Our annual survey of the nations that best use their gentler sides to get things done.
There are a few rules of the soft-power game that many nations just don’t seem to get. For example, they pour fortunes into PR projects and hire a fancy firm to make them look great. Or they somehow think that’ll paper over the fact that journalists languish in jail or wealth is concentrated in the hands of the privileged few. Others forget that it’s not all about the big stuff: it’s about letting dissent happen, lending a hand when disaster strikes and being organised enough to put on a decent national shindig overseas.
In 2017 national brands became deal-breakers like never before. In the face of Brexit and Donald Trump, businesses are asking where to relocate their HQ next, and the destination often hinges on questions of soft power. Are the borders open to attract great talent? Is there a workforce that is diverse enough for a globally minded company today? Where your HQ is speaks volumes about the company itself. Is yours an inward-looking organisation or a place that could benefit and share in a nation’s stamp of excellence?
It’s not all about Justin Trudeau. Sure, he can hang out with Ivanka and make nice with Trump and still somehow come off looking all the better for it. But now is a powerful moment for the Canadian cause in the ways that actually count: in a no-Nafta world there would be trade deals to be done and Canada has already shown that it can ink them with the best, not least the EU.
Canadian brands too are punching above their weight more than ever before, from the thermal togs of Canada Goose to the department stores such as Hudson’s Bay that are opening outposts in Europe for the first time, just as other storied retailers transition online and out of sight. Meanwhile, Canadian talent continues to soar as The Weeknd and Shawn Mendes top charts, Margaret Atwood adaptations become critical darlings and Ryan Gosling remains one of film’s most bankable actors.
There’s also been a notable spike in the number of foreign students choosing Canada as the place to learn. The reasons are multiple: there are excellent universities up north and a visa regime that makes it easier, not harder, to study there. And it’s also something to do with what Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, said when he decided to base the company’s second HQ in Toronto: “You guys are home for immigrants – excellent.”
Indeed, at a moment where bigotry has entered national discourses in a way not seen in years, Canada’s openness – very much the watchword of 2017 – makes the case that it’s open for business.
Of course Canada’s welcoming attitude during the migrant crisis is the soft-power gift that keeps on giving; Canada has proven that it’s a welcoming and reliable pair of hands and it knows how to put on a decent shindig too. Canada Day takes over central London every year and it shows how feverishly patriotic Canadians can be.
It’s a country that has positioned itself as generous and even-handed, and deems globalisation to be for the many and not the few. It’s something of a beacon of hope for many people around the world as we shift into an uncertain-looking 2018.
Universities in top 500: 20 (2017)
Foreign-aid spend: $4.3bn (2016)
World Heritage sites: 18
Trudeau has elevated Brand Canada to new heights but it’s in the country’s interest if its international good-standing goes beyond one politician and his socks.
Trudeau may have some travails at home but he’s still a big winner overseas.
He’s making cuts to the aid budget at a moment when he could be eclipsing bigger nations.
It started at this summer’s Nato summit in Brussels. French president Emmanuel Macron approached a phalanx of world leaders, swerving the US president to shake the hand of Angela Merkel. At the same summit he crushed Trump’s hand during a photo op, smiling all the while. In June he launched Make Our Planet Great Again, urging US scientists and engineers to move to France.
Since Trump came to power, world leaders have found themselves in a bind: realpolitik means they must build bridges with the US yet their honour is at stake. It is tricky to be both friend and foe yet Macron has managed it, positioning himself as an ally while being an outspoken critic. Trump, after all, was hosted in the Élysée Palace and made guest of honour at the Bastille Day military parade, where he was treated to an afternoon of admiring the full might of the French military. Rather than appear duplicitous, Macron emerged as assertive and confident – a host with a sense of friendly Gallic formality.
Since then Macron has thrown the full force of his personality behind persuading the president to honour the climate accords. “I want to convince him that the solution is not to break what we have,” he said at the UN General Assembly in September. He has Trump’s ear and is making the most of it with his alpha-human charisma, even if his efforts failed on this occasion.
Such stage manoeuvres have been the stuff of international power-broking down the centuries. As Justin Trudeau seeks to navigate Nafta and Theresa May eyes post-Brexit alliances, they would do well to remember that frank, firm and sincere criticism needn’t come in the form of point-scoring.
Despite some flip-flops in policy Angela Merkel still enjoys an empathetic image and has breezed through another election.
