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Monday, 21 June 2010


First off, this note or should I say diary, was written by a non Nigerian not me, and as you may know, I always credit my sources :). Suffice to say the person is an interesting character who writes in a straight forward, easy manner, who clearly does not have time to play with words, the author says it as they see it.

It is a long one but well worth the read and maybe if we are true to ourselves we will note all the authentic 'Nigerian Factors' as experienced by this person. It doesnt necessarily follow strict patterns as the author speaks from different scenarios albeit while tackling a national based project.

My question/challenge to Nigerians who can see this note is how would you have handled these scenarios? I ask with all seriousness, please just pick one of the many 'nf' in these notes and tell us how you would have gone about executing that project.

Title: Mr Williams!!??!!! by William Robertson
Thursday, 08 November 2007 at 04:25

Nigeria is not for the faint hearted, although blissful ignorance and a fistful of dollars will get you a long way. After being happily unemployed for some time, it gradually dawned on me that my wife was getting very tight-lipped. Possibly this had something to do with the mounting bills, or the newspaper being left open at the ‘Employment opportunities' section. Weeks of selective reading finally produced two possibilities: one in Nigeria, and one comfy job for the American embassy. The Americans phoned me the day AFTER I signed the Nigerian contract. C'est la vie. Four frenetic days later I was on a plane to Nigeria, with a group of equally bewildered South Africans. The job was appealing: fingerprint 60 million Nigerians in 2 weeks.

In the middle of the night, the first clue that you are near Lagos is the orange glow of all the oil wells flaring off gas. I learnt later that Nigeria is one of the most wasteful oil-producers in the world, literally burning up millions of dollars worth of gas.

We were given a relatively gentle introduction to Nigeria: the inside of airport was quiet, and we were met by a guide, who kept us all together, fought off the touts outside the airport, shovelled us into taxis and drove us to an exorbitantly expensive hotel that looked like a cross between a prison and a fort. The following day dawned, and our nanny packed us into taxis to get us to the domestic airport for our flight to Abuja. That was when rule number one became clear: DO NOT EVEN THINK OF DRIVING YOURSELF! Nigerians are not keen on road rules. I quite enjoyed the drive. The highpoint was taking a freeway OFFRAMP, and meeting cars coming UP the ramp! The domestic terminal is something like hell, except hell is probably not as hot, or as crowded. Fortunately our watchdog/shepherdess did all the negotiating, and we were rapidly checked in and pointed in the right direction of the plane. Note to nervous flyers: Nigerian airports tend to have wrecks of planes lying around them. If you are a nervous flyer, take a book. Or a blindfold.

Arrival in Abuja. Abuja is recognizable as a city. That is, lots of construction, good roads.. Traffic lights! Crazy traffic, but all the signs of civilization are there. Our employers, a French company, frequently said: 'Abuja is NOT Nigeria'. I don't think we heard them, as we were still trying to decipher Nigerian English, learning how to haggle, and find out where we could find food. Wine, women and song are readily available; although I suspect some of our group were not quite up to speed, and thought that the women were chasing them because they had suddenly acquired sex-god status. While Abuja appears to be a fairly average city, it doesn't take long to notice that some things don't work very well. The lights go off frequently, but as many places are used to this; there are a lot of generators. Then there is the cost. It's EXPENSIVE. Then there is the problem of food. Finding variety is difficult. Finding something tasty is more so. While we managed to find some places where we could eat, they were few and far between. Usually we just stuck to hotel food. And beer. Vast quantities of it. (At least it's filling.) There were numerous complaints of 'this beer gives me a headache' and 'this beer makes me sick'. Not the sheer heat, it's very easy to drink vast quantities of the stuff, and hardly notice it.

Haggling over prices is de-rigeur in Nigeria, because of the dual-currency mechanism. One price for Nigerians, and a MUCH higher one for anybody else. ‘Anybody else’ is usually white people, who are generally Europeans or Americans. Dropping a bunch of less-than-black South Africans with not much money into the mix created some interesting situations. Euros and Americans were seen as portable cash machines, and being treated like them was both annoying and not very flattering.

Rule number two: Taxi drivers in Nigeria will always know where you want to go, even if they don't. Explicit instructions are necessary: 'Wuse, Zone 5, Next to Inland Revenue'. Once we had established what the REAL (Nigerian) price was, haggling became much easier; 'Wuse zone 5, 200 Naira'. If the driver showed any reluctance, we walked away. This doesn't work very well anywhere else in Nigeria, particularly in the South, where the locals are used to Americans who throw money around like water, and attempts at bargaining are treated with contempt.

