Monday, September 10, 2007

A Nigerian education...

[written sitting on the floor with a Star and a Ghana-mus-go bag, at MMA1 yesterday]

Its all too easy for an outsider (or new insider) with the benefits of a Western education to get all snobby about Nigeria, with attitudes along the lines of, “this place can teach me nothing. The society is utterly dysfunctional, the people pre-rational, pre-modern and without principles.” Many expats (and repats) think this way in the secrecy of quiet-yet-frustrated moments after yet another exasperating episode.

This is a shame (and a psychological flaw), as there are many ways in which valuable life (and business) lessons can be learned from living here:

Negotiating complexity.
Widespread complex dysfunctionality can be excellent training in handling ambiguous non-rational environments. The simple act of driving in a city like Lagos is an instructive example. With few street signs, unlit roads at night, an abundance of informal structures cluttering the visual environment and the constant threat of armed robbers (whether dressed in police uniforms or otherwise), driving proficiency requires an ultra alert stance, and a highly attuned ability to discern barriers, threats and opportunities. Again, buying a ticket at the local airport in Lagos is a highly complex and dramatic process, with no visible queues about when the next plane will take off, no advance warning about the numerous subtle strategies of the touts, and no reliable information that correlates advertised flight times with actual times. The traveller who wants to get to her destination as soon as possible needs to navigate the space of the domestic terminal with all the alacrity of someone playing a shoot-em-up video game on a PS3. Extreme reflexes are required.

Understanding risk
Nigeria is a low-trust, high-risk and high transaction cost society. The standard infrastructure of trust that one can rely on elsewhere (contract law, rational actor behaviour, ethical principles enshrined in conduct codes that are enforced by processual checks and balances etc.) simply do not exist in Nigeria. Moreover, Nigeria is a multi-layered and highly dynamic society, meaning that any project or intervention carries with it an array of risks that simply cannot be anticipated. As well as the usual categories of planning risks, organisational risks, legislative risks etc. there is also the category of ego and emotional risks – dynamics promoted by the superior force of ego over logic in Nigeria. The learning opportunity for working in Nigeria is therefore to appreciate the dynamic and volatile nature of risk in one of the most dynamic and volatile markets. Anyone who can succeed in the Nigerian risk environment can succeed anywhere else on the planet with ease.

Importing tried and tested strategies, methods, services and products into the Nigerian market and expecting consumers or clients to respond in a similar manner as elsewhere is almost a guaranteed recipe for business failure in Nigeria. The seven successful habits, the three strategies, the purpose driven life – all will fail if business vision is not mapped onto the realities of the Nigerian market. What is required are a set of fully thought-through tactics associated with different forms of market response scenarios. Armed only with passion and a clear image of the future, the business vision may quickly transform into business blindness. Nigeria therefore pushes the business or social entrepreneur into thinking through innovation on all levels in terms of the empirical reality of a multi-dimensionally complex society. What better test of an innovator is that?


Anonymous,  11:37 am  

I walked into a Mama Cass one afternoon, tired, hungry and faced the crowd of people spread out 3- deep in front of the counter, and gave up. I was NOT up to my usual task of attitudinally yeling "Excuse me there's a queue!", and generally being the obnoxious Queue Police , trying to bring sanity to fast food ordering in Nigeria, in order to make the people see that if we line up, we are served more quickly and therefore more efficiently. That day, the crowd defeated me, and I left, but not before i had an epiphany..the people here WERE lining up, just not one behind the other in the traditional sense of a line(vertically)..they are spread out horizontally against the counter, and the "Line" continues behind that line. There WAS a method to the madness. I remember thinking that if outsiders only realized that people here REASON differently- not incorrectly (just differently), they would probably achieve more when dealing with Nigerians. rather than label us as difficult or uncomprehending , meet us at the level of our understanding, and work with us.
'Negotiating Complexity' and managing your expectations.

Excellent post. I think you summed up the Nigerian situation perfectly in calling Nigeria 'a low trust, high risk and high transaction cost society'.

