African viewpoint: Flying the flag

People parade with the Malawi's new flag, on 7 August, 2010 in Blantyre Malawi's new flag is designed to reflect its new status - the sun has finally risen

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Elizabeth Ohene, asks whether Nigeria should follow South Africa and Malawi by choosing a new flag.

It seems the exact moment of independence is the time the old colonial power's flag comes down and the flag of the newly independent country goes up.

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Nigeria's flag appears to denote a people who would turn the second cheek when given an unprovoked slap”

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So what do flags say about a country?

I was at the unveiling of the new, post-apartheid South African flag back in April 1994 and I still recall the shock and disgust that engulfed the room when that flag was revealed.

I remember I filed a not-so-complimentary report for the BBC about it.

The reception given to the flag was so hostile that the committee that had been charged with finding a flag for the new South Africa was forced to announce that this was only an "interim flag" and would be changed after the constitutional negotiations were complete.

Full white sun

But guess what, the flag quickly grew on us and by the time the Nelson Mandela inauguration was over a month or so later, it had become so popular, nobody has raised the issue of it being an interim flag ever again.

Supporter waves South African flag as he blows a vuvuzela South Africa's new flag was unpopular at first. Not any more

And indeed when you look at the flag now, it does seem to capture the spirit of the new South Africa.

It goes beyond unity, which was what everybody was trying to capture then. It seems to show vitality and effervescence.

Then enter Malawi, where the government has recently changed the national flag and is threatening arrest and prosecution for anyone found carrying the old flag.

And yet the change is not very much really.

The red and black strips have changed position, the red is now on top and the black strip in the middle and there is a green strip still below.

The most important change is that the red rising sun at the top has been replaced with a full white sun in the middle.

We have the word of President Bingu wa Mutharika for it that this is meant to show the change in status of Malawi from a developing country, denoted by a rising sun, to that of a developed nation, denoted by a full sun.

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I am afraid the Malawian flag looks like something from a junior secondary school art class”

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"We cannot permanently live in the past," is the way the president put it, and the new flag denotes the changed status of Malawi.

I confess I haven't been to Malawi for about 14 years and I am willing to accept the word of the president that the country has changed into a developed nation.

Although I notice the World Bank and IMF have not yet updated their classification and still list Malawi amongst us poor developing countries.

As flags go though, I am afraid the Malawian flag is still unattractive and looks like something from a junior secondary school art class.

Giant of Africa

All the same, the concept of changing your flag to denote a change in your economic circumstances does have a certain ring to it.

Nigerian football supporter waving a national flag Does Nigeria's flag capture the dynamism of its people?

My thoughts turn to our cousins Nigeria, who are just about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their independence.

I have always felt that their national flag does not quite capture the dynamism and vigour of the country and its people.

It is a beautiful flag, I concede, but it seems placid and appears to denote a people who would turn the second cheek when given an unprovoked slap. But we all know better than that.

In 1959 when the flag was adopted, their circumstances and aspirations were probably quite modest. Now that the country is the "giant of Africa", should it not have a flag to match that status?

There is just about enough time for somebody - not a Malawian - to quickly design a suitable one and as 1 October dawns, the old flag would be lowered and the new vibrant flag would be raised.

It could also denote a new beginning and then they wouldn't have to spend so much money trying to re-brand and give a different image to their country.

A new flag for Nigeria at 50, I say.

Read a selection of your comments.

What we need is not a change in the colour of our flag. We need patriotic leaders who will redefine the political, economic and social structure of our country. Yes we are dynamic and yes we are vibrant. But NO, our leaders are not patriotic. We want change in the way our country is governed and not a change of colours in our flag.

Mike, Lagos, Nigeria

I applaud the new national flag of Malawi, it's been a long time coming. No longer are they in the confines of colonialism and have aptly designed a flag that reflects their rising - the 'Sun'. I believe Nigeria should follow suit and motion the change to a new beginning with a symbolic gesture of a new national flag, that strips away the clasps of the colonial masters - after all 50 years of independence should warrant a the desire for something vibrant and new. I say - fellow Nigerians, let us channel our efforts and design a flag that truly says Nigeria is the Giant of Africa. Independence day here we come.