Our employers, French, were equally baffling. They all lived at the Hilton, stuck together like glue, and treated everyone else with varying degrees of Gallic contempt. We had no real idea of what we were actually supposed to be doing, and if they knew, they weren't telling us either. When they started training us on some specialized computer equipment, it rapidly became clear that they weren't quite sure what they had, either! We breezed through all the instruction in a fraction of the time allotted, and then it was 'make work'. One instruction was: 'Take all those computers apart, and store them over there.' Fine, we did that. Then after lunch it was 'Take all those computers, and install them back there.' This nearly provoked a riot; didn't they READ our damn CV's??? (They probably did, but maybe they had been exposed to too many Nigerian CV's.)

With hindsight, maybe it wasn't TOO unreasonable: it was probably Zaffers ejecting the CD drive tray and saying: 'Is this the coffee-cup holder?' which may have confused the issue. The French didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humour.

We finally got some information as to what we had to do, and what the overall plan was:
1) Learn all the equipment, which is used for capturing fingerprints and photographs, the data will be used to create a national ID card for Nigerians.
2) The South Africans would then move out to training schools all over the country, and teach a lot of Nigerians (hired by our employer) how to use this equipment.
3) These Nigerians would then go on to teach DNCR (Department of National Civic Registration) staff, in a huge pyramid scheme.
4) Once everybody was trained, a huge equipment rollout would occur, and then:
5) A massive enrolment exercise would occur, where we would, theoretically, fingerprint 60 million Nigerians in 2 weeks, with the Sagem staff providing technical support and logistics control, and the DNCR doing all the actual work.

It all sounded very good in theory, but no one thought of that good old standby: the Nigerian Factor. The Nigerian Factor is a subset of WAWA, (West Africa Wins Again) as expats with thousand-yard stares cynically refer to it. The NF is unique. I have, for example, never seen a meticulously project plan that contains every possible detail except one thing: a timeline. That missing timeline is the NF. The NF is random and inexplicable, and can only be learned through experience The NF is Murphy's Law on amphetamines, and travelling faster than light.

{With hindsite, the French did know what they were doing, which is why there was no timeline!)

The day finally dawned when we had to start teaching Nigerians how to use all this equipment. Much pomp and circumstance, and the Minister DOESN'T say the words that are at the end of his speech: 'Any obstruction to this project will be considered sabotage'. By now we have learnt that Nigeria runs on bullshit. CV's and abilities in Nigeria are inflated towards the stratosphere. Teaching a 'Certified Computer Engineer' that 'this is a mouse. If you move it around like this, it moves that little pointer, and if you click with this button...' had a surreal quality. So we developed filtering processes very quickly. One was to put everyone in front of a PC and say 'Open paint, and draw a circle'. This quickly sorted out who knew what a computer was, but was only good for one batch. As that batch left the class room, there would be voluminous exchanges in the vernacular, and the next class would then sit down and draw a circle with paint.....before they had been asked to! So it was necessary to constantly change tactics.

The French then inform us that they want us to go to Minna, a town about 100 KM from Abuja, and set up a training school. We organise a minibus, get to Minna about 3 hours later, and wait. The truck with all the equipment hasn't left Abuja yet...eventually the truck arrives, just after lunch. Nobody will offload it without payment. We ignore them, and do it ourselves. In about 3 hours, our training school is set up, and all the equipment tested. We all want to go back to Abuja now, but we get all kinds of excuse of 'it's not safe to drive back, we should stay there overnight.' We all get seriously pissed off. We've set up the damn training school, what the hell do these lunatics want?' We go back to Abuja. The following day, we have to go back to Minna, and meet the French there. Apparently this is another test of our competence. We are all somewhat miffed. We get to Minna, and wait for the French to arrive. Eventually they do, bringing a couple of guys we have never seen before. The new guys wander around, and make various inane remarks. South Africans keep drifting off 'for a cigarette'. Including the guys who don't smoke. They can be found around a corner hitting walls and ranting about 'fucking petty minded obnoxious who like to go by the book, even if they don't know what book or who wrote it.' The French project manager is Christened 'Napoleon', due to his extremely dictatorial, unpleasant demeanour. This probably gets back to him, as he moderates his behaviour slightly, which was fortunate for him; there were many rumblings about ‘pounding that little fucker into the dirt’.

Nigeria is unlike any other place I’ve ever been to: Everybody is looking for a way out. Out of Nigeria, that is. Or a sinecure, preferably with a powerful mentor in the background. Every Nigerian wants money and power by any available means. If confabulation, obfuscation, misinformation and disinformation equals coal power, then Nigeria is powered by Star Trek engines. It's tribal warfare with ties, and corruption is the sport of the masses.

Our introduction to the real Nigeria was the next stage: we split up and got to 7 training centres around the country. Masochist that I am, I say I'll take the place no-one else wants to go. This turns out to be Yola, in Eastern Nigeria, on the Cameroonian border. We all get careful briefings, a satellite phone, and a contact name of an official in the DNCR who will sort out the local side of things.

