Expats in Nigeria

In her article trying to convince Guardian readers that Lagos is a more desirable place to live than Vienna, that I wrote about here, Chibundu Onuzo says the following:

I’d just like to say that Lagos has enough expats. We see them, overpaid and overfed, establishing little colonies, disparaging the local culture, food and customs, and earning three times what they would at home.

The fact foreigners have to be paid three times as much to work in Nigeria as their home countries indicates conditions there are harsh; how much of an uplift on their salaries does Vienna represent? Other than a few die-hard fans and sex tourists masquerading as office workers, people’s only interest in going to Nigeria is for professional advancement and money. The reason expats show no interest in the local culture and don’t integrate is because they’re not there for that. You might as well complain that doctors don’t socialise with patients, or diplomats cheer the local sports team.

There are qualified Nigerians who know the terrain and can do their work just as well or even better.

As is often the case with such criticisms – environmental groups and oil companies spring to mind – she is broadly correct without realising why. The reason expats are brought to Nigeria is a lack of local competence. At first glance this might be interpreted as Nigeria having no civil engineers so foreign civil engineers must be hired from abroad, but it’s more complicated than that. Competence isn’t just about doing a technical job but also having the organisational and managerial skills to get a decent civil engineer hired and working. And that’s where Nigeria struggles: it doesn’t matter how many good civil engineers you can find in Nigeria if the prevailing culture allows managers to hire their relatives regardless of competence. This practice generates competence gaps in the organisation which cannot be filled by locals for two reasons: firstly a local already holds the position, but he’s the managing director’s idiot nephew. Secondly, they’re not even aware of what the position entails, nor where to find a competent local. So the cry goes up that they must hire a magic expat, and this is especially true when the organisation in question is partnered with a foreign entity.

Now they still don’t know what the position entails and even less of an idea of what a competent expat looks like, so they hire someone who is either cheap (and therefore  useless) or recommended by the foreign entity. In the latter case, the recommendation often comes not as a result of competence on the individual’s part, but because he or she has shown the deference towards the hierarchy necessary to advance in a modern corporation. In short, Nigerian companies lack the ability to recruit and retain competent Nigerians and when they turn to expats for help they hire charlatans or get fobbed off with an expensive corporate drone who adds no value. Meanwhile, as Onuzo says, there are qualified Nigerians who can do a better job that don’t get a look-in.

I’ve often said that rather than complaining about the numbers of expats working in Nigeria, people should concentrate on their quality. The trouble with that is you can’t impose quality standards on expats without doing the same for Nigerians. Only if you did that managers wouldn’t be able to hire their relatives, which is so hard-wired into the culture it’s practically an obligation. So really, the expats in Nigeria – their numbers, quality, and behaviour – are a symptom of the place and the culture. If Onuzo had realised this when she wrote that paragraph, she might have written a half-decent article.

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11 thoughts on “Expats in Nigeria

  1. Just as Jared Diamond attempted to answer the question, “why didn’t the south Americans and Australian Aborigines invade Europe but the Europeans invaded their countries?”, perhaps Chibundu might want to ponder the question, “why do many Nigerians want to move to Europe or America (myself included) but we have to pay Europeans and Americans a fortune to move to Nigeria?”.

    If the answer doesn’t include the words, “freedom of expression, rule of law, property rights and enforcement of private contracts”, please try again.

  2. Frequently, and in my specific case, it is not the technical expertise that is needed, but the creation of the proper culture, norms, and framework to run a proper business. Your nepotism example is just one aspect. Expats are there to create self-sufficiency and credibility with the outside world. In other cases, to put it bluntly, expats come in to keep an eye on the money. It took 20 years for Intel Corp to let a Russian be the head of Finance there.

  3. Nepotism, graft, and duplication, all are facets of African economies and bureaucrasies, I remember the first time landing at Harare airport and handing in my passport, three people in the booth, one looked, the next looked again and the third stamped the passport, it was then handed back in reverse order.

    The frameworks for a successful society we left have been slowly dismantled as a degree of honesty is required to use them, the judges in court may still wear our legal outfits but a backhander will trump all.

  4. We see them, overpaid and overfed, establishing little colonies, disparaging the local culture, food and customs, and earning three times what they would at home.

    For a moment I thought this was about muslim immigration to Europe.

  5. I hope that the familial clientelism that bedevils Africa will wither away. We used to have it too, so it’s not impossible.

    Meanwhile a professional African in Europe can’t get away from it. Nigerian doctors in the NHS earn much less than British doctors, not because they are paid less but because they have to send remittances to a crowd of hangers on back home.

  6. Theodore Dalrymple covered this one. No amount of money would allow the local to live like the expat, because the local guy’s depents would multiply Parkinson like to match the money available.

    Not simply black and white however, as some of those dependents probably funded the guys education, so this is ROI.

  7. …perhaps Chibundu might want to ponder the question, “why do many Nigerians want to move to Europe or America (myself included) but we have to pay Europeans and Americans a fortune to move to Nigeria?”.

    Slight point of complication: aren’t Nigerians in Europe also earning three times what they would back home?

  8. Mate of mine works for an oil major. They wanted him to go to Nigeria, and the start offer was double his salary for the time he was out there.
    He said no.
    So they said “OK then, triple”.
    His reply was classic: “The fact that you’re prepared to triple my salary tells me exacly why I really don’t want to go there”.
    They stopped asking at that point.

  9. @ Wiggiatlarge – “the judges in court may still wear our legal outfits but a backhander will trump all.”

    Absolutely spot on. I lost a major slam dunk moneys in the bank case in the Johannesburg High Court, plus costs. Found out afterwards that the judge plays golf with the applicants lawyer.

    I actually hired that law firm to represent us after that.

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