nigeria

What More Can I Say?

Nigeria will drain every ounce of hope you have, unless, like so much of the country, you exist in an idiot bliss of optimism while the signs all around point to, if not catastrophe, then the familiar slide of flattened aspirations and spreading poverty. The place never collapses, it never implodes, it never boils over. Years collapse into one another, and things just sort of carry on, as they always have and as they always will. But they don’t get better. The worst of it is that we’ve normalised this hypnotic slide, so that spreading poverty is no different from past poverty.

Lately things have taken such a bad turn that I am filled with too much dread to even contemplate where they may end up if we continue on the same trajectory for much longer. It is a repeatedly paralysing exercise to wake up to the day’s news.

And so I have sharply curtailed my commentary. I have stopped to conserve my energy; to try to live, rather than survive (which is what 2014 to date has felt like). I don’t keep abreast of the latest happenings; I don’t try to make sense of corporate fines, masked men shutting down the legislature, or a pronounced anti-business attitude spreading like a virus.

This is necessary also because I have talked myself out espousing positions which are overwhelmingly regarded as ‘negative.’ It hardly helps if clear-eyed realism leads you to the same place as those accused of being pessimists. Whatever your reasons, it is no fun to be the bearer of bad news, idiot bliss is much more agreeable.

But what else can I report? What is the record of our history? Have you not seen this pre-election movie before? Just today Nonso Obiliki reminded us that in 2011 we were seriously debating the need to increase the regulated price of electricity to make the sector more viable. That was almost a decade ago. Today, after all that time, after all that petrol, all that diesel, after all those kerosene lamps, after all that lost productivity and missed opportunity, we are further away than ever from a consensus on how to stop the lights from going off. Ten years. That’s bad, you say. But if you look back long enough, we have been having the power back and forth from as early as the President Obasanjo era, to my memory, and much much longer, I wager, if you dig back far enough.

The pattern repeats itself endlessly: the Biafra agitation, pollution in the Niger Delta, family planning, a national census, public education, and so on. Please take me literally and seriously when I say that on the fundamental issues there are no new problems in Nigeria—because there aren’t. We just don’t seem willing to arrive at any kind of actual solutions or even admit that the band-aid solutions are not working. Perhaps this is the natural messiness of nation-building. Perhaps. In any case, at least for now, I have nothing else to say.

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nigeria

To the Village, Old Man

So here we are, another election season. It feels like only yesterday when President Buhari was being driven through Eagle Square in an open back jeep. There is an element of déjà vu about the whole thing: the non-stop politicking, the heightened level of insane behavior, and the general sense that every available resource has been committed to the goal of winning the election. Our attentions, our budgets, our time, our lives are summoned to these great exertions every four years, and to what end?

Thinking about the last four years, I get an overwhelming feeling of holding on for dear life, trying to survive. I suppose this is what it feels like when a country gets poorer, or, indeed, when a person gets poorer. People who once were rolling in the dough start to count the coins, those who once counted the coins start cutting calories to save money, and those who cut calories before, die. Nothing brought the seriousness of our situation home like the response I got from a family friend’s driver when I asked about what led to the recent death of his father.

Im sick. We send am go village make im die, we no get money to dey keep old man alive.

His father was not much over 60. In Nigeria, that means you had a long life.

My first thought was about how cruel he was. Who says such a thing? Who simply lets, or, indeed, hastens another’s demise, especially one’s father? But consider the position of a driver who is on his ass. He is poor. He has his own children, his own worries, his own expenses. His salary barely covers all the things he needs to do. A dying father is just about the last thing he can afford, and his options are few and unattractive. Palliative care is expensive, interminable, and often futile. Should this man beg? Should he steal? Should he deny his children their school fees or stop paying his rent? These are not academic choices, Dear Reader, this is the reality for far too many people in Nigeria. When people fall seriously ill, they go to the village to die. And usually this happens when people run out of money.

These thoughts were on and off my mind last week when this Brookings Institute story went viral. Apparently, Nigeria has more people (87 million) in extreme poverty than any other country on earth. (They define extreme poverty as people living on less than $1.90 a day, or N20,500 per month.) And that’s only part of the problem. Unlike virtually every other country they follow (at least this is true for those outside Africa) the ranks of people in extreme poverty in this country are growing at a rate of six persons a minute.

