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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Of Street Turds and Culture

There are several arguments which could be made to contest the Economist Intelligent Unit’s ranking of the world’s most liveable cities, especially concerning how they measure “culture” which, rather implausibly, put Adelaide in the top 10 a few years back. Yet despite this open goal, one Chibundu Onuzo writing in The Guardian misses the target completely:

A few months ago, I stepped out one morning and saw a coil of animal poo on the doorstep. My mother and I spent a long time trying to figure out what sort of animal had done the deed. We decided, in the end, that a fox was the culprit. But it could also have been a racist.

Racists can can shit fox poo? Who knew?

The incident has occurred twice but as we’ve got rid of the evidence both times, we’ll never know.

You didn’t think to take a photo? Fox shit looks quite a bit different from human shit, even if it’s been curled out by a racist.

I am not the only one who has had a similar experience in London. Just search “poo on doorstep”. It occurs frequently enough to have generated several threads on the internet.

The author lives in London, where I am sure many British people want open and frank discussions about how and why shit has started appearing on the streets, and who is leaving it there. Is that what the author wants? No:

Yet, when ranking the world’s best cities to live in last week, the mighty statisticians of the Economist Intelligence Unit didn’t take into account “likeliness to find a turd on your front doorstep”.

How do you know?

In the 14 years I lived in Lagos, I never once found faeces in front of my house. Yet Lagos is judged one of the 10 least liveable cities in the world, and London comes much higher in the desirability rankings, at number 48.

Firstly, part of the reason London is ranked 48 and not 8 is because it is becoming increasingly filled with people who shit in the streets. Secondly, whereas I confess I never saw a turd in the street in Lagos I put that down to the fact that those shitting in public did so a little off the beaten path. If this lady had a small canal running behind her house, for example, it would probably have resembled an open sewer. This is what greeted a colleague of mine in Nigeria one day when he chanced to look out of his office window:

There are in fact two toilets in the photo: the portacabin on the right belonging to a building site and a concrete beam across a drainage canal belonging to whoever feels like taking a dump, in public, in broad daylight (the exact location of the above incident is here).

Granted, I have no problems with some of the things the index does track, such as crime rates, the efficiency of transportation networks, and quality of healthcare. All are important, and improve one’s experience of a city. Lagos scored low in all these categories and as a Lagosian, I readily admit that we can do better in all these areas.

Similarly, when appraising their visit to Baghdad in 1258, the Mongols admitted their conduct could have been gentler.

But I’d certainly question how cities were ranked in some of the other areas that make up the index. In the culture and environment category, which includes recreational activities, Vienna scored 96.3 out of 100 and Lagos just 53.5. Now I’ve been to Vienna, and I’ve lived in Lagos, and there is no way Vienna is 43 points ahead of Lagos in culture and environment.

Whereas I’ll not say Lagos is devoid of culture – it isn’t – the culture that there is, outside of bars showing premier league football and six nations rugby, is wholly Nigerian. Which makes it great for a Lagosian, but for a foreigner it’s not very accessible.

Just ask Emmanuel Macron, who recently made a pilgrimage to Fela Kuti’s New Afrika Shrine in Lagos.

Can we ask him if he believes Lagos to be culturally superior to Vienna? Or do you reckon, what with him being a Parisian, he’ll think the lack of shit on the streets counts against it?

Lagos is a city of galleries under bridges, where artists paint and display for free.

Yeah, I’m sure Vienna has street artists too.

Every weekend there is a royal wedding that shuts down roads and stops traffic.

Erm, this isn’t a good thing. Roads being closed arbitrarily by paramilitary forces in Ray-Bans bearing AK-47s count against cities hoping to elevate themselves on livability indices.

Lagos is a city of fashion, home to the third biggest film industry in the world, and its Afrobeat music pulses out to reach the ears of a global audience.

Whereas Vienna only has Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Strauss. And who’s heard of them?

It’s obvious the statisticians didn’t know where to look.

In their defence, they were probably advised not to leave the hotel. The author concludes:

So whether you judge Lagos liveable or not, Lagosians will go on living and thriving there.