Kayode 12:18 pm  

Interesting :)

Waffarian 12:49 pm  

Jeremy, someone recently swore on his life that India is far worse than Nigeria.Infact,to show his bosses how desperate he was not to go to India, he told them h'd rather go to Nigeria. Then they realised how desperate he had become.

negresse adoree,  1:15 pm  

To put it in a nutshell, dear Jeremy: according to you, Nigerians are primitive, dishonest egomaniacs whose only redeeming factor as far as foreigners are concerned is that if they want to make money out of us, they have to be particularly cunning.
I think your blog and I are going to part ways. Not because you criticise Nigeria, but because I believe that deep down you hate this country with a passion.

Christian Writer 1:36 pm  

Negresse adoree. Like many Nigerians, Jeremy loathes and loves Nigeria with equal passion.

Jeremy. This your blog sef.

Jeremy 1:39 pm  

@ negresse adore: not sure if its worth responding given you may not read my blog anymore. However, assuming you do: your response demonstrates the issues I am raising - the market here is massively unpredictable/fickle for any kind of (business/social) intervention. By saying that Nigeria is complex and dysfunctional does not imply that Nigeria is also 'primitive', nor does it imply that anyone who agrees with this analysis 'hates' Nigeria. However, the dysfunctionality of Nigeria does have a lot to do with ego..

Until we can deal with the realities of Nigeria as it is, we will not be able to truly transform it. By reducing/silencing any attempt at engaged critique by suggesting hatred and accusations of primitivity are involved, you are simply denying the possibility of the first step towards change.

Jeremy 1:41 pm  

@ Christian Writer: emotions of love and hatred are irrelevant in this case. The post is simply about how one can learn from living in Nigeria, rather than thinking it offers nothing for someone with a privileged education. Many foreigners in Nigeria think like this: my post is a challenge to this patronising attitude.

Oyibo! 2:08 pm  

This is a very succinct description of the experiences I have had in Nigeria. I constantly feel as if I'm learning here. Unfortunately sometimes my frustrations have boiled over and I've put the relationships I have developed at risk because of it. I feel very grateful to my colleagues who have been so understanding and patient...
but I'm not so sure that Nigeria is at all "non rational". All of the things you describe seem "irrational" to the oyibo, but from the point of view of the elite its either misdirection, or are the visible part of a larger, deeply "rational" machination.
It seems irrational that the elite would tolerate a dysfunctional police force, but they -currently- benefit from the chaos a breakdown in law and order brings. They have an incentive to keep it that way and to my mind thats how economic rationality works.
Before I came out here I read a book about the fall of the roman republic. Nigerian politics strikes me as having many parallels. Thats not to say that Nigeria is somehow at the same "stage" as ancient Rome on a kind of development time line, but that there is a commonality between they way power is exercised in both societies (from what I know of them).

negresse adoree,  2:37 pm  

Don't expect me to fall for those hoary "who me?" tactics of wide-eyed innocence. Placing your own words in quotes to indicate that they are somebody else's thoughts, rather than yours, falls under the category of the school bully aiming surreptitious kicks under the table. I challenge anyone with a decent grasp of English to deny that "pre-rational" and "pre-modern" mean PRIMITIVE. And why should the word "hate" offend your sensibilities? It's a human emotion that is unpleasant, but may be justified as a result of abuse or trauma. Your tales of life in Nigeria are certainly replete with such incidents.
Well, here are some thoughts for you to ponder on: "It is all too easy for a newcomer to Jeremy's blog to suspect him of barely controlled rage against his principal subject - Nigeria and Nigerians, no doubt fostered by prolonged exposure to the frustration he regularly refers to in his posts." Real, raw emotion - whether you wish to admit to it or not.

