Travails of the Nigerian Entrepreneur

by Charles Sogbesan

If you’re nihilistic, enjoy pain and are on a quest to dispense a prodigious amount of misery to yourself, there is no better catholicon than to engage the men (and women) of the Nigerian Customs “Mis” administration. A mirror image of the Nigerian bureaucracy as a whole. When you are done, satisfied, the antidote, which you were prescribed, would have fulfilled all your desires. You will be eternally grateful, for they would have far exceeded all your unrestrained expectations. To hate civility, orderliness, exploitation, tact, kick backs, flounder, is to be a member of the “Nigerian Customs”. You will be equally pleased that you are no longer human, not even an animal, as animal have rules. You will be Sub-human.

The Espirit de corps that exist, endure solely, so their will be uniformity across the ranks for corruption, bribery and organized chaos. It has to be so because any other way might prove to be illuminating and therefore raise questions. The chaos is their best prerequisite for their debauchery. Right from the moment custom officers are in lower ranks, they will almost sacrifice anything to get juicy posts, assignments or promotions. It is not an exaggeration that a visit to any customs office in Apapa or Wharf, one will encounter copious obituaries of many agents who have died on duty or simple put, just died. Not that death in itself is all too surprising, what is extraordinary is the average age of a lot of these officers; most are in their early 50’s, some in their late 40’s.

Early death is just one exemplification in the Nigerian Customs. While eternal rest is a certainty for us all, one will question, why so many custom officers die so young. Fast money that comes out of kick backs, illegal fees, illegal levies, riping off the Nigerian government through understated taxes, outright stealing of government funds. It is as if, the chaos called Nigeria is made in heaven for the men (and women) of the Nigerian Customs. To understand why competition is fierce for positions and juicy posts, is to understand the decay of the entrepreneurial class and thus understand the decay of the society in entirety. The race to get plum custom positions and assignments will disclose what some entrepreneurs go through and why some have become almost benighted of their own rational states. A mental state easy to adapt to, if you live in Nigeria.

To watch a fellow Nigerian trader undertake the men of the Nigerian customs is to be an understudy in taxidermy. The end product looks alive, but its soul is really gone, it’s really dead. A typical Nigerian Customs Officer is like a God. A god that arbitrarily set custom fees and levies and duties, disrespects his fellow Nigeria (Who pays his salary), disrespects the clearing agent, disrespects the importer/exporter.
A god in his own kingdom, whose word is law.
A fat cat who flourishes because of the government he is a part of (as opposed to the trader who “survives” in spite of), whose sayings are absolute with no recourse to the person he serves (the average Nigerian).

Because there is consistency within the commonage, the commonage benefits, so, no point in picking a fight with it. As this is an effort in futility. The commonage is a brick wall, a fortified fence ready to defend its turf to the detriment of its citizenry and country. To attempt a jab at the fortified wall is to risk your goods being seized, through brute, outright intimidation or theft or quite consistently your taxes or levies being arbitrarily doubled. The consistency in the chaos is almost military like, almost by design.

When these common practices now become generally accepted ways of doing businesses, for clearing agents, for freight forwarders, for traders, for entrepreneurs, you have to have great admiration for the people who put up with it and thus understand some of their own peccadillo. As I say, giving them a small pass. I for one have more compassion for the average (Honest) trader now. You will notice I try to qualify quite a bit with the word “Honest” as their really are quite a few.

To go through the process of exporting goods or importing goods to Nigeria is to question how traders can ever remain sane or honest in their general dealings period!.
As I have encountered quite a few hard working “Honest” traders, and as I have gone through what they go through at our borders and sea ports, it is a surprise to me how they even try or stay honest.

If you can get almost any household or industrial goods you want (Substandard or not), If you can go to any major city and buy electronics, buy cell phones, buy imported agricultural produce, buy cookware, buy imported stationery, buy imported furniture.
It is then a major testament to their tenacity and resoluteness (in the absence of a thriving manufacturing sector)

Clearing a container with the Nigerian Customs is a lesson why Nigeria is not great and while it probably will never be great. Watching a professional clearing agent (they like to be seen as such) go through the process humiliation, servitude, numerous bureaucratic complications, specifically set up to create avenues for bribe collection and kick backs ought to be a university course on how an underdeveloped country ought not to run its Customs department. It is quite an education. It is quite possible to then understand that Nigerians themselves will destroy the PHCN (Power Holding Corporation) to maintain the status quo of illegal wire connection, illegal cash collection of Electricity Bills at the detriment of the country.

It is then quite easy to understand why privatization of government parastatal will be so vehemently fought in the guise of protecting the workers.

To clear a container is to pay for customs forms (illegal), is to allow about 17 agencies inspect your container (bureaucratic). Each so called agency will have its own inspector and each will collect a bribe from you or your clearing agent. To clear a container is to visit the “Customs Office” (unnecessary) about 13 times, a visit that will open your eye to the derelict surroundings, abandoned vehicles, dirty, dusty unkempt surroundings, a complete lack of order, various men wearing Northern babanriga, Western agbada and Eastern Isi-Agu and ill fitting suits going through and coming from various offices, big suitcases in tow. From the appearance on the outside, aesthetically, you can deduce what is going on the inside. An environment displaying no certain structure, standard or procedure.