Yet strangely you left, and moved to London. This is not surprising. I noticed when studying the reaction to my infamous post on Nigeria that its most aggressive defenders seemed to be living abroad and doing quite well.

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Why did you fire Charles?

“Sir, why did you fire Charles?”

The question was flat, neither aggressive nor amiable. The only other expatriate in the team had left the room, leaving just the Nigerians, eight in total, all men between 25 and 50 years of age. They looked at me sat at the head of the table in expectation. Legally they had no right to ask the question, but under Nigerian social norms they felt obliged to. Moreover, I was obliged to answer. The room fell silent and they waited.

Charles was an engineer I’d inherited from my predecessor, and I quickly found he wasn’t up to the job. I’d begun spotting mistakes in his work, serious technical errors that should never have been made. I asked him to explain them, giving him an opportunity to tell me of any mitigating circumstances of which I might be unaware. You’d be surprised what external factors can impact an engineer’s work in a country like Nigeria; family obligations are deep and far-reaching, and more than capable of intruding into a workplace. But Charles provided none, and after several iterations it was clear he simply didn’t have the knowledge and skills to do the work to the required standard.

I sat for a few seconds, gathering my thoughts. I’d been ambushed by my own team at the end of a weekly meeting, and I wasn’t prepared. Although they didn’t enjoy the protections of Nigeria’s infamously powerful labour unions, I couldn’t simply brush off the question or make a glib response if I expected to manage them effectively in future. They’d obviously conferred, elected a spokesman – a large and confident man by the name of Deji – and intervened in the hope of protecting their erstwhile colleague’s job, or at least seeing justice done. I’d need to choose my words carefully.

“The truth is,” I began. “Charles couldn’t do the work. He was making mistakes, lots of them. For example, I sent him to do something offshore and he got the measurements all wrong. This is simple stuff.” Nobody’s expression changed, so I went on. “Look, all of you here are experienced professionals, and you can do the work because you put in the necessary years of training and practice. Charles, for whatever reason, hasn’t done that; he’s never spent the time and effort to learn the basics of his trade. You guys have, but he hasn’t.”

One or two heads nodded slightly, and bodies relaxed a touch. I continued. “What he needs to do is find a job where he can learn the basics, with all the necessary training and support. Unfortunately, this isn’t the place to do that: we need experienced engineers who can deliver immediately, and we hire on that basis. That’s why you guys are here, and not a bunch of students. Charles is in the wrong job.”

I fell silent, letting them process what I’d said. After a few seconds Deji spoke up. “Sir, we understand, but can’t you give him a second chance? He has a family.”

I adopted the most sympathetic tone I could, and replied: “I can’t, for two reasons. Firstly, as a manager I’m paid to look after the company’s interests. I draw a salary in return for making decisions which are often difficult and at odds with what I’d like to do personally. Yes, it would be nicer and easier to let Charles stay, but I’d be failing in my own job if that happened. There’s a human aspect here for sure, but the job of a manager is to weigh those against the interests of the company. You guys understand that, right?”

“Yes sir,” Deji said. “We understand.”

“Okay,” I said. “And the other reason is this. You know how coveted the jobs are in this company, how many thousands of people in this country would kill to have your jobs. Somewhere there’s a guy out there who has put in serious time and effort to acquire the skills necessary to get a job here, but never got the opportunity. He’s standing on the street, unemployed or in a rubbish job, praying he gets a chance to work here. But he can’t, because the position is taken up by someone who isn’t up to it. How is that fair? Yes, Charles has a family but so has this other guy. You guys all earned your positions here; how would you feel if you were shut out because your posts were filled with people who lacked the basic skills for the job?”

“You make a good point,” Deji said. Everyone nodded in agreement.

“Charles will be replaced by someone more suited to the job, and more deserving of it,” I said. “Is that fair?”

“Yes sir, it is. Thanks for your time, and explaining it to us.”

“Okay, good. But guys, I can’t be ambushed like this every time I make a decision. I don’t mind justifying my decisions to you some of the time, but I’m not obliged to, and I can’t do it all the time. If you have a problem with something tell me, but don’t put me on the spot like this.”

