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.


25 thoughts on “The Weight on their Shoulders

  1. This is why such countries are basket cases. A tribal version of socialism. How many able people are put off getting a good job because of this sort of thing?

  2. Theodore Dalrymple makes the same point here:

    Junior doctors in Rhodesia all got paid the same. However, Dalrymple – as a single white man – could live like a king on his salary, while his black colleagues were overwhelmed by such commitments.

    Talking to Chinese friends about their weight of extended family obligations (which are more about turning up to stuff than financial most of the time) makes me feel vaguely oppressed, never mind this.

    Plus, what Hector said. However I note that – unrelated to changes in the demographic makeup – the UK is going down the road of a few productive types funding a load of scroungers. And I don’t just mean the useless unemployed, but the hordes of useless state employees.

    I like the stuff about Nigeria Tim, you ought to bin this cushy vie Francais and get posted to somewhere random in the developing world…

  3. I like the stuff about Nigeria Tim, you ought to bin this cushy vie Francais and get posted to somewhere random in the developing world…

    A decade of that was quite enough, thank you!

  4. How many able people are put off getting a good job because of this sort of thing?

    None. The real problem of tribal obligations is they enable lazy, useless people to participate in society rather than being cast out of it. One of the reasons Jewish communities are successful is they’re very good at policing their own ranks and anyone who damages the collective will eventually be cast out. In African and Arabic tribal societies, the ignorant, criminal brother still gets support from the family and is invited to dinner.

  5. It used to be that Africa was the White man’s burden. Tribalism is the black man’s burden.

  6. There’s an analogy here to pre-Reformation Europe. There were lots of unproductive people getting along by guzzling at the endless religious feasts and festivals that interrupted the working year. Then boom! Protestant work ethic and suggestions that you move your arse if you wanted to eat!

    I don’t know how monasteries that had been leaders in agricultural progress some centuries before fell into economic and technological ruin, becoming parking lots for small numbers of useless hands, rather like a store of obsolete planes in the US desert. The decline and fall of Ancient Rome has been overstudied: it might be more productive to look at the case of the corruption of the monasteries. Though I don’t suppose the books would sell so well.

  7. >None. The real problem of tribal obligations is they enable lazy, useless people to participate in society rather than being cast out of it.

    That’s a real problem, yes. But I still also suspect that that system acts as a discouragement to work. You can only know whether it does by being able to get a wider viewpoint. We know that higher taxes discourages work in socialist or high tax economies. This is the Nigerian version of that, so it would be a surprise if there weren’t similar effects. Not necessarily a conscious thing, but if that system is in place from birth then some people unconsciously absorb the message from a young age that it’s pointless working hard when others will work for you, whereas that same person in a different society would have got a job. Incentives matter in Nigeria as anywhere else.

  8. But I still also suspect that that system acts as a discouragement to work. You can only know whether it does by being able to get a wider viewpoint.

    Or living in Nigeria and getting to know the local culture. No Nigerian will pass up the opportunity of a regular income, it’s something so rare and highly-valued it would be the equivalent of a Brit passing up on a hefty pay rise. Plus, the status that comes with having a good job is highly sought after, even thought it comes with all these obligations.

    There are many disincentives to *work* in Nigeria, but not to *take a job*. The two are very, very different. From what I could tell, for many Nigerians simply turning up *was* the job. Actually doing anything once they’re there? Well, that’s another matter. Fortunately, none of my lot were like that. Engineers, see?

  9. Also large extended families make it very hard to concentrate wealth. If you loans 119 children. It is hard for wealth to stay concentrated

  10. @Hector

    Particularly if your daddy/uncle has already got a good job – why would you bother going to all the hassle when you’d just end up with your own hangers-on? If nobody connected with you is so well-placed then it might be more tempting to go and and become the Big Man yourself. Or maybe the temptation to become a Big Man is just too much, and the opportunities to become one so fleeting, that in practice nobody lets the chance slip. (But does that apply e.g. to working super hard at school in the hope of a scholarship to university and then hoping to pick up a corporate job? Or does the fact that the extended family is rich demotivate that kind of extended effort?)

    I do see the issue over here too. Know plenty of very loaded parents whose kidults are layabouts – even if they went out and got a good graduate job, the pay would still have nothing on the allowance they’re used to getting anyway, so what would be the point?

    But it doesn’t have that big a social impact in Britain. Partly because income and wealth disparities over here are rarely so large that mumsy and dadsy can easily dole out gifts that trump a professional salary. In fact as the cost of labour has gone up, relatively few families can even afford to hire a domestic helper (contrast that to 100 years ago) and the costs of getting a minimum wage carer to pop in three times a day to microwave a meal and get us in and out of bed and pop our appropriate pills are apparently going to bankrupt a whole generation of us. So relatively few relatives or other hangers-on are likely to enjoy “kept” status, particularly in any greater lap of luxury than they could have afforded if they’d gone out to work themselves. But moreover the British system of obligations is largely limited in a lineal manner – it’s not the nephews and cousins who get much look-in. Some wealthy families have some entitled little brats, and even their kids might be counted lucky, but within 5 generations it will most likely have burned out. It’s an issue related to a handful of families, whose membership of that group tends to be temporary, and that is mostly restricted to stay within a select few lines, rather than sweep out like a social plague.