Germany, however, faces challenges: the Volkswagen emissions scandal has rocked a key soft-power industry; the return of a far-right party to the Bundestag for the first time since 1945 played out awkwardly; and Berlin has lost some of its shine amid rising rents.
Still, musician Helene Fischer continues to win hearts and digital downloads globally and Frankfurt is primed to entice the UK’s businesses looking for a new home post-Brexit.
Universities in top 500: 39 (2017)
Foreign correspondents: 729 (2015)
Goethe Institutes: 159
Germany needs to invest in sustainable infrastructure and decrease inequality to cement its position as leader in both liberalism and environmental protection.
Germany is international, multilingual and good for business.
Merkel holds many of the cards for a smooth Brexit; punishing the leaver won’t play well.
France has long been one of the world’s soft-power heavy-hitters. Its many Unesco World Heritage sites, extraordinarily intact village life and lauded temples of art make it the world’s most-visited country. Yet for years it has not had the leadership to put la cerise sur le gâteau.
Christine and the Queens have broken out of France’s pop bubble. And Macron’s swaggerish belief in free-market economics and Europe’s bright future has been a rallying cry. The country still faces challenges, not least the economy, security and integration, but vive la France packs a punch again.
Number of tourists: 83 million (2016)
Foreign correspondents: 945 (2015)
Restaurants with three Michelin stars: 27 (2017)
The self-styled “Jupitarian” French leader will need to tread carefully at home and abroad to ensure that those who want to see him succeed are not outnumbered.
Shows the real soft power of having a vast diplomatic network and multilateral outlook.
The far-right may have lost the public vote but it has managed to infect national discourse.
The business of self-promotion doesn’t seem to come naturally to modest Japan. While TV ads spoke of “Incredible India” and “Malaysia, Truly Asia”, Japan stood on the sidelines, a huge hit with everyone who actually made the trip but a mystery to those who didn’t. How times have changed. Japan is expected to hit the 29 million visitor mark in 2017 as recently as 2013 there were just 10 million visitors per year.
Japan Inc has also woken up to the reality of a shrinking domestic market and is looking for ways to sell its products to the world. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are a motivating factor. It is no exaggeration to say that the 1964 version shaped modern Japan. Wrecked by war, 1964 was Japan’s coming-out moment. The 2020 Olympics won’t have the same impact on today’s Japan but it has pushed the country to muse on its international appeal.
Shinzo Abe’s government is pushing for more of a presence: the Foreign Ministry is funding Japan House – three cultural outposts in São Paulo, London and Los Angeles – under the direction of Muji advisory board member Kenya Hara. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has the Cool Japan Fund, a public-private initiative whose projects include a plan to showcase Japanese food and drink in venues around Europe. Meanwhile the government is promoting Japan’s Unesco-recognised washoku cuisine; it has relaxed visa rules for foreign chefs working or studying in Japan and devised a certification system targeting the 89,000 restaurants around the world where Japanese food is served.
After years of neglecting its soft-power potential, Japan is now racing to make up for lost time. A team of experts is even being dispatched by the Land Ministry to revive 40 (of the 500) Japanese gardens around the world that need love and attention.
As the 2020 Olympics approach, Japan is doing the things that seemed so obvious to outsiders. It’s finally taking stock of its culinary and cultural prowess to sell the country and is rolling out a network of houses overseas as part of its Japan House project. Foreign-aid spending has also shown a bump in the past year, even if Japan continues to reject more than 99 per cent of refugee applications.
Meanwhile its bounding bullet-fast experience of infrastructure-building is becoming a soft-power sell in itself. From India to Indonesia, Japan is helping to get people moving – and that’s as much of a boon as finely cut sashimi.
Japan houses: 3
Olympic gold medals: 152
Embassies abroad: 195
Japan is realising the benefits of promoting itself overseas. The government should show that there’s more to the country’s popular culture than anime and J-pop.
Japan has built a strong innovation economy and a healthy cadre of laureates.
Shinzo Abe is shaking off pacifism, which is being eyed carefully by the region.
An obvious slip for a previous winner. It’s not only the decision to leave the EU that has dented the UK’s image but also the political garble that ensued, the nadir being a general election almost as reckless as the Brexit referendum.
The UK scores big on other metrics: tourism figures still sing (even if the major art galleries could do with a little riskier thinking amid declining visitors), cultural outreach is well entwined with diplomacy and from sport to the arts, the country is still a big softy. But the image of Brits as a safe pair of hands has been shaken.
