Femke Becomes Funke: Celebrating mediocrity

Femke van Zeiji

The writer, in her penultimate piece, shares her view on mediocrity within the Nigerian space.

I used to think corruption was Nigeria’s biggest problem, but I’m starting to doubt that. Every time I probe into one of the many issues this country is encountering, at the core I find the same phenomenon: the widespread celebration of mediocrity. Unrebuked underachievement seems to be the rule in all facets of society. A governor building a single road during his entire tenure is revered like the next Messiah; an averagely talented author who writes a colourless book gets sponsored to represent Nigerian literature overseas; and a young woman with no secretarial skills to speak of gets promoted to the oga’s office faster than any of her properly trained colleagues.

Needless to say the politician is probably hailed by those awaiting part of the loot he is stealing; the writer might have got his sponsorship from buddies he has been sucking up to in hagiographies paid for by the subjects; and the young woman’s promotion is likely to be an exchange for sex or the expectancy of it. So some form of corruption plays a role in all of these examples.

But corruption per se does not necessarily stand in the way of development. Otherwise a country like Indonesia—number 118 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, not that far removed from Nigeria’s 139—would never have made it to the G-20 group of major economies. An even more serious obstacle to development is the lack of repercussions for underachievement. Who in Nigeria is ever held accountable for substandard performance?

Since I came here, I have been on a futile search for a stable internet connection that does what it promises. I started with an MTN FastLink modem (I consider the name a cruel joke), and then I moved on to an Etisalat MiFi connection (I regularly had to keep myself from throwing the bloody thing against the wall), and now I am trying out Cobranet’s U-Go. I shouldn’t have bothered: equally crap. And everyone knows this. They groan and mutter and tweet about it. But still, to my surprise, no one calls for a class-action suit against those deceitful providers.

A one-day conference I attended last year left me equally puzzled. Organisation, attendance and outcome left a lot to be desired, if you ask me. But over cocktails, after the closing ceremony, everyone congratulated each other over the wonderful conference—that started two hours late, of which the most animated part was undeniably lunch, and in which not a single tangible decision had been made. This left me wondering whether we had attended the same event.

I thought these issues to be unrelated at first, but gradually I came to see the connection. Nigeria is the opposite of a meritocracy: you do not earn by achieving. You get to be who and where you are by knowing the right people. Whether you work in an office, for an enterprise or an NGO, at a construction site or in government, your abilities hardly ever are the reason you got there. Performing well, let alone with excellence, is not a requirement, in fact, it is discouraged. It would be too threatening: showing you’re more intelligent, capable or competent than the ‘oga at the top’ (who, as a rule, is not an overachiever either) is career suicide.

It is an attitude that trickles down from the very top, its symptoms eventually showing up in all of society, from bad governance to bad service to bad craftsmanship.

Where excellence meets no gratification, what remains to be celebrated is underachievement. That is why it is not uncommon to find Nigerians congratulating each other over substandard results. It is safer to cuddle up comfortably in shared mediocrity than to question it, since the latter might also expose your own less than exceptional performance. Add to this the taboo of criticising anyone senior or higher up and it explains why so many join in the admiration of the emperor’s new clothes.

I have been writing this column for the last year, and after ten months I realised my angles were getting more predictable and my pieces less edgy. I figured newcomers do not remain newcomers forever and therefore decided to round up the ‘Femke Becomes Funke’ series this month, a year after it started. Ever since I announced the ending, tweeps have been asking me to change my mind and in comments on the columns and through my website I get songs of praise that make me feel my analyses of Nigerian society are indispensable. If I had no sense of self-criticism, I might be tempted to reconsider my decision to discontinue the series and start producing second-rate articles. Who would point this out to me if I did?

The hardest thing to do in Nigeria is to continue to realise there is honour in achievement and pride in perfection. I imagine the frustration of the many Nigerians who do care for their work, who take pride in their outcomes and who feel the award is in a job well done. When you know beforehand that excellence will not be rewarded, you are bound to do the economically sane thing and limit your investments to accomplishing the bare minimum. This makes Nigeria a pretty cumbersome place for anyone striving for perfection.

Talk to Femke on Twitter: @femkevanzeijl

Next week: the very last episode of Femke becomes Funke


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  • Fred

    Absolutely. I would pin the cause of Nigerian decadence to lack of just consequence but you touched on that as well. Precisely.