I arrive in a very hot, (40C upwards) dry and dusty Yola, and try to telephone my local contact. No luck. So I try and find my training school. Discovery number 1: there are no taxis! Eventually I find someone to take me where I want to go. I'm stunned at the taxi price, which is about 10 times the Abuja rate. (They said it would be CHEAPER here!!) I show him the address. He's never heard of it. We drive around, trying various government departments. None of them know where it is either. Eventually we locate the place. Nobody is there, and nobody is expecting me anyway. Someone goes to call him.

We meet, and he seems an OK guy, if somewhat hesitant and non-committal. I realise later that it’s simple self-preservation: He’s seen projects come and go. Usually they get far enough for the money to disappear, and then they stop. Also they have been happily employed for YEARS, without actually doing anything. Office hours were from 9AM until 2 PM (maybe) nobody did anything; they just sat around and made conversation, so part of the problem was overcoming the enormous inertia of people who had been sitting around for years, doing nothing. We go to the building that I am going to use as a training centre, and have a look around. It seems fine. Then I start on my checklist:
Electricity? No. Water? No. Telephone? No. Disconnected for non-payment. Chairs and Tables? None. Generator? Yes. Does it work? Yes. Does it have fuel? No. Can you GET fuel? No, no money.

Hmmm....lessee...what DO I have? I have a building, and nothing else. A couple of days later, a huge truck arrives with computers and similar. I have strict instructions not to pay for anything, as this is not my responsibility. My state coordinator must pay. He says he hasn't got any money. Hmm... I phone a couple of colleagues who are having exactly the same problems. The truck driver says that he's waiting 3 hours, and then going back to Abuja. Eventually my sidekick, after much (loud) negotiation, coughs up, and the truck is offloaded. Part of the shipment is a generator, so I spend the next few days unpacking stuff, and getting a computer set up. The telephone gets re-connected. There is no space in the building for the planned first batch or trainees, (about 120) so the plan is to hire tables chairs and canopies and do part of the training outside. Negotiations start for the hiring of said items.

The day dawned when 150 people arrive for training. I had managed to install all the computers. All 10 of them. My additional South African staff were noticeable by their absence, and there were still no tables and chairs or canopies that SHOULD have been available. Around midday, tables, chairs and canopies arrive, along with some exhausted South Africans, who have driven all the way from Abuja. We manage to start training anyway.

On day 2 of the training a worried South African tells me that the DNCR staff say they are not going to be trained anymore, because they haven't been paid. I tell him to start training, even if it's to an empty tent. He does, and the 'strike' fizzles out. By the end of the week, we are back on schedule, and have trained our first batch. Only 2 more to go.

As I have no internet connection, all reports to Abuja are verbal, via satellite telephone. The French are demanding lists of names and similar. I go hunting for a fax machine. Eventually I find one, and send off some reports to keep them happy. On Thursday I am complaining to a local Deloitte & Touche contractor at the hotel about the difficulty of getting reports to Abuja. The following conversation is an excellent insight into the NF:
Me: '...and finding a fax machine in this town! Sheesh.'
DT: 'Why don't you fax them from here? (the hotel)'
Me: 'They told me on Monday that I couldn't.' (This was Thursday)
DT 'I send all my staff reports from here.'
As I now have some idea of how Nigeria works, I ask him to accompany me to the reception desk.
Me: 'Excuse me, do you have a fax machine?'
Rec: 'Yes'
Me: 'Is it working?'
Rec: 'Yes.'
Me: 'Ok, I'd like you to send this page now.'
Rec: 'I'm sorry, you can't.'
Me: 'Why not?'
Rec: 'No light.' (no electricity)
Me: 'So your fax machine is NOT working?'
Rec:' Yes, it's working.'
In short, the fax machine DOES work, IF there is electricity, and IF the phone line is working, neither of which can be expected.

Fortunately, a French project manager arrived from Abuja with a bag full of cash. This solves a lot of little problems. He also has the authority to do some things, which he does, ruthlessly.

Week 2 of the training runs much better, especially now that we have better communications: we can send email via our sat phones. It's frighteningly indicative of Nigeria that the only way we can do this reliably is to phone, with a sat phone, to an ISP in France. Our office in Abuja does the same thing, and picks up the mail. The only way to establish reliable communications is by completely bypassing all Nigerian systems. Sad, but true.

Here’s another conversation.
'Mr Williams, is it true that all Nigerians in South Africa are criminals'
Me. 'Yes, that is a very strong perception. They are often involved in criminal syndicates, car theft, drugs, robberies and so on.'
'Mr Williams, do they actually do all the crimes, or are they just in charge?'
Me: 'They're frequently in charge'
'Oh.. That's ok then, as long as they're not doing the work'
Me: 'You're fired.'