Museum attendance: 47.7 million (2015-16)
Foreign-aid spend: $17.6bn (2016)
Foreign students: 438,010 (2015-16)
Brexit is on everyone’s lips and the damage it does to how the UK is seen is permanent. Hope rests with those Brits not taking on the “stuff you” demeanour of their leaders.
The bbc continues to speak to the world, with new services including Amharic and Pidgin.
Foreign ministers cracking crap jokes about other countries help no one.
President Doris Leuthard’s year-long tenure in office brought a few spikes in Switzerland’s soft power. Her address to the UN, foreshadowed by an offer to mediate between North Korea and the world, was an invitation for more unity at a fragmented moment.
It’s been a good year for the Swiss way of doing things – it’s curtailed banking secrecy, and Swiss-style rule by referendum is a soft power of its own. In terms of policy, the country has made a concerted push to refresh its image beyond cows, chocolate and the Alps, with a drive to stress the innovation happening in Swiss cities.
Foreign-aid spend: $3.5bn (2016)
Foreign students: 30,800 (2015)
Universities in top 500: 10 (2017)
It’s difficult to fault the soft-power credentials of Switzerland yet the damage done by the corruption scandal at Fifa should not be underestimated.
Putting a Swiss flag on almost anything is still a stamp of excellence.
Anti-immigration populism jars with its international workforce.
Going from the top spot last year to this may seem like a tough pronouncement but the facts bear out. Studies show a downward slope in overseas opinion of the US in the age of Trump. The president has vowed to slash foreign aid, overseas diplomatic posts are still unfilled (even in key hotspots for US influence) and the travel ban was, well, a travel ban.
Tourism has obviously taken a hit. Still, Trump’s win has prompted a surge of subscriptions to US legacy media brands and a resurgence of satire – and some much-needed soul-searching in the US’s two political wings.
Annual museum attendance: 850 million
Embassies abroad: 170
Number of tourists: 75.6 million (2016)
Donald Trump is not doing Brand America any favours. Business leaders need to come to the fore to prove that the US’s entrepreneurial acumen is unmatched.
US media leads the way: The New York Times’ expansion into Australia has found success.
The old facets of soft power are looking swampy: Hollywood has lost much lustre of late.
Staying the course in turbulent times is a soft power in and of itself. Sweden stuck to its gold standard this year, right down to its wonderfully undiplomatic foreign minister openly showing her disdain for Trump’s lectern-bashing speech to the UN.
In 2016, Sweden attracted more overseas tourists than any other Nordic country. And some 21 chart-toppers, from the likes of Taylor Swift to The Weeknd, begin from the desk of producer Max Martin, underlining Swedish creativity. However, the welfare model, which is a potent part of national prestige, is in need of reform.
Cultural attachés: 9
Embassies abroad: 93
Foreign-aid spend: $1.4bn (2016)
Although small, Sweden has much to offer – from the great outdoors to respect for equal rights. It should use these assets to score more soft-power goals.
A generous aid budget, double the UN recommendation, grew again this year.
Shaky domestic politics don’t match up with Sweden’s otherwise unruffled image.
Foreign minister Julie Bishop has overseen the opening of new outposts in the Middle East and Asia Pacific. Despite a troubled record on refugees, Australia has just won its bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
Cate Blanchett is straight-talking on Trump and Steve Bannon, and Qantas is flying high. On the softer side we’ve seen the march of the flat white as well as smashed avocado on toast. It’s an Australian staple, from Bali beach cafés to Cupertino coffee houses, and speaks of a national character hedged on healthy living.
Foreign students: 712,884 (2016)
Number of tourists: 8.5 million (2016-2017)
Foreign correspondents: 70 (2017)
The 2018 Commonwealth Games highlight Australia’s rep for sporting prowess. More needs to be done to promote its off-field talents in the fields of art and science.
Aussie Rules is finding new audiences, not least in Asia.
Its soft power in Asia still suffers from being sluggish and underserved.
Carl Elsener Jr first realised the soft-power significance of his family’s company Victorinox on a visit to an Argentinean graveyard. It was 1978 and the Swiss businessman had only recently started to work at the company that his great-grandfather founded. During a visit to Buenos Aires he went to visit the grave of Eva Perón, where a chatty graveyard employee asked him where he was from. “When he heard I was Swiss he said approvingly, ‘Ah, Switzerland – the land of chocolate and the Swiss army knife,’” says Elsener. “That’s when I realised how many people have a passion for this little red knife.”