  • Yep. Agree with most of what you have written. There is a mentality in the majority of Nigerians that is, so far, unshakeable. Not only do they worship mediocrity, they are frustratingly docile. The two core factors that promote this mentality are corruption and a lack of education. I consider education the more important of the two. When the majority of any population have had good education, all other problems start to fall one by one. It will never be an overstatement that “knowledge is power.”

    Unfortunately, successive Nigerian governments have made it an absolute goal to destroy education mainly because they have stolen, and continue to steal, enough money to send their children to good schools abroad. It is not by chance that southern Nigeria has always been more developed than the north even at times of predominant northern leadership. It is a reflection of a more educated southern population.

    I think the one thing that will give Nigeria a kick up the backside is for the oil to run out. When there is no more money to steal perhaps only people that have the genuine will to make positive change will compete for office. Perhaps then the rot (and mediocrity) will start to abate.

    Until then, for now, I will continue to be a Fulani man in England (apologies to Sting). That said, if Fashola will run for president, I will come to Naija and vote for him even if that means crawling naked with my balls dragging on broken glass from London to Abuja. It will be relief to my balls, though, that idiotic tribal wahala and the “zoning system” will not allow another Yoruba man to be president so soon after Obasanjo.

    • Mpitikwelu_na_Ugwu_Awusa

      I think we need to ship all Fulanis to England. Imagine a Nigerian Fulbe (very distinct from Senegalese) talking about docility. Perhaps this country is still redeemable.

      • Exactly. When I made the statement I generalised it. I am the greatest critic of my people. I am now WAY past tribal b***s**t. Clearly you are not and thus part of the problem.

        • Mpitikwelu_na_Ugwu_Awusa

          am glad you are way past the BS, but the rest of your ilk are parasitic free loaders who clearly aren’t past the BS. I have to put up with them.

          • Egbe Bere…

            I don’t know what part of Nigeria you’re from, but I suspect from the ibo land but I may be wrong. As an igbo man, I can’t point fingers to another region of Nigeria or it’s inhabitants if I can’t feel safe in my home for fear that I will be kidnapped by one of my igbo brothers. The parasitic freeloader mentality is everywhere in Nigeria. Some places more than others, but everywhere nonetheless. At the end of the day, there are less people in Nigeria willing to work hard for living than there are people willing to work hard.

          • Mpitikwelu_na_Ugwu_Awusa

            dead wrong. a typical Nigeria, male or female is a ‘hustler’, except the usual suspects roaming the streets in their thousands with bowls in hand. They are dangerous to you and I.

          • At first glance you seemed very educated. With your last comment you have revealed your true type. The type that are knowledgeable and articulate and who spread hate and misinformation that does infinitely more damage than some of the “usual suspects” you described above.

            You are no longer worthy of my attention nor of this discourse. Take care.

          • Mpitikwelu_na_Ugwu_Awusa

            no hard feeling, bro. just keeping it real.

          • At first glance you seemed very educated. However, with your last comment you revealed your true type. The type that are knowledgeable and articulate and who spread hate and misinformation that does infinitely more damage than the “usual suspects” you described above.
            You are no longer worthy of my attention nor of this discourse. Take care.

  • esaulogbon

    As a graduate of computer engineering with very good results… I searched for job in my country for 6 years after graduation… I never got one.. what I got I would call menial jobs to keep body and soul together like Nigerians would say. Then only those with connections to politicians or godfathers even with poor degrees got those juicy jobs! Then I began to think seriously about my future in Nigeria. I applied to further my education, precisely to do a master’s degree… I applied for MSc in UI and other foreign institutions… I attempted to apply for commonwealth scholarship. I remember going to commonwealth website to seek information. I read that I must download the application form, fill it and submit it along with other required documentations to the ministry of education. I did, and I traveled to Abuja… only to be told I can only submit the form directly printed by the ministry. I then asked for it… I was denied! Not long after then, I got offer from another country with full scholarship, I completed my degree and now at the verge of completing my PhD in Engineering in Europe. You got a perfect diagnosis of the cause our Nigeria’s backwardness. But this is the truth Nigerians dont like to read or get told. Nigeria is a country that celebrates mediocrity, 100%, I agree with you! If you are person who believes in merit, in Nigeria… you can never amount to anything… This is my fear about returning to that country after I must have completed my PhD!!!

    • Mpitikwelu_na_Ugwu_Awusa

      Dangote Truck service division needs you whenever you finish, son.