Nora Dolo, London, UK

Flags serve as a symbolic ritual but do not change values. What matters most is trying to catch up normal living standards. I wonder if majority of people is developed nations know the meaning of their flags?

Vitalis Ukaegbu, Madrid, Spain

Ultimately, I believe it is more important for people to fully understand and embrace the moral and symbolic values instilled within both the design motif of their respective national flag, and not to forget to honour the values written in the constitution. As a South African I know for sure that there is a lot of pride we all get from the national flag, it has united a once divided nation. Nigeria should do the same.

Thabang Mafela, Tshwane

Reading up on the history of the Nigerian flag, I don't see any reason for it to change. It was designed by a Nigerian student in 1959 and officially used for the first time on 1 October 1960. Nigeria had a colonial flag before that. That's about as Nigerian as it gets I think and besides, if I'm not mistaken, quite a few Nigerians love their flag. If anything, I prefer the old National Anthem to the current one.

Paul, Twyford, UK

No new flag please!! New flag =new flag design planning committee, new flag design competition, new flag design budgetary allocation, new flag design budget defence meeting at the House of Representatives, new flag design budget approval by the Federal Executive Council, new flag design agitation by disgruntled members of the "National Association of Disabled Flag Designers" for non-inclusion in final shortlist of qualifed flag disigners, new flag design million dollar budget appropriation by the Senate causes palaver and "wahala", new flag design ministerial committee disbanded for non-inclusion of minorities in its composition, new flag design contract finally awarded to North Korea (being the largest and most efficient flag producing country in the world), US government threatens sanctions against Nigeria for awarding flag contract to North Korea when it (the US) is the most patriotic nation on earth, new flag contract cancelled and re-awarded to the US, new flag contract subject to US Congress investigations due to reports of over-invoicing, FBI charges US firm over new flag deal, new flag eventually released and launched but cancelled abruptly when sample hosited is the wrong shade of green, new flag project cancelled/shelved indefinitely. New flag? = Don't bother. We love the old flag!

Segun Adewale, Lagos, Nigeria

Politicians are just playing their games here! They just want to put it to history that during their regime they did something special by changing the symbolical flags! There are no good reasons for changing the flags if its people are still living in poverty! The problem is that when these leaders are driving posh cars and living in luxury with money stolen from governments through corruption they think things have changed for the better to everybody! I'm afraid that soon we will see every leader who comes into power erecting their own flag and you can imagine how many times will the flags be changed by these insatiable leaders! Mere changing of flags cannot help improve the welfare of people! We need to change the status of people not just flags!

Joseph Kumphanda, Zomba, Malawi

Flags are symbolic reference to both the past and the future. I am convinced that a touch to our flag will draw us into the future. Many think Nigeria can wipe out corruption. It is not possible, rather we can reduce its practise and effect. I think we need something to look up to and a new flag will pull us back together, amplify our values and optimism. Kudos to Malawi.

Joseph Charlie, Lagos, Nigeria

As a Nigerian, I can't help but shake my head whenever I see our flag. It lacks any creativity or spirit. It doesn't communicate how colorful, diverse and energetic the people are. Even the Nigerian government has occasionally inserted the Coat of Arms on the flag at some functions. I say we do away with the flag and create one that can be displayed with pride worldwide.

Tomi Walker, Reston, USA

Yes, ''we cannot permanently live in the past", but when the living condition stays permanently in the past, changing the color of our national flag does not solve our problems. What we need now is more patriotic leaders with vision that will bring positive changes to our living condition. the flag issue can come later.

Kabiru D. Bichi, Kano State, Nigeria

To me it is not about the flag but about the attitude of the people that carries it, you may have a plain white flag and carry it with all patriotism and love for your country to want to lay everything for it, we are not there yet here, the patriotism is only of sport fields and not to love the nation not to do things that hurts the economy by both the low and the high ups until this the national flag will just be a piece of legislated cloth like most of the laws that only remains in the achieves.

Bolu' Aladeniyi, Lagos, Nigeria

Do NOT touch my flag! It is beautiful - simple and symmetric. Makes for a great football jersey too.

NNamdi, Warri, Nigeria

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