Corroborating this view is data provided by Ian Bremmer in this tweet. In the table he shows what has happened to extreme poverty in various countries over the 23 years between 1990 and 2013. Here is another way to look at his data:

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From the above you can see that Nigeria is the only country (in this set of nations) which increased extreme poverty in the period, and it did so by a whopping 70%. (And to repeat: It is still increasing.) If you are not yet worried, consider how young this country is. It is quite likely that close to half of the Nigerians alive today have only lived through a period of deepening poverty. They’ve never seen a great Nigeria. All they have is relative hardship. Save for a few periods of loosening in the economy, their lives have been mired in hardship, lack of opportunity, and lack of options. It is a miracle that we can be such a persistently optimistic nation. In spite of all that we know, we continue to believe. We await the elusive breakthrough.

This situation begs a very simple question: What is the point of leadership in this country?

Minister Okey Enelamah, when asked about the Brookings Institute report, tried his best to deflect from the point. But he sounded embarrassing and shifty, like a little child caught lying about who spilled glue on the bedsheet. It is shocking that we cannot even have an honest conversation about such a serious situation.

There is a hard truth here, a truth which we all feel. We have all felt recently what it is like to have our spirits collapse when our car’s suspension suddenly develops a sharp, abnormal sound (no money). Some know the disappointment of changing a child’s school to a less prestigious one (no money). Others know of delayed or even cancelled medical appointments (no money). And these are middle class concerns. The poor go to the village when they are too sick.

Since 1990, we’ve lived through military and civilian rule, eight heads of state, two oil booms, debt forgiveness, PDP, APC, the four-yearly election cycle, daily bombardment with political pronouncements, commissionings of new roads, FEC meetings, and so on. We were told of a new “diversified” economy, Vision 2020, Africa’s largest economy, and, oh, look at all these wonderful billionaires in Davos with their private jets. All this while extreme poverty went up by 70%. Worst of all we’ve embraced a value system which shames the poor even though ‘poor’ is what the vast majority of us are.

Ah, Dear Reader. These things get me too riled up. It is election season. A time for our traditional display of nepotism, tribalism, and prejudice. Some people think we may have a few years of negative growth ahead. But let’s face it, all that wan na grammer. Wave your brooms, unleash the slogans, shake hands with the traditional rulers, roll-out new jingles and posters, collect rice and oil. Let us begin this festival of folly once again.

I suppose also we all should pray that we do not end up in a hut somewhere dying in our old age. But you don’t care, you are off to Canada. And you, you don’t care either, you are going to be the last vulture feeding off this carcass. And you, well, you are not here, you are extremely poor, so you probably can’t read, or you read but cannot understand.

Good night everybody.

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nigeria

Great Service

Living and doing business in Nigeria carries its special challenges. People constantly complain about the poor quality of service they get from businesses or from the government.  On average, I think the issues people raise are valid, we do have a dearth of great service generally.

But leaving it there is not enough. I think it is even more important to use these experiences as a reference point to measure how we are doing. What sort of service are you providing in your own role? The great thing about being in an environment where we are constantly on the receiving end of bad work is that we know what it feels like and we know when we are the givers of bad service. What I’ve found is that it is as much a behavioural challenge as anything else. In other words, you can’t ‘spot’ deliver service. You don’t choose to do great work today and tomorrow do bad work. It is a binary situation—you are either great or bad. For me this means nitpicking as a way of life. Constantly crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s, because that is the only way I can maintain a habit of excellence. For people building businesses, organisations, I think they are actually involved in social engineering to help people—especially young people—imbibe a standard which they may not know exists because they have lived for so long in an environment where shitty service is the norm. And I think this could be a decisive competitive advantage, especially here, where the bar for great service is so low.

Something to think about.

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nigeria

The Ground Beneath Your Feet

 

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Yesterday, I got to speaking with a fellow I had met a few days before at a friend’s wedding in beautiful Cape Town. We had both just arrived from SA and had the chance to chat while making our way through the arrivals queue. Almost as soon as we started talking the conversation turned to thoughts about our futures. This wasn’t surprising given the events of the past few days.