It was another insight into Nigeria: Nobody cares how you get to the top, as long as you get there! It doesn't matter what you are the boss OF, as long as you're the boss! And everybody wants to be the boss. Preferably without doing any work. At our location, a new building was being built. The workmen on that site were the only people I ever saw doing any physical labour. I watched them for weeks, before it finally clicked what was 'wrong' with the scene: no machines. The highest piece of tech was the truck that delivered the sand. Water was fetched from somewhere down the road in 20 litre containers. This was then mixed with the sand and cement using spades. The mixed cement was then carried to where it was needed. There wasn't even a wheelbarrow.

And then there were the number of people in training who volunteered methods of ‘cheating the system'.
'Mr. Williams! If people do this...and then this... the system will not detect it's wrong..'
The effort and ingenuity that went into devising methods of ‘beating the system' were endless, and extremely irritating. None of them would have worked, but if a tenth of the effort was actually put into doing what they were supposed to, instead of devising 'what if's'...

One other South African ruefully recounted how he'd opened one of his training sessions with: 'There are no stupid questions'. 'No way am I ever doing that again' he said, crying into his beer.

Week 3 was almost routine; we have trained about 300 people, selected the best we can, (I choose Gabriel for his technical ability, and Paschal because he’s big, and could talk LOUD! The latter is frequently necessary in Nigeria; what often sounds like a heated argument anywhere else is ‘normal conversation' here.

It's back to Abuja for a couple of days to debrief, eat some food, and get horribly drunk and share war stories, of which there is no shortage. My most memorable was the colleague who was trying to set up his training centre. All efforts at acquiring electricity, fuel, tables chairs met with absolute zero co-operation, and less result. One day a truck arrives. A tent is set up, chairs, tables, food, a generator, a sound system. The occasion? One of the staff has resigned, and it's his farewell party.'s a matter of priorities!

I return to Yola, and South Africans scattered to every state in Nigeria. The next phase was to find suitable accommodation for computers and hardware throughout Nigeria, 774 of them, and then distribute all the hardware to various towns throughout Nigeria. Again, the requirements appear simple: find a building that is weatherproof and secure. Electricity and water will be a bonus. I had 21 offices that I needed to establish. While I was in Abuja, my staff have been assigned a town, and are expected to report back with suitability in each place. I debrief them all individually; trying to work out the real information. All the reports are depressingly familiar: No building. Building under construction. No security. No Electricity. No telephone. No petrol. Road unusable. My favourite was a beautiful student from Lagos, who had now been posted to a tiny village in the bush. A city dweller transplanted into the back of beyond. "Mr Williams! I had to take a CANOE to get to my LGA (Local Government Area, usually the biggest village in the area) ‘My feet got wet!'

Right....I get everybody together, and we do training and testing AGAIN, because I'm well aware of that, of my 23 staff, some of them do NOT know what they are doing. They are a completely mixed bag of personalities, sexes and religions. They're all quite wary of each other, and of me. Hierarchy and protocol are exceptionally important in Nigeria, and I'm a little nervous of causing serious affront. One of my staff, who I call ‘AK’ drives me to distraction. I get the glimmer that he is some big wheel in the area, as the others constantly defer to him. They all think he will make a very good supervisor (LTA or Local Technical Assistant) because 'people will do what he tells them'. I'm never quite sure WHY he's involved. He has money, and is somehow related to THE man in the area. Except that I'm certain that his technical ability is not very good, and I'm scared he will tell people the WRONG things. This is a little paranoid of me, but the shifts in Nigerian politics, at all levels, are impenetrable and incomprehensible. There are so many factions with so many different agendas, that attempting to decipher them is an exercise in futility. In one of my more lucid moments, I realise I AM ‘the man’, or the moment, anyway. Hierarchy takes precedence over protocol, and while I am there, I am 'the man of the moment' from which employment (and money!) flows. I CAN DO NO WRONG!, I suspect that this is just another project that is expected to fail, and AK is there to feed information to 'Mr X', whoever he may be.

I also have a staff member who I decidedly did NOT want, who caused me no end of confusion. How she was allocated to me was a mystery. I had realized very early in the training that she had absolutely no idea what was going on, to the extent that I had (privately) marked her name as No Good. It took nearly 3 weeks to establish what she was doing there, by which time it was too late to fire her. She HADN'T been hired. The original appointee had found another job, so he gave her his letter of appointment and told her to report in his place. Simple really. Surprisingly, she did a very good job. A colleague reported a similar incident: He fired one person. Another promptly resigned, and gave the fired person her job.

Adamawa state is quite a tolerant place, religion wise: the Christian/Muslim split is around 50/50 and there are no overt signs of conflict, unlike some other states. Having women 'in charge’ in a very traditional society is a bit more of a challenge. Whether Christian or Muslim, it's extremely difficult for women, and it's hard for them to approach local chiefs or traditional leaders for assistance. And assistance we needed: While we were working for the Department of National Civil Registration (DNCR) office space, vehicles and furniture in the various towns and villages was provided by the National Population Commission. The NPC had been given millions of Naira to provide this, and there was no sign of either the money of the office accommodation.