“Okay sir,” Deji said. “That’s noted. Thanks again for your time.”

There are times where one needs more than the blunt instrument of authority to manage a team effectively. See also here.

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Half a Story

Via JuliaM, this story doesn’t stack up:

An African woman and her children were kicked off a United Airlines flight after a fellow passenger complained that she had a “pungent” odour, according to a racial discrimination lawsuit filed against the company.

The incident involving the passenger, a white male, happened two years ago, when Queen Obioma, a Nigerian citizen, and her two children were boarding a flight from Houston to San Francisco. The family had flown from Lagos, Nigeria, and were on the second leg of a three-flight journey to Ontario, Canada.

Okay, let me start by saying the behaviour of Nigerians on flights can be absolutely abominable. Many take absolutely no consideration of other passengers whatsoever, barging, elbowing, and yelling as of they were in Lekki market. Worse is their sense of entitlement leading to them treat the crew like shit, shouting demands in their faces if their every whim is not immediately catered to. Now of course not all Nigerians behave this way, nor even most Nigerians, but a substantial minority of them do. I spoke to a few stewardesses on the various airlines and they all hated the Nigerian routes because of the behaviour of the passengers. So when I hear a Nigerian has had trouble on an airplane, my first reaction is not one of surprise.

Obioma saw that the other passenger had sat in her assigned seat in the business-class cabin, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Friday in federal court in Houston. The passenger refused to move, so a flight crew member, instead, asked Obioma to sit elsewhere in business class.

This strikes me as odd for two reasons. Firstly, whereas the cabin crew may occasionally ask you to move seats, being ordered to do so because someone else has nabbed your seat and refuses to move is unheard of. Secondly, wasn’t she flying with her kids? Where were they?

Later, before takeoff, Obioma went to use the bathroom. On her way back to her seat, the same passenger was standing in the aisle and blocking her from getting to her seat, the lawsuit says. She said “excuse me” three times, but was ignored. After several minutes, Obioma managed to squeeze her way to her seat.

Again, this doesn’t sound right. If someone is blocking your way back to the seat and refuses to move, chances are other passengers will get involved followed by the air crew. There’s an awful lot being left out of this story.

But just after she sat down, a crew member told Obioma to go outside the aircraft, where another employee told her that she would be removed from the flight. The lawsuit says the pilot had personally requested that she be removed because the male passenger, who was not identified, had complained that her smell was “pungent,” and he was not comfortable flying with her.

Whatever the reason for her being removed, it wasn’t because she smelled pungent.

“Ms Obioma watched her minor children marched out of the aircraft like criminals, confused and perplexed… She sobbed uncontrollably for a long time,” the complaint says, adding that the children, who were seated in the economy cabin, were humiliated.

Ah, so she was flying business and quarreling with other passengers while her kids sat in economy. This woman is clearly wealthy, at least by Nigerian standards, and unfortunately obtaining wealth and status in Nigeria can sometimes bring with it a sense of entitlement which they foolishly try to apply outside the country.

The lawsuit alleges that United Airlines discriminated against Obioma and her children during the incident on 4 March 4, 2016 at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, because they were black. It also accuses crew members of singling out Obioma, not because she was being disruptive, but because a white man – who refused to sit in his own assigned seat – did not want to share a plane with her.

I suspect this woman has more money than sense and some shyster lawyer has found a way to relieve her of it. I’m looking forward to hearing the airline’s side of the story.

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Credulous fools at the BBC

There is an excellent three-part BBC documentary out there called Welcome to Lagos (it’s on YouTube and Vimeo) covering life in the Nigerian commercial capital. The series focuses on a number of individuals, one of whom was a guy who lived on an enormous  municipal rubbish dump and earned cash selling whatever he could find in the mountain of discarded waste. He was young, energetic, and had an abundance of charisma (which is presumably why the producers selected him) and aspired to be a singer/rap star in Lagos’ highly informal music scene. We saw him get cleaned up, dressed up, and get photos for his album cover done, and a fair amount of his singing. Near the end of the series the audience was looking forward to a satisfying conclusion to this rags to (relative) riches story.

