Even though I write this piece as a Nigerian, with fellow Nigerians as the primary target audience, its application is universal.
Let’s perform some mind-reading activity together. Look for an infant; that’s a baby anywhere from a day to six months old. Give it any object: a button, a lock of hair or even a feeding bottle and I will predict what thoughts are racing through its mind. As it grips the object and stares at it, it is asking the question: “What is in this thing for me?” A second later he will immerse it in his mouth and moisten it with saliva as he tries to figure out what he can get from it. Sigmund Freud calls this phase of infanthood the oral stage and I daresay that the average Nigerian is stuck in this phase and may never outgrow it. Let me explain.
Take for instance, if you go to a restaurant, a shop, a bank or anywhere with a car park, you will most likely find guards employed to keep watch and aid vehicle movement, in and out of the premises. The moment you finish your business and start walking towards your car, you have provided yourself as a potential business relationship for the guard. He subtly sizes you up and waits for you to climb inside the car. If he rates your potential above average, he would position himself behind your reversing vehicle, making feverish gestures to guide you as you maneuver.
As you are about to finally drive out, he locks eyes with you, flashes a winsome grin and drops the official soliciting line: “Anything for your boy?” It is not that he volunteered for the guard duties or that you couldn't navigate your way out yourself. It is just our oral-stage fixation to request for a tip for the simplest of actions; with guards, the wave of hands it’s too much to qualify as a favour. It’s the same when you go to an office where some funds like gratuity or even student scholarship is processed; you immediately make yourself a potential relationship that must be milked to satisfy the oral stage craving.
If you happen to find yourself in need of an expert to do some work for you and you ask the average Nigerian for referrals, you have made yourself a likely business connection to be analyzed for the question: “What can I get from this?” Let’s say you ask for an architect to draw some plans for you, if he didn't study architecture he’d tell you that he knows the ideal guy for you. The moment you ask to meet for discussions, you can rest assured that any bill you receive has been padded to include a cut for the ‘source’ who led the architect to you. Whatever happened to doing someone a favour!
The worst is with business propositions. I have heard of many community development projects that have not seen the light of day, several years after being conceived, all because someone could not see what was in it for him, monetarily. When I served in the Youth Corps, I was made the Corps Liaison Officer (CLO) of my local government. I was glad at the opportunity and, with my ‘cabinet’, immediately swung into action to make our impact felt in the rural community. We were going to levy the two hundred and something strong corps members a tiny amount every month. We wanted to use it for purposes like organizing HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns in secondary schools, furnishing the orphanage with raw foodstuff and renovating our secretariat. When I suggested the monthly levy, I was shocked to be severely criticized for asking for too little. The support I got for our projects was quite overwhelming, I was so excited and I felt that the one-year stay in the village without electricity, potable water or telecommunication network might be worth it after all.
Then, as we were rounding up the project discussion meeting, one of the state government officials overseeing the Corps heard about our plans. He sent for me and told me to immediately cancel the levy. He continued that if we were going to carry out any projects we would have to devise other ways of raising funds. I countered that other local governments were doing same but was told that it was a directive from the state authorities to forestall any case of embezzlement. I pleaded with him as persuasively as I could, giving him my word to account for every dime, but he stuck to his guns. Coming from a psychological high earlier in the day, my dejection was almost unbearable.
I called for my general secretary and narrated everything to him. He reassured me and said to take heart as he felt he could prevail on the man. When he returned he said, without batting an eye-lid, “The man needs us to commit to giving him something, no matter how small, from the monthly levy”. I don’t know which shocked me more: the ease with which he could mouth the words or the rottenness of soul of the sanctimonious man preaching against embezzlement. I felt frustrated. I left for my room, locked myself in and tightly hugged myself. I felt that it was the only way I could prevent myself from breaking things in anger towards the back-stabbing, corrupt official.
The following day, my secretary informed me that the man had asked for a meeting where I would commit to the deal. I walked into the man’s office, sat down, looked at him and couldn't say a word. He smacked his large dark lips, scalded from years of smoking and said that he felt I had come to him with some understanding. I remained speechless, the office was dead-silent until my conscience-less secretary said, “Sir, we have come to tell you that we shall be giving you a monthly transport stipend from the levy because we understand the rigours you go through to carry out your duties”. I almost puked. This man was paid a salary and an allowance for all the rigours my secretary was sympathizing about. The man looked at me and said, “You are the CLO, I want to hear those words from your lips”. I felt stupid. I couldn't repeat the words; not because it was in a foreign language but because my insides were not saying them. I quietly left the meeting and till I passed out of the corps, we had no HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, gave no foodstuffs to the orphans and our secretariat remained with a leaking roof and broken windows, in short, the abode of rodents and all manner of scary creeping things.
The danger with our oral-stage fixation is that we shoot ourselves in the foot every time we seek what we stand to gain from a relationship, a transaction or an opportunity. Maybe that is the reason no Nigerian-owned businesses exist long enough to mark a Golden Jubilee. This is mostly traceable to one of two cases. First, the moment the owner nurtures the business to a level where it starts generating profit, the fixation kicks in and he begins to wonder what he can get from his own business. He sticks his hand into his turnover and starts living large and before you know it, the business becomes history. Or secondly, as the owner starts to hire hands to run the growing business, they begin to find ways to get what is in the business for themselves. Nobody thinks about what he can give, how he can help, who can be served. Rather, our eyes are trained, ears attuned and appetite whetted to find what’s in it for us.
The first building block of any business is answering the question: “What can I offer?” not “What can I get?” I believe that asking the wrong question is one reason that as intelligent, self-dependent and risk-prone as Nigerians tend to be, our entrepreneurial genius does not get any meaningful expression. Let us start from today to retrain ourselves to ask what we can give; because when we have what to give, people will begin to ask us for what we want in return for what we can give.