Nigeria Through The Lens Of An Indian Diplomat, By Tolu Ogunlesi
Mahesh Sachdev, India’s High Commissioner to Nigeria for five years, until October 2013, has written a book about Nigeria. It is an interesting idea in its execution; meant, not as an account of diplomat’s time in Nigeria (so anyone looking for juicy, Wiki-leak-like tidbits on the 2009 deportation of the Vaswani brothers, or his views on the backlash against India for its part in the disturbing incidence of fake drugs in Nigeria, would be disappointed) but instead as a “resource-book” targeted at foreigners already doing, or interested in doing, business in Nigeria, by someone who should know what he’s talking about.
The book is divided into five sections: One (“Warming-Up to Nigeria”) is an introduction to Nigeria, offering details of Nigeria’s national symbols, key economic statistics, and a brief history. Two (“Nigerian Game of Snakes & Ladders”) offers up business opportunities for professionals, traders and entrepreneurs. Three (“Countdown to Landing in Nigeria”) contains the stuff the author wants potential investors and entrepreneurs to read before booking their flight tickets and hotels: getting visas, company incorporation, negotiations, and navigating the minefields of taxes and contracts. Four (“Nigeria-India Space”) focuses on relations between the two countries, and provides information on Indian investments and business interests in Nigeria.
Six is a collection of “backgrounders”, ranging from a list of common abbreviations in Nigeria, to a short phrase-book explaining the meanings of quintessential Nigerian words and phrases like “K-Leg”, “Wahala” and “O’boy”. There is also a lengthy list of books on Nigeria in this section. Seven, the final section, contains the appendices – a random selection of economic data on Nigeria.
One strength of the book is in the facts it very generously doles out. Many will be familiar, some depressingly so (like our “power generation installed capacity” of “below 6,000 MW”). Others will be less well known. For example did you know that the Nigerian Defence Academy’s first Commandant was an Indian Brigadier-General, and that seven of Nigeria’s military heads of state received some military training in India?
Did you know there are close to 100 Nigerian footballers playing professional football in India, or that in the last seven years more than a hundred Indians have been kidnapped in Nigeria – most of them in the Niger delta? Did you know that the biggest single shareholder in Sterling Bank is the State Bank of India, or that the number of Indian visas issued to Nigeria went up from 8,000 in 2008 to 39,000 in 2013 — the period in which the author was High Commissioner? (“Nearly half of the recent Nigerians visiting India were medical tourists – a category that did not even exist in 2008,” Sachdev writes).
India is also Nigeria’s largest trading partner, exporting, in 2013, $2.66bn dollars worth of products to Nigeria (leading the category are transport equipment, machinery, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, cotton and textile products, and plastic) and importing more than $14bn worth of goods (most of which is crude oil and petroleum products; India this year overtook America as the largest importer of Nigeria’s crude oil). Airtel takes the prize for the largest Indian investment in Nigeria, the crown jewel in a long list that includes firms like Tata, Bajaj, NIIT, Aptech, Indorama, Godrej, and Primus, which employ thousands of Indians and Nigerians.
Sachdev takes the pains to analyse current economic trends, rightly pointing out that it has been a mixed bag – growth in telecoms and retail and real estate sitting side by side with a sluggishness in agriculture, power and manufacturing. He also attempts to envision a future for Nigeria – one section tries to paint a demographic and macro-economic picture of Nigeria in the year 2030.
It is a refreshingly clear-headed book. The author cautions against blind acceptance of Nigerian economic statistics, on account of the poor quality, advising that the data has to be “used intelligently in a dynamic manner.” It is also clear from the book that there is much that we don’t know. For example Sachdev laments the absence of “official figures on Indian investments in Nigeria, either from host or home country” and also admits that there are no “hard figures” for the numbers of Indians in Nigeria (he acknowledges an estimate of 35,000 — “the largest of non-African expatriate groups in Nigeria”) and Nigerians in India. He also acknowledges that potential and existing Indian investors in Nigeria currently face more local and foreign competition than at any other time in history.
In all, the book clearly demonstrates an impressive knowledge of Nigeria and how it works – and doesn’t work. One of the best things about it is that it offers an interesting view of Nigeria from the outside. When I read this line: “Nigerian businessmen can often be imprecise with figures and plans and prone to presumption,” I was both amused and struck by the truth of it. ‘Idea is Need’ (‘an idea is enough’) might as well be the second line of the Nigerian national anthem. When you consider the patterns of pronouncements by government officials you realize that that imprecision and a cavalier attitude to accuracy are a very important part of who we are as a people.
There’s a sense of lightheartedness and humour that underlines the writing. “Although Nigeria is very much a car country, writes the Ambassador, “driving is better left to a local chauffeur knowledgeable on traffic conditions and with navigational skills of a fighter pilot.”
Nigeria and India have some things in common – colonial history being the most significant. The shared legacy of existing under British colonial rule of course means that we have been saddled with similar administrative and legal systems. Jokes about the tardiness of the Nigerian bureaucracy can be wholesale applied to India’s. And, as Sachdev points out, India has, in Section 420 of its Penal Code, the equivalent of Section 419 of Nigeria’s Criminal Code, which covers acts in which money or goods is obtained by false pretense. In other words, what Nigerians call ‘419’, Indians call ‘420’.
But there are also differences. Nigeria, unlike India and many Commonwealth countries, jettisoned the Left-Hand-Drive system it inherited from Britain, just as it did the parliamentary system of government. India has kept both.
The referencing in ‘Nigeria: A Business Manual’ is copious; Ambassador Sachdev takes the pains to detail his sources, complete with internet links. It also contains up-to-date information – judging from the news references most of it appears to have been written in 2014. But, knowing Nigeria, it will require an update very soon. It seems that even the author himself realizes this, when he writes that “Nigeria [is] an ever-changing mosaic, often too overwhelming for words. My longish first-hand experience was frequently incomplete, irrelevant or outdated – requiring renewal and research.”
The way out would be for him to (if he hasn’t already) produce a digital edition – an e-Book, which would reach a wider audience across the world, as well as allow for the effortless instant and continuous updating that the logistics of a paper book would make unfeasible.
There is some stuff the Nigerian reader would quibble with, like the author’s interpretations of some quintessential Nigerian sayings. He translates “Good Bye!” not as “Odabo” (in Yoruba) but as “Inu mi dun lati pade yin” (“I am happy to have met you”), and also suggests that “Oga” (“Boss”) can also be expressed as “Ogba.” Also, his list of influential Nigerians in government and business is certain to generate debate (to his credit he admits that his attempt is “doomed to imperfection”). But these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise a knowledgeable and admirable effort.
Even though it was meant for outsiders seeking to understand the bundle of contradictions and complications that is Nigeria, I think Nigerians seeking to better know and understand their country would equally treasure the book. Another strength lies in how it brings together, in one document, so much otherwise scattered information and data about Nigeria.
Sachdev, now back in India, retired and in private business, has done a good and useful job. More diplomats should, upon retirement, undertake this sort of informational and interpretative task. There is perhaps now also a vacancy for a book on India, from a high-up Nigerian perspective. As Sachdev has demonstrated, there is plenty of insight to be gleaned from listening to an outsider looking in.
Follow me on Twitter: @toluogunlesi