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On Reserve


Letters from Nigeria

              by Ehi


Understanding Nigerian Capitalism


Sunday 2005-11-27
Dear Wendy
There has been a debate for sometime now about brain drain. Professionals from the Third World are daily migrating to the First World. Even Europe is losing its best space and nuclear scientists to America. Hospitals in Nigeria, as well as other countries, are experiencing a shortage of doctors and nurses because they are going to USA, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia and other places where there are “greener pastures”. Outside of the medical field, another place brain drain is most felt in this country is the academia. Our universities are now largely run by political professors, intellectual onanists, and market traders who are mountebanking as academics, majority of the best brains having been snapped up by Harvard, Oxford, Johns Hopkins and the others. And what about the ones who have elected to remain here? They are daily frustrated and forced to go on drawn out strikes. Yes, doctors and nurses go on strike quite often. The tragedy of brain drain is that these people are largely trained at public expense. In Nigeria, especially at the Federal universities, higher education is highly subsidised by the tax payer. However, moneys remitted home to Third World countries by their nationals living in the west come to a lot. According to a report prepared for the IMF by Jens Reinke and Neil Patterson, such remittances in 2003 were recorded as $90.8 billion, of which developing countries account for $79.5 billion. Between January and October this year, Filipino workers overseas have remitted $6.3b home! Therefore, it has been argued, by observers of the use these moneys are put to in recent times, that brain drain can produce good spin-off effects in the long run. The pundits say much of these monies are used to send younger people to university and these become professionals themselves. They argue also that because a lot of doctors are travelling abroad and making lots of money, a lot of young people are encouraged to become doctors themselves, with the hope of going abroad, and not all of them are able to make it and thus remain here.
The minimum wage in Nigeria is N7500. I know of people who earn less than that. So how do they cope? Well, in your country, the United States, you have the social security system, in spite of its gross inadequacies. Why, even the UK that used to be proud of its “welfare state” is facing a crisis of sorts in its NHS and some other sectors. Here in Nigeria there is zero government system of social security. But there is social security of sorts, although it too is facing a crisis - the Extended Family system. It appears to me that the system in the West is ruthless, individualistic, and everyman-for-himself compared to what obtains here. If one man is rich in a village, he can build a borehole to provide water for the community. If someone travelled to a western country, the dollars he sends home can pay school fees for all the children of his brothers and sisters, and often, even extended relatives. In the rural areas, and even some urban slums, if you are cooking soup and you suddenly find your salt is exhausted you will go get some from your neighbour. If your brother is rich and you live in wretched condition, people may kill him with their gossip. In fact, if you run a business and your brother comes around and he has no money, you are expected to render him free service. This is not good for business, but I think the system prevents despondency among the abjectly poor – who are very many. The system has been sustained by the fact that a lot of people who are now doctors, lawyers, and so forth were sent to school by their communities or by their extended families.
In recent times, though, the system has come under some strain. As the iPod generation, my generation – many of who were trained by their parents or are “self-made” – takes over, success is increasingly being defined in terms of how much money you accumulate rather than how many people you affect. But even more dangerous than that, too many people seem more interested in aggrandisement than anything else. Thus a man will give out money where he will have his name in the papers rather than to build a man.
But of course the greatest problem the system is facing arises from the robust economic difficulties assailing the country. Those who are rich, for who money is no problem at all, are few and are therefore not in every family, no matter how extended. As the state of the economy, hostile business environment, and high crime rates take their toll on the lower middle class, littler and littler is left to trickle down to the poor. I can tell that the newspapers will soon start publishing articles and interviews on the fact that a lot of people are no longer travelling home for Christmas since when you get home everyone will come to greet Broda from Lagos and expect Broda to hand out something.
But again, there are a lot of families who do not even have middle class people in their families. This country has one of the highest graduate unemployment rates in the world. There are a lot of people who are jobless several years after graduating from the university. So having a graduate in your family no longer guarantees a meal ticket. For such families, resources are usually pooled in times of extreme difficulties, such as illness. Where the illness is serious beyond their resources, there is a problem. That is why we often have appeals in the newspapers and television from people applying for help from members of the public to carry out expensive surgeries. Such poor families usually remain in their cycles for poverty for long, if not forever. Nigeria must be one of the countries where social mobility is most difficult. But I guess it is quite difficult everywhere as recent studies on the US situation have shown.