To have had all your moral codes as a business person challenged going through these processes continuously is to be a morally challenged business person. The irony is, most don’t think some of what they do is immoral, and I remain non judgmental.
If your own government morally challenges you and at stake is your very own survival, your goods, your container, your hard earned money, my personal question is, what do they do?
I have witnessed no less than 30 documents to clear a single container. I have witnessed bribes being negotiated on a daily basis, so called big men begging Customs agent on bribe amount, so their containers will be cleared (men no older than their sons).

The next time the Controller of Customs (or whoever they designate), goes on record on the newspaper or television, to talk about how revenue has increased, how the agency is doing better, turn the TV off or flip the newspaper to the next page, to another unworthy Nigerian news.
It is a scam, a scam on which scale you can never imagine.
Nigeria is being ripped off on a scale impossible to comprehend. This is why people “Kill” to work for Customs. As it is with most federal revenu

e collecting agencies in Nigeria, they are however (not surprisingly) a representation of the country it sits in. A problem emblematic (It cost more to ship a ton of maize from Zambia to Tanzania then to ship the same from Tanzania to Europe) of the continent as a whole (with few exceptions such as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana).

We shouldn’t have this problem though, the largest black nation in Africa.
A potential leader, who should lead by example, has now become an example of a failed society. How a country that has barely scratched the surface of development can ever get going, how?

A recent visit to Jebba (Nigeria) was another eye opener for me. I could write about the waste, decay and rot of Jebba, a once hopeful commercial and cultural confluence but that would veer away from my main intent here.
I traveled from Ibadan via Fiditi, via Oyo via Ogbomosho via Ilorin.
My journey’s revelation was a harbinger of the likely bedlam this nation will find itself. I find it impossible that she could sustain this present course. Not with the current population growth, not with this many unemployed youths. Why there hasn’t been more civil strife is beyond me. I’m unconvinced most people are just passive.

Not that what I encountered wasn’t a replica of Nigeria in general, not that Nigeria’s decay is an epiphany, the extent of its decay for me was ultimately mind blowing.
When I saw the resilience of Nigeria’s business people, traders on this journey, I was mortified, yet understanding that maybe some people are just too busy trying to endure.

After passing Fiditi, a suburb of the Oyo Empire, a quite archetype town, dirty, dusty, livestock running around, the drama began. The road itself from the University of Ibadan junction was a death trap, as if navigating the mountains of Peru, caution out of the window, 18 wheel trailers leaving their lane, not because of a desire, but out of a lack of choice. The road was a never ending nightmare, (a result of 40 year neglect, almost nostalgic for the British who built it), thinking it would end was all I could do. It never ended.

The nightmare continued for about 3 hours. After counting numerous trailers packed, stuck, over turned or simply abandoned, I stopped counting. I must have counted about 445 trailers before reaching Ilorin. This road was definitely a nerve center for the nation.

It was just impossible for the traffic to flow, why? To say I had never encountered such a road in disrepair will not be an exaggeration. Curious, when I got to Oyo, I packed and started asking questions. For the trailer drivers, it was part of “doing business”, a journey that should take a few hours from Lagos or Ibadan to Jebba, add a few more hours to either Niger state or the Northwest, was very much a 3 to 4 day. This, for the tradesmen was part of life, they were used to it. The absurdity created a side show of it’s own, as street hawkers had set up semi permanent stalls catering to the various needs of the luckless travelers.

It is actually as if, they plan for it, when it was prayer time, as I witnessed 3 prayer times, the drivers spread their mat in the middle of the road, cleansed , prayed and went back to sleep on the road. Safe, you might ask? Of course, the traffic was not moving period.
Some cooked meals and were eating under their respective trailers. All it took (and there were many instances) was for 1 trailer to blow a tire, enter the non stop ditches or encounter another trailer it’s size, that was another 12 hour delay.

This road, the heartbeat of the country, the commercial pulse of the commercial nation was truly in need of a triple bypass surgery. Yet the traders endured, a 7 day trip (8 hours) was “Normal” and yet they perceiver.
After Jebba, the physically turned over trailers I counted were about 34. Some with goods spilling on the roads, some with goods still intact, one side of their tires off the ground. That’s right, “Without the government”,
The trades men (and women) endure. On my journey, on quite a few occasions, I wondered what leaps the commerce of the nation would take, if only the roads ad the roads only were just OK. Just OK?

Chukwudi imports cars from Western Europe, sometimes he goes to Asia, buys used auto parts and ships them to Nigeria. To say he’s unscrupulous would be to pass judgment without having an understanding of his enduring entrepreneurial travails, not just from clearing agents, dealing with Nigerian Customs, unscrupulous money changers or the almighty pompous Nigerian bankers with shylock interest charges and unprofessionalism.

