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The DNA of wealth and work in Nigeria

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It Nigeria’s 150 odd languages, none links wealth, making money to work. The old Calvinist work ethic does not exist in Nigeria. For the Calvinist wealth was a product of work: a reward. It therefore questions any predestination: instead encourages free trade, questioning all commercial arrangements which do not support the ethics of work for wealth.

The Nigerian languages describe wealth as something you look for. The Yoruba say monwaowo: the Ibo – ana ma cho ego. The KalabariIjaw – Aigbigi dokia re. In Hausa – Ina nemo n kudi. There is almost an element of luck; a random chance that may come your way. Not because you work for it. There is an unpredictable element in Nigeria so far as making money is concerned.

The languages also have the adage that “you eat from where you work”: “a bull will eat grass if you put grass in front of him”. Ordinarily this would mean that your work place is where you get paid: i.e. you eat from where you work. “But eating” here connotes more than food. Eating here as metaphorical: it includes acquiring money illegally from your place of work. The adage of “the bull and grass is about the intrinsic nature of the bull”. Translated in our language today, it means that it is the nature of man to benefit from its position.

It may also explain why there is so much corruption in Nigeria. This Nigerian phrase implies that there is no morality if you “eat” from your work place. It excuses all insider trading, asking for bribes for everything that passes your desk; spending less than you should and pocketing part of the money, or indeed taking all the money and doing nothing.

Any and every agency is employed in this search for money. There is no link between the thief and the corrupt. In all Nigerian languages, stealing is condemned and in some areas a thief is a pariah. But no one ever calls someone a thief. If you do, he may take umbrage and get very vexed. But calling him corrupt is like pouring water on a duck’s back. At most he might reply to say if he was corrupt, did he steal your money or the money of any one you know?

It is taboo to steal; in fact thieves when caught, in the market have a tyre put on their necks and the tyre is burnt. It’s called a necklace. The abuse of being a thief affects not only the individual but his family who would be shunned by everybody. A corrupt person throws a party and everyone attends. Many send their children to him for help. He becomes a chief, a pillar of society. None of the adages equate stealing with helping yourself to make money by taking commissions from contractors working for projects in your office. In fact, kickback is regarded as a polite way of saying thank you.

The answer to the adage that “you eat where you work” or that “you are looking for money” is that you will “find it” The Yoruba say -motiriowo; Ibo – a fugom ego; Ijaw– A igbigIerite; etc. Meaning I have seen or found money. It was a discovery not a product of hard work directly, you may be hardworking but if you are unlucky you will never “find” money – never be rich. Another variant of this is that all wealth and calamities are from God/Allah. Any calamity that befalls you is because in some way you have failed in the eyes of God, Allah or the gods, or it is a payment for something you or a member of your family has done.

7. When you have found money, you have to pray to protect it. You have to find an insurance to protect that money, through the church, the mosque (mallam) or some other Nigerian traditional medium – the babalawo, high priest of the occult etc. It is not enough that your money is from an excellent business plan. It must be guarded spiritually. You would build a church, give money to the pastor, meet all obligations, give access, scholarship etc to people especially members of your church, mosque or cult. At the same time some traditional medicine men, priest; (babalawo) would be recruited to help insure your wealth. Because your wealth has drawn envy, anger etc. from other people the devil has entered into, you must be protected from the machinations of evil people who are out to harm you since wealth is so capricious. In some of our languages we say that wealth is a stranger. You do not know when he would come and he may not tell you when he is leaving.

It is of course perfectly possible to explain those perceptions and behavior in economic and psychological terms – that there are enemies everywhere willing to pull you down is explicable as competition in business or service. That wealth is capricious is no more than risk assessment and management etc. As for ensuring that the company is protected – that is insurance which companies take out for myriad reasons.
To be continued tomorrow


In this article:
Patrick Dele Cole
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