Victorinox has been manufacturing the iconic item for more than a century. The trusty pocketknife bears the distinctive cross-in-a-shield logo that, just as it says on the tin, is used by troops in the Swiss army. It’s part of the kit bag for the armies of Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Malaysia, and this year is being offered to US soldiers for the first time.
Yet perhaps the most impressive function of Victorinox’s product is what it’s done for Switzerland’s national brand. “This knife is connected not only to Switzerland but to the idea of Swiss-made,” says Elsener. “It’s a symbol of Swiss reliability.”
Though the company has branched into other products – not least luggage and fragrances – the pocketknife has remained a staple. There was a point when Elsner considered moving manufacturing elsewhere to save money; in the end he chose to keep all manufacturing at home. That way the Swiss army knife is a Swiss product through and through and it’s a lesson for any company that wants to be recognised as a part of the national brand. As one fan of the knife told Elsener, “It’s a little piece of Switzerland you can keep with you forever.”
The staples of Italian soft power are as strong as ever: it has craftsmanship – an internationally recognised term for the good life – and more heritage sites and fine-art conclaves than anywhere else (even if it takes fashion-brand tie-ups to keep some polished).
Director Luca Guadagnino’s latest film Call Me By Your Name has reminded audiences around the world of the skin, sun and suave of Italian summers. But the year brought challenges too: Italy is the frontline of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and has been training Libyan coastguards and rescuing migrants.
Museum attendance: 45.5 million (2016)
Restaurants with three Michelin stars: 8 (2017)
World Heritage sites: 53 (2017)
Agricultural exports, from quality aged cheese to wine, are expected to earn a record €40bn this year – and are delicious soft-power ambassadors.
Italy’s slow approach to food, from growing to cooking, is a soft-power boon.
Dodgy statesmen and a plethora of anti-immigrant voices poison politics.
The Danes slip out of the top 10 as the country is still smarting from missteps at the height of the refugee crisis. Meanwhile the hygge industry (the Danish way of cosy living) went into overdrive this year in a flurry of impulse-buy book releases that took a little of the charm out of the original idea.
No matter: Denmark is still a very powerful national brand. Even as Nordic noir continues to present a bleak view of the Danish underbelly, few cities epitomise quality of life like Copenhagen. And the Danish healthcare model remains a byword for sound management and equality.
Cultural attachés: 5 (2017)
Olympic gold medals: 45
Museum attendance: 4.3 million (2016)
Denmark needs to work harder to rediscover that essential Danishness that made it such an attractive player in the first place.
Denmark’s film and TV output has entranced foreign audiences.
Don’t let publishers and marketeers run amok with the national brand.
It was a good year to be Portuguese. António Guterres took his place at the helm of the UN; in Lisbon, the president, a charismatic ex-journalist, has thrown open the windows in contrast to his stuffy predecessor; and 2016 ended with a fitful return to economic growth after years of austerity.
Portugal has hedged its national brand on being an affordable place for sun and surf-seeking start-up businesses. Meanwhile tourism is on a fierce uptick with 13 per cent year-on-year growth. The economy still has a long way to go but in a year when openness has been the watchword, Portugal has come off well.
Cultural missions: 67 (2017)
Foreign students: 30,757 (2012-2013)
Footballers abroad: 46 (2017)
World-class products, from shoes to furniture, are made here so the country needs to promote international recognition of the “Made in Portugal” marque.
Portugal has found thirsty customers for its wine in Macau.
As visitor numbers swell it’s time to focus on safeguarding authenticity.
The hot purchase among Silicon Valley and super-rich survivalists this year was a New Zealand passport. If some world-destroying apocalypse does occur, the thinking goes, New Zealand is the safest place to be.
Startling as that may be, it underlines the fact that it is seen as a remarkably safe, open and well-run society insulated from many of the travails faced in 2017. Well, not entirely insulated: anti-immigration populism has reared its head in the recent election. Meanwhile Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake is a new breed of Kiwi noir – and, mercifully, it doesn’t feature any hobbits.
Foreign students: 102,535 (2016)
Embassies abroad: 57 (2017)
Universities in top 500: 7 (2017)
New Zealand could afford to be less chronically modest in offering leadership in the Pacific, on the environment particularly. And it should totally get a new flag.
New prime minister Jacinda Ardern is just the kind of fresh figurehead NZ needs.
Politicians freely spout Trumpisms that jar with a genial image.
Scenes of the Guardia Civil shutting polling stations in Barcelona and clubbing pro-independence Catalans during the secession referendum evoked shock around the world. Granted it was an unconstitutional vote but the response from central government had too many Franco-era echoes for a country that otherwise enjoys a sunny image bolstered by friendliness, football diplomacy and powerful cultural institutions.