Jeremy 2:58 pm  

@ negresse adore. I find your most recent comments a bit patronising to be honest. If I think something, I tend to write about it from my own perspective. If I am picking up on what others tend to think and prevailing attitudes, I'll put it in quotes. In the case of the current post, it is not relevant whether I think/respond like this sometimes. The point of the post is destroyed if you reduce it to what Jeremy Weate does or does not believe: it is a massively higher level issue about pattern and response recognition in relation to Nigeria and how it is perceived/engaged with. The perception is that Nigeria is corrupt and backward: I am challenging this thoughtless and reactionary dismissal to the core with this post.

On your semantic point about whether pre-rational and pre-modern equates to primitive: no in fact it does not at all. Nigeria, as a society/set of cultures still strongly conditioned by an agricultural heritage that is the very recent past, can be characterised as pre-industrial: factually speaking, there has been no industrial revolution equivalent to what western societies went through 100-200 years ago (and probably there will not be). Industrialisation, as any sociology student who has read their Marx, their Durkheim and their Weber will tell you, promotes 'instrumental rationalism' - one consequence of which is a reduction in magical/animist beliefs (aka juju) and an increasing belief in scientifically-based causal explanations of events.

My point, echoed by the first commentor, is that this instrumental rationality fails to understand that Nigeria does make sense - just not Western sense. It requires an expanded sense of rationality, similar to leaping from linear Newtonian physics to the baroque world of non-linear Quantum physics. To survive in such a social ecology requires the opposite of primitive behaviour: advanced forms of emotional intelligence and adaptivity..

In sum: I think you've got the wrong end of the stick with this one!

contractor,  3:04 pm  

"Anyone who can succeed in the Nigerian risk environment can succeed anywhere else on the planet with ease."

Are you serious? hint: im used to giving bribes, turning up late for business, cancelling, going through oga to get things done, collecting money and disappearing, paying people very low wages, not paying at all... you really think i can make it in other parts of the world with my natural style of business ? haha i don't think so!!

Anonymous,  3:08 pm  

I wonder what you'll do when you actually listen to some Nigerians speak of Nigeria and Nigerians.

things like these have been written by rebuen abati and many other nigerians, i dont know why its any different now

negresse adoree,  4:37 pm  

Jeremy, will you take refuge in linear physics and instrumental rationalism? So be it.

Jeremy 4:45 pm  

@ NA: there is not much point in continuing this increasingly stale discussion. You continue to try to personalise an issue which is not about persons or emotions but about patterns..

Just as in Physics departments at universities, there's a place for Newton, and there's a place for Schrodinger. No one would expect anyone to take refuge in either - the world is too complex for an either/or..

Oyibo! 4:59 pm  

"Nigeria does make sense - just not Western sense"
This is the point that Chabal and Deloz make in their book Africa Works. I can see the point, but i think there is something else going on.
I recently went to the Osun Festival in Osogbo, and while I cannot claim to be able to penetrate the understanding that ordinary people have with the spirits, it was also clear that this cultural ball of twine was being fought over and appropriated by other discourses; commercial, with the increased level of sponsorship from companies like MTN and Seaman's schnapps (slogan: the number one prayer drink); political, both at a mainstream elite level -the presence of the governor and other 'dignitaries'- and the level of ethnically orientated power blocs -represented by Gani Adams the Oodua People's Congress; and a discourse of "culture" represented by the tourism development council who are trying to market such festivals as destinations for visitors like me. None of these things has actually much to do with the (to me) closed world of animism, but all are understandable in "western" terms of reference

Chude,  5:14 pm  

i'm agreeing vigorously with contractor. naijablog shoudlbtr allow anyone corner it into a corner. the original argument wqas beautifully put. there is a method to the madness, but that doesnt and cannot make the madness a positive thing. in response to negresse, i would say: it is primitive - not premodern, primitive ... and romanticising it cannot help. there is nothing alluring about our dyfunctionality. and yes we should be able to negotiate this complexity (insanity is the word i'd use) but only on the condition that we are on our way to resolving it. it's really a choice between MMA 1 and MMA2!

catwalq 8:25 pm  

Whenever you put up posts such as this, I can almost predict what the responses are going to be.
(BTW: so u do respond to comments? I am SHOCKED!!!!)

