It is doubtful if any study has been undertaken to try to dimension the phenomenon referred to as the Nigerian factor. I am equally in doubt if I have the requisite qualifications and experience to attempt a definition of the phenomenon. It is therefore not out of place to begin by considering the perspective of someone who should know – the distinguished Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, former Nigeria Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN) and currently Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General.
At a lecture to the American University of Nigeria (AUN), Yola, Adamawa State in December 2009, titled The Pursuit of Excellence in the Task of Nation-building, Gambari had the following to say regarding the Nigerian factor:
Some people will argue that excellence is impossible in Nigeria. They will point to the poor infrastructure. They will point to poor governance. They will point to poor institutions, poor moral standing and widespread indiscipline. What all of these answers remind us of is the so-called ‘Nigerian Factor’; that mixture of cynicism, pessimism, opportunism, and sycophancy through which we often try to justify our failures, individually and collectively. The ‘Nigerian Factor’ is not an explanation; it is rather a lame excuse – pure and simple. After all, this all-purpose excuse was not in the country’s vocabulary in the past and suddenly need not be used to justify individual or collective failures in the future. (Carried in The Guardian of 14th December, 2009)
Prof. Gambari’s description of the Nigerian factor mirrors the society-wide view and usage of the term. So in attempting to paint a vivid picture of the Nigerian factor, I will lean heavily on the way it is used in public discourse. At its basic level, as Gambari points out, it may be a mere excuse or justification for not getting something right or for not doing the right thing. But beyond that level, it is an actual phenomenon, a subject with a life of its own, not just a mere coinage of a euphonious word for excusing or justifying failure and non-performance or underperformance.
The Nigerian factor may be described as that phenomenon that ensures that every good thing – idea, plan, programme, procedure, process, system, etc – that works in other countries fails when introduced here. It may be seen as that distinctly Nigerian ability and capacity within the spatial territory and geographical entity called Nigeria to render the easily possible impossible, make the very achievable unachievable and put the reachable way beyond reach in a way that no non-Nigerian can. It is our uncanny ability to, in a manner of speaking, ‘snatch failure out of the jaws of victory’ when it comes to executing national assignments.
At the risk of sounding spiritual or philosophical, the Nigerian factor is like a national curse or plague that guarantees that every government programme is doomed to fail before it is even introduced or before its implementation has started. It ensures that good programmes that work elsewhere fail when introduced here while ensuring that evils that are being eradicated elsewhere flourish when introduced here. At the heart of it the Nigerian factor is a perverted attitude, a crooked mentality, a warped world view that is anchored in self-centredness.
It is a corrupted inclination to do things in whatever ways necessary to ensure the most pecuniary gain to self or one’s clique. Monumental failures are not exempted from ‘whatever ways possible.’ In fact, most often monumental national failures guarantee monumental personal returns! The Nigerian factor is completely rid of every sense of shame and free of every humane consideration and sensibility. It seems incapable of stopping to think until its selfish end has been accomplished or its selfish pursuit has ended the life or career of the individual(s) involved. It stems from greed and selfishness or putting oneself and one’s clique above the nation and pursuing narrow and selfish pecuniary interests at the detriment of the larger majority.
In a sense, the Nigerian factor connotes corruption, the cutting of corners, the adoption of fraudulent shortcuts, the inflation of costs, the insertion of loopholes in contract documents to be exploited for pecuniary benefits, the introduction of initially-unbudgeted-for aspects to government programmes that can be turned into personal cash cow, the design and implementation for self-aggrandisement of smart schemes like over-invoicing, kickback, ten percent and others not yet public knowledge or yet to be invented, etc. It is the reason why white elephant projects are embarked upon in the first place, why some contracts carry on in perpetuity – always undergoing endless reviews and re-awarding at additional costs – and why no government or administration wants to complete the projects started by previous administration(s) before embarking on new ones. You must have heard this often repeated refrain at one time or the other: ‘In Nigeria, government officials are not just corrupt; but corruption is official in Nigeria.’
