Being A White Businessman in Nigeria: Part 2

Malcolm X, in one of his speeches, talked of how the Chinese got rid of the Uncle Toms in China during and after the Chinese Revolution, turning it into one of the roughest and toughest nations on the planet. Such actions rid the nation of the enemies within. Many people may argue, such an approach won’t work in Nigeria. Nigerian public officials do not fit the profile of Uncle Tom. On the contrary, they are reproductions of a chameleon prototype, Uche Bisi Baraka; bureaucrats who help themselves, their families, and favourites with public funds, not the public. Uche Bisi Baraka’s success in the civil service depends on his or her proximity to European and similar persons. The label, redundant, goes to jobs that do not bring Uche Bisi Baraka into professional contact with foreign technical partners (TPs). This is where the deference begins. One can only imagine what actions would Malcolm X prescribe to handle such people?

George Ayittey may have an answer which makes sense. Due to his comprehensive practical experience, research, and learning, he knows better than anyone else the problem Africans officials have with xenophilia (the love of foreign countries, foreign goods, and foreigners), and their use of it to destroy their own nations and capabilities. Saboteurs! Remember, elected officials and civil servants are Nigeria’s main practitioners of xenophilia, which is part of their job description. In addition, these bureaucrats pronounce the word Whites (white people) as Huaites. Outside the workplace, no one taught them that pronunciation. Surprisingly, it is a mark of competence.

I will use a few of my experiences as a witness to xenophilia. In 2003, I had a backer who arranged for me to meet Engineer Joseph Makoju, the CEO of National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), for business. My first trip failed because I could not get past the office gatekeepers after a four hour wait. As I waited, two white men enter the CEO’s office without a moment’s delay. One man wore faded work jeans, old white trainers, and a white long-sleeve shirt, while the other wore a white polo shirt, sandals and socks, and khaki cargo trousers. The next time my backer arranged for me to see a former minister who had a high ranking relative in the DSS to assure I met Makoju second time around. The DSS man was super handsome and charismatic, but displayed a fiery intolerance to Makoju’s gate keepers. No one wants a ranking DSS man on their tail. Therefore, the CEO agreed to meet me without delay. Makoju wasn’t happy with how I got into his schedule, but treated me well during our discussion. Makoju was a true professional, sincere, and kept his promises.

At government establishments in Abuja, you can witness countless European and American TPs entering the offices of top civil servants. Moreover, these TPs gain access without a minute’s delay, in rough casual clothes, and even treat bribe-seeking staff with contempt on their exit. For a Nigerian without blood ties to enter the same civil servant’s office for the same purpose, he must embrace Nigerian Factor and surrender his dignity. If he cannot do so, he should forget doing business in Nigeria. Or go overseas. Similarly, Nigerian entrepreneurs returning from diaspora with even world-class work experience, qualifications, and skills to set up businesses will tell you, “Whites do not get the same problems I do.” There is not much optimism or cheer in their voices when they say that. The ones who return to take up public office will brag, “I came to serve,” but it is just another Uche Bisi Baraka.

Ikoyi Club (IC) began as an athletic centre for senior colonial staff in Lagos but has in recent decades, its membership comprises the Lagos/Nigerian elite. Formality and seriousness are against its ethos. Nigeria is the world’s only place where one expected to wear three-piece suits or chieftaincy robes to go swimming, do farming, or attend a marijuana den. I had an impromptu invitation by a commodore (ret) to meet up at IC since I was in nearby Obalende then. On my arrival, I attempted to enter IC as an invited guest. The supervisor denied me entry stating I had not met the standards of Nigerian Factor in my dress code. Minutes later, two white men in shorts and t-shirts told the supervisor they were guests of a top Lagos lawyer and he let them in. I protested. The supervisor claimed the men were a celebrated lawyer’s guests. My response was “Shall I tell Commodore you’re barring me because you fear Big Lawyer more?” My entry into IC became easy.

On entering IC, I met the commodore who introduced me as his friend from the UK to his circle. A member in his circle in his sixties, Doctor, recognised I was wearing Churchill’s loafers (£400; I bought them at half-price) and a TAG Heuer wristwatch (£601). The Doctor, also liked the Emmet shirt I was wearing, although said nothing of the GAP chinos I wore. I observed he knew London’s West End well and asked where I purchased my clothes. Later I told him without protest I almost could not enter IC because of my clothing. He laughed and said, “Young man, our people’s sense of taste is very narrow but think they are current and sophisticated. Dressing and living as big men do is their key aspiration and idol. You will learn to ignore them.” I start to think.

I had the pleasure of entering the hard-to-enter Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) compound with a retired federal permanent secretary who was on schedule to meet the NDDC chairperson, Onyema Ugochukwu. We needed a batch of mobile police officers to walk us through the crowd of hundreds besieging the NDDC compound. People were trying hard to enter or stage a protest. Once inside the compound, you felt serene. But inside the building, officials tight-faced and on edge. As we waited to see Ugochukwu, the ex-Perm Sec asked a secretary a question, and she answered, yes. He followed up with “Are sure?” Her response was, “I am sure we can throw you out.” It was a supercilious and unnecessary remark. We soon met Ugochukwu a moment later, and he was personable, witty, and accommodating. I liked him on the merit of that meeting alone. Before our departure, we saw a lookalike of Onslow in Keeping Up Appearances berating the rude secretary with a vicious lower-class accent. She was begging him with morose apologies. Her offence: she told the man to wait for ten minutes.

One of the nation’s most powerful bureaucrats just a few months ago got disrespect from the secretary as if he was a bum, but paid extreme deference to a foreign bum. The irony speaks for itself. Since it was one Uche Bisi Baraka against another, it was a disturbing finale. Many bureaucrats can no longer bear the mess they created and are heading overseas, sending their families ahead of them.

And that’s about it.

Grimot Nane

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