You see in attendance at this wedding was a cross-section of Nigerian professionals between 30 and 35. Most of us are at about the 10-year mark in our careers and are working for big organisations around the world. Some are recently married—3 or 4 years—some have a thought to get married soon. Some have kids, others are thinking about them. The gatherers had mostly come out of the same secondary schools or had met early in their careers in Lagos, but they had since fanned out across the world. San Francisco, Boston, London, Philadelphia, Geneva, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Abuja, and yes, Lagos, were some of the cities represented there. In short, a reunion of sorts, and a good time to reflect.

What had the past decade taught us? How had our different careers unfolded and could it show us anything about the next ten or twenty years? There are of course many dangers in comparing oneself to anybody else, but there are also lessons, realisations, admissions which can help to clarify what we must do or to dig-up some buried truth which we have been too afraid to confront.

For the folks living outside Nigeria, there was a quality of leisurely confidence in their demeanour. These were young, rich men. They’d seen their incomes rise, through the last 10 years. Predominantly finance types, they had hustled their way into some investment banking, private equity, trading or investment management job in the developed world right after the financial crisis of 2008, and had ridden the wave of increasing market valuations, even as inflation held steady or fell, economies grew, and unemployment rates dropped across the developed world. Young money, really.

For the Nigeria-based folks, the same period has been a bit more challenging. Of course there was the period of the oil boom. After a violent collapse in 2008, between 2009 and 2011 the oil price climbed relentlessly from the 40s to the 100s and remained there through 2014. As if on cue, Nigeria entered a goldilocks period with a relentless stream of good news. The country was awash with oil dollars, the currency was strong, GDP was revalued upwards to $510bn, and Africa was still rising. Most importantly, the middle class felt rich and there was a new swagger about the nation.

Then the oil market collapsed and the country plunged into a leadership quagmire which metamorphosed into a complete clusterfuck. Incomes which had peaked in dollar terms in the 2011 to 2014 boom years got absolutely crushed in the massive devaluation of 2016. [From the beginning of 2011 to date the naira has more than halved in value against the dollar.] Inflation gathered a head of steam just as the economy was grinding to a halt, attended by a new reality which promised that Nigeria was ‘open for business’ while doing just about everything to ensure it was closed. Whispers of ‘stagflation,’ ‘IMF,’ ‘debt,’ ‘structural adjustment programme’ grew, words which I naively thought we had buried in the 80s. For those in it, it was living through wave after wave of scarcity and dislocation. No petrol, no diesel, no kerosene, no jet fuel, no dollars. Older Nigerians were better prepared, they spoke wearily of the late 80s and early 90s, when careers, lives, and aspirations were destroyed by macroeconomic events which they were oblivious of. It reminded them too much of it. My father described that period as: “Seeing the ground beneath your feet give way.”

No, there was no leisurely confidence in our demeanour. No young money, things are tough. In that airport yesterday, my friend and I were thinking the same thing: Should we stick around? Does it make sense? We are both fathers, should we really keep our kids here? Nothing is academic when you have kids. If your income gets squeezed by inflation or the exchange rate, you feed them less, or they cannot go to school. Nothing about that is theoretical. It is a bit more serious than social media banter or quips about being optimistic or patriotic. When people make shit-headed economic decisions, they are attacking my livelihood and my aspirations, my kids, my loved ones. And this is kind of the bottomline in all this: The ground we stand on is too uncertain. Sure and sturdy one minute, erupting the very next.

Why am I writing this? I don’t know. I guess I’ve got shit on my mind.

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nigeria, society

The Great Meat Pie Demise

Hardly matters what anyone bloody well says, the Nigerian meat pie is in a bad way.

I grew up on fantastic meat pies. There was nothing quite like it. It didn’t particularly matter if you had them hot or cold, they were perfect. For the first couple of years we had those semi-circular mounds of folded dough with the fork imprints down the outer crust. The IBB years brought us the triangular shaped, flakier meat pies. I recall a surprise samoosa attack launched in the early to mid-90s which was beaten back after heavy fighting in Shell Housing Estate, Port Harcourt. It didn’t matter what was thrown at us—sausage, scotch egg, egg roll, danish, doughnut—we beat it back.

Meat pies were consistent. The perfect ratio of potato, beef, carrot and seasoning. Occasionally one came across an amateur creation, its distinct telltale sign the excessiveness of potato in the filling. But other than these rare cases, it was meat pie heaven. Nigeria was meat pie country.

And that was before the Great Mr Biggs Meat Pies.

