Killing Nigeria softly
By Reuben Abati
PRAY, not to ever be at the mercy of the Nigerian artisan. Often we place the blame for the unravelling of Nigeria on the shoulders of the leadership elite. But the manner in which the followership, the so-called masses, the under-privileged, the other half that we are wont to pity so readily, with great outbursts of emotion, contributes to the unmaking of Nigeria is most evident in the unconscionable conduct of the Nigerian artisan. It is often said that Nigeria is largely an artisanal society: a land of blue-collar workers, daily wage earners, who toil with their hands to provide service.
Long before the rise of the knowledge society and its white collar denizens, artisans were of great value. The growing emphasis on the emergence of a knowledge society has however not robbed the artisan of his or her place in the scheme of things. But the Nigerian artisan, with his/her habits, choices and omissions, is killing Nigeria softly. He is to be held responsible in part, for the loss of faith in the Nigerian character, the cynicism that the phrase Nigerian instantly evokes.
The ubiquitousness of the artisan in our lives is a feature of his indispensability and perhaps our dependence on his supposed skills. You want to repair a damaged piece in your car. You'd need a mechanic. A pipe is leaking in the bathroom and the house may be flooded. You need a plumber. The paint on the walls is fading and peeling. Painter? The generator is making some strange noise. It'd have to be taken to the workshop. Or some bulbs in the house are giving problems, while the deep freezer is croaking as if it is about to pack up. You know what to do: call an electrician. Or you are building a house - then of course, you find yourself requiring the services of bricklayers, welders, stone-pitchers, carpenters and so on.
Every waking day, something in the course of the business of living brings us in contact with these or other artisans. We are at their mercy because in Nigeria, the big-man syndrome stands in the way of a do-it-yourself option. But even then, the division of labour and the culture of specialisation have created a situation in which certain skilled persons are best suited for particular assignments. Unfortunately in this country, not too many people have good stories to tell about their encounters with artisans.
I dare say that this special class of Nigerians is responsible for many of the problems in our society: road accidents, collapsed buildings...Take the poor condition of the vehicles on our roads. Nigerian mechanics are notorious. Many of my friends have now acquired the habit of staying for hours at the mechanic's garage to supervise even minor repair works on their cars. You have to be there physically to be sure that the engine oil that you want changed is actually changed, and that the damaged plugs are replaced with the new ones you have paid for. If you make the mistake of going away for a few minutes, your extra tyre could be replaced with a bad one, the fuel in your tank could be siphoned off, leaving you with a near-empty tank.
Okay, you are the liberal type who does not want to be seen treating the mechanic as if he is a thief (there's not much difference), and you ask him to take the car away and return it to you later. You stand the risk of your car coming back to you in worse condition. Nigerian mechanics are helped in their trade of deceit by the decadent nature of the Nigerian environment.
Every vehicle spare part in the Nigerian market can be subdivided into three categories; the fake part which you would use for only a week, and the car would begin to fall apart: fake tyres, fake engine oil, fake windshield...; the genuine parts which are usually very expensive; and the fairly used or refurbished vehicle parts. Almost always, your mechanic would advise you to buy the fairly used part. This is something I cannot understand. How could a second-hand spare part be better than the original?
But there is no point arguing with the mechanic. He will collect money for the purchase of an original but he'd buy either a fake or fairly used one. I once adopted the strategy of following my mechanic to the spare parts market. It was no use. The mechanic and the spare parts dealers have worked out a secret code of communication made up of sign language and other non-verbal cues. Your presence would actually drive up cost. The mechanic I am told, would return later and collect his share of the rip-off. The fact that the particular mechanic has been your friend for 10 years, speaks your language, attends the same church, lives in the same neighbourhood or that he is a beneficiary of your many acts of generosity, means nothing.
And as it is with the mechanic, so it is with the auto electrician (the one they call 'oga rewire'), or the vulcaniser (better known as vulka) or the panel beater (we call him panel). They are all the same. It is not just their greed that is the problem, their lack of education as well. In the past, there were Government Technical Colleges and Trade Centres where artisans were groomed in various disciplines, but today, the national education policy has gone awry, there is no training programme for technicians. When government talks about basic education, it is no more than an opportunity to award contracts! The result is that there are now so many speculators, part-time armed robbers and trial and error experts pretending to be artisans. If you have ever been a victim of these trial and error experts you are in a better position to tell your own story.