      • Enemona

        You’re not in his league quit the sheer jealousy. You’re one typical example in Femke’s article. You suck up to the government in power. You defend corruption but he has chosen a different path, the path of dignity.

        • Mpitikwelu_na_Ugwu_Awusa

          you seems to be my groupie. By the way, that was a joke for esaulogbon. you need not react to it. But again you are my groupie. Keep following me around the web.

  • Mpitikwelu_na_Ugwu_Awusa

    First of your articles that I completely agree with. I found most of the others very patronising and suspicious. I will address that one day.
    That said, we have an inherited problem here when a bunch of mediocre 30 year olds,took over in late 60’s.Since then, except early 80’s, competence has been replaced with bluster. It hasn’t changed much since 2000 but my opinion is that merit is gradually returning to public service.

  • Lanre

    Hi Funke. You diagnosed a problem facing Nigeria and identified it as Mediocrity. What is the etiology? How do we identify cause and effect? You have looked at Nigeria given its spatial dimensions, geographic proportions and cultural milieu and ascribed Mediocrity as the problem. You only scratched the surface, Funke.

    Now, let me tell you as briefly as I can the problem with Nigeria. We Yorubas have a saying, oro po ninu iwe kobo, meaning there is a lot to say in a book, even if you bought it for just one penny. You see, it is painful when you as a foreigner visiting can easily see something we all know. The fact of the matter is this:

    Nigeria is a country cobbled together with people from various backgrounds, language, culture, disposition to life etc. When the Political Leadership took off between 1950-1960, you could see the differing approaches to governance in the regions. And then the military came. They destroyed everything. Even though the reasons for the coup were justified, the problem was fundamentally that Nigeria should never have been one country. The country is artificial.

    Great people have tried to rule the country. People who would have bested Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower or John F. Kennedy. Now, when the military took over, they attempted to force these people together. The rulers who attempted to govern came from very poor social backgrounds of lack both in education, in material terms, spiritual terms and culturally. What that created was a corruption binge as these young soldiers feasted on the wealth of the country. In order to maintain power and their position in society, they created an Agbero Comprador class of leeches, rent seekers, bootlickers masquerading as businessmen and chairmen of companies. That is where Mediocrity started in Nigeria, Funke. We have been governed by the wrong set of people who have institutionalized corruption. Corruption cannot appreciate or recognize achievement. Let me stop here. I will await your next column.

  • Araceli Aipoh

    (*-*)

  • Nefertiiti

    Femke,

    Yes, our problem in Nigeria is mediocrity and this is a mind-set that follows Nigerians even after they’ve gone abroad. So, it’s necessarily the environment that makes Nigerians mediocre, it’s the people, we are very docile and accepting. We would rather cling to the thinnest thread of hope than stand up and demand a better lives for ourselves. The poverty of the Nigerian mindset is quite shocking if you take your time to analyse it and in many respects I don’t see it improving significantly. In my opinion the cause of our mediocrity isn’t necessarily due to bad leadership, instability, tribalism or corruption; these are the results of mediocrity. The issue lies deep within our cultures and how we’ve refused to evolve them nor develop an identity that is more progressive and celebrates meritocracy. Growing up, I understood that women/children are seen and not heard. Elders words are to be listened to and never challenged. You must never question the status quo. Now with a system like that, it works fine when you’re in a small tight-knit community, but once that community is infiltrated by foreign ideas, then these ‘virtues’ become vices that threaten the very fabric of our existence as a people.
    Typical example, if you read a post made by a large number of Nigerians on Facebook, you’ll notice that half of the text consists typos masquerading as slang. If you draw attention to it the usual response you’ll get is ‘English is not my mother tongue’. What the…? As if that;s even the point. If English isn’t your language of choice then write in a different language, but the point is try at least to express yourself coherently and with dignity. This is a trivial example, but this mind-set permeates our day-to-day lives and what you do everyday defines who you are.
    sometimes I feel we as a people are not ready to live our lives properly on earth because we’re hoping for a better life in heaven. Or something along those lines.
    I don’t know what the cure is, but I don know that you can’t expect a higher standard from others if you don’t hold yourself to a higher standard. I thought the problems we had were leadership, but I see now that our problems in Nigeria our ourselves. I just hope I can be more of a solution than a problem to my country. I really want to be a positive exception.

  • Nefertiiti

    *I meant to say it’s NOT necessarily the environment that makes Nigerians mediocre.