Public Services in Nigeria: A Personal Narrative

Since arriving in Nigeria on a research trip more than a month ago, I have been experiencing the typical anxieties and ambivalences of return - excited at being home but tortured daily by pervasive institutional decay and failure and by the weight of familial and other expectations - expectations which, needless to say, are fueled by worsening poverty. The exilic condition of the Diaspora Nigerian makes the ritual of return both a happy and sad event. These mixed emotions are reinforced daily by encounters that shatter or at least nibble at the romantic fantasies through which those of us in the Diaspora reaffirm our connections to the motherland.

This visit has been much more of a disillusioning experience than my previous ones were, mainly because things seem to have gotten much worse since my visits in 2001/2002, 2003, and 2006.

When I visited in 2001, there were still a few functioning public institutions of consequence to everyday life. I speak here of the organs of public convenience and safety that one has to relate to in order to survive anywhere. These include the utilities, banking services, vehicle and drivers license issuance, etc.

During my visit in 2001, I was able to obtain my driving license on the day that I applied for it in Kaduna. I spent only a few hours to get my vehicle registered at the VIO office in Kaduna. I left there with my vehicle's plate numbers.

On that visit, there was so much competition in the banking sector that several banks promised and delivered prompt service to customers, and somehow managed to overcome Nigeria's infrastructural collapse and lag in information technology to ensure the smooth and consistent operation of their networked branches. Every time I went to the bank for a transaction, I came away satisfied by the service, which often assuaged the anxiety the tellers caused me by telling me the balance in my account.

Things have been dramatically different on my current visit. I have observed that basic services have deteriorated even as government has set up a bureaucracy called SERVICOM to monitor, police, and promote prompt and efficient delivery of services. I have tried to make sense of this paradox of the Nigerian condition in the context of similar ones; the proliferation of state corruption at precisely the time that there is an unprecedented institutional (EFCC and ICPC) and ethical (National Orientation Agency) campaign against that evil; and the deteriorating conditions of federal highways even when there is now a Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA), which announces its presence only through impressive but operationally empty buildings on federal highways. Obviously, institutional pronouncements and interventions are quite distant from institutional efficiency.

I have digressed. Let me return to my experiential narration of the institutional failures that I speak of. I applied for a driving license about a month ago. I have paid all the fees and my image has been captured on the Direct Capture device of the FRSC. In short all my information is in their computerized database. I have been waiting to collect my license but it's been one story after another. First the printer was bad. Then they fixed the printer but had a shortage of plastic cards, whereupon the Sector Commander of the Federal Road Safety Commission in the state ordered that the available plastic cards be reserved for "emergency cases." I assume that determining what is an emergency is at his discretion. Finally - and this is the subsisting story - everything was fine except for a little thing called "hologram," which I am told protects the surface of the license. This has been the story for about two weeks now. Could the license be printed without this mysterious but obviously important substance? Yes. Would they do it for me, so I can have a driving license to show to the cops who are harassing and extorting me all over town and who, like me, cannot tell a license with a ÔÇśhologram' coating from one without? No, because there are now several intervening problems, like the fact that printing just one license or several without the hologram would require a bit of ingenuity on the part of the technicians in the license department, and the fact that someone has been sent to Lagos to get the elusive hologram and "it would be better to wait for him to arrive so normal printing can begin." When will this hologram-bearing officer return from Lagos, and couldn't they have bought the damn substance locally? Fuzzy answers.

As things stand, I may not get my license before I leave the country. I have since embraced this possibility. In the last few days the folks at the local FRSC office have told me that if I hadn't gone for the renewal option and had simply applied for a new one, my license would have been ready by now. But the guy who took my data and my image said renewal would be faster than doing a new license.  I had wanted to simply apply for a new one, since I didn't have a copy of the expired one, although they were able to locate it in their system. I didn't tell them about their man's earlier prescription of the renewal option--you don't argue with these self-contradicting technicians and bureaucrats.