Spain needs a soft-power reboot that begins at home. Toxic politics have for too long kept it in the news when the country has so much more to shout about.
World Heritage sites: 46 (2017)
Foreign correspondents: 258 (2015)
Number of tourists: 75.6 million (2016)
Spain’s politicians need to do what the Spanish do best and gather around a table. From desayuno to cena, there’s an awful lot to discuss.
On culture alone Spain can pack them in with its well-attended museums.
Spain’s cities are a victim of their own success: the tourist influx is stoking tension.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s peace prize to the campaign for nuclear disarmament was a soft-power boon. Internally the country continues to deftly weather the downturn in the price of oil. But it does miss out on an easy sell: its highly ranked universities should be attracting more international students.
Nevertheless Norway’s reputation as a peacemaker serves it very well and the sight of Colombia’s Farc rebels turning in 7,000 weapons in June to seal the Norway-brokered peace deal vindicated the efforts of a soft powerhouse.
Olympic gold medals: 174
Embassies abroad: 81 (2017)
Foreign-aid spend: $4.6bn (2016)
Sharing embassies with other nations has broadened Norway’s diplomatic footprint.
Tourism, compared to the other Nordics, is a slow burner.
Turkey’s global standing is at its lowest ebb in decades. Once beloved by investors and tourists alike, it was seen as “a Muslim country but an open society”, says Behlül Özkan, associate professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Marmara University. The spillover from the war in neighbouring Syria has been felt in a series of bombings, while president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has resorted to jailing journalists and name-calling European countries after protracted spats.
The nation’s soft power may be in tatters (it fell sharply out of our rankings in recent years) but there’s also been a pivot. Erdogan has largely abandoned repairing his country’s image in the West and doubled down on efforts to cast Turkey as the leader of the Islamic world.
When the Rohingya crisis unfolded in Myanmar, Erdogan hit the telephone to call other Muslim nations to action, and the Turkish aid agency was one of the few to gain access. In the same year he has condemned Israel for placing metal detectors at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, and has been building schools and hospitals in Somalia (not to mention its largest overseas military base, which opened in September to train Somali soldiers).
Such initiatives boosted Turkey’s image in Africa, Asia and the Middle East and it’s healthy for any country to build a diverse set of allies. But Turkey cannot afford to lose old friends; the European Union remains its most important trading partner. “As long as this government stays in power there is not going to be a restoration of its former image,” says Ozkan.
Prime minister Mark Rutte’s win over Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) was the first of the European elections in 2017 to see off nationalism. But PVV is big enough to still damage the country’s friendly image – a real problem if Amsterdam is to appeal to the big financial firms as Brexit looms.
The Netherlands should more actively promote its approach to flood defences and water management – the world needs its expertise.
With new president Moon Jae-in staying calm through Pyongyang’s nuclear threats and Trump’s fiery rhetoric (and recent reports of heavy partying in Seoul), is the South softening? While its diplomatic spend is still lacklustre, hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics so close to the border should reveal a softer side.
The traditional multi-coloured hanbok (gowns) are back in vogue thanks to modern designs and shops that rent them out.
With its recent offer of mediation between the West and Russia and the prospect of joining Nato, Finland is becoming a big diplomatic player. And with its education system proving a popular export, the country is now using its potential after being overshadowed by some of its neighbours for so long.
Finns often overlook their soft-power assets. The president’s smiley dog Lennu became a viral sensation by accident, not by design.
State-owned broadcasters reveal a great deal about how their nations want to be perceived. There are few more potentially potent soft-power weapons but, as with more conventional munitions, they can go off in your face.
RT, formerly known as Russia Today, cheerfully promotes itself as a zany disruptor. A recent international advertising campaign featured slogans including “Missed the train? Lost a vote? Blame it on us!” and “Watch RT and find out who we are planning to hack next”. This breezy admission that RT’s stock in trade is lurid disinformation and crackpot conspiracy theory will raise a smug chuckle among its target audience – the foil-hatted fringes of the western left, the people once described by a Russian potentate as “useful idiots”. But it has hardly advanced the idea of Russia as a serious nation.
Turkey’s foray into international broadcasting, TRT World, gives every appearance of sobriety. But it also serves as an implicit reminder of Turkey’s wretched record on press freedom: no country imprisons more journalists and no sensible person should, therefore, take TRT’s word for anything. A similar caveat applies to Press TV in Iran.
