Between Waste and Nigerian Work Ethics

Early last week, I got an interesting story in my mail box from someone who evidently was not the writer. And here is the experience shared by the person who originated the post which I consider very important for Nigerians, especially on a day such as this:
“Germany is a highly industrialized country. In such a country, many will think its people lead a luxurious life. When we arrived at Hamburg, my colleagues and I walked into a restaurant where we noticed that a lot of tables were empty. There was a particular table where a young man and woman were having their meal. There were only two dishes and two cans of beer on the table. I wondered if such simple meal could be romantic, and whether the lady would not eventually leave this stingy guy. There were a few old ladies on another table as I continued to make my observation. When a dish is served, the waiter would distribute the food for them, and they would finish every bit of the food on their plates.
“As we were hungry, our local colleague ordered more food for us and by the time we were done eating, there was still about one third of un-consumed food on our table. But as we were about leaving the restaurant, the old ladies spoke to us in English, making it very clear that they were displeased about the fact that we were wasting so much food. ‘We paid for our food, it is none of your business how much food we left behind,’ my colleague who hosted us told the old ladies who appeared to be furious.
“At that point, one of them brought out her mobile phone and made a call to someone. Interested in what she was doing since we committed no crime, we tarried a while. Not long after, a man in uniform, apparently from a social security outfit given his uniform arrived. Upon knowing what the dispute was, he issued us a 50 Euro fine.
“When we asked for what our offence was, the officer told us in a very stern voice, ‘always order only what you can consume. The money you spend is yours but resources belong to the society. There are many people in the world who are facing shortage of resources so you have no reason to waste resources.

Anybody who is familiar with our country today cannot but come to the inescapable conclusion that we waste a lot of resources. When Nigerians organize social events, especially the ‘Owambe’ variant, they plan not only for the number of people to attend but also for those who would not come so that there would be left-over with which to boast, forgetting that while the money spent may be theirs, the resources being expended belong to the society. In many Nigerian homes today, taps are left open for water to flow endlessly. And if you as much as remonstrate with such people on the waste, chances are that, because the water flows from their personal boreholes, they would remind you that the money with which they paid for that comes from their pockets. What they ignore is the fact that the water being wasted belongs to the society.

I can go on and on to cite the way our society encourages the mismanagement and waste of scarce resources which do not belong to us even when we pay for them with our money. But it is pointless because we are all familiar with what I am talking about. The question, however, is: what is responsible for this attitude?

My answer is simple: It is because we live in a society where there is no correlation between wealth and work. Since the money most people spend is unearned income, they have no qualms about wasting resources yet any nation where the people develop such disposition is in danger.

It is indeed such disposition that has led to a situation in which many of our young people now believe they don’t have to work hard to make money. Afterall, many of us know the ‘Okada’ rider of yesterday who now owns a fleet of cars simply because he has worked his way to become a pimp to some politicians who conspired to foist him on the rest of the society either as council chairman or a lawmaker. We also know the struggling business man of yesterday who could not even pay his house rent but who is now a subsidy billionaire with Private Jet to boot, just because he is fronting for some unscrupulous powerful political office holders who abuse their trust. Let us not even talk about the low cadre civil servant who has made it big, after being posted to the Pension office where he feeds fat on the misery of pensioners.