In the meantime, the cops have been feasting on me whenever I am pulled over. They pray for "unlicensed" folks like me to come along. So frequent did the harassment become that I asked for a letter of some kind from FRSC to show that my license was in the pipeline and that I had fulfilled all obligations expected of me in that regard. The FRSC, I was told, doesn't give such letters. By the way, in case some are already thinking that I may have gone through touts, I did not. I actually went through a senior officer of the Commission, the mother of one of my best friends and university classmate. Everything about the process I underwent was legit. In fact my friend's mom took me to the officer in charge of the process at the local office. I paid the legal fee (as opposed to the illegal fees that touts charge), and received expedited attention.  I filled a form as required and provided a passport photograph to attach to the form for their records. I was then taken to the image capture room, where my facial image was electronically obtained and affixed to my unprinted card. As I said, all my information, including my digital image, is in the system. 

When the police harassment got unbearable, I visited a university classmate of mine we used to call "Emir," a police officer that I had accidentally met in a barbershop. Thankfully I had his business card. I explained my problem to him and he gave me a note saying that I had applied for a license and that I should be accorded assistance. I have used the note once already. It worked. "You're our oga's friend, you can go," screamed one of the cops who stopped me the other night, after I showed them the note, which I now carry in my pocket.

Before I got the note, my travel plans were put on hold; I didn't want to put myself at the mercy of our rapacious, underpaid cops manning checkpoints on federal highways. When I traveled to Dutse and Kano, I rode with a friend and came back to my base in a commercial vehicle. But there was one trip that couldn't wait, and it was too far to take a commercial vehicle, what with the practice of stuffing at least four passengers into a row of seats, making any kind of movement virtually impossible. I had to go and see my mother, a drive of at least seven hours from my base. My friend whose mother was helping me navigate the driving license process offered to help. He is an officer in one of the paramilitary services (not FRSC). He secured a four-day leave from work and accompanied me to see my mother. He did the driving, and, for good measure, hung his uniform on the back window of the car. The uniform drew move-on waves and an occasional "morn sir!" from cops manning the numerous checkpoints along our way. It was a road trip that we thoroughly enjoyed. My friend met my mother for the first time, and got a taste of the old woman's cooking.

Much as I was glad that my friend came with me and enjoyed the trip (we had been planning for him to meet my mother for a long time), it has to be said that the delay in getting my license has left a trail of lost vacation time (my friend could have used his vacation time for some pre-planned activity), frustrations of trips that I have not been able to take; and, of course, the not-so-minor inconvenience of having to part with a few wads of naira notes every time I am pulled over and asked to produce my driving license.

This is the cumulative effect of the seemingly innocuous delay in the issuance of driving licenses. Multiply my experience by the number of license applicants across the country who encounter the same or similar bureaucratic failures and you will grasp the social and economic costs of these institutional failures that impinge on the quotidian operations of everyday living. For no fault of theirs, Nigerians like me are daily exposed to the fangs of our corrupt and mean-spirited policemen.

The problem of the driving license issuing bureaucracy, and of vehicle registration, is, in my opinion, partly one of over-centralization. The staff at the local offices of the FRSC and the VIO are handicapped by the fact that funds, resources, decisions, and initiatives reside solely at the headquarters in Lagos or Abuja. Local office workers have to go to Lagos/Abuja to get a printer fixed or to purchase a replacement or to obtain a hologram to coat the licenses they print. For about a month there were simply no license plates to issue to motorists in Kaduna, my base. Everyone kept saying that someone was about to be sent to Lagos to get the numbers. Why must everything be so centralized? Why do people in Kaduna have to wait a month to get plates for their cars because there is one centralized bureaucracy in Lagos that issues licenses? Why can't that function be decentralized and parceled out to state branches of the FRSC and VIO? A national poll recently ranked the FRSC as one of the least corrupt organizations in Nigeria. This poll reaffirms what is already widely known. But inefficiency and bureaucratic logjams are just as costly and as economically crippling as corruption.

