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“We tell and retell Positive Africa”- Yomi Badejo-Okusanya (YBO),

President of the African Public Relations Association (APRA)

Truth be told we all have a major role to play in the way other people perceive us. It is said that “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception,” thus for Africa to achieve its full potential and take its rightful place in the world, she has a lot to do in managing how she is perceived by the rest of the world. Therefore, some members of the Inside Watch Africa (IWA) team, recently paid a visit to the President of the African Public Relations Association (APRA) – Mr. Yomi Badejo-Okusanya, also popularly known as YBO, in his office in Lagos, Nigeria, to get a first-hand information on what (APRA) is doing to corporately manage the image of Africa.

Mr. Yomi Badejo-Okusanya is a consummate public relations practitioner and the Group Managing Director of one of Nigeria’s foremost communication consulting groups, CMC Connect (Perception Managers).  With over two decades of work experience in the Marketing Communications and perception management industry in Nigeria and internationally cutting across Corporate Communications, Government Relations, Marketing PR, Financial Public Relations and Crisis Management, his work experience has seen him consult for many multi-nationals and national governments, such as the 1st female elected President in Africa, H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.
An alumnus of the Lagos Business School and a renowned facilitator, YBO is the current President of the African Public Relations Association (APRA), the umbrella body for the practice of public relations in Africa.

IWA: The world sees Africa as one, but unfortunately going by what is happening on the continent, Africa cannot be said to be united. I therefore would like to know in specific terms what your association – the African Public Relations Association (APRA) has done over the years to foster this unity?    

YBO: When I first became the Secretary General and then the President of the APRA, the first thing we did was to integrate ourselves into the African union, because until then APRA had no tangible relationship with the African union; we were more or less just talking to one another. We then realised that if we were going to be talking for Africa, we would have to work with the African Union. This we pursued to the extent that the first conference under my watch as Secretary- General was hosted in Addis-Abba as part of the 50th anniversary of the African Union. Since then, we have been aspiring to become registered as a consultative arm of the AU, and I must tell you that it’s a long process; moreover, African Union with due respect has its own challenges, there is a lot of bureaucracy, so it’s been a long journey for us, and now we are at the point where we need to register with a body called ECOSOC who are the ones who cater for such registration.

We have actually started the registration to a certain extent. ECOSOC functions as the think-tank of the African Union and it is what they put together that becomes a recommendation to the foreign affairs ministers which is then ratified by the heads of government in Africa. We thought that it was the best place to be, initially we were working with the communications department but because they were not a policy formulating arm of the AU, we had to start again… the process is still on. All our conferences have now been endorsed by the AU, we’ve had attendance from a very high level – at the deputy chairperson’s level.  We’ve made presentations to them and we are even proposing that we have an office in the AU complex in Ethiopia. We believe that one of the biggest challenges Africa has is narrative, its reputation and right now it is about war, strife, disease etc., imagine the kind of dent it would have had on our image if the Corona Virus had sprouted from Africa like Ebola.  Therefore, it is expedient that as PR professionals we are the driver’s seat driving the narrative of everything the AU is doing to foster unity amongst member states. As things stands now the visions, aims and objectives of the AU are only known at the government level.

For instance, in Europe, the impact of the European Union is felt by the average man on the street. That is not the case in Africa, the impression out there is that the AU is only a body of government technocrats and administrators, and that impression must change for both the continent and the AU. We have started to work closely with the operating arm of the AU known as the African Union commission in this respect and our goal is to positively reshape the narrative by selling “Positive Africa”. We feel that Africa has a story to tell or re-tell, and who best to re-tell that story other than the key story tellers who are in this case – the public relations practitioners.  We have then given ourselves a mandate, as PR practitioners across the continent to equip ourselves by knowing what is going on. Before now, all that we’ve was to just talk to ourselves, but now we want to, and are really starting to influence our key stakeholders (government. Business, NGOs and foreign interests).

We have also taken steps to put African Public Relations in the main stream of global PR agenda, such that our conferences are now attended by the President of the Global Alliance which is the largest body in terms of communication, in fact I have been informed that our up-coming conference will also be attended by the president of the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) and several other dignitaries from across the globe. We have been able to push Africa into the mainstream of the global PR agenda and we believe that if we take all of these things collectively along with contributions from various stakeholders in the field of PR, we will become a global force to reckon with, and possess enough juice to drive our campaign effectively. A good example of what I am talking about is the Tokyo Olympics, where we should have a clear narrative for Africa globally; to create a situation where we would be able to situate ourselves strategically in these world events and leverage opportunities presented to sell a positive Africa.

IWA: The recent frosting in relations between South Africa and Nigeria has been a PR nightmare for both countries, and has resulted in some level of disconnection between them, and this is typical of relations between several African countries because certain complexities of the situation are only appreciated at top governmental levels, what is your organisation doing as regards embarking on campaigns targeted at the young and people in the streets in Africa to promote integration, unity and better understanding at that level?