I have spent perhaps too much time on the mechanic. So, how about the electrician? I once called in an electrician to change a fluorescent bulb. The thing packed up within a week. Another electrician was called in, and he it was who announced that I had been swindled. He replaced the fluorescent bulb with something that lasted longer, but I discovered that he added N2,000 to the original cost. And to think that I gave the idiot a generous tip in addition to what he charged for his services! Or do you want to try the plumber? Risk a flood in the house if you are not vigilant enough! A friend once followed a plumber to Orile to buy a new set of bathroom fittings. He nearly ran mad when he discovered that he had brought home used fittings instead of new ones. He called in the police, but it was even the police advising him to "go and settle" with the plumber.
Bricklayers or masons are worse. The art of masonry is perhaps one of the noblest professions known to man. The Pyramids, the Temple of King Solomon, the Great Walls of China, to cite only three examples, advertise the place of masonry in the progress of human civilisation. But in Nigeria, it is a much-abused profession. Where are the masons of old who wielded the plumb, the square, the level and compasses with a free heart, and with faith in the Brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of a Supreme Being? Those who aspire to own houses these days in Nigeria must first take a crash course in the art of endurance. The other weekend, I ran into a friend, somewhere around Lagos. He was standing in front of a bungalow, almost completed, but according to him, ready for occupation. He and his children were busy cleaning up the place ahead of their planned movement this weekend.
"Is this place yours?", I had asked
"Yes, Oga mi. It is a small place for the boys."
"Congratulations. Looks good to me. How many rooms?"
"Four, Oga mi"
"Very nice. Very good. Well done."
"But, ah, Oga..."
He didn't complete the statement. Instead he started gesticulating with his right hand. He had turned his hand into a knife-like piece and was gesturing towards his throat, slashing his throat with the hand: "Oga mi, they nearly killed me. It's not easy, what my eyes saw. I saw pepper."
He then told a bitter story about the artisans who had worked so far on the building and how they had cheated him all the way. "One day", he added, "I came here and I met the bricklayers who were plastering the house and they said they needed more bags of cement. By then I had bought about 300 bags of cement. They said they needed more. I was uncomfortable. 300 bags to plaster a four-bedroom bungalow? But they insisted I should buy 50 more bags. There was nothing I could do. I was at their mercy. I agreed. But as I was leaving, I hit my foot against something as I passed by the pile of sharp sand in front of the house. Do you know when I insisted on the sharp sand being checked, we found 15 bags of cement hidden underneath it?"
I expressed both surprise and sympathy. But he was not done yet. "But Oga mi, I thank God. Look at my neighbour, the owner of that house over there. The boy is fed up. He can't complete the house. They took N1.5 million from him to do the wood frame for his roof. N1.5 million! Then he paid N2 million for the roof covering itself - aluminium long span. But what is he building? Five rooms. He went and got an Engineer to supervise the house for him. Two weeks ago, his Engineer bought a Toyota Jeep while he, the aspiring landlord, is almost having hypertension."
These stories are in different shapes and contexts. But the way most Nigerians deal with the problem is to accept their fate and try through direct supervision to reduce the extent to which they are swindled. Too many Nigerians these days go to the market to buy whatever they need for the artisan whose services they require. Those who cannot do so prefer to travel across the border to engage the services of Togolese, Beninoise and Ghanaian artisans and it is with regret that they tell you that those ones are better. "They are at least honest, more competent, and reliable", someone said.
It is not enough to say that the Nigerian artisan is dishonest because he is poor and angry. What has happened is that our country has simply lost its moral compass. It is a tragedy that our artisans cannot repair vehicles successfully, build houses that won't collapse, sew clothes without stealing a few yards, and cannot render service without cheating.
Re: Killing Nigeria softly
Blondie posted on 08-03-2007, 05:45:09 AM
Lying and cheating are not counted as sins in Nigeria. Sometimes I wonder if God will use a universal standard to judge Nigerians. Almost everybody lies through his teeth! The mechanics are the worst of the bunch. The misery that they inflicted on me when I was in Nigeria is best left unsaid. They should bring back civics or moral instructions to the schools. We have totally lost our moral fabrics. The churches do not help matters especially these new generation churches that preach riches and prosperity instead of salvation. The ethical code in Nigeria is the end justifies the means. Too bad!
Re: Killing Nigeria softly
Tanibaba posted on 08-03-2007, 07:32:10 AM
This is an excellent piece.