Instead, the guy got in a fight off camera which resulted in the other person losing an eye. Whoops. What became clear to anyone who knew Lagos was that far from being a charming young man with big dreams down on his luck, this chap they’d chosen to profile was a vicious thug. Nigerians are particularly good at turning on the charm and this talent extends to criminals as well; he’d obviously fooled the BBC and by the time they realised who they were dealing with it was too late. The series concluded with the man exiled from the rubbish dump, effectively losing his home, in a compromise negotiated with the one-eyed man’s relatives. The alternatives were to lose an eye of his own or be killed. I could imagine the BBC people looking on with horror as this unfolded, finally realising what sort of people live on a Nigerian rubbish dump.

I was reminded of this when I read this BBC article:

More than 3,000 Nigerian migrants who failed to reach Europe, have been flown home by the International Organization for Migration. Many sold everything to make the trip and aren’t sure how to face their families, writes Colin Freeman.

Evans William tells me he sold everything but the kitchen sink to fund his dream of getting to Europe. And I mean everything – his bed, his fridge, his TV, his spare clothes and his mobile phone.

Now this may be true, but I wonder how many Nigerians would advise the BBC to take this man’s story at face value.

After borrowing yet more cash, he finally had enough to pay a smuggling gang to take him from Nigeria across the Sahara to Libya.

So he’s an economic migrant, not a refugee or asylum seeker.

In all, it cost him £750 ($1,000), but he wasn’t worried. Once in Europe, he figured, he could quickly earn enough to pay off his creditors, and eventually return home to start a business of his own.

What was he going to do after illegally entering Europe that would “quickly” earn him $1,000? The BBC didn’t bother to ask, of course. I suspect any Nigerian reading this would consider this chap to be bad news and not the sort they’d want moving in next door, but here’s the BBC lending him a sympathetic ear.

When I met Evans last month, he’d just returned home to Benin City in southern Nigeria, where he was among hundreds of migrants staying in a government-requisitioned hotel.

They’d been flown back by the International Organization for Migration, a UN body that helps illegal migrants who want to return home.

As well as a free plane ticket, they get a few nights’ hotel accommodation, and £200 in pocket money while they find their feet. They’re also offered job training, to give them a better chance of a livelihood.

This is a bit of a slap in the face to those millions of Nigerians who don’t try to enter Europe illegally to make a quick $1,000 committing crimes, and instead work their arses off at home trying to improve their lives legally.

The scheme is partly bankrolled by a £3bn fund set up by the European Union in 2015, the year the migrant crisis dominated the news.

Were the taxpayers informed this money would be used to bankroll fit, healthy, men looking for opportunities to graft, or were they assured it was for desperate families fleeing war and persecution?

Most, like Evans, are virtually destitute. And while they appreciate the offers of job training, it’s fairly basic stuff, like hairdressing or tailoring, or learning how to farm. For those who dreamed of making it in Europe, that’s a bit of a comedown.

I wonder how much sympathy the average Nigerian has for their countrymen who, having failed to realise their dream of working a life of crime in Europe, now have to come back home to receive training in doing something useful?

What also hurts, though, is the feeling that they’ll be seen as failures by their peers and relatives.

What sort of peers does the BBC think these men have?

Many could only make the trip because mum and dad sold off the family silver. Nobody wants to come back penniless, and admit that they blew what’s seen – rightly or wrongly – as the chance of a lifetime.

Ah yes, the deep sense of shame and familial pride which is so strong among Nigeria’s criminal fraternity.

Gloomier still was Abibu, a tough-looking young man who was on the same flight home as Evans. He had a fresh-looking scar on his face, and a scowl that deepened as he talked.

Ah, here we go. A fresh scar on his face, eh? From what? Did the BBC ask how he got it?

His mother, he said, had sold her only plot of land to fund his trip to Europe. He hadn’t even told her he was back.

He sounds lovely. Hands up all those who really thinks his mother willingly sold her “only plot of land” to fund Abibu’s trip?

“If my mum sees me she’ll get sick with worry,” he said.

An odd phrase, it must be said.

“And all the neighbours, saying, ‘This guy’s mum sold her land so he could go to Europe – and then he failed!’ If I hear anyone saying that, I tell you, I’ll kill them.”