YBO: The fact that we are trying to make Africa one market is one of those key points and we believe that if this is put into place, issues like this will be significantly reduce. We strongly believe in the economic integration of Africa; it has been one of our cardinal goals. Africa should be an economic zone, which by all standards be a force to be reckon with. There are suppositions that the young South Africans who don’t know the historical ties that binds the countries together, are of the opinion that Nigerians are taking undue advantages of them, and the Xenophobia is their response to it.  It is said that the key issues are; they are of the opinion that Nigerians are taking over their business, and in some cases, their women, in some other cases the Nigerians are perceived as offering better services at cheaper rates, and of course not ruling out the issue of shady businesses that some Nigerians engage in, whether it is fraudulent practices or dealing in narcotics. There is a need to understand that in the growth of an economy, these things are inevitable. What we are doing about it is accentuating our campaign on the need for economic integration in Africa, which will see Africa become one market and all varied interests become one. We are also advocating social integration as an effective tool and an integral part of our campaign to foster oneness in Africa which underscores our official slogan, which is “One Africa”.

IWA: There is some scepticism around the success of African Continental Free Trade Area (AFCTA), what do you think about this and what are the things your organisation has done or is doing to ensure that the success story not only holds true, but is also obvious to these sceptics?

YBO: There is an African proverb which says that “if you want go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together”. It is time for Africa to go together, because its strength doesn’t lie in each market trying to solve its own problem, but in the integration of the continent as a single market. I totally believe in the concept of a ‘United States of Africa’, not in terms of political structure or leadership;I am not saying that one person becomes the president of Africa. I am advocating that we go as a one in our strength which is massive and in my opinion the only way to go. It is what has made Europe strong and definitely what made America strong, because technically, each state in America could easily be a country by itself, but they decided to come together to form one country – the United States of America, they have a common market, security, currency, army and purpose. All these makes the USA very strong and the superpower that they are today. So I believe that this is the only way Africa can go, we should have some form of economic and political confederation under which we can all act as one because that is where the real strength lies.

Looking at it, the AU has not been as effective as it should be in this respect and consequently whether by commission or omission they have not achieved the lofty dreams and goals set by the founding fathers of the AU – the dreams and visions of the likes of Haile Selassie, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, just to mention a few, hasn’t been achieved, and for us to achieve these goals, it is imperative for Africa to operate as one. The pertinent question to ask is; what are the fears militating against achieving these goals? The logical explanation is, once there is a change of status in life, there is always a fear associated with it; for example, if you are getting married, you will be afraid; if you are getting a new job, you will be afraid; if you are setting up a new business venture, you will be afraid, so I am not surprised that there is some level of apprehension as to working together, but I believe that once we put our hearts into it, we will begin to see the advantages. What this means is that this publication of yours can go across Africa, the skills you have here you can actually be transferred to Zimbabwe or Zambia. Let me give you an example, look at the United Arab Emirates, there are about seven (7) countries that came together and you can see how strong they have become, some are more prominent than the others, but collectively they are strong. If each one of them had decided to go it on its own, I am not so sure if they would have achieved all that they have. There will be challenges associated with integration and it’s not going to be easy, but I think that’s the way to go.

IWA: Africa had always been blamed for a lot of things it wasn’t responsible for because we do not manage our narrative around certain issues well, so do you think Africa has managed the narrative around the Corona Virus well enough to the extent of not getting the blame that isn’t ours, and what step is your organization taking to make sure that the narrative is properly managed from the African point of view?

YBO: The most critical thing we should do regarding the Coronavirus, beyond us repudiating the origin as Africa, is that we should save our people and this has to do with a lot of enlightenment that and a lot of advocacy around it. My greatest concern would not be avoiding the blame, we are clear where it has come from, and my worry will be the virus containing, managing, and stopping the spread, because it is so devastating to the extent that it is stretching the resources and capacity to cope for the most industrialised nations of the world. If it were to be unleashed here, it will be more devastating, so what should we do now is to move into the world of enlightenment and advocacy, which is what we have urged all our practitioners across the continent to do; it’s not the time to get fixated on the blame game, it is simply the time for all hands to be on deck to help keep all our people safe, so we have to enlighten our people how they can take care of themselves and how they can avoid the virus at any opportunity we have, even in cases of suspected infection, teach them what they should do to curb it. This becomes more significant when you realise that Africa has the least literacy rate across the world. So this thing only needs to get into some places where it is difficult to disseminate information and we would have a huge epidemic on our hands. Our most important task as PR practitioners in this situation should therefore be to ensure that we communicate, advocate and give counsel to, not just the people, but also the government. We should make sure that the government, the people and the private sector are doing the right thing and support them. Just last week it was reported that the Nigerian Senate President said there was nowhere in Abuja where people could be quarantined and that’s sad. I hope at the end of the day this thing will not snowball into something that will get out of control, and we will carry the brunt of this whole thing because while the western world has managed to contain the spread the virus, we have not done much work towards our own containment strategy; that’s where the problem will be for us if we don’t get our act together.

