Everyone has a guy; or a babe; or a person. If you are Nigerian, you have a person, more accurately a pessin. Matter of fact, you should have more than one pessin, you should have people. Every Nigerian has people. These people are double agents or in some cases triple agents, they are strategically placed government officials or operatives who represent your interests, theirs and that of governments. You should typically aim for the trifecta, Police, Immigration and Road Safety.
These strategically placed people make life easier for you, help you avoid the queue when processing a new license, or are a call away to talk you out of traffic violations; help you process a new passport with minimum ease or in some cases speed the justice system by arresting your would-be enemies, without credible cause of course. People make the world go round and Nigeria is full of people, literally.
Forget the Naira, the real Nigerian currency is these people and just like currency you can trade them and change them. I have a person, I met him during the Christmas holidays when I needed to renew my driver’s licence and I couldn’t find my old pessin. I tried to borrow my father’s pessin and my brother –in-law’s pessin, but that didn’t work out. So I marched down to the Vehicle Inspection Office to ask legitimate questions on how to renew my license.
Arriving there I spoke to the first person I met and told him what I came to accomplish; he quickly dispatched with a list of requirements I needed including a certificate from a driving school among others, it would also require me to queue for a tally only to join another queue; at the first sign of a furrowed brow he offered what would come next. All of this could be sorted out if I was willing to pay above the asking price, for facilitation.
At another sign of hesitation, he rattled off how the normal fee was N6000 and I was welcome to participate but I wouldn’t be getting the license till New Year. He then moved in for the kill, if I were to double that fee and chalk it down to facilitation, I would have what I wanted within the 24 hours. Let it not be said that government official’s sales and customer service skills are lacking; simply refocus their energies.
Looking at the long queue of disgruntled faces on the metal frame benches under the make-shift canopy that was doing precious little to spare us from the Saharan sun; it wasn’t a hard sell. I paid for the express service. I got a pessin.
True to his word, my person delivered, but that isn’t what struck me the most about the transaction, the most striking thing is that it is normal, it is automatic. To first time visitors to Nigeria this is what is often termed as corruption and they are probably right; it takes a certain remove to realise however that this is the Nigerian way.
Commonplace services which should be processed with no hassle often require facilitation fees or the likes. At first glance, this is the problem of the Nigerian state, nothing is done the right way. The problem with that sweeping statement is the assumption that this is exclusive to Nigeria or that it cannot be dealt with without draconian policies and whole-sale revolution.
Government among other things is ultimately meant to ensure the protection of property and life, and provide common goods and services. Most government agencies are willing to provide these services but may not be able to do so adequately for a myriad of reasons, lack of funding, poor staffing, poor training, lack of proper equipment; which really all stem from one. Funding.
Additionally, government agencies are providing social services; so in most cases their price points cover just the cost of administration and nothing more. This is part of the social contract, agreed, but it is clearly not enough as most of these agencies are still dangerously latched to the government teat and are still failing on service delivery.
It occurs to me, that there is an obvious solution; legitimising what is already common practice; legitimising the Nigerian way. Let’s spend the real Nigerian currency and spend it openly. This isn’t revolutionary, in some parts of the world, if you want to access quicker government services, pay the premium. Want to get a visa or your passport faster?? Pay express fees. Birth certificate?? Pay express fees.
So why should it be any different with Nigeria, most of us already pay express fees for government rendered services, so why not legitimise it, bring it out of the dark and cleanse it of the connotations of bribery and corruption. There are several debates on the root cause of our national malaise, stealing vs corruption, identity politics vs overbearing federal system, personally I believe it is more complacency than anything else. However most agree that the nerve centre is corruption, by estimates, Nigeria has lost $7.92bn to illicit oil trading, on another hand it is estimated another $17bn was lost in arms procurement in 2015 alone; it makes one wonder just how big the Nigerian economy truly is.
If we are to infer, how much money is the government losing by not offering premium services- if we imagine a system where the officer or agent is rewarded for selling premium services as well as splitting the additional fee with the agency concerned, we begin to imagine a system that works.
Put in simpler terms if my pessin knew that paying for my license at N13000 would mean, N6000 would be paid to the commission as the statutory amount, N5000 would be his sales commission and the additional N2000 would be paid to the commission for express fees, he or she may be comfortable at the idea of making more money without contravening ethics or service guidelines.
We may even experience better service delivery, more funds to improve staff welfare, the customer experience, run better facilities and adopt best practices.
There are obvious pitfalls to this idea, for starters, if this becomes the standard for government delivered services, what is the incentive for any of these officers or agents, when it would be possible to walk up to any desk officer and pay- how do they put work in? Secondly how do we ensure the same level of service delivery is accessible to those who cannot afford the fees for premium service?? Additionally, how do we ensure that the monies charged will be used to improve service delivery at all??, it is just as likely that someone wipes all proceeds. Why would officers who have been more or less getting away with trading on this standard, embrace legitimising it??
Admittedly some of these are macro-issues, that will need to be solved as part of a systemic overhaul, and some services do not lend themselves to legitimising, if you break traffic violations you should pay the fine -but we can all agree that there should be better ways to administer that as well- but some of the questions have relatively simple answers.
The desk officers, agents, will still be responsible for administration and will do the leg work, and yes it is likely that you remove the incentive when it becomes a standard option, however more fees should result in pay increases for the service anyway, all you’d be doing is delaying their gratification from Point of Sales to monthly take home.
Ensuring that the same level of quality is available to those who cannot afford premium services, or those who opt to pay the standard rate for services isn’t as difficult, it is part of the process. Adopting best practice and automating systems will deliver quality across the board. The difference will be the speed of delivery; the travel industry offers a good analogy. Buying a newer, safer plane is something all classes benefit from, their in-flight experience and perks are what differ.
Additionally, government as employers can seize the initiative and make this the standard; they do not need a referendum to make this official policy, they just make it official and officers, once convinced that one way or another this will result in a better pay for them, will embrace it.
The Nigerian way is a complex maze of patronage, rent, handouts, goodwill and good old fashion bootlicking; most Nigerians have to navigate this maze every day and while some have become rather adept at weaving and twisting, it is arduous living, it is the Nigerian way. It is time to make it a little less complicated, it is time we spend the real Nigerian currency.
Babatunde Oyateru currently heads Corporate Communication for Shelter Afrique and is a frequent commentator on Nigerians affairs.