The Nigerian factor manifests in the shoddy execution of government contracts, be it for road, bridge or stadium construction or rehabilitation; housing estate, sea port or airport development; power and energy projects; procurement and supply of materials to government offices or provision of certain services. This could be the result of awarding contracts to unqualified and incompetent contractors following ‘undue influence’ or, when properly awarded to competent contractors, the presence of some form of patronage that inevitably reduces the actual amount available to execute the contract or that assures the contractors that there will be no consequences for failure (meaning that the usual ‘sweeping under the carpet’ is guaranteed in the event of a future probe).
However, the phenomenon does not prey on government contracts alone. The failure to deliver on promises of certain basic services on their target dates or years is attributable to the Nigerian factor. Food for all by year…. Education for all by year…. Potable water for all by year…. Housing for all by year…. Health for all by year…. Electricity for all by year…. (Specifically, the promised generation of 6, 000 megawatts of electricity by December 2009 that failed abysmally.)
In some situations things actually get worse and people start wishing that government had left things the way they were instead of the deterioration being offered in the name of pursuing a target to improve the situation. The 6, 000 megawatts of electricity target and the controversial polio eradication exercises some years back provide ready examples. Add to those the fact that housing or reasonable accommodation, accessible health care and affordable education actually moved out of the reach of most Nigerians upon the target dates they were meant to be made easily available to all.
The failure of all our national rolling plans is attributable to the Nigerian factor. Contrary to the popular aphorism that ‘those who fail to plan, plan to fail,’ our own experience showed that the more we planned the more we failed. But we never stopped planning nor stopped to take stock and find out why earlier plans failed. Maybe the same phenomenon stands culpable for our inability to conduct any reasonable stocktaking that could have easily identified it as the culprit. The Nigerian factor is the reason why we are unable to get any meaningful thing right.
In another sense, the Nigerian factor connotes mediocrity – the lackadaisical attitude to duty displayed by the average Nigerian especially when it bothers on national assignment, her unbelievable bent for half-hearted and passionless commitment, her penchant for average and mediocre efforts, her readily manifest inclination to give half her best, to underperform or perform half-heartedly in assignments requiring serious and committed efforts to ensure success. It is not as though the average Nigerian is lazy. No, far from it. The average Nigerian is a hard worker! But somehow, when it comes to working for the country or for an organisation, she tends to shy away from giving her best. She offers only half measures or just enough to justify her employment and make her seem busy like everyone else. She asks if it is her father’s or her own company and wonders why it should be any bother of mine that she chooses to work only as much as the average person.
It is in this sense of mediocrity that the Nigerian factor shows up as indiscipline in various forms. One very stubborn form that has refused to go away is the so-called ‘African time’ that ensures that no public function begins before or on the dot of the time fixed for it but long after it was originally scheduled to end. And guess who the chief culprit is. You got it! It is Her Excellency – the government functionary that is either the chairperson of the occasion or the guest of honour for whom guests were warned to arrive on time and be seated 30 minutes before the scheduled commencement time.
Besides lateness, another common form of indiscipline rooted in the Nigerian factor is the frequent absence of the average government official at their duty post when there are piles of work to attend to. And when they are present, they are occupied with their own private engagements instead of attending to their official duties. Little wonder then that only half their heart, mind and strength are available when they eventually have to do the work for which they are employed.
My panacea for the Nigerian factor is that popular advice on how to get rid of bad habits – ‘don’t try stopping a bad habit, replace it with a good one.’ First, we need to articulate the underlying attitudes and negative values that represent or embody the phenomenon we euphemistically refer to as the Nigerian factor. Second, we need to identify the countervailing positive virtues that should replace the negative values. What should follow should be a national exercise, an all-involving value re-orientation campaign.
Beginning with elected and appointed public officials from the presidency, the National Assembly and the judiciary all the way to the state level including state assemblies and to the local government level and traditional institutions, everyone should be mobilised. The media and our schooling system should play a pivotal role but only after our politicians have demonstrated by their own example that they are determined to put an end to this scourge that has plagued Nigeria for so long.