Shame, he sounds like he’d have made such a contribution to European life.

Which of the training opportunities did Abibu fancy? Hairdresser? Farmer? He seemed to have other work in mind. “I’ll look at the offers,” he admitted grudgingly. “But I’m worried I’ll end up committing crime to get the money back.”

Really? What sort of crime?

“Robbery, probably.”

A real shame.

He sounded like he meant it, and I found myself wondering just what Abibu had done to get that scar on his face.

I assume you didn’t ask because the answer would have ruined the sob-story.

What we have here is the BBC interviewing people who are in all likelihood dangerous, violent criminals but presenting them as ordinary Nigerians deserving of our sympathy. This would be the equivalent of Nigerian journalists writing puff-pieces on English  football hooligans arrested in Russia this summer, or members of drug gangs which plague sink estates in Britain. Could they not have found any Nigerians a bit more deserving of their attention?

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Casual Racism from the BBC

Yesterday I came across a bizarre interactive webpage on the BBC’s world service website which, I think, is there to help foreigners harangue Americans about their gun laws. It starts by allowing you to pick your character:

1. Charlene, a rootin’ tootin’ gun lovin’ redneck who doesn’t like other people very much.

2. Akinjide, a Nigerian on holiday from Lagos.

Why the BBC feels the need to help Nigerians deal with Americans they encounter on a bus to Phoenix using money taxed from the owners of televisions in Britain I don’t know, but here we are. Now I don’t know what bus this scenario is supposed to take place on, but from the description my guess would be it’s a Greyhound. Can you take guns on a Greyhound? No. So we’re already in fairyland, and it doesn’t get much better. I’ll post a few of the remarks each character is supposed to be saying:

I hardly think someone from Lagos is going to argue the prevalence of legally-held guns is a requirement for a country to suffer serious levels of violent crime. You’d also not likely find a Nigerian who doesn’t appreciate guns are useful when it comes to protecting yourself, your family, and your property – particularly in a place where violent criminals have easy access to them. Besides, private gun ownership is not prohibited in Nigeria.

It is highly likely that any Nigerian travelling on a bus to Phoenix will know someone back home who has had their home invaded by armed intruders, and probably know some who’ve been shot dead. Even moderately wealthy Nigerians are terrified of armed thugs murdering them during a robbery, hence they erect high, glass-topped walls around their houses with sturdy gates and often lived in secure compounds with armed guards. Nigerians might find American gun laws daft, but few would dismiss the danger home invasions represent.

Sorry, who is supposed to be speaking here? A Nigerian from Lagos or some woke British paleface who reads The Guardian? Did the person who wrote this actually know any Nigerians?

This is probably how the BBC thinks gun-carrying southerners speak to people, particularly black men who sit beside them on the bus. I suspect the author is basing the character on people he or she met in New York – where they do speak to each other like this – rather than anyone in Texas or Arizona where they’re unfailingly polite (in part because so many of them are carrying guns).

The BBC seems content to portray Africans as wholly ignorant on the subject of American gun laws. As Ali G would say, isn’t that a bit racist?

Of course, Nigerians are generally conservative, devoutly religious, and know all too well that armed government employees can be as much a source of death and mayhem as any run-of-the-mill criminal. But not the Nigerian featured here, oh no:

Somebody from Lagos wept as he watched news footage of people talking about a gun massacre in the US after the event? Are we sure this guy is from Lagos?

Naturally, this is presented as a scenario which is abhorrent to Akinjide, who has presumably forgotten there are armed guards everywhere in Nigeria.

Now this webpage isn’t completely useless, offering as it does a useful insight into how staff at the BBC view Americans and Nigerians, but as advice on how to approach the subject of gun control in the US it’s more likely to get you killed as enlighten you. I have travelled on an overnight bus to Phoenix and it was full of people who looked as though they were on their way to rob a bank. The two guys in front of me were both felons, and had a lively conversation over whether it’s better to be imprisoned in Virginia – where a man on horseback with a rifle guards you as you pick up trash from the side of the road – or Arkansas where it’s a man on foot with a shotgun. At the back was a US Marine who was half-insane and spent several hours hurling foul-mouthed abuse at his girlfriend down the phone. Anyone who started acting like this Akinjide in the story would probably be killed by someone’s bare hands. Thankfully most Nigerians, the ones the BBC doesn’t know about, are sensible enough to keep the topic of conversation to beer, women, and football.