By way of contrast, the BBC World Service remains the mightiest soft-power weapon ever wielded. Earlier this year a funding boost of £289m (€322m) expanded the language services to west and central African pidgin, with other Asian and African tongues to follow. RT and its ilk may decry the World Service as propaganda but they know what their own people tune in to reflexively at times of crisis.
China builds on panda diplomacy by lending artifacts overseas. While president Xi Jinping tried to style himself as leader of free trade and openness to the world’s investors at Davos. But, despite efforts to soften its image, China is still China, and soft power too often looks like hard power wrapped in cotton wool.
China’s vision of reviving the silk road trade routes faces a potential backlash in the region over state-funded infrastructure investment.
The world’s diplomatic hub is now seeing the value of its long legacy by restoring Belgian missions worldwide with a view to greater diplomatic force overseas. After the terror attacks, the country needs a national narrative that doesn’t give Flemish separatists a resurgent voice in the 2019 elections.
Belgium needs to reclaim its cultural turf. For starters it should focus on the quirks of Antwerp rather than the corridors of Brussels.
Vienna’s cultural kudos and quality of life push the envelope for Austria’s soft power. But it’s a tricky time for its otherwise affable image: a burqa ban and the foreign minister’s recent populist campaign normalised the nation’s sharp turn to the right. With openness in the air, Austria has not had the best year.
Austria’s soft-power potential depends on how the incoming government tempers the messages of its contentious campaigns.
Among its educational prowess and ease of doing business, the country’s airtight security is also a plus. But one with caveats: uncontested elections and a press that still isn’t free. Internationally it is seen as an ultra-safe transit lounge to the Asia Pacific, and the new terminal at Changi Airport ups the ante.
Singapore should take on more foreign infrastructural projects. Every part it plays in the rise of its fast-growing neighbours will count.
A new entrant to our survey, Ireland has been quietly waiting for a new Taoiseach to galvanise its charms and promote the country’s cadre of highly ranked universities. As the country’s first openly gay leader and a conservative who embodies Irish liberalisation, Leo Varadkar is a good bet.
Ireland has a vibrant craft and architecture scene that, if it took a leaf out of Scandinavia’s book, could be used more effectively.
Prime minister Narendra Modi continues to win points overseas and push “yoga diplomacy” as a soft-power export. Yet issues at home – sexual violence, mob justice and Hindu ultra-nationalism – get worse. Democracy in India is bloated yet its essential liberties do give it some edge over China.
India needs to learn a valuable lesson that its outreach too often looks like an extension of its trade ambitions.
In 2016, Brazil successfully hosted the Olympics and Paralympics and proved it can get the job done. But it hasn’t cashed in on its tourism potential and, amid political chaos, crime has soared. For a country that hedges its soft-power credentials on happiness and hedonism, this is an existential threat.
Amid Brazil’s economic difficulties, its diplomatic arm should be spared. At least its football team is back on track ahead of the World Cup.
Grand-scale corruption? Check. A global drug-trafficking hub? Check. A legion of self-proclaimed princes offering $10m in return for your bank details? Check. Unfair as it may seem, Nigeria is a place where the dodgy dealings of the few have inflicted untold damage on the image of the whole.
But across Africa audiences are starting to see Nigeria in a fresh light thanks to a generation of comedians who are spinning the iniquities of their countrymen into comic gold. Beyond the perennial topic of Nigeria’s legendary levels of dysfunction, comedians are pushing into the riskier territory of political satire, earning admiration as well as laughs. In July, Okey Bakassi, one of the country’s best-loved comics, launched a show called The Other News, similar to The Daily Show in the US. “We asked, ‘How do we present the news in such a way that it is not stressful to listen to, so you don’t leave your TV set with a headache?’” says Bakassi. “We can’t just maintain the status quo all the time.”
Bakassi is mindful that there are lines he cannot cross. Though Nigeria is nowhere near as repressive as Egypt, he would not want to suffer a similar fate to Bassem Youssef, a satirist who hosted a similar show in Cairo during the Arab Spring and was forced into exile in the US after receiving death threats.
Nevertheless, The Other News prides itself on testing boundaries – and Bakassi is not afraid to have a gentle dig at president Muhammadu Buhari, a stern former military ruler, or the cast of “political godfathers” who wield enormous behind-the-scenes influence over Nigeria’s politicians. Thanks to Bakassi and his taboo-breaking colleagues, the rest of Africa is becoming more attuned to Nigeria’s reserves of creativity and courage, as well as its biting humour.