Fortunately, our Constitution makes provision for a set of national ethics that we can readily adopt and promote as a countervailing force to the Nigerian factor. Section 23 under Chapter Two (Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy) of our Constitution reads: ‘The national ethics shall be Discipline, Integrity, Dignity of Labour, Social Justice, Religious Tolerance, Self-reliance and Patriotism.’ Our national ethics as contained therein and the way they are listed would almost make one believe that the authors of the Constitution may have had the Nigerian factor in mind.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question is how much importance we attach to this aspect of our Constitution. How well do we uphold it? Are the national ethics used as part of the criteria in the election or appointment of public officials? Do they feature as part of the criteria for ministerial screening at the Senate? Are they in consideration when members of the board of government agencies are being appointed? Is there recourse to this part of our Constitution in deciding the list of nominees for our annual national awards? Are they part of the competencies evaluated when sensitive government contracts are to be awarded to any of the set of individuals or companies that bid for them?
Do our national ethics feature at all in INEC’s (Independent National Electoral Commission) criteria for declaring electoral candidates either eligible or disqualified? Are they important points of reference in the Commission’s recruitment of both permanent and ad hoc staff, considering the sensitive nature of their work? Are they used by INEC in evaluating the promoters of any new political party before they are registered? Do our major political parties have any recourse whatever to this part of our Constitution? Or, do they consider the national ethics as too high a standard for the thugs (I dare say) that make up 99 percent of their membership?
I am waiting to be contradicted on my belief and claim that the political machinery of the major parties has been hijacked by less-than-noble characters who lack the moral standing required for the public offices they aspire to. One apparent indication of this is the mass exodus of principled politicians from the ranks of the major parties into either smaller parties or political hiatus – a time off party politics to observe how things play out and chart their next course of action (something diehard politicians will be quick to call political wilderness or limbo). This situation is dangerous when we consider that our Constitution makes no provision for independent candidates as is allowed in other democracies but allows only registered political parties to provide the platform for elections to all elective public positions.
Our major political parties are in need of urgent reform to transform them from platforms through which thugs and miscreants emerge to occupy public offices into bastions of democratic ideals and better governance that produce only responsible, trustworthy and visionary candidates. They are in need of a new set of leadership and stalwarts who are sworn advocates and defenders of the Constitution who will chase out the thugs back to the motor parks and street corners where they used to be before party membership and politics was so debased to attract their kind. You will recall that until recently thugs were content to man their positions at motor parks and street corners and wait for jobs from party henchmen whenever their services were required. Now they have official positions in our major political parties. How disgraceful it is that thugs have membership of mainstream political parties on their CVs!
Aside politicians, our security forces also need to examine themselves in the light of our national ethics. Are our national ethics considered in the recruitment, training, promotion and continued retention or periodic review of the decision to retain or dismiss personnel in our security forces? If that were the case, I wonder if someone may not have mistakenly erased ‘Discipline’ from the manual used in the forces. When I was growing up, I had a hard time finding a corpulent, let alone pot-bellied, soldier or policeman. Today, that seems to be the in-thing. There appears to be a competition for the largest tummy among security personnel. What one finds by the lower abdomen of some of our traffic wardens or policemen on roadside/checkpoint duties can sometimes be really scary. One wonders how security forces, in which there is an apparent breakdown in discipline, can deal with a breakdown in public law and order. Our security personnel need to get back to basics and our national ethics provide a good place to start.
Lastly, the family unit and the individual also need some self-examination in the light of our national ethics. Before they begin to point the finger at some politician or a neighbour, they should ask themselves if they are Disciplined, if they are persons of Integrity, if they believe in and promote the Dignity of Labour, if they are committed to and fight for Social Justice, if they preach and practise Religious Tolerance, if they are Self-reliant and if they are Patriotic? The Nigerian factor may be well entrenched but it cannot hold out for long against a determined and united people who have elected to use the power of their Constitution and their collective will to end its reign and chart a new glorious future for their country and themselves. May God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria as we the people choose to do right by our Constitution. Amen.