Celebrating Mediocrity In Nigeria By Femke van Zeijl
I used to think corruption was Nigeria’s biggest problem, but I’m starting to doubt that. Every time I probe into one of the many issues this country is encountering, at the core I find the same phenomenon: the widespread celebration of mediocrity. Unrebuked underachievement seems to be the rule in all facets of society. A governor building a single road during his entire tenure is revered like the next Messiah; an averagely talented author who writes a colourless book gets sponsored to represent Nigerian literature overseas; and a young woman with no secretarial skills to speak of gets promoted to the oga’s office faster than any of her properly trained colleagues.
Needless to say the politician is probably hailed by those awaiting part of the loot he is stealing; the writer might have got his sponsorship from buddies he has been sucking up to in hagiographies paid for by the subjects; and the young woman’s promotion is likely to be an exchange for sex or the expectancy of it. So some form of corruption plays a role in all of these examples.
But corruption per se does not necessarily stand in the way of development. Otherwise a country like Indonesia—number 118 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, not that far removed from Nigeria’s 139—would never have made it to the G-20 group of major economies. An even more serious obstacle to development is the lack of repercussions for underachievement. Who in Nigeria is ever held accountable for substandard performance?
Since I came here, I have been on a futile search for a stable internet connection that does what it promises. I started with an MTN FastLink modem (I consider the name a cruel joke), and then I moved on to an Etisalat MiFi connection (I regularly had to keep myself from throwing the bloody thing against the wall), and now I am trying out Cobranet’s U-Go. I shouldn’t have bothered: equally crap. And everyone knows this. They groan and mutter and tweet about it. But still, to my surprise, no one calls for a class-action suit against those deceitful providers.
A one-day conference I attended last year left me equally puzzled. Organisation, attendance and outcome left a lot to be desired, if you ask me. But over cocktails, after the closing ceremony, everyone congratulated each other over the wonderful conference—that started two hours late, of which the most animated part was undeniably lunch, and in which not a single tangible decision had been made. This left me wondering whether we had attended the same event.
I thought these issues to be unrelated at first, but gradually I came to see the connection. Nigeria is the opposite of a meritocracy: you do not earn by achieving. You get to be who and where you are by knowing the right people. Whether you work in an office, for an enterprise or an NGO, at a construction site or in government, your abilities hardly ever are the reason you got there. Performing well, let alone with excellence, is not a requirement, in fact, it is discouraged. It would be too threatening: showing you’re more intelligent, capable or competent than the ‘oga at the top’ (who, as a rule, is not an overachiever either) is career suicide.
It is an attitude that trickles down from the very top, its symptoms eventually showing up in all of society, from bad governance to bad service to bad craftsmanship.
Where excellence meets no gratification, what remains to be celebrated is underachievement. That is why it is not uncommon to find Nigerians congratulating each other with substandard results. It is safer to cuddle up comfortably in shared mediocrity than to question it, since the latter might also expose your own less than exceptional performance. Add to this the taboo of criticising anyone senior or higher up and it explains why so many join in the admiration of the emperor’s new clothes.
I have been writing this column for the last year, and after ten months I realised my angles were getting more predictable and my pieces less edgy. I figured newcomers do not remain newcomers forever and therefore decided to round up the ‘Femke Becomes Funke’ series this month, a year after it started. Ever since I announced the ending, tweeps have been asking me to change my mind and in comments on the columns and through my website I get songs of praise that make me feel my analyses of Nigerian society are indispensable. If I had no sense of self-criticism, I might be tempted to reconsider my decision to discontinue the series and start producing second-rate articles. Who would point this out to me if I did?
The hardest thing to do in Nigeria is to continue to realise there is honour in achievement and pride in perfection. I imagine the frustration of the many Nigerians who do care for their work, who take pride in their outcomes and who feel the award is in a job well done. When you know beforehand that excellence will not be rewarded, you are bound to do the economically sane thing and limit your investments to accomplishing the bare minimum. This makes Nigeria a pretty cumbersome place for anyone striving for perfection.
Talk to Femke on Twitter: @femkevanzeijl