The point here is that it is easy to sustain waste in an environment such as the one just described.
I thank Pastor Poju for inviting me to this maiden edition of Platform in Abuja and the timing could not be more auspicious. The two sessions I have attended in Lagos in 2012 and 2014 were wonderful experiences as the level and diversity of discussion were outstanding. Even though the Lagos sessions are usually timed for the Independence Anniversary, I am sure today’s interaction on May Day will also be valuable in creating a better understanding of critical national issues with powerful speakers like Mr Leke Alder, a respected professional I have read so much about but have never met in person until today; my sister, Mrs Ibukun Awosika; my brother, Tonye Cole; Dr. Caroline Arnold who has more or less become an honourary Nigerian and of course our vice-president elect, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo. I am indeed grateful to be invited to share my thoughts with this distinguished audience.
As we all know, today is the ‘International Workers' Day’, also known as ‘Labour Day’ in many countries and even as the various Nigerian workers unions do their marches here in Abuja and the capital cities of the 36 states across the country while singing their solidarity songs, I believe it is also an occasion for them to reflect on what work and labour mean in a country where making money from doing nothing is fast becoming a national ideology.
Indeed, it should worry the labour leaders that in our country today, we are promoting a culture of wealth without work. I therefore consider it also very important for the future of our country that we use a day like this to address the attitude of our people to work because if we don’t, we will continue to normalise a situation that can only limit our progress and prosperity.
In October 2012, I visited Ekiti State at a time Dr Kayode Fayemi was the Governor and on a day he was going on a working visit to the Ikogosi Spring that was then under reconstruction. He asked me to join him to see the project, aimed at making the Ikogosi – Efon Alaye corridor a world class conference and holiday destination in the country, with the existing facilities then being restored and upgraded to a self-sustaining and income-generating centre.
In the course of the inspection of work, we reached the reception area being constructed with thatched roof and Fayemi noticed that the language being spoken by the work men was not the local dialect. He asked where they came from and they replied that they were from Cotonou, Republic of Benin. Turning to the contractor, Fayemi asked why they would deny local people jobs from which they could earn income and then bring in foreigners from Cotonou. The contractor said the job required some special skills. “Then teach our people”, Fayemi dictated.
In the presence of many of the young boys from the village who had congregated, the contractor gave a damning indictment: the local boys, he said, were not willing to learn because they don’t want to work. When Fayemi called the boys, who had been hailing him, apparently looking for crumbs, it was obvious they were not interested in what he was telling them. They just wanted him to “drop” something. No nation develops when you have a preponderance of able-bodied young men who believe they do not have to work to eat.
On October 22, 1925, Mohandas Gandhi published in his weekly newspaper “Young India” what he described as “Seven Social Sins”. He would later give this same list to his grandson, Arun Gandhi, written on a piece of paper on their final day together shortly before his assassination. It is very instructive that the first on the list of those seven social sins which he admonishes us to avoid is Wealth without work. The others of course are Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Commerce without morality; Science without humanity; Worship without sacrifice and Politics without principle.
While we can examine each one of them to ascertain where we fail either as an individual or as a nation, the one that is relevant for my brief intervention here today is wealth without work which many writers have defined as the practice of getting something for nothing or enjoying all the perks of citizenship of a given country and membership of a business concern without assuming any risk or responsibility.
If we must tell ourselves the home truth, the attitude of the average Nigerian worker is often characterized by Laziness, indifference to responsibility and a feeling of entitlement. The kind of job most people desire is where they would do very little yet take home a lot of money at the end of the month and that explains the Yoruba lingo often used by some of these characters: “Ati sise lorun, awa gbowo laiye ni”. Crudely translated, it means these people are saying that they had already worked before being born, they just came to this world to collect their pension. Yet, as the common saying goes, the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.
Let us examine some categories of Nigerian workers.

Many of us who have patronised the services of Nigerian artisans in construction and facility maintenance industry can attest to their bad attitude to work. Majority of them are impervious to corrections and are ever unwilling to take responsibility for the consequences of their incompetence. Whether it is a Mechanic, carpenter, bricklayer, painter, electrician or plumber, when they work for you, they do so as if they are doing you a favour despite the fact that you are paying for their services. Many of them are rude, have scant regards for time and they are dishonest.

To compound the situation, since many of our young people do not want to work with their hands essentially because that does not bring heavy returns, many developers and contractors would prefer to employ labourers of non-Nigerian nationality who are reputed to work better with all the attendant consequences on our economy.

Government Officials:
There is a saying in Yoruba, “A kii sise ijoba laagun” which means that a government Job is one where you expect to get paid by doing the least amount of work possible since it requires no sweat from anybody. That then explains why the Nigeria government system is characterized by lateness, absenteeism, lack of dedication, insubordination, indiscipline, dereliction of duty and blatant corruption. All these ultimately are what affect efficiency in service delivery and in turn brings about low productivity. And we can all see the evidence in our country today.