Pre ordering items at an agreed price with Chukwudi and then having the price change when the goods arrive is not to have a good understanding of his journey. A journey, where the least of his problems are with negotiating and buying his vehicles abroad, getting to his parts supplier and getting supplied abroad, paying with no hassles abroad. Going to Asia, packaging his good, sealing them and paying for the shipments abroad and expecting vessel arrival at approximate dates. Those are the easy aspects, easy because they are free from the negative influences of a dying continent and country he is coming from.

When Chukwudi, in a bid to break-even, turns the mileage of a car backwards, I shudder and voice my complete disagreement, when he changes his prices arbitrarily, I understand. As others would curse him and call him names, I fathom because I know it is impossible to plan and thus give price guarantee as tradesperson in Nigeria. Even corruption is inconsistent in Nigeria. Your kickbacks are arbitrary, though as a fact they are consistent. You will pay kick back in Nigeria, it is as certain as death, what is not certain is how much, hence you can’t plan, just like death, only anticipate. When Chukwudi lies about the quality of his spare parts, I quiver, those are
Black and white (it’s not done), for him it’s a gray area, and I remain less judgmental. It is easy for me with him, because I know him to an upright, decent human being.

As most try the exit door to another suitable environment like Europe, Ghana (who would have thought), the Americas, and the rest of the world, some endure.
Iya laide (Laides Mom) is a perfect example; she doesn’t give it much thought.
Omo mi, igbawo loomu mi lo ofaase (my son when are you taking me overseas) she tells me every week I stop at her stall to by oranges, guava, pineapple and the occasional mango.

I sit with her sometimes, when she peels some of my oranges and she likes to talk.
I like to listen! With the richness and beauty in her “lack of having”, I get great strength from their hopefulness in what I perceive as hopelessness.
Iya Laide owns her farm it was given to her from her father, a village chief I heard, a thriving and successful farmer, hence she has little overhead, other than to give her sons a share of the proceeds from the fruit farm, as they work the farms for her.
For her to tell me weekly the percentage of her produce that she throws away is to take a course in supply and demand, electric power (I will not go there today) and macro economics.

Simply put, Iya laide in addition to paying daily bribes on her way to the market passing the numerous illegal police road, sometimes Customs road blocks, (as she brings the produce from Ilaro (a near border town in western Nigeria). She doesn’t complain about the N100 naira she sometimes gives the men in Light green pickups block. I just remain constantly outraged about the depravity. She endures!
The old woman has sent one son to university, two to trade school and 1 owns his o

wn commercial bus. Despite the government!

Growing up with a tradeswoman mother, growing up in that environment, having appreciation for the tenacity of business people despite the government made me, as an adult question how far we are so behind in the lack of reinforcement bordering on outright hostility. The suicidal emphasis on certain western education is what I question day in day out. It is almost a social taboo for a “well of person” to encourage their offspring to take entrepreneurship. Yet, most immigrant Africans, when you ask them who they admire most, the answers are always universal, Asians (Chinese and Indians)
Why? They always want to work for themselves, they say.

The rapid development of China and India following the flourishing of their entrepreneurial class is a classic non scientific testament to my assertions. Other smaller, equally notable countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the United Arab emirates are further examples.

The underdevelopment of the entrepreneurial class is the greatest Nigerian tragedy.
It is an untapped potential, in what comes natural to most Nigerians as is, to be computer technician, a pharmacist, an engineer, a doctor, a teacher. I would actually contend is congenital. The lack of its development and consequently the onslaught on it is a national shame.

When I was done researching, done talking to as many traders, as many importers, exporters. From “Wharf” to “Alaba” to “Mechanic Village” to Aba.
From Warri or Sapele to Kaduna to Minna, including other important trading centers around the country, I will have a new found respect for the average Nigerian Entrepreneur. For me, the interaction was quite a revelation (my own experiences not withstanding) “Honest “Nigerian “Traders”, petty, market, international or hawkers have definitively earned my grudging respect. Grudging, because I was a victim.
A victim of a lack of information. A skeptic at first, suspicious and distrusting at first. I corralled everybody. Learning about how they will without a doubt manufacture in their country if the environment was conducive proved equally disappointing.

When I was done, this was not just a revelation, the disappointment and hopelessness overwhelmed me, I have to admit; in addition I was disappointed in myself for being so judgmental about tradesmen (and women). My quest had me completely back at square one.

Having more questions than answers still puzzles me.

You may also like

1 comment

Maddy Hale October 21, 2009 - 3:18 pm

I am very interested in your statement: The underdevelopment of the entrepreneurial class is the greatest Nigerian tragedy. Please what do you propose. I am open to ideas. Much as I would love to be an enterpreneur, the fear of the Nigerian system in general fears me. I am not happy in the west. Yes it relatively safe. Nigeria calls me. Am I bold enough to answer?


Leave a Comment