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The Weight on their Shoulders

Something you need to learn when managing a team of Nigerians is that their private lives are considerably different to those of a westerner. When contemplating the work-life balance of a western employee, you have to think of his or her family, mainly spouse, children, and possibly an elderly parent. Where they live is important, especially if the employee is working remotely, and the ages and school levels of the children too. As a westerner myself, it’s not too difficult to figure out the role the employee plays outside of work in relation to family and financial commitments. Most of the time, they’re in much the same position as me.

But managing Nigerians? Well, they live a little differently. If a Nigerian gets what is considered a “good” job – meaning, he actually has a contract, a place of work, and a reasonable expectation of getting paid – he suddenly finds his obligations to others have increased by an order of magnitude. This is especially true if, as is usually the case, he is the only one in his family who has a “good” job. However, the concept of family is a little less easy to define in Nigeria than it is in the west. Few Brits would be expected to support siblings (unless they’ve fallen on hard times) let alone cousins, uncles, and more distant relatives. By contrast, in Nigeria, those who consider themselves owed something by a relative who has got himself a “good” job are spread far and wide through the family tree. If a Nigerian who suddenly finds himself in regular employment recognises all those “relatives” who are now approaching him for a handout, he’s doing well. Indeed, many of them won’t be relatives, merely school friends, neighbours, or people from the same village who see no harm in asking.

One of my European colleagues in Nigeria hired a driver, as we all did, who he paid more than minimum wage but still a pittance. When the driver’s father died he told my colleague that all his family expected him to pay for the funeral because it was he that was “doing well”. So you can imagine the demands placed on a young engineer who’s landed himself a full-time job in a major western oil company. They are endless, and what makes it worse is the demands are not only financial. Relatives, friends, friends of friends, and people with only the flimsiest connection to the individual ring up at all times of the day asking for help with X, Y, and Z: can you buy this for me and bring it to here, can you get me a job there, can you ask so-and-so if he can do this, that, or the other. This is how it works in Nigeria: anyone who has a “good” job acquires status, and he’s expected to wield it on behalf of the extended family.

This might sound reasonable, but a lot of the time these supposed relatives and friends are lazy, useless, and often highly dishonest (which is why they are still in the village earning nothing). But the familial and tribal system in Nigeria work in such a way that the person with money and influence is not permitted to dismiss their requests out of hand, particularly if the person is a close relative. At the very least, they have to hear them out and make a token gesture in their direction. If he doesn’t, or even if he does, this can lead to bad relations which can be deadly. A Nigerian colleague once told me going back to the village for a funeral can be a dangerous undertaking for anyone who left and is now “doing well”. Aside from being expected to pay for everything, a lot of people will turn up expecting a handout, or with a list of debts the deceased owed both real and imagined (mostly the latter). Others will simply be envious that someone is “doing well” and harbour a grudge, even taking it as far as poisoning their food. The same colleague told me you should never eat anything at a Nigerian village funeral for this reason.

This new patriarchal role employees suddenly have thrust on them when they get a “good” job takes up an awful lot of their time. Arranging something in Nigeria on behalf of someone else is not a simple process, especially when it involves several people and everything is conducted by phone. And few Nigerians understand the concept of “working hours” during which an employee is not supposed to be engaged in personal matters, meaning their mobile phones are going off constantly and they often have to go out to “take care of something”.

There is a temptation to lay down the law to these employees and say they mustn’t take non-essential personal calls or deal with personal matters while in the office, but this simply won’t work. The societal and familial obligation that is placed on them is real, and carries a lot of importance in Nigerian culture. It’s no more possible to tell them to ignore it until 5pm than it is to tell English employees not to talk about the weekend’s football or forbid them taking calls from their wives. You can’t let it get out of hand, and they still need to do the work, but any western manager in Nigeria needs to understand this aspect of local culture and make allowances for it. In this regard, I had a lot of sympathy with the engineers working for me: I wouldn’t have wanted to be in their position for all the tea in China.