This caused at least one interesting meeting in Abuja, where the NPC was reporting that 'all accommodation was ready'. The DNCR representative tried to speak up, but others attempted to silence him. The chairman of the meeting demanded that he be heard, and he said that accommodation was NOT ready. Finally our company was called in, and they reported accommodation was NOT ready.

Chairman: 'So how can you say the accommodation is ready, when these people say they cannot install their equipment?'
NPC 'The accommodation IS ready, but the landlord will not hand over the keys to unlock the offices.'
Chairman: 'Why will the landlord not hand over the keys?'
NPC: 'Well...we haven't paid the rent yet....'

I came across 'one way' communication time and time again. An instruction would be issued, and not carried out. Not only would it not be carried out, nobody would ever report back that it hadn't been done! The robotic quality of people, when it came to instructions, was terrifying, and they had it down to a fine art. Just about ANY instruction could be issued, and it would disappear into nowhere, without any blame being attached to anyone. If the effect could be inverted, Mt Kilimanjaro could be moved to another continent without anybody noticing. There is very little room in Nigeria for independent thought, and the French drove us mad with crazy micro-management methods. I frequently got the sense that there were two completely separate realities: what we had to put into our reports, and what was ACTUALLY happening. Sometimes they would ask for information when the opportunity to gather that information had long since passed. When that happened, I just made something up, and sent that; it was never queried.

While we are waiting for offices and security to be organized, I manage to do a trip down to the southern side of my state, simply to get a better idea of things on the ground. We have a car, a driver, myself and one of my Senior techs's, and Tony, the state co-ordinator. THEN we go to the offices of the NPC (National Population Commissioner) where everybody and his secretary wants to come along for the ride. I claim the front passenger seat on the grounds that I need it for my satellite phone reception. (true, sort of) Everybody else crams into the back. The vehicle is a Puegot station wagon, in very good condition. It can MOVE. The road, contrary to my expectations, is very good, and we make good time. We arrive at Mayo-Belwa, a fairly typical Local Government Area. Here the offices earmarked for us were burnt down, but have been rebuilt. Bear in mind that we only require enough space for a computer, and some storage space for equipment: 3 rooms. The original request was for 6 rooms, which was the ideal, but we could manage with less. Now, this office has been the subject of much discussion with problems of contractors (builders) landlords and similar, with long complicated arguments about why it is not ready/unsuitable/incomplete. The rooms look fine, and while we are waiting for the keys, I wander around the LGA, which is basically a walled complex of small buildings, for various government departments. Adjacent to our new offices are some (apparently) deserted offices. Sure enough, they ARE deserted, and have been for a long time. They are also perfectly adequate. Why couldn't we just use those ones, instead of going through all this drama? Nobody knows, but much later I manage to piece together a scenario:
1) Offices burn down, at some time in the past.
2) ID card project requires offices.
3) Burnt down offices are allocated to ID card project, because there is 'no other space available'.(?)
4) Money is then allocated to rebuild offices.
5) Long process of tendering for a contractor.
6) Contract calls for demolishing of old offices, and construction of new ones.
7) Contractor gets money and purchases materials.
8) Contractor DOES NOT demolish building; repairs whatever is damaged.
9) Contractor builds house somewhere for someone with materials for new offices.

You could go mad trying to work out who was the 'corrupt' person in that lot, or where the money went. So it’s less brain-damaging to not even try. Simply put, there wasn't a single person taking a slice: EVERYBODY did. Or maybe nobody. Who knows?

I also notice a brand new satellite dish for use where there are no phone lines. (Except there ARE phone lines here!) Apparently every Local Government Area is to get one, and it will connect 'to the internet'. It’s just another indication of the madness that infects Nigeria: these things are by no means cheap; this one looks more suitable for use on deep space missions. I can't even comprehend what it will be used for, as there are much more cost effective means of communication. It also seems to have been installed with no regard for local conditions: there's no electricity! In this LGA, there is a 'radio room', with radios. Covered in a very thick layer of dust. I wonder if they cannot keep a simple radio in use/working, what hope for a sophisticated satellite system? Heartbreaking.

I have one area that requires 100 staff. It has already been suggested to one of my staff that 'we cut staff to 60, and we can keep the money that we would have spent on the 40 staff.'.
In other words, dump 40% of the project in that area, make numerous excuses, and pocket the salaries that SHOULD have been paid..'

One careless official forgets a file in my office. I read it. It’s a long, complicated dossier about the procurement for furniture for this project. The prices for desks and chairs are outrageous, but no matter: I never see any of this elusive furniture anyway.