It is a very fair representation of the totality of what we call Nigeria and Nigerians. Indeed the magnified version (symptoms) is what you have been writing about from time immemorial.
From this write up it is very easy to see why progress and development are running away from our land. How can people who are essentially liars and cheats be productive or make progress. How can they ever achieve those lofty milestones in saner societies. Most of my people dont have conscience. After stealing from all and sundry and turning several thousands to the labour market because their greed has resulted in the bankruptcy of the organisation that they lead or work, you find them in the front rows of churches or mosques showing no remorse but acting as if telling God "we have destroyed the lives of your creatures and amassed all the wealth what can you do for us"
I thank God that our dear Dr Abati is now going to the root of our problems. From here we will diagnose and seek solutions.
19 guy posted on 08-03-2007, 08:32:57 AM
Very good article. This is one of the main reasons why I am a fan of Mr Abati. I like the fact he's often willing to challenge the "long suffering" Nigerian common man morally. The excuse of poverty that we use in justifying every one of our dishonest and sometimes callous acts is just that- an excuse.
In truth, we lost all direction long ago when we yielded willingly to (practicing) corruption. Of course we are always quick to blame our "leaders", that makes us sleep better at night.
Now we are reduced to importing honesty from neighbouring African countries. Such a shame but I'd say this again, as long as the average Nigerian is dishonest- and he unquestionably is- dishonest leaders would continue to thrive and lord it over the rest of us.
You see this dishonesty and love of wealth (a deadly combo) in most Nigerians abroad including our much trumpeted professionals. For us to change it's important that we look at ourselves individually, change must come from within first. It's strange what you just might see through introspection.
It's funny how everyone is happy to condemn others (government officials) for acts they themselves would carry out given half the chance.
Oga Abati, well done.
Re: Killing Nigeria softly
Auspicious posted on 08-03-2007, 08:36:39 AM
Good. Tonsoyo would love this, as does Tanibaba. But it's all good. In the discourse of corruption in Nigeria, the Focus has finally shifted from the Government and Leaders to the Everyday People - the Driver, the Auto Mecho, the Quack Doctor, the Babalawo, the Fake Pastor, the Bricklayer, the Roadside Hawker, the Syudent-by-Day-Robber-by-Night, the Butcher, the Taxi-Driver, ah, the Tailor, the Spare-Parts Dealer - etc..
And the sad thing is, as I drew-up the above list, I could think of each person's tricks and methods of exploiting the innocent customer in his trade. No, I won't bother describing those tricks. That is a depressing excercise. But mind you, when people stop trusting themselves and would rather deal with strangers from foreign lands to provide them goods and services, then things have become dire indeed. Indeed, some of us are 'Killing Nigeria Softly'...
But how can we change this Trend? I say we need an exemplary leader to lead a strong campaign against exploitation in any and every form. The campaign should be at all levels and in every sector of the government and society. It must be like the campaign to eradicate Polio from Nigeria and the World at large. In this instance, the campaign shall be limited to Naija. You cheat me in fixing my car, your getting locked-up! You sell me a fake product, you're getting arrested - or something like that which will make you pay for your dishonesty.
The campaign should be a massive one. It should be in the radio, on TV, at school, at workplaces, in the Churches and the Mosques. Cheat and you will be made to pay the heavy price for cheating. The combined effort of an aggressive campaign against dishonesty and the use of swift and just punishment as deterrence will most likely achieve the objective of cleansing our society in the long run. The problem is, where is that Leader who will lead this sort of campaign? Maybe Yar'Adua can?
O ga o!
Re: Killing Nigeria softly
Oluye posted on 08-03-2007, 11:41:57 AM
When I saw this article in the Gaurdian, I was silently praying that Mr Abati will post it on NVS.
No, it is not the artisans that are killing Nigeria softly, it is the educated class. The artisans are actually making use of the opportunity. Why would a guy who schooled side by side with an architect hire bricklayers to build him a house?
Of course, there will always be the issue of trust, but of all the professionals in the building industry, the Architect(chief technician) is the only only trained to co-ordinate the activities of the others, as an agent of the client. Engineers deal with structural integrity, the architect calls them in. The simple reason why our environment is in disarray is because we don't allow the right professional to do the right job. Nigerians get draftsmen to prepare their drawings(which often end up having no bearing to the site) and find an hungry architect to rubber stamp it. An architect that knows his onions will save you more money than you will pay him, his task goes beyond design, it involves supervision and his training teaches him how and when to pay the professionals under him. The professional, artisan or technician is never going to spend his money on your project, you get what you pay for.
