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soft-power icon

Icon by design

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Nigeria has transformed into a key player over the past 10 years with the soft-power status to match, which earned it 20th place in monocle’s Soft Power Survey (Issue 149). Its economy, the largest in Africa, is buttressed by Nollywood, a billion-dollar industry, and the megacity of Lagos, which has become a thriving centre of interior and urban design. One person to thank for the latter is Lagosian Titi Ogufere (pictured), a polymath interiors impresario who is championing a golden generation of architects and designers. 

The country has always prized artists, such as Fela Kuti and Nike Davies-Okundaye, who circumvent perceptions of modernity to embrace the vibrancy of their culture. But it’s taken a while for Nigeria to be considered beyond the postcolonial gaze of Ankara fabrics and Benin bronzes. 

This year, Netflix released Made by Design, a documentary made by Ogufere and Emmy-winning cinematographer Abiola Matesun. The series profiles 13 Nigerian luminaries, from furniture-makers and architects to car designers and textile restorers. Her support for young creatives has led to Ogufere being appointed the first African female president of the New York-based International Federation of Interior Architects and Designers. 

“Contemporary Lagosian, Nigerian or African design are not monoliths,” says Ogufere, who has changed the perception of African architecture and urban innovation into one that champions sustainability and discovery; and her, as its visionary pioneer.


media ––– russia

Finding a voice

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“There is no media industry in Russia any more – the Kremlin destroyed everything,” says Galina Timchenko, ceo of Meduza, one of the largest Russian independent news outlets still in operation. “Those who are still inside Russia are under wartime censorship.” Timchenko (pictured) knows a fair bit about censorship. She launched Meduza in 2014 after being sacked from lenta.ru for its critical coverage of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Timchenko packed her bags and set up shop in Riga, Latvia, telling a colleague that she wanted to launch a site where “if somebody cuts off our head, two will emerge”.

The colleague told her to call it Meduza, confusing the serpent-haired gorgon (also known as Medusa) with mythological monster Hydra. “It was the mistake of a guy who had been up all night,” says Timchenko, laughing. The image of many heads remains apt: the outlet now employs some 40 journalists and reaches millions of people every month, the majority of whom are in Russia.

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Its burgeoning success has not gone unnoticed by the Kremlin, however. In April last year, Moscow labelled Meduza a “foreign agent”, meaning that its Russian journalists had to apply for accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We became foreign journalists in our own country,” says editor in chief Ivan Kolpakov.

Until that point, the site had relied on Russian advertising for its revenue but the foreign-agent designation destroyed its business model. “Ninety per cent of our advertisers refused to maintain ties,” says Timchenko. Tens of thousands of people donated to keep it running but the new crowd-funding model was upended this year when Western sanctions against Russia made it difficult for those in the country to contribute. In response, Meduza launched an international crowd-funding campaign and, according to Kolpakov, “It worked.” But Meduza is seeking additional funds.

Even though the Kremlin blocked access to the site a week after the war in Ukraine began, Meduza’s readership remains largely intact, thanks to vpns, a mobile app and a Telegram channel that allows Russians to continue accessing its journalism, including a recent q&a with Volodymyr Zelensky.

“We think, fundamentally, this is the end of Putin’s regime, but the end can last a really long time”

The war has lent a new urgency to Meduza’s journalism, not just for Russians but also for Ukrainians, who make up about 15 per cent of the outlet’s current readership. Despite the war’s bleak outlook, Timchenko and Kolpakov are sanguine about the future. “We think that, fundamentally, this is the end of Putin’s regime,” says Kolpakov. “But the end can last a really long time,” he says – and entail plenty of suffering.

Hopefully, whatever happens next in this devastating conflict, Meduza’s Russian-speaking audience will still have access to the truth.


Neutral ground

Singapore sometimes gets called the Switzerland of Asia, and not just because of the foreign money parked in its bank vaults. The city-state is similarly positioned as a neutral venue for political detente, particularly between East and West.

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The Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s answer to the Munich Security Conference, returns in June after a two-year hiatus. In that time, relations between the US and China have gone from bad to worse and the region is crying out for Washington and Beijing to get a room, or at least be in the same conference room.

Both governments usually send big delegations to the Dialogue; the attendance of China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe (pictured, on right, with Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu) at the last forum was seen as a coup by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the British think-tank that organises the forum. This year the Dialogue represents a chance for US and Chinese military personnel to meet. Whether the Dialogue can continue in its important role in the current political climate remains to be seen.


The FOREIGN DESK
andrew mueller on...
Courage and precarity in Pakistan

When commenting on any Pakistani prime minister or president for a magazine with monthly lead times, the phrase “at the time of writing” always feels a necessary rider, especially in the precarious early stages of their term. Pakistan’s new prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, does not need to look far for warnings against getting too comfortable. His brother, Nawaz Sharif, has had three stints in the post. These have ended, sequentially, in constitutional crisis, coup d’état and exile. And, while Nawaz Sharif was unusual in returning for repeated helpings, his experiences were more or less a demonstration of the occupational hazards of attempting to govern Pakistan. Since the country was founded in 1947, no prime minister has completed a full term – and several have been one or more of sacked, overthrown, imprisoned, assassinated or executed.

The ousting of Shehbaz Sharif’s predecessor, former Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan, was at least brought about by parliamentary procedure – a no-confidence motion in the National Assembly. Also in the credit-where-due file, recent general elections in Pakistan seem to demonstrate a willingness by the country’s governments to accept defeat and relinquish power. Moreover, the number on the country’s “years without a coup d’etat” flip-counter now stands at an encouraging 23 (at the time of writing). Nevertheless, few jobs in democratic politics are so daunting. In 2007, I spent a day in London with someone who had been prime minister of Pakistan twice and was preparing to return from exile to have another go at getting this impossible job back. I asked Benazir Bhutto how she could possibly think that it was worth the risk, never mind the hassle. She had survived assassination attempts herself. Her father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been overthrown in a coup in 1977 and hanged in 1979.

She said that she thought it was worth it; that peace, democracy and economic emancipation were plausible ambitions for Pakistan. It is usually a mistake to take politicians’ loftier justifications for their own actions entirely at face value but she well understood what fate she was tempting; three months after she returned, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Pakistan’s leaders – Bhutto, Khan and others – have all had faults, many of them glaring. But a lack of courage is not one of them.


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diplomatic spat

Mugged off

Who vs who: China vs Israel

What it’s about: Mugs. Specifically, bugged mugs. China’s embassy in Tel Aviv sent gifts to a few Israeli ministries for Passover. The hampers contained, among other trinkets, silver thermal travel mugs. Israeli media somehow formed the notion that these contained concealed listening devices, at which point Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, rounded up the receptacles and, after disassembling one, gleaned that the suspect component was, in fact, the widget which retains the vacuum seal in the walls of such tankards, thereby keeping the contents warm. China, never known for its equanimity in the face of any slight, real or imagined, was livid, denouncing the “baseless rumours” and threatening the outlets responsible with “accountability”.

What it’s really about: Probably not much more than the kind of misunderstanding that can occur when the media of a generally highly security-conscious country, ie Israel, leaps to conclusions about the motives of a country with an amount of form on this front, ie China.

Likely resolution: A relatively swift blowing- over. Even by China’s standards of frantic hypersensitivity, they’ll struggle to make much of a thing of this, and besides which, the relationship between the two countries is becoming increasingly important and lucrative: in 2021, China became Israel’s largest source of imports.

ILLUSTRATOR: Dirk Schmidt

Image: Alamy, TY Bello

Photographer: Andrej Vasilenko

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