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The vast power of soft power



A few years ago, while researching on a lady that was about to hire me, I discovered from one of her online profiles that her doctorate thesis from the University of Berkely focused on Nollywood and its potential as a tool of soft power. It was the first time I had come across the expression ‘soft power’, and I would with further digging come to understand that it referred to the way a country uses its cultural and economic influence, rather than brute force, to achieve its foreign policy objectives.

The most apparent examples of soft power can be seen in the ways that the US government backed Hollywood in the very early days of cinema, in the production of movies that projected the United States as a strong force for good and its enemies as evil. The backing in modern times, with Hollywood now awash with cash, is perhaps a bit more strategic, showing glimpses of operational security and counterterrorism protocols and classified cutting edge technology. American pop culture is the dominant force in determining trends, from fashion to music to business, helping to create ready markets across the world for American goods and services.

Soft power is not peculiar to America however and what prompted this piece was a story from Scotland last week, following the release of the Netflix movie ‘Outlaw King’. Tourist guides at the 15th Century Linlithgow Palace featured in the movie are preparing for a surge in visitors, having experienced similar boost following the release of ‘Outlander’. The Greek Island of Skopelos felt a similar bump following the success of the Mamma Mia movie, which was shot there.

In Scotland, the site where the Hogwarts Express passes over a large viaduct in the Harry Potter movies is so popular with tourists, that the local authorities have had to issue several safety warnings about getting too close to the tracks. The Lord of the Rings trilogy opened up New Zealand to a new set of visitors. Now imagine weaving the Kano Durbar, the Argungu fishing festival or the Eyo festival into a movie plot.

It is not far-fetched. With each passing year, Nollywood’s international exposure is increasing, beyond the borders of Africa and beyond being celebrated for its numerical output. And, with the return of cinemas, film makers are again beginning to find some reward in movie production. However, the age-old complaints about infrastructure and piracy remain and we have a ministry of information and culture that is much less about culture than it is political intrigues and vainglorious posturing.

Successive governments have continued to miss the opportunity that the entertainment business presents, not just for the practitioners, but for government itself. There was a glimpse of what was possible when the economy was rebased a few years ago, to recognise the contribution of entertainment. However, refusing to deal with the metaphorical Boko Haram in the value chain means that the government is missing out on tax revenue, not just from the initial productions, but on merchandising (consumer goods based on the movies and characters) as well.

Beyond revenue however, and we are returning to America now, consider how everyone knows the broad outline of the Oval Office and that POTUS sits at the Resolute Desk and that the office is brimming with paraphernalia from its past occupants and visitors. These factors undoubtedly add to the reverence the world pays to that particular institution. Nigerian film and music are also generating increasing nuanced curiosity about the country. Imagine, for example, what similar knowledge about the workings of our own Presidency could do for the office both internally and within our sub-region.

Now, obviously, it will not simply be a case of ‘if you build it, they will come’. There remain the small matters of connectivity between our international airports and the regional destinations, regularity and punctuality of scheduled flights, safety and security considerations, emergency services for travellers who take ill or get injured and hospitality providers that can cater to a variety of palates, amongst others.

We also need more storytellers willing to retell our history or recast the present. And government’s involvement would need to very light touch – access, facilitation, giving visibility to the movie projects and improving significantly on security and transport infrastructure. Excess involvement from our government typically corrupts processes. There are many ways to be a giant of Africa besides the military, our population or the Super Eagles. There’s a clear and present opportunity with our movie and music industries and a discerning government would take it.

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