…the truth is that much of what passes for success in the private sector in Nigeria today is the result not so much of improvements in productivity, innovation, or creativity, nor of increases in the amount of capital each worker has available (and can use); but because of an incestuous relationship with the public sector.


The vignettes that Nigeria Incorporated comprises range from the macabre to the outright laughable. Yet, if F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of genius as the “ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” is worth anything, then most of the pictures out of corporate Nigeria are the product of geniuses. And you don’t have to be a genius to understand how outcomes in the (organised?) private sector differ from the public pronouncements of their “captains”, nor how both of these are (moral) antipodes of the latter’s conduct.

Even the canards ― especially the one which constantly compares the rot in the public sector to the efficiency with which the private sector in the country chugs along ― don’t stand up to serious scrutiny. It has been argued that at bottom, this relationship is one of relativity. So bad is the performance levels in the public sector that anything would be better than what’s on offer from that space. But that is only one face of a badly mangled coin. For the truth is that much of what passes for success in the private sector in Nigeria today is the result not so much of improvements in productivity, innovation, or creativity, nor of increases in the amount of capital each worker has available (and can use); but because of an incestuous relationship with the public sector.

Tax waivers and sundry forbearances on offer from the regulatory space permit domestic businesses to profitably pass on their many inefficiencies to their respective markets through high prices. In support of local monopolies across the economy, the fiscal authorities erect laagers of tariff and non-tariff barriers that simply ensure that the market has no competing products, no close substitutes to turn to, even as households realise that these businesses are simply fleecing them. In other sectors, the illusion of competition is punctured by regulatory barriers to entry and exit, which show up in an almost clone-like relationship between the products and services on offer and the prices at which they are offered.

Tax waivers and sundry forbearances on offer from the regulatory space permit domestic businesses to profitably pass on their many inefficiencies to their respective markets through high prices. In support of local monopolies across the economy, the fiscal authorities erect laagers of tariff and non-tariff barriers that simply ensure that the market has no competing products…


There is one aspect, though, in which the Nigerian version of crony capitalism differs from the textbook description: the rattle over which our corporate Tweedledees and Tweedledums do battle is not their plain vanilla product offerings. No! instead, the tension sits deep in these organisations ― at the interface between staff and management. Where in a few notable cases, the relationship unthinkingly continues that between the white managers (who used to run some of these places) and their black clerical and factory hands during the period when the country was a colony.

Intrigued by the near-racist undertones of some of these practices ― separate lavatories (often bigger for the men upstairs, whom by extension must be fuller of the stuff), separate eating places, etc. ― I have sought to understand how these practices play to the advantage of any organisation. The best argument for this segregation that I have heard is that they are aspirational. i.e. the perks that “seniors” are privy to, goad staff at the shop floor to aspire to leadership positions in such institutions as have them.

The difficulty is that even from this vantage, I see only a taller mountain to climb. For what subordinates at the shop floor aspire to in these conditions is not to lead. But to achieve difference from the rest of their unfortunate colleagues. So, these structures create a “them” versus “us” mindset? Yes. Especially when the perquisites by which authority is measured in these work environments are not understood as earned; but gifted to those who make corporate “heaven”.

…if Nigeria Incorporated isn’t “functioning” in the best usage of this word, then its “ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time” is not a mark of its genius, but of its turpitude. It suffers in this sense, no more and no less than the larger society that it is a part of.


Pre-1960, such reinforcement of difference must have been essential to the colonial narrative ― the white boss, to whom such privileges fell naturally was, well, naturally superior to his black foremen and those they supervised. It may even have helped keep the controlled races in check, by sowing the doubt of collective competence in them. But I wager that it may have ignited in these unfortunates a hunger to eat off the silver platter themselves. A hunger that would have driven the anti-colonial movement in most places.

Shorn of its colour divide, the question today is, how does the hunger aroused by corporate Nigeria’s retention of these work relationships work? No different really from the way it worked in the colonial times. For, as Marx observed about Spartacus’ (circa 73-71 BCE), the Thracian was opposed, not so much to slavery as a description of social institutions in his time, but to his own status as a slave. In other words, if Spartacus’ rebellion had succeeded, he would have owned slaves too.

Put this way, the dialectic of Scott Fitzgerald’s quote is easily resolved (at least, in its local application) by how we define the noun “function”. For, if Nigeria Incorporated isn’t “functioning” in the best usage of this word, then its “ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time” is not a mark of its genius, but of its turpitude. It suffers in this sense, no more and no less than the larger society that it is a part of.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.