I gathered my staff for a progress meeting, and, being well aware that some were not actually staying in the town they were posted to, announced that:

'....naturally, I will be visiting all of your offices to see how things are going.'
Billy: 'Mr Williams, will you let us know when you are scheduled to visit us?'
Much quiet expectation.
Me: 'Why would I do that? So that you know which day you must actually be in your office?'
Much laughter.

Once we were over the hump of getting secure offices, trucks are dispatched from the massive stores in Kaduna. The problem of 'who's the boss' kept rearing its head. Theoretically, we were there to provide technical support, and the DNCR provided all the staff. The problem being that the DNCR had only the vaguest idea of what was supposed to happen, whereas my staff are much better informed. The NPC also wanted in on the act, so it was quite a job ensuring that our office space wasn't filled with bodies wandering around.

For example: one of my staff members in a small town was at the end of his tether, as the DNCR officer had taken over, insisting that he knew how everything worked (he didn't) and was currently busy SELLING forms that were designed to record all the details of each applicant during the massive enrolment. I have no idea WHY he was selling the forms, as they were absolutely useless on their own. He was replaced, and things normalised.

Ultimately, there were, from our perspective, 2 groups in Nigeria: those that WANT a national ID card, and those that don't. Nigeria has fiercely resisted census attempts, because then it would be quite clear just how many people there are in Nigeria, and where they are. One of the (many) reasons is that Central Government allocates money to various states. If someone SAYS 'I have 3 million people in my state, I need money' there is no way of proving otherwise.
Gabriel brings back a fascinating story from 'the north' which he relates that evening, to much amusement:
He encounters a local leader who is terribly worried about the ID card project. By this stage, people who DON'T want it to work have to be VERY careful, lest they attract the label of 'saboteurs' and similar, and the project is, much to the surprise of many, still on track.
Local Leader: 'I'm going to register anyone and everyone I possible can: I'm even planning on registering as many Cameroonians as I can'.
Gabriel nods encouragement, and agrees with him wholeheartedly. As far as we are concerned, we would rather have people WANTING to register, even if fraudulently, than have a boycott. The duplicates can always be weeded out later.

Now that equipment is arriving, I go on another field trip to see how installations are going. This time I go to parts west of me, and again, I am pleasantly surprised at the quality of the road. Not GREAT, you understand, but 100KM/h is easily possible. I wonder why I had so many reports about 'terrible roads'; just another excuse to stall? This mystery clears up two weeks later, when I travel the same road again, and average about 40km/h. Maintenance is not big in Nigeria. Potholes on sealed roads are maintained by people living along the road, who fill the potholes with sand, in exchange for tips. The rains start. When it rains, it rains.
In no time at all, all the sand is washed out of the potholes and the road reverts to ...something indescribable. It's not uncommon to see roads forming in the dirt, because it's more comfortable to drive in the dirt that swerve to avoid a pothole, and hit two more.

It took me MONTHS to understand what Nigerians meant by 'black market'. This is partly because of the confusion of Nigerian English (translations elsewhere) and Nigerian economics. Petrol is a good example. Nigeria has huge oil reserves. Fuel shortages, however, are frequent. That means that you can't just go into a fuel station and fill up. The availability of petrol varies randomly. It's easy to know when fuel is available: there are queues at the stations. However, if petrol is not available at a station, doesn't mean it's not available. Usually you just drive a little way down the road, and buy it from a street vendor. Quite openly, under the gaze of police or army. At twice the price. There is no obvious rhyme or reason to the pattern either, so it's difficult to plan anything. You could, theoretically, buy a lot of petrol and store it. Except then you would be guilty of the crime of hoarding, or being a 'black marketer'. To DO this, however, you would have to take your car to a station, fill it up, drive home, empty the tank into containers, drive to another station and repeat the process. Why such a convoluted arrangement? Because you're not allowed to go to a station and fill up a container! I lost track of the time and effort it took every time I wanted 25 litres of petrol for a generator; almost every transaction took some persuading. Sometimes it was a point-blank refusal, and then it was search for another station that had fuel...and repeat the process. 'blackmarket petrol' isn't very secretive or hidden; it's just a parallel economic system. The solution to these erratic shortages seems simple: Raise the price of fuel, or supply more, or both. Raising the price of fuel usually results in riots, and increasing the supply is difficult: the infrastructure doesn't permit it. Either solution encounters a problem: somebody, somewhere, has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and will fight tooth and nail to prevent such things happening.