It is no accident that people in developed countries take pride in the value of hard work and they celebrate such values in successful and ordinary people alike. The Germans for instance value order, privacy and punctuality. They are thrifty, hardworking and industrious. On the other hand, Nigerian workers prefer the term “smart work” which alludes to the mentality that individuals who can outfox others deserve their takings. Yet our poor attitude to work is what makes us a consumer nation while other countries without our kind of natural endowment have been able produce more through hard work.

The sad bit is that this is not an overnight habit, it has been ingrained over the years. In his view of the West African worker which we can interpret to mean the Nigerian worker given our huge population within the sub-continent, Sir Richard Burton, a British explorer and Diplomat as Consul to the Bights of Benin and Biafra in 1860’s said and I quote: “his beau ideal of life is to do nothing for six days and rest on the seventh”.

Indeed, the general belief is that Nigerian workers are more averse to the value of hard work than their West African counterparts. There are accounts of how Europeans experienced difficulties in recruiting indigenous labour in Nigeria. For instance, the reluctance of indigenous hands to accept wage employment compelled the Public Works and marine department to recruit labour from as far afield as Sierra Leone and Liberia. If we must develop our country, we definitely cannot continue with this attitude.
Now let us examine some characteristics of Nigerian workers.

Our negative attitude to work starts with our attitude to time as Nigerians. We are all aware of the saying “Nigerian time” which means that scheduled events never take place on time. In 2011, a CareerBuilder survey reported that 15 percent of American workers were late once per week. If you conduct such a survey in Nigeria, your guess is as good as mine as to what you will discover. Yet punctuality is a significant barometer of an individual or group attitude to work. Punctuality shows dedication, reliability and discipline towards duty. It shows respect for co-workers and the people that are meant to be served. But in Nigeria, who cares?

Most Nigerian workers have a sense of entitlement when it comes to remuneration. That is why you often hear references to “getting our share of the national cake” that nobody ever talks about baking. In essence, it means you are entitled to some piece of the nation’s resources even without commensurate productive input but the issue goes beyond the official to even private matters. You hear of squabbles by relatives of a deceased family member who come from far away villages to lay claim to properties that is not theirs just because of some blood ties.

Work place conduct
Another example of our glaringly negative attitude towards work in this country is the conduct of workers at the work place. It’s a normal occurrence in both government and private institutions for workers to turn their office into a market place by peddling all sorts of wares. Go to the Federal Secretariat in Abuja on any given day during the office hour and you will understand what I am talking about. If somebody is not selling or buying something, you are most likely going to encounter some workers consuming unsavoury meals in open office spaces while watching Nollywood video. What happens in Abuja is replicated in the 36 states of the federation and the 774 local government headquarters.

Dedication to duty:
Dedication to duty comes with a sense of purpose on the job. However, most Nigerian workers are emotionally detached from the vision and purpose of their places of work and they are unwilling to make sacrifices for the growth or benefit of such organizations, whether it is public or private sector.
Given that disposition to duty, the attitude to work by most Nigerians has become a serious impediment to the progress of our nation. Therefore, we as workers in our various fields and organizations have to examine ourselves individually and be brutally honest in that assessment.
I believe the best place to start is with the mirror in our house as each of us must ask himself or herself salient questions: Am I averse to hard work? Am I always trying to cut corners in everything I do? Do I really understand the benefits of hard work or am I just paying lip service to its ideals? And I am also talking to myself here.
For instance, the media, the constituency to which I belong, also needs to play up the right ideals when reporting on celebrated individuals. We must be sure that the successful people we put up as role models are those who highlight the significance of hard work in their careers. But the greater job is with the government that needs a holistic national approach of re-orientation not just as it affects workers in governmental institutions but also those in the private sector too.
In a piece titled “Nigerian workers and work ethics” published in 2013, Fredrick Nwabufor provided several anecdotal references which paint definitive pictures of the lack of professionalism and diminishing work ethic capital of some Nigerian workers before he concluded by saying: “Again, it is clear that just as professionalism and work ethics are lacking in some Nigerian workers in the private sector, the same thing can be said of some Nigerian workers in the public sector. Both sectors must as a matter of exigency train and retrain their staff in the imperatives of professionalism, work ethics and courtesy. And there should be severe reprehension for flouting the canons of these essential elements of service.”

