Nigerians are complicated

PHOTO: un.org

“Has Buhari addressed the alarming rate at which Nigeria is losing young professionals to Canada?” A week ago, I tweeted that, half seriously and half in jest. As you read this, people are still replying to it. Maybe I should not have been surprised, but the uniformity of the replies gave me pause and plenty of thought.

Now to be absolutely clear – moving to Britain 14 years ago remains the best thing to have happened to me from a personal development point of view. I will never discourage anyone contemplating a similar move.

Back to the tweet and the responses to it. Hundreds of people have so far replied and I will say 99% of them have said something along the lines of “Please, let Nigeria lose me first before they address it o.” Some didn’t even take the joke and took me to task for trying to draw the attention of the government to something that should remain a secret (at least for now). In the course of the replies, it became clear many people were currently ‘in the pool’ (if you know, you know) waiting to be selected. All this made me wonder to myself – are these the same Nigerians who regularly call for government to intervene in any and everything? Why then are the same people clearly saying that government intervention is a terrible thing when it comes to their personal affairs? Government intervention for thee, but not for me?

It turns out that this type of ‘complicated’ behaviour is not strange for people living in developing countries and under corrupt and ineffective governments. In 2010, four researchers from Harvard University, Paris Institute of Political Studies and École Polytechnique, CREST sought to find the correlation between government regulation and distrust in various countries ranging from low-trust (e.g Nigeria) to high-trust (e.g Denmark) societies. What they found was that ‘government regulation is strongly negatively correlated with measures of trust’. This is at first mind blowing when you think about it because it means that ‘individuals in low-trust countries want more government regulation even though they know the government is corrupt’.

This kind of research has implications for public policy-making in a country like Nigeria. Unfortunately, all the social scientists have been on strike in Nigeria for a while and even if they weren’t, politicians won’t listen to them anyway. More seriously, this means that a government might come up with a foolish and counter-productive policy and Nigerians will cheer the government on. The government will take this cheering as approval and go ahead with implementing the foolish policy and everyone ends up worse off. A recent example of such a foolish policy was the auto policy of a few years ago, conceived in ignorance and implemented in arrogance by Olusegun Aganga and friends.

But why will people behave in this way? The researchers found this behaviour to be very common in countries that were moving from an economy fully controlled by the government to a more market one. Unfortunately, this process (of moving from state control to market system) is often very disorderly and visibly increases corruption. Thus, when people see this, they tend to want to restore ‘order’ and reduce corruption. When the government is not able to restore order as demanded, distrust increases and corruption is more visible. A vicious cycle ensues – even though the government is often the cause of the corruption, the people demand more government regulation as they cannot conceive of any other way to stem corruption. It’s a bit depressing to contemplate.

When you consider that it was only since the return of democracy in 1999 that the government began privatising various parts of the economy and moving very slowly towards a market economy, Nigeria almost perfectly fits this model of an economy in transition. The government may no longer dominate the commanding heights of the economy as it did in the heady days of the 1970s, but it remains an incredible nuisance to get around. Thus, Nigeria is no longer a socialist economy per se but it is definitely not a market one yet. To make matters worse, in countries undergoing transition, selfishness tends to increase and the researchers even find that parents stop teaching their children civic values such as the need to be unselfish and respect others.

Given all of this, we can then understand the ‘complicated’ Nigerian behaviour I described above where people are happy for government regulation until it comes to their personal affairs. The real problem is thus politicians who take ‘public opinion’ at face value and then proceed to act on it. How many times have you heard something along the lines of ‘this policy will be popular with Nigerians’ or even ‘this policy won’t work because Nigerians won’t like it’. If nothing else, it shows us that politicians in western countries who spend a lot of money on detailed and regular public polling are not stupid.

A couple of years ago, one of the main justifications for the anti-gay law was that it was ‘popular’. But since it is apparently ‘popular’ for government to regulate sexual relationships between consenting adults, why not go the extra mile and allow government to regulate the scourge of fornication? As Nigerians will respond – Oho. What Nigerians publicly support might be the opposite of what they support once it affects them personally. We are dealing with multiple issues at the same time as a developing economy and leadership matters more than anything else. It is not enough for leaders to hide behind public opinion as an excuse not to push through badly needed reforms.

But cheer up. The research paper concludes on an upbeat note. Because economies like Nigeria are in transition, education can be a very powerful tool to change and mould public opinion unlike in advanced economies. That is, today’s low-trust levels can be changed over time.

In the meantime, for all those heading off to Canada, I wish you safe travels.



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