So how do they cope with starvation wages who do not benefit from any extended family? Graft, usually. Today, corruption is the major issue in Nigeria – much more than such things as abortion, death penalty and gay rights, etc, can ever be where you live. If the president of Nigeria committed troops to three countries and had ten Monica Lewinsky’s, but can demonstrate that his government is not corrupt and is committed to fighting corruption, people would vote massively for him in the next election. But there is nothing inherently corrupt about the Nigerian. There is no proof that corruption here is due to the fact the Nigerian is morally inferior to nationals of other countries. There are numerous Nigerians who are doing great in sensitive positions in other countries. And everyday here you encounter acts of honesty from ordinary people on the streets. One international anti-corruption agency once made a statement to the effect that in Nigeria you are paid a fictitious wage with the seeming understanding that you will supplement it by graft. Over-invoicing is the name of the game. The workers cover up for each other. This is known as “chop I chop”. It happens in a lot of places, including where I work. But there are many, who either because of morality or because their work does not place them on a place to chop, do not have access to this medium. These are the ones who depend entirely on their salaries – that is where there is no sister abroad, or a rich father, or a benevolent lover – and do they suffer! Some take it well. Others badly. Many start exploring ways to start chopping. This is usually easy where the boss is nasty. Nasty like mine – as illustrated by the ATIN incident which I was going tell you last week. (Of course, greed is a strong factor in our chopocracy, but that is a matter for another day.)
One evening, several months ago, my boss called us, Mike and me, and asked which of us would be given his password to go to the cybercafé to download his mails. Now there are two email accounts. The old one based on Cyberspace, and Oga’s personal Hotmail account. Prior to that time, we checked the Cyberspace on the computer on our desk, which had some Internet service that was customised to handle just that. He had a separate system for his laptop which allowed him full WWW access and with this, he could check mails on his Hotmail account. Now both systems had broken down and he had mails to download. It was unthinkable for him to go to the cybercafé himself.
I did not even need to say I would go. Everyone knew I would go. And he said, “Just pray that nothing happens, because what I will do to you! Even if you are not responsible, you will be the first suspect. So you must be very careful.” Volunteering was no brave act on my part – it was duty. I had to go for two reasons. Mike was unwilling to do it – that means there was no other person. Besides, I was the one who usually went to the café, being more Internet savvy than Mike. And someone had to do it. Oga wrote the password on a piece of paper and handed it to me. As I was going out he raised up his beautiful light-complexioned face and said “If anything happens, just go and arrest yourself.” That was how he put it, “arrest yourself”.
Shortly after, Oga needed to convey his bank information to ATIN, an insurance company based in Holland so that they can pay a little over $5,000 into his London bank. The information we supplied was:
Bank Swift Code:
Account Name:
Account No.:
Sort Code:
Now I have never believed for one moment that with this information it is possible for me to go and withdraw money from Oga’s account in London. I am a financial illiterate and do not possess any travelling documents and have never been to a port or an airport. I wouldn’t even know how to proceed about that sort of thing. I have heard a lot about hackers, though, perhaps that explains his histrionics. But I am not that clever or creative. Well, Oga was paranoid about it. He reminded me that I had to be very careful, as well as minding myself. A week later, Michael Lu, our contact man at ATIN, informed us that the money had been paid in, we should check the following Monday. The following Monday the boss checked and informed them the money had not been seen. He was asked to check two days later. The second morning he checked, didn’t see the money and promptly ordered me to send a mail informing Lu that no money had been seen. Those ones told him they would check. They checked and assured him the money was there, that he should check again. He checked the following day and was told there was no money.
He called me into his office and told me to send a mail to Mr Lu. As I was leaving his office, he could not resist the urge to taunt, “They say they suspect fraud.” Then he added, “Better go and start praying, because if anything happens, God helps you.” A huge raw ball of anger formed in the pit of my stomach and threatened to rise into my mouth, come out and start a street fire. I looked at him and walked out of there, keeping my face blank and saying nothing. If there is anything I have learned from working with cutthroats over the past twelve years it is how to control myself in the face of extreme provocation.
Of course that statement was a lie. The appropriate thing to say should have been, “I suspect fraud.” I failed to see any basis on which a bank would suspect fraud here. When I mentioned it to Mike later he wondered how a bank would “suspect” fraud without saying what kind of fraud. But I was quite worried. What if the money was not there and I was arrested? Now, if there is any joke in the world I don’t like at all it is one about a police cell. I have been a guest of the police once and it is no coffee break. Those black-uniformed guys are the most uncivilised breed of Homo sapiens this side of the planet. Then it was a specious case of “suspicion”. Now I began to imagine being back in that cell again and being interrogated at that integrated madhouse of demons called SARS (Special Anti-robbery Squad, where I was guest) in Ikeja or State CID in Panti. I then imagined Oga coming to the cell once and standing at the other side of the iron bars and me being brought forward to hear his taunts. Impishly, I imagined listening to him, stone-faced and then clearing my throat and discharging a gob of phlegm on his face. Oh, well, I have long realised there is a sliver of vulgarity in everyone. I think different things set different people off.
A few minutes after sending the mail, I logged on back to the Net and Mr Lu had replied. There had been a mistake. The bank was sending the money back to Amsterdam and he would send it again the following week. It happened that he had given account name as the name of our company, instead of Oga’s personal name which was the name of the account. Till today Oga never disclosed to anyone anything further concerning the payment. Obviously, this mother hen has secured the big pot of corn; the chicks can go to hell. And so can little fraud suspects.
Thanks a lot for the present. I will go into that site again once I have the info to cope with the forms. A pity I could not continue and had to leave the café.
How was your weekend? So it’s gone below zero C already. That means you are in the thick of winter till the turn of the year. And thanks for the forwarded photos. I wonder if that squirrel ate all the melon or actually built a cache to get him (and his family?) through the winter!
My love to you


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