IWA: We are definitely over-dependent on China as regards trade, is it not time for us to focus more on becoming more independent in all that we do?

YBO: For me, it is important that Africa has an industrial policy and if we already have one, it should be targeted at what and where we have comparative advantage. As a continent we still some deficiencies in the area of infrastructure thus we cannot but be dependent on the super powers like China at the moment because we have no choice. It is simple, they are strong and we are weak now, so we need them. As PR practitioners, what we should be talking about now is that there should be as a matter of urgency, an industrial policy for Africa which is well articulated and distilled down to address Africa’s needs. For instance, let us assume that a certain number of new vehicles are needed yearly in Africa and there is an African industrial policy in place where a Toyota plant in situated in country A, a Nissan plant in country B, and another plant producing Renault in country C, all located in Africa, then we are looking at it as a total trade or policy concept in which the demand for new vehicles in the West African Sub-Region for example, can be taken care of by a plant located in Nigeria, Benin or Ghana; in fact it would mean that Africa is capable of meeting its total yearly demand for new vehicles for all its regions by plants located in these regions, which is a big economic plus for Africa as a continent. I think this again brings us back to the issue of re-engineering the AU which is of present more of a political union and needs to be more of an economic one.  Consequently, I am hoping that the African Free Trade Continental Agreement will help address this and reposition the role of the AU to be seen more along economic lines rather than political.

IWA: I am sure that you will agree with me that these are long and medium term solutions to the problem, and we need to immediately activate the short term ones that will trigger the law of comparative advantage and at least at the level of producing the food we eat. For instance, are we doing enough to promote the things we are currently producing locally like local cuisines and apparels?

YBO: I agree with you that as a first step and an integral part of selling Africa, we need to also activate the same narrative at the very basic level of the economy and using your analogy, I would say that as Africans, we must as a matter of urgency,  build some African brand assets across the board. A few days ago, I saw a video clip which is popular and I am sure you must have seen it, it features somewhere in China that someone was asking for fufu and egusi… and who was talking, – a Chinese man. The truth is, where there is a demand, there is always an opportunity. So we cannot blame the Chinese for institutionalising the Chinese brand of food or restaurants. It is onus on us to build ours. I have only been to china once and I was telling someone the other day that the Chinese food over here in Nigeria is better than the one in China. They have succeeded in commercialising their food because they realised that there is a demand for it and that is what we must also do with our foods, drinks and wears. For instance, if you are from Ondo, the Asun (grilled goat meat) that is served there is so different from the Asun we now have in places like Lagos. The popular Asun we have now is parboiled, they will cook it a bit before grilling it, but for the original Asun, they grill it straight without any par-boiling, so the meat is tough and spicy because they baste or marinate it with raw pepper before grilling. Not many people are able to eat it, except for maybe someone with acquired taste like my late uncle who doesn’t mind, and even craves the spicy nature of the original Asun.  For you to understand what I am saying, my uncle is capable of eating Garri and raw red Pepper as dessert while he is waiting for his food to be ready. So, we need some strong African brand assets around these products, and those brand assets are what we got to develop from what we have.  The truth is that nature abhors a vacuum, if we don’t meet our basic needs using the African brand assets we have developed, the Chinese or some other persons will come here and meet those demands using their own brand assets. These type of development has taken place with foods such as pounded yam in which you don’t really have to pound yam anymore, you could just pick up Poundo-yam, which is actually pounded yam developed, packaged and branded for our consumption, and there just like that you have your pounded yam on the go to eat; these are the kinds of development and initiatives that we should drive. The pertinent questions to ask ourselves are, – Should there be a fund for small and medium scale enterprises across Africa to fund these initiatives, to make the difference? Should we help skills acquisition or skills development, contrary to the situation where many of us are just looking for university degrees, and consequently we don’t have enough of quality artisans or technicians or technical knowledge to develop our continent?

IWA: As a practice we will always ask people what is core character that they need to drive their business so I ask you what is the most important character trait that is expected of a Public Relations Practitioner?

YBO: I would say the biggest thing is the integrity of purpose. Because sooner or later if you fail in that area, you’ve failed in every other thing and it will catch up with you. Some people mix PR with Propaganda.  A Yoruba adage says no matter how far a lie has gone or spread; the truth will always catch up with it. PR is not about spin-doctoring, it is about telling a story, and that story must be based on truth. This means that in many instances if our clients and principals have not done well, we should own up to it. The integrity of purpose is the bedrock of PR practice.