The creative sector and soft power: assessing the appeal of the Nigerian fashion industry. photo show start of Africa Fashion Week Nigeria 2016.Lagos, July 2016: Africa Fashion Week Nigeria gets underway. [photo: Zhang Baoping/Xinhua/Alamy]

[These two extracts are from an article in The Round Table: The Commonweaalth Journal of International Affairs.]


Soft power has been defined from an African perspective as ‘an actor’s (including state and non-state) ability to influence the action, inaction, position, and behaviour of other actors through its non-coercive capability – including its philosophy, culture, values, and policies – that engenders these actors’ attraction, admiration, and aspirations’ (Tella, Citation2021, p. 1). These three As are fundamental ingredients of successfully wielded soft power as the recipients of such power are lured and captivated by the attributes of the agent of soft power, hold the soft power actor in high regard and desire to adopt its model. Rather than hard power that rests on an actor’s capacity to exert force or threaten its use, soft power stems from an actor’s attractive characteristics. In light of the enormous challenges that characterise the Nigerian political and socio-economic landscape from terrorism to political corruption, ethnic violence, religious conflicts, poverty, unemployment, inequality, poor infrastructure and overpopulation, to name but a few, describing Nigeria as a soft power state seems to be a misnomer. However, Abuja can lay claim to some impressive (both actual and potential) soft power currencies including its cultural exports exemplified by its film industry (Nollywood), music industry (Afrobeats), literature and fashion; its philosophy of Omolúwàbí; and its foreign policy of democracy promotion, peace diplomacy and aid diplomacy (Ogunnubi & Isike, Citation2018; Tella, Citation2018).

Successful wielding of some of these attributes has yielded positive outcomes. For example, Nollywood’s and Afrobeats’ influence has somewhat reduced anti-Nigerian sentiments in Africa and beyond, seen in the mimicking of Nigerian accents, embrace of the country’s pidgin English and admiration for its fashion and food (BBC News, Citation2010); while Abuja’s peace operations, democracy promotion and aid diplomacy have earned Nigeria the status of a major peacemaker, democrat and aid donor on the continent. This is evident in its peace making and peacekeeping role in states such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); its democracy promotion in places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, São Tomé and Príncipe and The Gambia; and aid diplomacy in states such as The Gambia, Benin, Niger, Angola, Guinea and Guinea Bissau. Nonetheless, Nigerian soft power has been constrained on many levels in view of the negative perceptions that stem from factors such as Nigerians’ notoriety for drug and human trafficking and internet scams; the country’s negative image arising from poor governance, pervasive conflict and disorder, democratic deficits and ubiquitous political corruption (Tella, Citation2017).

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The creative sector is arguably the main sphere that has enhanced the country’s image as its major industries, especially Nollywood and Afrobeats, and to a lesser extent the literary and fashion industries have reached a wider global audience than Abuja’s foreign policy. For example, Nigerian music artists Rema, Burna Boy and Davido’s hits titled Calm down, On the low, and Fall, have, respectively, been viewed by around 550 million people, about 360 million subscribers and more than 275 million people on YouTube alone. One of the key objectives of Nigeria’s 1988 cultural policy is to ‘promote creativity in the fields of arts, science and technology, ensure the continuity of traditional skills and sports and their progressive updating to serve modern development needs as our contribution to world growth of culture and ideas’ (Nigerian Government, Citation1988, p. 6). The Nigerian creative industry is already fulfilling this objective. This is seen in the popularity of Nollywood artists including Chinedu Ikedieze and Osita Iheme (Aki and Pawpaw), Patience Ozokwor, Genevieve Nnaji, Olu Jacobs, Pete Edochie, Ini Edo, Mr Ibu, Mercy Johnson and Jim Iyke; the fame of Afrobeats artists such as Burna Boy, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Davido, Olamide, Yemi Alade, Niniola and Adekule Gold and their hit songs like If, Fall, Ye, Essence, Somebody’s son and High; admiration for Nigerian literary giants such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Adichie and Ben Okri and their works including Things Fall Apart, The Lion and the Jewel, Americanah and the Famished Road; and followership of the country’s top fashion designers including Duro Olowu, Deola Sagoe, Lisa Folawiyo and Soares Anthony.

While the literature is replete with the soft power potential of Nollywood and Afrobeats, no comprehensive analysis has been undertaken on the power of attraction of the Nigerian fashion industry.

Is Nigeria a soft power state?

The creative soft power of the Nigerian fashion industry

Contributing around 10% of Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP), the country’s textile sector was one of the largest in Africa in the 1960s. It remained relevant in the 1970s, boasting of the Kaduna Textiles mill, Kano textile factory and Arewa textile mill, producing 50% of West African textiles and being ranked as the second largest producer in Africa (Renne, Citation2021, Kohan Textile Journal, Citation2020). By the 1980s, it was the largest private employer of labour in Nigeria. Kaduna Textiles Limited, the largest textile company in the country was established in 1957 (Renne, Citation2021). The textile industry grew significantly between 1985 and 1991, registering annual compound growth of 67% and employed more than two million workers accounting for 25% of the manufacturing workforce (Offiah, Citation2017). However, this sub-sector of the country’s fashion industry began to decline following years of neglect (Wale-Oshinowo et al., Citation2019).

Although the Nigerian fashion industry was relegated to the backburner in comparison to the other sectors in the creative industry, in recent times, it has developed more sophisticated structures, posted more robust earnings and achieved remarkable exposure for its apparel, designers, stylists and models. The fashion and textile industry is the second largest sector in Africa and Nigeria accounts for 15% of its total volume (StearsBusiness, Akinsola, Citation2019) with the potential to gain a bigger share given increasing global interest in Nigerian fashion and its contribution to the country’s economy.

Oluwaseun Tella is the Head, Future of Diplomacy, Institute for the Future of Knowledge, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South AfricaCorrespondence.