  11. The wider loyalty heirarchy applies as well. Family>tribe>nation. If the poorly paid driver has obligations then imagine what the really big men of Africa need to do for their extended family.

    At least it’s family though. As someone else pointed out the western taxation and restriction system seems to reward everyone present apart from those who pay in who are being milked more and more.

  12. Okay, local knowledge, fair enough. But there is still the wider context. The culture you’re brought up in determines, to quite an extent, how you prepare yourself for adult life, and what you do to get yourself in a position to get a good job. It happens in the UK as well. Most lazy bums who live on the dole wouldn’t say no if, for example, a glamorous Hollywood film company came along and offered them a huge-paying job, especially if they thought they could do the job with a couple of hours work a day. (And if they eventually get sacked, so what?)

    But the wider context of the welfare culture they’ve grown-up in means that they’ve lived their life in a way that results in them never being offered such jobs. Or any sort of decent jobs. And whatever they say, they don’t really want a job, unless it’s a highly-paid, glamorous job (which they’re never going to get). Yet 100 years ago that same person may have had a completely different attiude, and have grown up to be a hard-working, productive and reliable employee. Incentives still matter.

  13. Unfortunately all true and it works other way too. At least in the Arabic world. Lower members of the tribe feeding upper members too.

    For example, my company acting mostly in the Middle East , we fly very often and when we don`t use “right” agency, don`t book “right” hotel and so on, those lower members in the tribe, sitting on the airport immigration will screw us like hell. With their tribe agency and hotel, we are treated like Kings.

    For tourists this is very much irrelevant but when somebody works on those countries, lower member of the tribe make sure, that the foreign money will go the the right place. This is also reason, why immigrants never integrate. They don´t understand the rule of law or the concept of the State. Loyalty to the tribe and obedience to the commands of tribal elders is their only law. They will never understand Locke style universal rights and obligations.

  14. Life is much too short and sweet to figure out the ins and outs of anything involving Africa, it is a graveyard of ideas, hope and so much more.

  15. MC – Yes talking to Chinese colleagues it appears one of the main reasons they like living/working in the UK is that they are thousands of miles away of family commitments. I don’t think they ever send money home however.

    On the other hand I have a Somali colleague whose elderly parents live in Somali. He not only supports them (as he should) but he also appears to support an entire tribe over there. Recently one of their tribe robbed another tribe member and ran away. My colleague was then expected to transfer a thousand pounds to his relatives who then handed it over to the robbed member of the other tribe.

  16. Also large extended families make it very hard to concentrate wealth.

    Good point!

  17. I wonder if that Nigerian distribution model aligns with the r/K selection theory. If the ‘r’ selection societies have the ‘wealth’ – which is really income – being spread around all the extended family and tribe. K selection societies transfer wealth to children (and maybe one or two others) as an investment but the means to acquire wealth can get spread – via universal schooling, protestant work ethic, social shaming and I’m sure a myriad of other ways. Which could be why the welfare state within a universal franchise, ultimately encourages ‘r’ selection in what was predominantly a ‘K’ selection society………..or something like that.

  18. The Pacific Islands are very similar. Distant cousins will hit up successful people, just because they have money.

    I have heard it argued, convincingly, that many young Islander rugby union and league players move to Europe to escape family obligations, even though they would rather stay in NZ or Aus. They don’t like the food or weather, but the continual bulging wears them down (made worse because living in white society they have absorbed white attitudes to earning your own way).

    It is quite noticeable that Polynesians will move to Europe far earlier in their careers than white Kiwis.

    Next time you hear some cry for more money to Pacific rugby be aware that the money will be trousered, not go to the players. The corruption is very deep.

  19. I guess that the equally undesirable aspect of the other end of the spectrum is the welfare state, which encourages many single western mothers to collect welfare subsidies for the creation of many future criminals.

  20. But most Chinese families have had few children for two or three generations, so Chinese extended families shouldn’t be as large as their sub-Saharan counterparts. The Chinese total fertility rate (births per woman) fell from 5.7 in 1960 to 1.6 in 2015. In Nigeria, it only went down from 6.4 to 5.6, having peaked at 6.8 in 1989.

  21. “My colleague was then expected to transfer a thousand pounds to his relatives who then handed it over to the robbed member of the other tribe.”

    This is illustrative. The incentives are just thoroughly borked here. This system could – at a pinch, just, maybe – work if the guy funding the whole thing is also imbued with the authority to control the behaviour of the people he/she supports, presumably by simply refusing to fund miscreants.

    It sounds as though this form of social control is completely lacking. Is there a corollary with honour/shame vs integrity/guilt cultures?

  22. This is illustrative.

    Isn’t it, just? Hey, let’s invite thousands of them to come and live in Minnesota!

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