Some years ago, a British filmmaker discovered an exotic site in Nigeria: An entire community of human beings subsisting on mountains of refuse.
And not in some remote state, but in Lagos, the country’s commercial nerve centre – a city of fast cars, luxury shops and sleek folk, with women in Brazilian hair weaves and men in Ferragamo shoes.
Shortly after the Welcome to Lagos series aired on the BBC in April 2010, Nigerians around the world went berserk.
“There was this colonialist idea of the noble savage which motivated the programme,” Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka said of the documentary.
“It was patronising and condescending,” he added.
Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the UK Dalhatu Tafida described it as “a calculated attempt to bring Nigeria and its hard-working people to international odium and scorn”.
Online forums also went ablaze. “They are giving us a bad image,” many Nigerians fumed.
Then the Lagos State government submitted a formal complaint to the BBC, calling on the organisation to commission an alternative series to “repair the damage we believe this series has caused to our image”.
These patriots were not distressed that their compatriots in the oil giant of Africa were living in such squalor – that development had somehow eluded those Nigerians.
They did not rally with cries of: “There are people in our country living like this? What shall we do? How fast can we act?”
No, no, no.
The majority of voices were harmonised in one tune: Anxiety over their country’s image.
Similarly, Nigeria was reluctant to accept desperately needed foreign assistance to fight terrorism, despite the country’s armed forces being clearly overwhelmed.
We were more worried about how requesting help might affect Nigeria’s image than about forestalling the wanton destruction by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
In October 1960, Nigeria was loosed from the shackles of imperialism when the colonialists packed their bags and left.
But over five decades later, Nigerians remain in captivity: Foreigners control our self-image.
What the West thinks of us often takes manic precedence over who we really are, what we know and feel about ourselves.
The Europeans who first landed in Africa were unconcerned when the people they regarded as monkeys equally assumed that the white interlopers were ghosts.
The Germans can shrug it off when they are stereotyped as humourless; the Russians can dismiss it when they are described as cold.
But the Nigerian just has to kick up a tornado whenever he is perceived unpalatably.
He is touchy because he has no alternative image on which to base his confidence.
Like many Africans in the diaspora, a number of Nigerians abroad have erected careers out of defending their people’s image.
With indignant frowns and stern tones, they strut from one global stage to the other like superintendents, dismantling stereotypes and whitewashing sepulchres.
This passion probably sprouts from a desire to blend into their host communities, to not be perceived as savages from some nihilistic jungle.
Unknowingly, they reinforce the subconscious message that has been passed down to generations of Nigerians and other Africans: That the West’s opinion of us is paramount; that enlightening and convincing foreigners matters more than discerning who we are and who we want to be.
Fret and panic
And so, when the West claps for us, we get excited.
When they tell us off, we get upset.
When they applaud one of us, we automatically join in applauding the person.
We frantically monitor foreign opinions and we panic at the slightest hint of a negative perception of us.
We fret about the many uncomplimentary stories from our land making the rounds on international media circuits, more than about the actual negative circumstances that birth those narratives.
From politicians to intellectuals to entertainers to terrorists, Nigerians have been socialised to rate themselves in the light of Western perceptions.
And as some of us have discovered first hand, the most effective way to draw the attention of our own people to any issue, is to speak to them through a Western medium.
It is unhealthy for a people’s self-image to be hinged almost entirely on outside forces.
Nigeria expends too much valuable energy on sweeping dirt under carpets and stuffing skeletons inside closets.
Consequently, we deny ourselves the opportunity of frank dialogue, cultural criticism and self-examination—processes that are vital for a society to advance, by which the imperious West itself has developed thus far.
Nigeria can lead the rest of Africa in freeing our people from this image bondage.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a writer and the author of I Do Not Come to You by Chance.