Friday, April 5, 2013

Celebrating Mediocrity In Nigeria By Femke van Zeijl

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I used to think corruption was Nigeria’s biggest problem, but I’m starting to doubt that. Every time I probe into one of the many issues this country is encountering, at the core I find the same phenomenon: the widespread celebration of mediocrity. Unrebuked underachievement seems to be the rule in all facets of society. A governor building a single road during his entire tenure is revered like the next Messiah; an averagely talented author who writes a colourless book gets sponsored to represent Nigerian literature overseas; and a young woman with no secretarial skills to speak of gets promoted to the oga’s office faster than any of her properly trained colleagues.

Needless to say the politician is probably hailed by those awaiting part of the loot he is stealing; the writer might have got his sponsorship from buddies he has been sucking up to in hagiographies paid for by the subjects; and the young woman’s promotion is likely to be an exchange for sex or the expectancy of it. So some form of corruption plays a role in all of these examples.

But corruption per se does not necessarily stand in the way of development. Otherwise a country like Indonesia—number 118 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, not that far removed from Nigeria’s 139—would never have made it to the G-20 group of major economies. An even more serious obstacle to development is the lack of repercussions for underachievement. Who in Nigeria is ever held accountable for substandard performance?

Since I came here, I have been on a futile search for a stable internet connection that does what it promises. I started with an MTN FastLink modem (I consider the name a cruel joke), and then I moved on to an Etisalat MiFi connection (I regularly had to keep myself from throwing the bloody thing against the wall), and now I am trying out Cobranet’s U-Go. I shouldn’t have bothered: equally crap. And everyone knows this. They groan and mutter and tweet about it. But still, to my surprise, no one calls for a class-action suit against those deceitful providers.

A one-day conference I attended last year left me equally puzzled. Organisation, attendance and outcome left a lot to be desired, if you ask me. But over cocktails, after the closing ceremony, everyone congratulated each other over the wonderful conference—that started two hours late, of which the most animated part was undeniably lunch, and in which not a single tangible decision had been made. This left me wondering whether we had attended the same event.

I thought these issues to be unrelated at first, but gradually I came to see the connection. Nigeria is the opposite of a meritocracy: you do not earn by achieving. You get to be who and where you are by knowing the right people. Whether you work in an office, for an enterprise or an NGO, at a construction site or in government, your abilities hardly ever are the reason you got there. Performing well, let alone with excellence, is not a requirement, in fact, it is discouraged. It would be too threatening: showing you’re more intelligent, capable or competent than the ‘oga at the top’ (who, as a rule, is not an overachiever either) is career suicide.

It is an attitude that trickles down from the very top, its symptoms eventually showing up in all of society, from bad governance to bad service to bad craftsmanship.

Where excellence meets no gratification, what remains to be celebrated is underachievement. That is why it is not uncommon to find Nigerians congratulating each other with substandard results. It is safer to cuddle up comfortably in shared mediocrity than to question it, since the latter might also expose your own less than exceptional performance. Add to this the taboo of criticising anyone senior or higher up and it explains why so many join in the admiration of the emperor’s new clothes.

I have been writing this column for the last year, and after ten months I realised my angles were getting more predictable and my pieces less edgy. I figured newcomers do not remain newcomers forever and therefore decided to round up the ‘Femke Becomes Funke’ series this month, a year after it started. Ever since I announced the ending, tweeps have been asking me to change my mind and in comments on the columns and through my website I get songs of praise that make me feel my analyses of Nigerian society are indispensable. If I had no sense of self-criticism, I might be tempted to reconsider my decision to discontinue the series and start producing second-rate articles. Who would point this out to me if I did?

The hardest thing to do in Nigeria is to continue to realise there is honour in achievement and pride in perfection. I imagine the frustration of the many Nigerians who do care for their work, who take pride in their outcomes and who feel the award is in a job well done. When you know beforehand that excellence will not be rewarded, you are bound to do the economically sane thing and limit your investments to accomplishing the bare minimum. This makes Nigeria a pretty cumbersome place for anyone striving for perfection.

Talk to Femke on Twitter: @femkevanzeijl


  1. Hitting the nail on the nail here. Sadly, all these have been said before and nothing changed. Femke is having her day in the sun and I like what she is doing with it.

  2. THANK YOU! Exactly!!! It is sad but this is the truth. This is also the reason why I couldn't stand that 'true citizens' movie because it was glorifying and promoting ideals that would leave you eternally poor in Nigeria.

  3. We have prayed and fasted Naija style... When will we start demanding for wisdom...when will we start reasoning like normal human beings. Strangers, friends and foes have all agreed on one thing which is that Nigerians need a change of mindset. We need to take our destiny into our hands and fight for our future.

  4. I wrote about this trend not too long ago on my fb page and it drew a lot of comments.Many Nigerians are as worried as this writer is on this matter.We have slaughtered excellence, hard work and integrity on the altar of traumatic.I am more worried about the younger generation and the unborn...Raising a sane child in a society like ours could be the hardest thing ever

  5. Am happy that this issue is talked about. But what do we do to change the Nation? How many people in Nigeria have the opportunity to read this nicely written article? Thanks to service like bb messenger and whats App.

    I believe Nigeria will change but the question remains, WHEN?

  6. God bless Femke. It is sickening. Makes me feel like there is no hope, no future here.
    Nigeria will change? Who will bell the mediocre cat?? Is it when the name changes or when?
    With what is happening in this country,We are far from change.

  7. she has said well. the pastor gets a new jet and his members go about rejoicing because he has done something excellent. Not realizing that something excellent would be using those funds to build a hospital or something impactful

  8. Femke, thank you for this great piece. Most Nigerian journalists are the main promoters of mediocrity because of money. The profession has been so bastardised that it is now an all-comers affairs to never-do-wells in other discipline being employed as reporters by several media houses because of connections they have to one or more persons at the helms of affairs in such organisations.
    As Copy-Editor working with one Nigerian daily newspaper, I always have headache after reading various poorly and badly written articles by some socalled reporters. I have complained several times to the people in charge why such bad writers should be shown the door out of the premises as they do not fit into the standard of any requirements of a capable journalist. But nothing has been done, so other Copy-Editors like myself have been battling to rewrite many stories everyday, thereby delaying production and making us so stressed that we don't identify some errors at times after the brain have been overstretched with reconstruction of many blunders in several articles. It is the Nigerian factor, otherwise, there are many reporters and editors not qualified to be called journalists because they don't really have the stuff upstairs. Cheers!

    Adjekpagbon Blessed Mudiaga


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