You don’t really know what a meat pie is if you never had a Mr Biggs Meat Pie in its heyday. We capitalise the ‘meat pie’ in Mr Biggs Meat Pie for a reason. To say it was in a class of is own is absurd: this was a mass produced piece of food heaven. I remember there was an AGIP filling station in front of Tejuosho Market, between Ojuelegba and the railway line in Yaba. The promise of a warm pie was the only reason I could tolerate the interminable unpleasantness of a day at the market with my mother. It was more than just food, it was a cultural totem.

These days what passes for meat pie are dry, unimaginative, vulgar, insulting pieces of thick dough. That’s if you find it. In 2017 we stopped the pretense altogether. In many otherwise fine establishments the meat pie has been eradicated by an invasive species known as the sharwarma. We have lost a great many things in this country, and our meat pies may be the most tragic of all.

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nigeria, society

Blow Scatter or A Better Average

Tunde Leye wrote an interesting post yesterday which touched on a subject I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: building a life in Nigeria or trying to do so elsewhere. This is a topic as old as the hills, but maybe we can say something new about it.

Why does anybody voluntarily try to move borders? Simple: For a chance at a better life. If you think about it, there are two options for improving one’s life:

  1. We can improve our lives in the country we are in. [The blow scatter option]
  2. We can move to another country where an improved life is likelier. [The emigrate option]

It is important to note the italicised words ‘chance’ and ‘likelier.’ There are few certainties in life. Implicit in (2) is the admission that (1) is less likely or achievable. A lot of people do not like this, they insist that they will blow scatter and that Nigeria is just the place to do so. I find the option to blow scatter problematic. If most people are saying ‘I go blow scatter,’ the consequence of this is that most people are actually saying: ‘We go all blow scatter.

Unfortunately, this cannot happen. Mathematically, we cannot all blow scatter. This admission is a struggle for many of us. Why? There is a solid body of research which shows that most of us are convinced that we are above-average, even though this is statistically impossible. Most of us make up the average. The blow scatter mentality is premised on an impossible world.

Let’s look at these two options in another way. The stylised graph below shows what a distribution of income looks like in many societies. The middle of the graph does not mean ‘middle class’ in the typical sense (i.e.: people earning a certain amount of money), it is the average. We’ll come back to this.

Ideas - 3

So, what do we have?

  • On the left are people who do not have a lot of income. (Red)
  • Towards the middle are most people in society (Yellow). This group of people earn the average income.
  • You have those with higher incomes still on the right. (Blue)

By definition, the average is a measure of central tendency, or the likeliest outcome. That jargony sentence simply means that if I had to pick the random person in Nigeria today, there is a good chance that his or her income will be near Nigeria’s average income. That is, he or she will fall into the Yellow portion. It also means that if you look out twenty years, the average Nigerian is likely to be earning the average Nigerian income, whatever that is by that time (the future Yellow). This is a consequence of what the average is.

Once you accept this, things become clearer. All you are concerned about is which average is likely to be better (option two). Do you want an average which allows you to pay tax, travel, enjoy 24-hr electricity and water and cheap high-quality education for the rest of your life? (High Income) Or do you want an average where you are worried about an emergency medical operation? (Low Income)

Going back to our graph of income distribution, here is what I mean by a choice between averages:

Ideas - 3

On the one hand, we have where we are now—Nigeria. Then there is the U.S. graph to the right of it (it could be any other developed economy). Notice that overall, their average is a higher level of ‘income.’ In other words, the average American is doing better.

And this is all there is to it: Emigrating is a chance at a better average. (Please note that the average is the likely state wherever you are. I am not making the fallacious argument that leaving Nigeria is a choice between having average income overseas and having exceptional wealth in Nigeria. That is nonsensical.)

But we have another problem, don’t we. In the same way that the strategy to blow is not a strategy for all Nigerians, emigrating cannot be either. We cannot all emigrate. So are we stuck? Not quite. Looked at individually, it seems to me that a person has a better shot at a great life in a better average than trying to work themselves out of their current average (which is a very difficult thing regardless of where you are). That’s an option for Tunde’s friend (and the one he’s taken) but not for all of us.