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Zuckerberg says no? Good.

At some point when I was living in Nigeria they had one of their frequent “petrol crises” where for some reason there is a shortage of petrol in the filling stations. These are usually caused by strikes, sabotage, or plain old incompetence (see the third item in this post, for example). This particular crisis got bad enough that the government started getting concerned and commissioned some functionary to look into it. Rather than tackling the root causes, which would have been absolutely impossible, the functionaries started hauling in the foreign directors of western oil companies and subjecting them to lengthy harangues which were televised. I caught a few minutes of a European I knew being asked the most stupid of questions by a Nigerian lawmaker who looked about fifteen years old. It was an exercise in grandstanding on the part of the Nigerians and humiliation on the part of the directors. Of course, it didn’t help the petrol crisis one whit, but it was good politics. Many Africans like seeing one of their own ritually humiliate a white man, even if they’ll be substantially poorer the next day as a result. See Zimbabwe, or where South Africa is heading, for example.

I was reminded of this exercise in political posturing a few years later when the Labour MP Margaret Hodge headed up the kangaroo court known as the Public Accounts Committee. This awful woman would drag hapless executives before her and denounce the tax avoidance measures their companies had employed, even though they had broken no laws and were in most cases acting well within the spirit of the law. Her ignorance of the subject she was presiding over was on full display, and she was also a staggering hypocrite: the family firm Stemcor, from which she draws her fortune, uses much the same tax avoidance measures as those she was denouncing. The whole thing was a circus designed to whip up anger from the left against “big business” while covering up the many failings of British politicians, primarily getting spending under control. I was not only disappointed that Britain should have fallen so far as to adopt the practice of political bullying I saw in Nigeria, but also that none of the executives had the balls to stand up, denounce the whole thing as a show-trial, and call out Hodge on her hypocrisy.

This is why I was happy to read this story a couple of days ago:

Mark Zuckerberg has come under intense criticism from the UK parliamentary committee investigating fake news after the head of Facebook refused an invitation to testify in front of MPs for a third time.

Was he obliged by law to do so? No, he wasn’t.

Zuckerberg has been invited three times to speak to the committee, which is investigating the effects of fake news on UK democracy, but has always sent deputies to testify in his stead.

Which is sensible. If Facebook must answer specific technical questions to a committee of MPs, it may well be that the CEO is not the best person to attend. Note what’s being complained about here: it’s not that Facebook ignored the invitation, just that Zuckerberg didn’t come in person. In other words, this gaggle of MPs from a country which can’t even secure its borders (unless a “far right” Canadian shows up at Stansted) and prosecutes people for internet jokes thought they were so important that one of the world’s most prominent billionaires and an American citizen should drop everything and come to participate in what is likely to be a kangaroo court.

The chair, Damian Collins, said it had become more urgent the Facebook founder give evidence in person after oral evidence provided by the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Christopher Wylie.

The MP said: “I think, given the extraordinary evidence we’ve heard so far today, it is absolutely astonishing that Mark Zuckerberg is not prepared to submit himself to questioning in front of a parliamentary or congressional hearing, given these are questions of fundamental importance and concern to his users, as well as to this inquiry.

Who the hell is Damian Collins? Has anyone ever heard of him? The most noteworthy thing on his Wikipedia article is this:

It was revealed Collins claimed £4,440.90 over three months in rent for a house in London, despite declaring that he already owned a home in the capital. In his defence, he claimed the property belonged to his wife and was “too small to provide accommodation for my young family, and even if that was not the case, as a new Member of Parliament I wouldn’t be able to claim any accommodation allowance against the mortgage on the property.”

So this small-time grifter who was elected by 32k people in the constituency of Folkestone and Hythe is astonished that Mark Zuckerberg, who presides over a multi-billion dollar international business enterprise providing a service with literally billions of users, won’t come in person to answer his questions? Do British MPs start out with this over-inflated idea of their own importance, or does it build up over time?