As for the mechanics, thats good business opportunity for educated mechanics who are ready to make an honest living.
Re: Killing Nigeria softly
Bakoso2000 posted on 08-03-2007, 12:24:07 PM
If you think the mechanics, auto electricians, bricklayers and all the sorts are bad, try the land speculators or the (Omo Oniles) in Lagos. I remeber walking round Lagos and seeing landlords scrible on the walls "This property is not for sale" to thwart attempts to sell a piece of real estate without the owner's knowledge. Even, the State own property corporations have been inundated by land spectulators who collaborate with government workers to swindle unsuspecting persons. You cannot get anything done in Nigeria without being their in person. That itself still dont guarantee anything. The robbery will be carried out right in your face! You have a legion of young Nigerians who will swear heaven and earth that it is daylight when indeed it is nighttime. They complain that there are no jobs. Who will hire anybody who has no qualms about swindling even his own blood brother?
Re: Killing Nigeria softly
Mikky jaga posted on 08-03-2007, 14:05:41 PM
Nigerians are honest people. Nigerians want to live honest lives. Nigerians love to earn honest living.
Our indifferent attitude to corruption stems from the fact that we have seen plenty. Nigerians have seen the pauper of yesterday suddenly become rich overnight without any visible means of livelihood and without any questions being asked.
Nigerians have seen a man who was borrowing transport money from his neighbour just yesterday, got into government and became suddenly wealthy without any alarms raised.
Nigerians have seen civil servants who own mansions worth millions of Naira in choice places in the country and they wonder why?, How?
Pray, what lessons do we think we are passing across to our countrymen when we announce, in the name of God, election results that everyone knew never existed. By the time the beneficiary of that fraud comes calling again, it is to splash mud over everyone with his brand new Jeep.
If those who are not privileged to have access to quick riches determine to get their piece of the National cake from their neighbours, do we blame them?
We have shown that honesty does not pay in this country. That once you "make it" nobody cares about how you made it. Should we be surprised when the poor of the poorest follow our "good" examples?
Until Nigerians see leaders who can show by example that corruption does not pay, every one will like to get his own from the society in his own way, cheating his neighbour inclusive.
This is why I am sick tired when people praise OBJ's anticorruption effort. It was a useless effort meant to entrench corruption rather than attack it.
Re: Killing Nigeria softly
Blondie posted on 08-03-2007, 14:12:03 PM
Sometime ago Collin Powel said that Nigerians are marvellous scammers and people shouted blue murder. The man had to retract those statements out of diplomatic finese. But if we must call a spade a spade we all know that our society encourages fraud. A very good example is the fact that you must haggle over every item in the market. One man can buy a piece of candy for one naira in Nigeria while another man can get it for twenty naira from the same trader. It all depends on the haggling ability of the buyer. This same trader duping this unfortunate buyer will swear on his grandfather's grave that he is making only one kobo profit from the heist that he is pulling on you. Why can't prices of items be uniform in Nigeria? I have received many scam mails from Nigerians who start by greeting me in the name of Jesus Christ. Aren't there any sacred things in my country anymore? Class consciousness is at the root of all our problems. Everybody wants to show the next person that he has a better social class. It is only in Nigeria that wearing a foreign dress gives you an edge in social class above the next person. That someone has a brother or sister abroad confers him some respect among his friends. It is only in Nigeria that people strain their necks to have a good look at an SUV when it drives past. People now resort to all abominable things to acquire money to buy class. I am happy that Abati brought up this issue. We are quick to point accussing fingers at our leaders. Yes they are unspeakable. But we should not fail to realise that they are a product of our society.
Re: Killing Nigeria softly
Tony posted on 08-03-2007, 14:17:50 PM
After the last 419 elections which manisfested a demonstration of fraud never before seen in any part of the world organised by the president himself Chief Obasanjo (No 1 yahooboy) what right does anyone have to rebuke artisans who are only immitating their president to eke out a living?
Re: Killing Nigeria softly
Tonsoyo posted on 08-03-2007, 14:42:31 PM
Yes Auspicious I sure love this. The greatest problem with Nigeria is that we have failed to realize how we indiviually contribute to Nigeria woes.