This is a stark truth. There is no easy way out for Nigerians collectively: We cannot all hammer and we cannot all emigrate. We have to fix the country. When we speak of improving Nigeria, what that means to me is moving the Nigerian graph to the right. It does not mean moving a few people from the Red to Blue portion of the existing graph. Economic development is simply a process of helping most of society ‘emigrate’ to a better life at home. It is not creating millionaires or billionaires. Our World In Data shows how this has worked over time. It shows that the world’s graph has progressively moved to the right; that on the whole, we are all better off now compared to a hundred years ago. We’ve moved the average, and that’s what Nigeria needs, a better average.

 


I should add a few thoughts which I was not able to incorporate into the body of the essay, but which are quite important nonetheless:

  1. Notice that I left the word ‘income’ in quotes; that was deliberate. It does not mean ‘money.’ It is things such as lower costs, expanded lifestyle options, better quality of life, freedom and so on. These all enhance our wellbeing but are non-monetary in nature. For instance, being able to walk into a public library that was founded by Benjamin Franklin in the 1700s is free. But, for people like me, it is a massive increase in my ‘income’ or my wellbeing. I also like trees. Being in a green space is free, but it enhances my ‘income.’ Stress may appear costless because there is no naira or kobo charge, but eventually, we will pay through some medical issue or the other. (This idea is a staple of economics) There are other non-monetary factors which enter into this conversation. Identity is important, and this could become an issue overseas. Xenophobia and racism are never far off. What of family? It is very difficult to leave one’s loved ones and emigrate, we deny ourselves the privilege of watching them (and they us) grow old. there is no money one could attach to that pain. In other words, there are many things which cannot be modelled in a spreadsheet which increase or decrease our wellbeing. A lot of us miss this when thinking about these decisions.
  2. To point out that most people will be in the average is not a predication for your life. In fact, I am hoping that I manage to escape the average myself. However, the disconcerting truth is that we must run as hard as we can to likely end up average. But what is life if not the ability to relish its complexities and contradictions?
  3. I am writing (and you may be reading) as someone who has had the advantage of privilege. The middle and below is an ugly place in Nigeria, most of our countrymen and countrywomen live a life of unimaginable hardship. Our concerns here are the privilege of the rich. This is not to criminalise wealth or to victimise the poor. It is an acknowledgement of the unfortunate status quo. The vast multitude of our people are more worried about a warm meal, a comfy bed, making it through this rainy season. If you have escaped this (by your effort or Fate’s design) be grateful, you have better problems.
  4. Apologies to the statisticians and/or economists who may object to some of the liberties I’ve taken. I deliberately tried to strip away most of technicalities associated with the curves and averages.
  5. @inpoco and @andyRoidO were generous with their time and helped me to bring this essay to life. I thank them. Obviously any errors or problems are mine alone.

 

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nigeria, society

Leadership

One of the great fallacies in Nigeria is the notion that leadership starts and ends with political leadership, and that “our leaders” are the entire cause of the problem with Nigeria. This is a fine piece of nonsense. Leadership is a broad concept. The church is a constituency with leaders, so are the mosques, the traditional healers, the business establishment, academia, students, and so on. Every segment of our population has a hierarchy of some sort, and with that, it also has a leadership class. Our lazy habit of blaming all and sundry on our leaders, and especially our leaders in “government” (by which we usually mean the federal government, not, say, the judiciary, or the 36 imbeciles who lead the states) is a classic cop out. It is a way to make us feel better about ourselves. The fact of the matter is that wherever you are, as a member of our society, you have the opportunity to demonstrate the leadership you wish we had. And watching these alternate leaders in society is a study in the true challenges of leading the county. Too often we see the exact reflection of everything that we loudly complain about. The example of estate associations stands out. It is a real indictment that even in the entirely private, resident-controlled estate associations, whose job it is to ensure the comfort, security and general wellbeing of the residents of the estate they belong to, the record shows that, as a rule, these associations fail to discharge that responsibility honestly and diligently. The stories of mismanagement, simple theft and tribalism are legion. Perhaps even, the existence of these organisations is a statement set in bold of the critical challenge of achieving basic goals in this country. I am still flabbergasted by the daily reality of neighbours, whose children play together, stealing diesel money from the estate pot. The insults we hurl at “government” make us feel better about ourselves. We trot out the standard complaint that “we are not ready” all the time. Yet, in our small pockets, we fail miserably. Surely there is no greater demonstration of the national challenge than these micro failures. It is an uncomfortable truth, but Nigeria is made up of Nigerians, not anyone else. What we see is what we are. And we are, far more often than we wish to admit, not the change we wish to see in our world.

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