OF JUBILEE AND BRANDING FeaturedWritten by Ibim Semenitari
May 27th, Rivers state will be 50. It is the year of jubilee. Life truly moves at such a dizzying pace. Fifty years is a good time to count and recount and I have seen plenty on display. Everyone is adding his or her piece to the puzzle.
The stories of the agitation and creation of Rivers state; the narratives of history; the cadences of politics; and the various shades of opinion, all coming together to weave the tapestry of 50 years.
As I watch events unfold, I am reminded of the twists and turns in our journey of statehood. From the pre colonial era of powerful city states who engaged in trade and diplomatic relations with the Portuguese, the British and the Scots, to the post colonial era of the Oil Rivers protectorate because of the palm oil trade and the bustling commercial activities at the Africa Trading Outpost in Okrika.
From the struggle for independence; the fight of the ethnic minorities in the Eastern region and their refusal to be part of the new nation without a guarantee that the rights of all peoples will be respected regardless of their creed or tongue resulting in the Willinks Commission report; the setting up of the Niger Delta Basin Development Authority to the civil war and its attendant bruising of an already fragmented region and nation.
From the battle or recognition by Isaac Adaka Boro and his ilk to the acceptance by Boro to join forces with the Federal Government; the liberation of Rivers State actively supported by the late Kenule Saro Wiwa. From the abandoned property battles to the restructuring battles; the upland/riverine dichotomy to the latter day struggle for self-determination, militancy and political upheavals, Rivers state has had its fair share of hits, triumphs and misses.
So roll out the drum we must! Against all odds, defying all labels. We are one Rivers state, where everyone is welcomed. Indigene (I hate the word) and non indigene (I hate the word more). Everyone is a stakeholder and should be part of ushering in the next 50 years.
Fifty is a good number. 50 is the year of Jubilee. Borrowed from the Bible the word “jubilee” meaning “ram’s horn” in Hebrew - is defined in Leviticus 25:9 as the sabbatical year after seven cycles of seven years (49 years). According to the Bible, the fiftieth year (jubilee) was to be a time of celebration and rejoicing for the Israelites. It was also the year of release. Release from indebtedness and freedom for everyone who was in any bondage.
All labour was to stop for a whole year and anyone who was under any kind of bonded labour was set free. Literally, like the Sabbath day, the jubilee year was a rest year. A time to allow both the land and the people recover from stress and work.
It was also a time to recall God’s goodness to the people of Israel and a time for forgiveness. The result of course was that the land was refreshed, the people refreshed and a new vista opened up for Israel. Fired up, they began another 50 year trek until the next jubilee.
As we see and hear the preparations for the jubilee celebrations of Rivers and Lagos states, one is almost tempted to make comparisons. But that may be a journey to futility as it would be a comparison between apples and oranges. Yet the celebration provides a veritable opportunity to step back and take stock.
Nigeria had always been a nation with a business triangle. The first triangle was Lagos, Kano and Port Harcourt. It was understandable. Lagos was the capital city; Kano was the seat of commercial activity in the North and the home of the groundnut pyramids; and Port Harcourt was the heart of oil, trade and commerce. It was also the port city built by the colonialists to be a melting port for all of West Africa. Its closeness to the sea and central location in the Eastern part of Nigeria made Port Harcourt the place to be. Plus it was a city that boasted of an enlightened gentry, great food, good fun and amazing talent. All of that and more made it a destination of choice. More serene than Lagos, with no particular dominating ethnic group, and with all the fun plus more of Lagos, it was also the get away city for many across the country.
That was Brand Rivers. An inherited brand that great men and women had built from the scratch. A brand, which they guarded jealously irrespective of their place of initial origin. Port Harcourt boys and girls were at the top of their game. Panache, style and grace defined them and the city was clean, crisp and beautiful.
And then the rot began. It’s hard to be certain when the rot exactly set in. It kind of crept in on everyone. Some say it was the curse of oil and others say it was the curse of a new kind of politics. One in which nothing was sacrosanct and where death and destruction equally seemed like fair game. Whatever the reason, no one could deny that Rivers state had lost its innocence.
From Paradise gained to Paradise lost to Paradise forgotten. For those who knew and those who remembered, their hearts bled. The question was rife, who would bell the cat? How could we begin the journey to re- become?
Then in October 2007, Rt. Hon Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi became Governor of Rivers state. It was at the height of the militancy and fresh out of the “Port Harcourt wars.” He inherited a state that had been so brutalized because it bore the fault lines of the militancy struggle. He had his work cut out for him. He needed to change the narrative if anyone was going to do business with his administration. He needed the world to come to Port Harcourt if he wanted his state economy and in correlation the GDP to grow. He needed the investors if he was going to be able to create jobs, reduce hunger, reduce poverty and stem insecurity. It was clear to him early enough and the demand was clear. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he had to rebrand the battered image of a state with enormous potential and great people.
Thus began the Rebranding Rivers project.
In October 2009, I was privileged to hold office as Commissioner of Information and Communications in Rivers State. Top on my list of assignments and waiting on my table was the Rivers brand project. Before my assumption of office, Black, a branding company from South Africa had been engaged to handle the brand project. They had begun some work but there was so much that hadn’t been done. I got marching orders from by Boss and governor. Prepare to roll out the brand. According to Governor Amaechi, we needed to “better perceptions about the city and create stronger investor and citizen confidence in Rivers State.” According to Randall and Frost, renowned brand experts, “The image we have of another ‘state’ says a lot about how we view it as a tourist destination, a place to invest or a source of consumer goods.”
Black had done extensive research and it was evident that we needed to create a Brand Rivers that left everyone with a picture of the ideal – a Rivers State with its own personality, culture, history and values. The point was to re-create a Rivers State that would become a recognizable idea for economic and commercial as well as for political purposes. In that way we would have been able to create a Rivers State with the power to shift expected change from government to the people. Crucial to success of this ‘new’ Brand Rivers was for the people to take ownership and vote in leaders to maintain mandate. Finally at the heart of the building of every brand is the need for continuity; building on existing gains to guarantee long term success.
Rivers State at 50 has forced me to again remember our brand journey and the hopes and expectations of the people as Black conducted interviews and sought their input from local government area to local government area. Some things stood out in all of the responses by the people. Top on the list was that the people wanted a restoration of their individual and collective pride. I am not too sure if those concerns have changed and the jubilee year would be a good time to reiterate them.
The most profound statement that left an indelible impression on my mind as we worked on Brand Rivers was something Governor Amaechi said: “You should bear the pain as I am managing to bear the pain. It is a necessary duty I must do for everybody.” This indeed is the burden of governance.
I’ll clink my glasses to 50 years of hope!