Anyways, as always I agree with you and disagree with you. Most of the truths you have are from your viewpoint as a foreigner in this land and I see what you see. What usually interests me is how the Nigerian upon embarking from the plane in a foreign land, is immediately aware of and able to conform to simple laws such as respecting traffic lights, queing properly, cleaning up after themselves etc. Disgusting, that they will care for another man's land and destroy their own and their excuse is that, "well, that's how I met it and 2. everyone is doing it"
But also, anonymous 1 said (and I agree) "there is a method to our madness"

Anonymous,  8:06 am  

Jeremy me and you no dey for the same category.We no dey the same category.

Funmi Iyanda 9:00 am  

jer, amazing what clarity a bottle of Star can bring, shine shine bobo. Your insights are spot on.

Funmi Iyanda 10:42 am  

posted my comments before l read the others.

Jeremy does not hate Nigeria, would we take offence if that had been said by a Nigerian? But then all human societies are like that, no matter how well integrated one might be in any other country, if you stretch the joke or dare get in the fray, you will be butchered. If l say Nigerians dey crase, we might laugh but if he says it..Ditto a Nigerian in Ghana.

l feel that his piece is an effort to explain Nigeria in the way they can understand it to those who can only see the chaos because they look through their own sometimes myopic lenses. Thats why billions of donor naira is "choped" every year because they insist on talking and working only with people who "talk the talk" as they know it, usually people who have learnt to fraudulently do so. l dont think that the way we are is functional but the way to get out of where we are is to understand what works in spite of all and how it works then build on that. it is unlikely that we will evolve along the lines of the west but we define and create our own unique but functional and prosperous society. Rem Koolhans once did a good study on Lagos and pointed out some of these areas of function in dysfunction. Besides we are only like this because of failure of leadership and the resultant breakdown of laws, systems and processes. We continue to be like this because we allow such, however, human societies are continuously self correcting and this way will not go on for ever.

BK,  2:04 pm  

but we ARE dishonest the main....AND I'm Nigerian.

Anonymous,  3:06 pm  

why is it when folks want to insult nigerians and nigeria, they always go with "we." why don't you just leave it at yourself that you are a dishonest egomaniac

Anonymous,  5:29 pm  


I feel for you. I frankly don't understand why you continue to air your views when you know you're bound to be badly smacked down. Nigerians cannot abide criticism at all, and why should we, we're perfect! Everything works fine, nothing needs fixing and if it does, it should definitely not be mentioned by a white man who doesn't know his place. Meanwhile, its painfully apparent that crass indiscipline rolled up in ignorant arrogance and blind 'patriotic' romanticism makes ours a most frustrating society to live in whether Jeremy blogs about it or not.
Ok, so there's method to the madness and it provides ample material for 21st century business schools, but why should we exult in this? Why do Nigerians vaunt disorder and chaos as proof that "we're special"? Granted we'll never be Norway, but if we have to rise out of this mire, then we'll need Negresse (qui n'est plus adoree) and her like to take their heads out the clouds and admit that a) our society IS dysfunctional b) Jeremy didn't cause it, and c) he's earned the right to speak about it.
I vex jare.

Anonymous,  6:56 pm  

we don't want to be norway.

negresse adoree,  2:12 pm  

Adieu a toutes at a tous et bon courage.

Chacha,  4:53 pm  

Nigeria does make sense to those who live in it. Although people both at home and abroad admit to a certain frustration with the unpredictability of life in Nigeria, they learn to live with it or tolerate it in the same way one learns to cope with a recurring bad rash. On a universal scale however the problems I've experienced as a Nigerian who has lived at home and abroad, there's an undeniable love/hate thing that I feel towards all things Nigerians especially the penchant for chaos and drame. I mean people actually look forward to this excitement. It brings out the best or worst in us depending on your temperament.
Mama C

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