEs saying, “we can ask corporate Nigeria to sponsor our films”.

Earlier in his welcome address, National Film and Video Censors Board DG, Emeka Mba, stated that there was not a doubt what Nollywood had done for Africa. He further stated that Nollywood represented the greatest force of goodwill for the country and that he was happy that he had a minister who recognised the vital force that Nollywood represented as its films were seen all over the world.

He stated, “It’s not how powerful you are but how powerful your voice is, how powerful you are heard. We have traveled to every corner of this earth and our voices are being heard. We’re meeting with the minister to engage her and tell her those voices. Our movies are seen in Brazil and they reignite the passion in them to come back home. And, we have done it without government support. Perhaps, things need to change.”