It was Saturday morning, and I was on my way to the barbers with a friend. He had an appointment for 10am, and the navigation map in his BMW had just indicated that we would arrive at 10:05am. He immediately began to fret and worry about this, much to my bemusement.
“But you’ll only be 5 minutes past the time”, I chided, “It can’t be that bad, I’m sure they won’t mind that much. “
“Yeah”, he responded, “but this is Germany, everyone is on time. You know how it is”, he replied with a resigned shrug.
Indeed, I did, for I had lived in The Netherlands for three years before returning to Nigeria and was just visiting him in Germany. One thing both countries had in common was a great respect for punctuality. So, I understood what he meant — due to the concept I had termed ‘No Abeg’.
I had come up with this term when my parents came to visit in the Hague. After a busy day of sightseeing around this highly developed city, my dad suddenly became irate and had inquired in annoyance, “What is the key difference between us and them? Why do things in The Netherlands ‘work’ unlike in our Nigeria?”
Without thinking too much I blurted out, “There’s no Abeg”.
To his inquiring look I clarified, “Rules are rules, and there are consequences for breaking them. That’s it.”
And he nodded in agreement, sighing deeply as he did.
For the uninitiated, ‘Abeg’ is Nigerian pidgin-English for ‘I beg’, usually invoked to plead or beg for a favor, especially an undeserved one. This term is quite common in Nigeria, and I’m guessing a variant of it exists in other similar places where what would normally be mandatory rules are simply treated as options or suggestions for which one can beg one’s way out with no consequences. To this end, I strongly believe that a major difference between developed and developing countries apart from the economic differences i.e., GDP et al, is the willingness to maintain and enforce the rules by ensuring the visible application of consequences for rule breaking.
Societies can sometimes be likened to people. When it comes to setting boundaries and applying consequences for actions, Nigeria is like that person who huff and puffs saying, ‘Mess with me and find out’, but for whom no one ever does find out. We have all the rules, all the laws and all the legal consequences but that’s where it ends. People generally do what they want and can almost always get away with it. In Nigeria this has become a way of life, because when in trouble, a default ‘Abeg’ is invoked. This is often graced with a little extra ‘something’, depending on who is being begged.
This scenario plays out in multiple ways across every facet of the country, especially in those managed by the government. Teachers abscond from public schools, and nothing happens. Civil servants do the barest of the absolute minimum and still get paid. In organizations managed by the government for instance, lawmakers, senior politicians, and major government officials steal with impunity and yet again, nothing happens. This mindset has also seeped into the private sector, whereby artisans and other craftsmen perform poorly and deliver well after agreed deadlines again and again, with the full confidence that nothing will happen. Even in multinational companies there are always those employees who overachieve at underperforming and yet, come appraisal time begin begging their bosses to ‘Have a heart Sir/Ma, I’m the family breadwinner, please Sir/Ma, I’ll do better next time’ and so on. And even where there is no work, area boys and the unemployed simply create work for themselves via illegal levies, e.g., breaking up road medians to create an illegal but faster U-turn which they charge a toll for. It is blindingly obvious that Nigeria is where ‘Mr Fuck-around’ almost never meets ‘Mr Find-out’.
Stories abound of how things were better in the past, when a sense of right and wrong was clear and consequences were applied without fear or favor. Which begs the question, how did we get here?
One possible reason is our diversity. With about 400 tribes and 200 million people, any chronicler of Nigeria’s history will know that our diversity is both a strength and a weakness, and either can be hyped at the expense of the other, depending on who’s profiting. That said, the multiple coups, civil war, religious violence, and ethnic clashes have only served to emphasize the weaknesses of our diversity. The overall effect has been a gradual withdrawal from the shared belief in the concept of Nigeria to whatever silos-of-best-fit.
Another reason may be the moral decay of Nigeria during the reign of coup-plotter-in-chief, General Ibrahim Babangida. It is widely accepted that his tenure began the widespread normalization of bribery, graft, and financial misappropriation. Since his tenure in the 80s till date, there has been a steady rise in the no-consequences culture, such that politicians like the late Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, or swindlers like Hushpuppy and other grifters are feted by our society as today’s heroes.
The no-consequence culture is further exacerbated by a consistently bleak economic outlook and worsened further by weak institutions meant to enforce justice. For starters, the police who are meant to be the first level of justice are insufficient, underfunded and occasionally part of the problem. Of the ~400,000 officers in Nigeria, about 150,000 are security detachment for VIPs, leaving ~250,000 to manage about 220 million people, at a ratio of roughly 1 officer per 900 people, unlike the UN recommended ratio of 1:450 people.
The courts are similarly overworked, inefficient and insufficient in number. Most if not all cases that go to the courts get adjourned for years and some indefinitely. I still can recall a court case some colleagues of mine were involved in over some estate land in Lagos. It took so much time and as most of my colleagues lived on Bonny Island, Rivers state, that after 10+ years of adjournments, one of them went to visit the estate land and discovered that the people being prosecuted had all built houses on the land and moved in. They decided for their own sanity to let it go, and once again no-consequences won the day.
Next, our poor system of record keeping makes it almost impossible to catch crooks who can get new IDs (fake or court declared), obtain new bank accounts and mobile numbers, and just relocate within the country. With no central system like social security numbers, simply moving from Abuja to PHC after doing such measures is akin to full reincarnation, barring any unlikely accident of being recognized by the wrong people. Suffice to say this only applies when it suits the powers that be, because the recently introduced NIN and BVN seem to exist in cohesive systems and yet, for the most part, with most people lacking the resources to find crooks, no-consequences wins again.
Lastly, it’s the apathy that keeps this going. We all, to one degree or another, agree to tolerate and partake in this system. Maybe it is because either we’re all engrossed in daily grind for survival, or too busy dulling our minds with distractions (BB Naija, Football, et cetera). Perhaps we’re not united enough to protest, or we’re just too scared to protest and get shot and gaslit (Lekki tollgate anyone?).
So where do we go from here? This is usually the part of an essay with a broad vision backed up by a timeline to what good looks like. However, I’m not wasting my breath. Too many variables are involved, of which many start with good governance, and then trickle down to other sectors. Thus an all encompassing 7-step-plan over which one has no control would be a fools errand. However, on an individual level, it is possible to begin the difficult but necessary steps to create a culture of accountability within one’s sphere of influence. That may be a very effective first step. The only other recommendation is akin to the tailor’s rule, ‘measure twice, cut once’, or rather be super careful with trust based engagements like business transactions or anything else that can leave one open for graft. This manifests in the paucity of international companies in Nigeria, as the need to extensively manage our low consequence culture is not usually worth the investment hassle.
One can only hope that one day we’ll begin the march to strong institutions, where consequences are the norm for poor behavior, and where Nigeria becomes a country where there’s No Abeg. But for now, to borrow a phrase, “Abeg free me jor!”