My current experiences with these institutions of public safety are depressing not only because they have partly marred a visit that should be a happy homecoming but also because they index a progressive deterioration in basic public services. While we are all justified in lamenting the pervasive infrastructural decay (poor roads, collapsing electricity infrastructure, bad water supply, failing educational and healthcare sectors), it seems to me that the problems caused by these infrastructural meltdowns are magnified by the minor day-to-day frustrations of collapsing institutions and falling standards in the provision of public services. I have argued elsewhere that with the right amount of money, one could overcome the most obvious infrastructural problems. You could generate your own electricity, drill a borehole, purify your own water, send your children to expensive private schools, and seek the care of good private clinics and hospitals. One thing you cannot overcome, no matter how wealthy you are, is the collapse of institutions and public services that make you function from day to day. Everyone has to, at some point, deal with the cops and their checkpoints. Everyone has to have a driving license. Everyone's car has to have a license plate indicating that it is officially registered, etc. Some people are able to escape Nigeria's legendary infrastructural collapse, but no one is immune from the minor but costly frustrations that bad public services and declining institutions of public convenience and safety can cause.  

The other day, I was at First Bank to conduct a fairly straightforward banking transaction: cash a check. The "network" was "down" but nobody told us. We stayed in the queue and watched the tellers fiddle anxiously with their computers, occasionally glancing upwards to give us a frantic stare. Finally, one bold, impatient fellow asked what was going on. "Our network is down." No apology was offered; this was routine. I have heard this expression more times during my current visit than I have my entire life. After waiting for about an hour with no respite in view, customers started leaving, each departure signaled by a loud hiss and a mean glance at the tellers. I hung on longer than many, but I eventually left. My fruitless wait not only messed up my schedule for the day, it caused me some temporary financial headaches. I returned to the bank in the afternoon and cashed the check.

In case some people think that this is a problem that afflicts only the "old generation"

Banks, I had a worse experience at Zenith Bank, the self-advertised biggest bank in Nigeria. I spent two hours in one of their branches waiting for their network to come back up so I could make a withdrawal. I almost missed an important appointment. I had to leave the banking hall (since you can't make phone calls there) to call and ask for an extension of our appointment. Thankfully, the other fellow was very familiar with the recurring "network down" problem in our consolidated banks and obliged my request.

In 2001/2002, 2003, and 2006, when I visited, the banks - at least the "new generation" ones were the epitome of good, courteous, and efficient service. Now that they are consolidated and no longer have to struggle to capture a customer base or aggressively compete with other banks for deposits, they seem to have become complacent in their service provision. By compelling banks to enter into non-voluntary mergers consolidation as a policy has conferred laziness and complacency on the consolidated banks. On that score, the policy is an unmitigated failure. Banking services are much worse than they were before consolidation.

I am not competent to do a holistic evaluation of consolidation, but the two microeconomic dividends advertised as the likely outcome of consolidation - efficiency and ability to lend more with increased capitalization - are yet to materialize. The banks have become more inefficient in their services, and lending has not improved, with many small businesses complaining of bigger hurdles in the lending process, post-consolidation. In any case, even if the banks now have more money and are willing to lend more of it, where are the viable businesses that can borrow and repay in this most anti-business of economic climates (with debilitating infrastructural and institutional obstacles)? So, on the two indices which are of consequence to the banking public, to the banks' customers - service and lending - consolidation has failed.

I will save my fuel scarcity story for another day. I will simply say that, although fuel is now officially N70 per liter, I have bought fuel at that price only once. On average, I pay N80 per liter, along with other non-complaining motorists. As for fuel queues, they are as ubiquitous here as the Okada guys who ride their bikes like immortal supermen.

Some will say: here is this returnee with his unrealistic expectations. That would be a little unfair even if perhaps true to a degree. When I come to Nigeria, I come with a drastically lowered expectation, knowing that that is the only way I won't go crazy from the stress and grind of living and functioning in the Nigerian system. A friend of mine recently returned to New York from a trip to Nigeria and was diagnosed with stress-related ulcer. So, for mostly selfish (health) reasons, I undergo at least two weeks of deliberate psychological disengagement from the ease of American life before I embark on any trip to Nigeria. I lower my expectations not because I believe that Nigerians are genetically programmed not to match the modern conveniences that we take for granted in the United States, where I live, but because it is unfair to assess development and efficiency in Nigeria while wearing blinders imposed by Western standards.