ABUJA (Reuters) - A blockbuster sci-fi movie which caricatures Nigerians as gangsters and cannibals and a Sony PlayStation advert which implies they are fraudsters have infuriated a government battling to improve the country’s image.
South African film “District 9,” which has topped the UK box office for two straight weeks and ranked in the top 10 in North America, is an allegory on segregation and xenophobia, with alien life forms cooped up in a township set in Johannesburg.
None of the groups shown comes out particularly well, but the Nigerians are portrayed as gangsters, cannibals, pimps and prostitutes, while their leader’s name is pronounced Obasanjo — the same as that of Nigeria’s former president.
Nigeria has banned cinemas from showing it.
“It is a Hollywood film, shot in South Africa and acted mainly by South Africans. We protested because it showed Nigeria in a very bad light,” Information Minister Dora Akunyili, who is spearheading a “rebranding Nigeria” campaign, told Reuters.
“There is no country that does not have prostitutes and criminals but definitely most countries don’t have cannibals, and we don’t have cannibals in this country. We don’t eat human flesh, it is definitely unacceptable,” she said.
Akunyili said the government had told the Nigerian Film and Video Censor Board to ensure “District 9” was no longer shown in movie theatres and to confiscate copies. It had also written to the producers telling them to edit out references to Nigeria.
“We do not encourage censorship or government forcibly prescribing actions that infringe upon a consumer’s right to choose,” said Roy Murray Bruce, president of Silverbird Group, which owns one of the country’s main cinema chains.
“However in this instance, Silverbird is fully behind the censorship board’s ban on the movie because of its demeaning, crass and offensive misrepresentation of Nigeria and Nigerians.”
The controversy comes as Africa’s most populous nation seeks to shrug off its image as an epicenter of corruption, epitomized by “419” email fraudsters named after the article in Nigeria’s penal code that deals with advance fee fraud.
In March, the government launched a rebranding campaign with the slogan: “Nigeria: Good People, Great Nation.”
Even Nigeria’s banking sector is being forced to clean up its act. The central bank last month removed the heads of five banks as part of a $2.6 billion bailout, before anti-corruption police brought charges against them including recklessly granting loans without due authorization.
“District 9” has not been the only headache for Akunyili’s rebranding campaign.
Sonyhad to edit an advert for its PlayStation 3 gaming console in which a customer asks the price, and was originally told: “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet, otherwise I’d be a Nigerian millionaire by now.”
“Why didn’t Sony, for instance, use Japan? Japanese being criminals. Don’t they have criminals in Japan,” Akunyili said.
“In District 9, why didn’t Hollywood use the criminals in New York? How many shootings do we have in a day in New York? Why didn’t they use the name of their president or their former president? There is no way anybody can defend what they did.”
She said Sony had apologized.
Additional reporting by Hannington Osodo; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Randy Fabi