Observations on a Brief Visit to Nigeria

            I have just returned from a brief trip to Nigeria as part of an effort to build a long-term partnership with that nation’s Administrative Staff College of Nigeria (ASCON). ASCON’s remit is enormous. The relatively small unit (87 faculty), located on the coast some two hours (and 42 miles) south of Lagos, is expected to offer training and development opportunities for managers and executives in Nigeria’s very large civil service as well as for its senior military officials. It is also seen as a bellwether and senior partner by the public service development organizations of several other West African states.

            Apart from getting to know colleagues at the College better and offering an opportunity to meet the director of the nation’s civil service, the trip afforded time to reflect on the conditions, values and mores in an important African nation.

            It is no secret that Nigeria has long suffered from deep and abiding corruption among its elected (especially) public officials. While current President Goodluck Jonathan has sought to begin to address this issue at the national level, he has much less influence on the practices of officials in Nigeria’s 36 states, where such practices are even more ubiquitous. Moreover, those states reflect multiple and diverse geographies, languages, tribes, ethnic groups and religious identities. These conditions make it extremely difficult to create and maintain anything like a governing majority for any significant period. Broadly speaking, states in the north are much poorer and more Islamic than their southern counterparts. But wherever they may reside and whatever their demographic characteristics, Nigerian citizens are not receiving the full benefit of services for which their governments are nominally responsible. This is so simply because a good share of such resources as are provided are not permitted to address the issues for which they were intended.

            Put another way, Nigeria is a relatively wealthy nation, but the lion’s share of its citizens live in miserable conditions. More than 50 years after independence, the nation’s estimated 120 million residents (no one knows for sure how many people reside in Nigeria as all recent attempts to conduct a full census have come to naught amidst accusations and recriminations on all sides) live in a country that has only a poor system of roadways, does not provide power to the bulk of its residents, despite its energy riches, and oversees unevenly its public services. Moreover, such services as are provided are distributed very unequally as well, due not only to corruption, but also to deep differences in capacities among the states and localities, and indeed, among national agencies as well.

            These are starkly evident in the nation’s principal urban centers. Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, constructed in a remote unpopulated area beginning in the 1980s, could be a metro area anywhere. It features high-rise buildings, interstate quality highways, either in place or under construction, and hotels with services and accommodations that might be found in any Western nation. Housing conditions are also far better in Abuja on average than in most other areas of the nation, including Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, with its roughly 20 million inhabitants. Indeed, most residences and businesses I saw in Lagos—an admittedly partial sample—consisted of shacks with rusty and broken tin roofs, no running water and generator-based electricity. Those conditions did nothing to stop the energy and entrepreneurial efforts of their proprietors and residents, but these individuals live in penury. Moreover, most live in communities without paved streets and without evident public planning of any kind.

            Typically tiny “stores” offered all manner of goods for sale in what appeared to be a largely informal economy. Indeed, the variety of items on offer exhibited no apparent rhyme or reason, ranging from many shoe racks to individual units of an assortment of specific items (e.g., windshield wipers, dresses and fruits and vegetables, especially the nation’s huge yams, which are beaten and boiled). What is more, all goods for sale were subject to a negotiated price. Each transaction was therefore unique to each buyer.

            As one moves to more rural areas, people, goats, chickens and merchandise share residential and retail space alike, with livestock frequently occupying such pride of place as may exist. Many of the animals look emaciated and live in conditions of privation that surely rival those confronting their owners. Many of these conditions, of course, could be found in virtually any developing nation around the globe.

            I found the populace I met uniformly well mannered, deferential and courtly. Whether professionals, security personnel or housekeeping staff, I have never had so many people come to attention in my presence, or bow and curtsy as a gesture of respect and kindness, as I experienced in Nigeria. Whatever their status, those I met were keen to listen and as keen to share. The professionals were well aware of what they knew and did not know, and many enjoyed access to the very latest in technological gadgets, including the iPad and smart phones. Nigerians are surely as attached to the latter as many Americans are.

            As a group, the Nigerians I met exhibited keen interest in their nation’s politics, but my sample was surely skewed in the direction of the nation’s best educated. Still, all had a view of what should occur and how and when in public policy, and most were quite articulate in expressing their perspectives. This phenomenon left me curious to know how this set of attitudes could occur along side the nation’s continuing problems with corruption, accountability and service effectiveness. I look forward to learning more so as to allow me to address more robustly what I now perceive to be something of a Gordian knot. I am hopeful about this opportunity to work with our colleagues in Nigeria, and look to that possibility with determination and no small measure of humility. The challenge is virtually immeasurable and demands nothing less.