Niglish is Nigerian English, a very distinct English that is rife with double meanings. Words are frequently used interchangeably and out of context, which adds to the confusion , particularly when no-one bothers to clarify exactly what is being talked about. After much muttering an grumbling via my state coordinator, he arranged for a 'fuel allocation' by calling someone he knew in state security, who in turn made some calls. I never did get my fuel, because I wanted PETROL, and the petrol station we eventually went to said the arrangement had been made for DIESEL....
Dash-Cash lubricant needed to get something done. Also means “give” as in “Dash me your cellphone.”
No Light: Generic term for 'no electricity'. It can mean several things. In it's general use, it means there is no electricity, but it can also mean the lights don't work. (the TV may work, but not the lights.)
The REASON that there is no electricity at your immediate location can vary enormously:
1) There is no utility power. (power supplies are erratic, at best.)
2) There is no utility power because the bill hasn't been paid.
3) There is no utility power because something is broken. (cable, switch etc.)
4) The generator isn't working.
5) The generator IS working, but there's no fuel.
6) The generator IS working, there IS fuel, but we don't want to run it.

Even this careful reasoning breaks down sometimes: I was mystified by reports of “Yes, there is light, but it doesn’t work the computers”. No amount of meticulous questioning could establish the problem, so I went to the site. Yes, there WAS light. Very DIM light, because instead of 220v, it was about 100v, and had been like that for over a year.

How hotels work in Nigeria.

Frequently, they don't. At the top of the range, there are a few (expensive) hotels catering for Western tastes and sensibilities. (Mainly food) Moving down wards, the cheaper hotels all attempt to emulate those hotels, with varying degrees of success. The biggest problem is electric power. NEPA, the National Electric Power Agency, is referred to as Never Electric Power Always. Considering that every South African has, on average, 1000W of power available to them, as opposed to the average Nigerian of just 33 watts, it’s not surprising it’s hard to do things. So the first requirement is: Does the hotel has a generator? Then you have to establish if A) It works. B) It has fuel. C) There is not some OTHER problem that prevents it from actually delivering power. (Fuses blown, wiring faulty, etc.) Then repeat the process for the airconditioning. Aircon is a necessity here; not a luxury. The easiest way of doing this is to just move in. As you will encounter problems, you will encounter the staff of the hotel, and a response that can leave you frustrated, angry and confused: sympathy and condolences, but no action. Partially this is due to total non-comprehension of what you are talking about. Most Nigerians don’t have Air con. In one hotel I discovered it was cooler with the AC OFF, and the doors and windows open. Maintenance eventually arrived, turned on the AC and put his hand in the airflow, and declared the AC working. Well, yes, it WAS ‘working’; it was making a noise, and blowing air from outside in. It wasn’t actually COOLING; just a very noisy fan. When I pointed this small fact out, he looked completely bewildered. As far as he was concerned, I must have been mad. It was making a noise, wasn’t it? It was blowing, wasn’t it? If I put my hand by the AC vent, it feels cold, doesn’t it? I feel I should point out that his hands were wet. In fact, we were BOTH wet; small rivers of sweat rolling down us to the puddle we were standing in. I let him go, had another shower, and opened another beer. After changing rooms 3 times, I tried another hotel. This one was WORSE! It had 4 satellite dishes, but only one TV station. The local one. The water supply was so erratic, it was often necessary to walk down to reception and request a few buckets. The electricity supply was non-existent. In desperation, I borrowed a UPS from work, which at least gave me a bit more time to watch TV when the power was off.

Which brings me to another part of hotel life: the fridge. Most hotels have a fridge in the room. Most of them aren’t properly tropicalised, but generally they work. If the AC is working, they work well. They are usually set to ‘minimum cool’ but just turn it up to maximum. Keep it FULL. Fill it with bottles of water, beer, whatever. That way, with the inevitable power outages, it stays cool. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. If you have a good fridge, you can have an iceblock to carry around with you to drink from. Ice is not big in Nigeria. Neither is anything cold. I suspect the Nigerian definition of ‘cold’ is anything just below 30C. So it is preferable to stock your fridge with the beverage of your choice.

Once you have your room sorted out, the next search is for food. The hotel MAY have a menu, but frequently not. You have to know what you want. If there is a menu, you can at get some idea of what people eat, so that you will know what to ask for in a menu-less eatery. Make several choices as to what you want; the menu may be extensive, but very little of what is on the menu will actually be available.
Avoid asking for variations on the menu; this will cause major confusion. Try and avoid eating in large groups, if possible. Five is about the limit. After that…be prepared for mixed orders, and confusion. An example: A group of 7 of us went to a restaurant where we know we can get a good, cheap meal. As we were all pretty hungry, but well aware of the problems of larger groups, we kept it as simple as possible: ‘3 normal omelettes, two Spanish omelettes, one potato omelette, all double omelettes, and chips”. One fish kebab was ordered separately. Keep in mind that a normal omelette is made with 2 eggs. When they all arrived, we got omelettes, all of various types. When the bill arrived, it included numerous separate entries for omelettes, which added up to 24 omelettes, some of which were normal price, and some at double price. The next time I visited, and ordered a double omelette, they brought two, instead of one big one.
One other problem with large groups: The kitchen usually has a limited capacity, so it is necessary to state that when food is ready, “Bring it”. Otherwise they will make one dish at a time, put it to one side, continue cooking, and bring all the meals simultaneously. Most of which will be cold.