“I would certainly urge him to think again if he has any care for people that use his company’s services.”

So if an American CEO of a giant corporation doesn’t come and grovel before a parliamentary select committee, and instead sends (possibly more suitable) deputies, some obscure backbencher will issue veiled threats in a national paper? Let me tell you something, Mr Collins: given the choice of keeping Facebook or keeping you, 100% of British people would keep Facebook. Nobody would give one solitary fuck if you were cleaning the insides of wheelie-bins by this time tomorrow.

MPs are likely to take a still dimmer view of his decision after he ultimately agreed to testify before Congress in the US.

Note to British MPs sitting on a select committee: you are not the US Congress. I wonder, do other countries get to do this? Can an MP from rural Uzbekistan demand the CEO of Glaxosmithkline attend a grilling over public concern surrounding Sensodyne toothpaste? Probably not, no. So why do British MPs think they can order foreign CEOs to appear before them?

The company’s head of public policy, Rebecca Stimson, said in a letter to Collins: “Facebook fully recognises the level of public and parliamentary interest in these issues and support your belief that these issues must be addressed at the most senior levels of the company by those in an authoritative position to answer your questions. As such, Mr Zuckerberg has personally asked one of his deputies to make themselves available.”

Both men, Stimson wrote, “report directly to Mr Zuckerberg and are among the longest-serving senior representatives in Facebook’s 15-year history. Both of them have extensive expertise in these issues and are well placed to answer the committee’s questions on these complex subjects.”

Exactly. Collins and his mob have absolutely no right either legal or moral to demand the appearance of Zuckerberg in person. This is pure vanity on his part, driven by delusional levels of self-importance. He should resign immediately, not just for making highly inappropriate comments which make Britain look like a banana republic, but for making me defend Mark Zuckerberg.

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Bookshops in Nigeria

From the BBC:

Thousands of people across social media have been posting about Nigeria’s literary heritage after a journalist asked acclaimed writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie if there were any bookshops in her country.

Journalist Caroline Broue asked Adichie if people read her books in Nigeria. Adichie replied, “They do, shockingly.”

Broue then asked: “Are there any bookshops in Nigeria?”

The author of Americanah and Purple Hibiscus replied: “I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask me that question.

I’m not sure why it should reflect poorly on French people that a solitary journalist asked if there were bookshops in a country where the traffic lights barely work and you can’t drink the tapwater.

I confess, I don’t recall seeing any bookshops in Nigeria, but I daresay they exist. The closest I got to one was a book stall in the corner of the waiting area of Port Harcourt airport, which was stocked in its entirety with religious books, self-help manuals, and combinations of the two. Titles like God and Your Business and Success Through Worship were typical, and something the expats noticed was if you saw someone reading a book it was a good bet that it was the bible.

Some wished to remind people of Nigeria’s literary heritage, by citing writers and poets such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ben Orki.

I don’t see why French people should know these authors any more than a Nigerian should know of Johnny Hallyday. Perhaps a journalist should have known better, but then…well, she’s a journalist, isn’t she?

But the question ‘are there bookshops in Nigeria’ was not about that. It was about giving legitimacy to a deliberate, entitled, tiresome, sweeping, base ignorance about Africa. And I do not have the patience for that.

One solution is to stay well clear of ignorant foreigners, particularly those invited to ask questions at cultural evenings hosted by the French government. I don’t suppose anyone forced her to attend.

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Africa is…different

At the weekend I was discussing Trump’s “shithole” remarks with a friend, and mentioned something a lot of people don’t get. The third world is not like the first world but with poorer people; the third world is an altogether different place (the ZMan remarks on this occasionally).

In order to illustrate the point that Africa is very, very different from anywhere else I showed my friend some news articles I’d posted on my blog back when I lived in Nigeria. One should understand that I didn’t go around specifically hunting for such stories to paint a slanted picture of the country in which I was living. Instead, I took them from a company’s internal intranet which featured a page of local news items that a Nigerian employee had assembled from various media outlets. I don’t believe any further comment is necessary to illustrate my point, so I’ll just post the stories as I found them. Continue reading

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