It’s amazing that I made it through the maze that I was in Lord forgive me I never would’ve made it without sin – Free Mason (Jay Z)
As an ardent student of Nigerian business, I have always found the successful Nigerian businessman a rather fascinating character. I don’t think there is another business environment on earth that presents an intriguing mix of immense opportunity, insane risk, hard work, strong relationships and loose ethics all at the same time. I am of the belief that succeeding in Nigeria’s business environment is not just a herculean task, it is almost impossible to do with clean hands. No doubt, there are a few clean hands here and there but the majority have had to “bow to baal” at least once to get to where they are –and perhaps for good reason.
Personally, I have a love hate relationship with many of our nation’s foremost business leaders. On the one hand, I admire their courage in venturing into what is quite literally a jungle for business. As a foreigner friend told me the other day, the truth about Nigeria’s investment environment is that there is little reason for any sane person to be there. Given the instability of our political situation and the heavy handed control government still retains over the economy, many times, it feels like investing in Nigeria is pretty much just a step below gambling.
On the other hand, business successes attained by a consistently playing fair are very much a rarity in this part of this world. The sins of the successful Nigerian business owner are many. From those who live in pomp and pageantry while their rights starved laborers and their families suffer many a month of unpaid wages, to those who fuzzy up the eagle eyes of a watchdog with bribes or buy and sell stolen goods. Let’s not even get into undelivered, late and under-delivered contracts many or the nightmarish customer service many of Nigerian businesses bear notorious renown for.
To make things even worse, more than anywhere else in the world, Nigerian businesses have a penchant for ferocious competition. Normally, that would be a good thing but I find it slightly worrying that there isn’t much of an appetite for cooperation except of course the subject matter is keeping out foreign competition with frivolous government regulation.
Even more worrying is the fact that Nigerian business competition goes beyond stiff to even devious. In Nigerian business, no weapon is beyond limits, from orders from above to keep competitors’ goods at the ports forever (as their demurrage stacks up), to hired assassins assigned to competitors. Even black magic is fair game in the realm of principalities and powers success in Nigeria often catapults one into. With these many challenges, success in Nigeria can indeed seem like suicide.
Now, the big question is how can we make the next generation of successful Nigerian business more socially and ethically conscious. I think it essentially boils down to the kind of business culture we recognize and reward in Nigeria.
It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the curd rise to the top in our business climate given the level of undue respect and accolade we give success regardless of the rules it comes by. Nigeria might be the only place where “paying your dues” involves closing your eyes or assenting to obvious wrong doing.
If Nigerians want a business climate that is motivated by social responsibility and ethics, we need to incentivize it. We will not incentivize righteous success with hypocrite voices that turn from loud condemnation to violent praise when said “big man” is in the room. We will not do so by asking the government to “intervene” when we know fully well they drink from the same political cup and as such will not. We will not do it by simply relegating the darkness and skeletons in Nigeria’s corridors of success to the half-truths of soft sell magazines or hushed tones of dinner conversation.
We will do it by taking the necessary action to patronize, commend and recognize ethical and socially responsible business owners. So long as we continue to let the cowboys that rule Nigeria’s current business environment dictate its ethics and culture, we will not only be marking time as a country, we will be doing so in the jungle that is currently business in Nigeria.