I agree completely with him.

However, a balanced perspective of the poor attitude of Nigerian workers to work should also take into consideration factors that enable such attitudes and behaviours. Welfare is a key issue here. Most Nigerian workers are underpaid compared to their counterparts on across Africa and around the world. According to a 2012 Jobberman job survey the average remuneration level of Nigerian workers starts from 50,000 -100,000.

With the high cost of living in our country, it is significant to consider that many Nigerian workers cannot survive on the income they derive from their permanent employment. This situation divides the loyalties of employees who must do other things by the side to survive and this often impacts on dedication, attitude to work and ultimately, productivity. The problem is compounded by the fact that a large number of organisations do not adequately attend to the welfare needs of their workers. They focus on just paying salaries and neglect other forms of welfare and compensation such as health insurance, pension contributions, overtime payment, profit sharing etc. Many Nigerian employers are also guilty of failing in ensuring a conducive working environment for their workers.

The resultant effect of that is the contribution it makes to the challenge of ethics in the Nigerian workplace. And that is the point with which I will conclude my intervention this morning.

Since their take-home pay cannot take them home, to borrow from a famous expression, many Nigerian workers are searching for, waiting for and hoping for opportunities to intercept official transactions that they could turn to personal benefit. In majority of our offices, whether in government or in the private sector, there are many cases where workers openly demand gratifications before they perform functions for which they are employed and being paid. These practices are so widespread that they have become the normal way of doing business in several organizations in our country today. But they are not right and have helped to sully the image of our country.

Pastor Poju, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the foregoing now brings me to a story once told me by Dr. Chris Asoluka and it is one with which I want to conclude my presentation this morning. A pastor was driving on an inter-state road when he met a team of policemen who, quite naturally, wanted 'something' from him. Since he was not prepared to play their games, they asked for his papers and having combed through everything without any offence with which to nail the 'stubborn' pastor, they now asked him to open the bonnet of his car.

A careful scrutiny of the engine number against what was on paper revealed that letter U was written in such a way that it could be mistaken for letter V. That was all the officer-in-charge needed to shout "stolen vehicle"!

Sensing trouble, even when he knew he committed no offense, the pastor called the OC to say he was a priest to which the officer replied: "Please, leave that pastor thing; in any case, if you are indeed a pastor, then you must have a Bible in your car, bring it."

The Pastor did as was commanded after which the officer now ordered: "Please read for me very loud and clear Matthew chapter 5, verses 25 and 26 so that you can understand me properly since you claim to be a pastor who must obey Biblical injunctions".

The incredulous Pastor opened to the recommended passage and read: "Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to a judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny."

Well, after reading the Biblical passage, according to Asoluka, the pastor knew he was in trouble so he decided to apply 'wisdom' by paying his way out of what might end up in tragic consequences.

Now, it is easy for us to disparage the hapless priest but in his position, we would probably have done the same thing. The challenge, however, is that within the context of the prevailing environment in Nigeria today, where wrongdoing is fast becoming the acceptable norm, there is but a thin line between 'wisdom' and compromise and our society is the way it is basically because many of us are ever quick to apply 'wisdom' when dealing with a worker demanding gratification in the course of his or her official duty even when some resistance in the face of evil could have made a little difference.

Let me now conclude with a short text message I got early this morning from a permanent secretary in one of the federal ministries: “Credit Alert”, the title says and I was excited as I scrolled to see how much the man was sending to me only to read: “Your account number 01-05-2015 has been credited with divine favour and unprecedented prosperity. Depositor: Almighty God. Available balance: Long life, good health and all the good things in life that you wish yourself in May 2015.”

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, as I wish you all those beautiful things that the permanent secretary wished me early this morning for this month of May, I want to add that the good things of life come with hard work because as the Bible says in the book of Proverbs chapter 13 verse 14, a passage that may make no meaning to our police-pastor, “The sluggard craves and gets nothing but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.”

I wish all Nigerian workers the best of today.


Text of a presentation at the ‘Platform Abuja’, organised by Covenant Christian Centre on 1st May, 2015 with the theme, ‘Business and Governance’.

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