One night being too far away from my 'home' base in Yola, I had to overnight in Mubi. For an extra 100 Naira, I could get a room with a TV. The evening went something like this starting with the restaurant:
Me: 'Do you have a menu? (a menu is a rare beastie in Nigerian restaurants, but it's worth trying.)
'She: 'No'
Me: 'what do you have to eat?'
She: ' Vegetable soup and somfu' (pap)
Me: 'What ELSE do you have to eat?'
She: 'Vegetable soup.'
Me: (resignedly) 'I'll have the vegetable soup and somfu."

The "vegetable soup" was damn good. I'm not sure exactly what was in it, mostly meat and no visible vegetables, but tasty in any case. Not a place to visit if Vegetarian. After the meal, I retire to my room.
10 minutes after turning on the TV...'no light'. It stayed that way until the following morning.
When I checked out, purely for my own amusement, the conversation went like this:
Me, to receptionist: 'You owe me 100 Naira.' (about 10 Rand)
Rec: 'Why?'
Me: 'There was no TV in my room.'
Rec: 'What room number?'
Me: '147'
Receptionist checks list of rooms and says: 'There is TV in 147.'
Me: 'It didn't work. Why must I pay for something that doesn't work?'
Rec: 'There no light.'
Me: 'Why must I pay for TV that doesn't work?'
Rec: 'There TV in room.'
Me: 'So must I go to the NEPA office and ask for my N100, because it's their fault the TV not work?'
Rec:' There is TV in room.'

The thinking was, by Nigerian standards, completely reasonable: There is a TV in the room, for which the charge is an extra N100. The fact that it doesn't work, due to their not being any electricity, is completely irrelevant.

(Ending with the national anthem )

Arise O compatriots, Nigeria's call obey

To serve our Fatherland

With love and strength and faith.

The labour of our heroes past

Shall never be in vain,

To serve with heart and might

One nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.

O God of creation,

Direct our noble cause;

Guide our Leaders right:

Help our Youth the truth to know,

In love and honesty to grow,

And living just and true,
Great lofty heights attain,

To build a nation where peace and justice reign.

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Anonymous said...

..Interesting are coping well.i'll suggest you continue with that "survivor"

Anonymous said...

What a waste, surely it would have been more efficient to train a few Nigerians instead of the South Africans and get them to come back to Nigeria to manage the process?

First of, use people who know the places like the back of their hands. I mean, the situation with the canopies and chairs for example, a typical Naija person in the SA's position would have simply flown okada looked about town and sorted it in a jiffy (NF my foot!).

Secondly, it (using Nigerians that is) would have spared the whinny, preachy, condescending writer all the trouble of having to suffer a situation which his pontificating wouldn't change anyway (what did he expect in semi-rural Nigeria).

Nevertheless, his writing shows the gaps in the system which I suppose is a plus if one is minded to fix things.

...can't believe the idiot would have us believe every building work in Nigeria is carried out by retards who can't even decipher the benefits of a wheel barrow!

Anonymous said...

I'm the idiot that wrote that originally. Obviously not all building in Nigeria is without tools; it's just indicative of the situation: a fairly large building project with no cement mixer?

Anonymous said...

I apologise. Arrgh, the anonymity of the Internet..posted it b4 I realised I had used the foul language out loud. Hope you got the job of your dreams afterwards, best of luck.

Anonymous said...

I apologise. Arrgh, the anonymity of the Internet..posted it b4 I realised I had used the foul language out loud. Hope you got the job of your dreams afterwards, best of luck.

LABALABA said...

Some people think everyone has to be proud of Nigeria just because they were once born there .... They don't want put their progress first. I certainly know about Nigeria. Nigeria is a piece of land (property) that belongs to probably only 5,000 people ... that includes Abacha family, Some Alhaji thieves, and Babangida with his Kaduna Mafias. When was the last time you had electricity for 48 hours Zoom? Well, some people in Nigeria have it a year straight without a blink. Oil comes out of Nigeria, but they have to line up several days at the gas station. Life was better in Nigeria in the 50's and 60's than it is now. The British actually needs to come back and seize it so the little fragile sense of patriotism you have can finally vanish. Hey, I didn't keep up with this, so tell me; What is the verdict on those Senators tearing each others cloth out in the house few weeks ago? It should be important since these are the people who put themselves on 2 million dollar a year salaries each. As good as my new Country is, Obama only earns $250,000, that's 1/8 th of what a Nigerian Senator gets paid for spitting at each other's face.

Try and be honest!