Being A White Businessman In Nigeria


A misplaced irony cuts through barriers in Abuja’s government as a dagger through groundnut oil. The irony is unstoppable. Only a few Nigerians worry about it; most folk ignore it. Thus, its discussion is rare in public, but everybody knows it happens. It’s a matter for civil servants and the beneficiaries of the irony. It brings back memories of the shame of colonisation felt after gaining independence. Who wants to remember? Civil servants may have learned the irony in government as a remnant of colonisation. Or fashion it as they go along to compensate for their lack of competences in managing the country. The latter is the more rational reason. Elected officials have a duty to develop their nation’s laws, skills, and resources. The government fails in that quest and leaves the nation exposed to many external influences and cultures. A vulnerable nation is inevitable. Where is the pride of independence? Besides identity, tribe, family, and money, what is there to be proud? The question may offend Nigerians, but will not hold their leaders and civil servants to account. Not even for the irony.

What is the irony, self? It is the Abuja’s culture of treating its own citizens as inferior to people of European heritage in business matters. That civil servants defer to the assumed superiority of Europeans in partnerships with the Nigerian government is surprising. Or appalling. You decide. Nigerians and blacks have not much influence over such affairs. Those attitudes do much to revive and uphold expectations of colonial deference. Why did Nigerians ever fight for independence? Europeans are not at fault here, though embrace the irony. The deference comes out of the hearts and souls of Nigerian officials. In Botswana, civil servants defer to no foreigners. The irony exposes deep prejudices against one’s own people. Officials are probably projecting their famous incompetence on those without their powers, access, and aspirations. “I joined the civil service to make a career and an income, not self-sacrifice,” a ranking bureaucrat recently told me. Project Nigeria was never a serious official priority.

One creature to come out of the deference is the “preferential status” conferred on Europeans operating in Nigeria. Everywhere in Nigeria, Europeans have preferential status. It is down to what Europeans can do and achieve in Nigeria because of their skin colour. Did Britain do such a superb job of easing the reception for future Europeans working in Nigeria? Or did Nigeria’s pen pushers do it to themselves? The questions call for a debate. The Indians and Chinese now enjoy that same preferential status in Abuja and elsewhere in Nigeria. As a result, Nigerians continue to come last in the eyes of their own government.

Where are the Nigerians who shout Free Markets in the quest for impartial and efficient governance? One would think they would address such issues with vigour. Getting rid of government is difficult in a democracy. Or are they mere practitioners of European and American Envy?

Nigeria’s infrastructure projects often need or depend on foreign inputs and help. Funding for the projects comes in foreign loans. Looking inward isn’t a choice for government. Countless government attempts to gain technologies and skills that will transform the nation have ended in fiasco. In government offices, a European’s presence is often decisive in the promotions, tenders, and negotiations of contracts and knows it. Few will under-exploit such effortless power. Trade regulations demand aliens can only do business in the country as technical partners (TPs) while local contents (LCs) are the Nigerian partners. TPs are the providers of skills, technology, and often finance to execute projects. The LCs focus their energies on wooing TPs and pulling strings to win contracts. Finding TPs who will work or invest in Nigeria is an outstanding business skill. The reassuring thing; an increasing number of LCs can match the competence of TPs, pound-for-pound, but will not change the business culture. Too many LCs and civil servants are eager to short change Nigeria for profit.

Factual stories about Nigerians inviting Europeans to Abuja to help them secure government contracts are common. I can verify a few of such cases. The Europeans invited were sometimes ranking executives of Fortune 500 or FTSE 200 companies. Others were unemployed, low-skilled, or small-time hustlers and a splashing of adult students fronting as technical partners. Whether it was the COO of Enron or the local hustler with an ear to the ground, they secured lucrative contracts in Nigeria. Soon the lower-end fronters were in-demand for their modest costs. For a week of bluff in Abuja, they got something. A free flight ticket, spending money (£700-1000), free accommodation, and a reward (£1000). Not bad!

During the 2000s, European TPs arriving in Nigeria came to help LCs secure countless significant business deals/contracts and make a profit, too. Appearances have never been more effective. These TPs dressed as they chose when entering the offices of Big Men and Women. No clothing was too casual or rough for TPs to wear when seeing one of the top hundred government officials in Abuja or elsewhere in Nigeria. It was different for LCs or Nigerians from diaspora, in dramatic ways. “Nigerian Factor” demands your black body had to wear high quality formal African or Western attire, flaunt an expensive wristwatch, wear smart shoes, hat, and caps, and stuff that could improve your image.

Lesser standards of self-presentation will not get a Nigerian into the top official’s office; secretaries, security persons, and office helps will bar your entry. If a Yoruba or Igbo man meets the official “poorly” dressed, he might taste stinging humiliation. Then, after meeting the highest standards of Nigerian Factor, he will often hear the official tell him, “Get a foreign technical partner, then we will talk serious business.” Your success, they remind you, depends on a capable European or foreigner. Bianimikaley! “My years at Ivy League universities and working in corporate were of no value till I came back with two white buddies. Even at the airport, my guests went through immigration with courtesies, while I was subject to spot questioning. My guests began enquiring about me. In my own fucking country!!!” were the reflections of a Nigerian who swears never to return to Bongo. It can be that distressing.

It was astonishing to see Nigeria’s Presidency revelling in taking photos with “jeans and t-shirt” Mark Zuckerberg in Abuja. Yes, in jeans, t-shirt, and trainers. That is preferential status at work. The Presidency will not accept such from a Nigerian overachiever, though. Sometimes when a Nigerian in diaspora says, “If I were white,” his rue may be about white privilege in Nigeria.

That is Nigeria for you, uncut.

 Grimot Nane

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