I had often wondered why, and have always felt embarrassed when, in the past, I passed through Immigration at the Lagos Airport and I’m asked for ‘something’ by the grown men who manned those desks.
But now that I get to spend a lot more time in Nigeria, I know why. Men in their 50s begin to think seriously about retirement. In Nigeria when you retire, you are on your own and everything is in the air.
You live in a state of perpetual uncertainty. You are never sure if you will get your regular entitlements or whether some civil servant thief will make off with it or stick it in his personal account for a few years to accrue obscene interest as that civil servant (ironically) prepares for his own retirement. But before all that, men in their 40s and 50s in Nigeria face awesome challenges.
For all intents and purposes, they are their own local government: They provide their own electricity, their own water, their own security and provide for their own healthcare. Often times they maintain their local roads, they pay heavily for the education of their kids and some relatives; mobile phone charges are astronomical, and girlfriends to married men don’t come cheap at all.
An average civil servant in one of the big cities, say, Abuja or Lagos, could earn N1,200,000 per year. Rent alone is about N600,000. Abuja is particularly bad in that regard. Please completely discount public or government schools; these died a slow painful death several years ago. So three kids in private schools might cost N300,000 per term. There are three terms in a school year. We haven’t even talked about food, fuel, NEPA, clothes, weekend beer, church money, or money for aged parents yet. And then nothing happens in Nigeria but marriages and funerals. These cost a grip as well. Where is the civil servant going to get the money for all of that?
The Nigerian terrain is very unforgiving and very unsupportive. Government does not provide any social security support or cushion. In fact, government through its many agencies constitutes itself into a huge drain on people’s resources.
There are many, many agencies, particularly on the roads, asking for money for one thing or the other.
In 2014, I was in a company vehicle in Ogun State when I was stopped by some chaps in garish uniform. They demanded that I produce an “Ogun State Driver’s Badge.” I thought they were kidding but they weren’t. I explained that I was only visiting but they advised that I give them a little something or go to their office. I elected to go to their office. Their boss was in the same colourful uniform, but he had on cowboy boots and a farmer’s hat. To cut a long story: Today, I am a proud owner of “Ogun State Driver’s Badge, 2014.” It costs N5,000. You don’t need me to tell you that I haven’t gone near Ogun State since then.
But this is what workers go through every day. On top of that, they see elected politicians and other government officials making off like bandits unchallenged. Plus, people like mechanics and plumbers are just itching to cheat you. The strain of simply living shows: frayed nerves and high blood pressure are never too far behind.
So, what does the civil servant or worker do? They become contract gate keepers. They’ve set up a system whereby every competitive government bid goes through them. You don’t get a look-in unless you agree to split the money 70:30 with the worker. They would even prefer for you not to execute the job so that they can repeat the whole process the following year and ensure that their kids’ school fees are paid.
This is why, despite heavy government investment, some infrastructures remain in perpetual poor state. For those workers who are not in a position to influence contracts, they find other ingenious ways to fleece the public to augment their finances. So the lecturer will deliberately fail his students, whether they passed or not, until the lecturer is settled. The Police or Custom official continues to harass fellow citizens for money. They see your non-cooperation as injurious to their existence. They think you understand but that you are deliberately undermining them and short-changing their family. This is why some of them often turn ugly. And with retirement looming, the worker becomes more desperate, more dogged and more corrupt as he prepares for that great uncertainty. He has to build a home for himself, buy another car or two, perhaps support graduate kids who don’t have jobs, etc, etc.
The corruption is insidious and, at the moment, the situation seems intractable. Paradoxically, this situation has made every worker – particularly civil servants – ‘yes men.’
They are forever eager to parrot and excuse every government misdeed. They cannot afford to lose their jobs so they become cheerleaders and further abet their own long term struggle. An unfortunate vicious circle.
Change will have to come from the top and it will require a lot of determined hard work and visionary, strategic leadership. But in the meantime, the worker has to cope with the vicissitudes of today and prepare for the uncertainty of tomorrow…