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Doing Business in Nigeria - 10 Important Things to Note

Originally written as a LawBiz article for Thisday Newspapers in July, 2010. It was written for the Foreign Businessman seeking to understand the basics of doing business in Nigeria.

I often hear people say that “nothing works in Nigeria”. But I say to them “it works differently, just find out how it works”. Talking about how things work, business culture is one major issue that comes up from time to time. So here are a few tips on “typical” Nigeria’s business culture:

1. How to address people? Any particular protocol?

The rule is to address them as they introduce themselves. Be particular about the title: chief, engineer, barrister or doctor. A “Mr” instead of “Chief” can set you back a few apologies on your first meeting.  With the more enlightened middle class pedigree you may ask if it is okay to simply call them by their first name – and it usually is. Many times, they would even ask for you to call them by their first names.

Do not ask people if they have another name just because you have difficulties pronouncing their names. Most names in Nigeria are actually spelt as pronounced, unlike places where certain alphabets are silent or accentuated. You will score brownies for trying to pronounce a name despite the odds. No matter how many times you get it wrong, Nigerians have the patience to guide you again and again – and it gives room for a little laugh which you should not be offended about.

When you are dealing with government officers, e.g. a minister you need to ask what the protocol is – Words like “Honourable, or “Excellency” or “Distinguished” are expected to precede named offices. For example “Distinguished Senator” or “Honourable Minister” – ask questions before you get to your meeting.

2.   Small conversation

Nigerians are very open to all kinds of approaches and do like to make small talk about football (millions of Nigerians support one team on the English league) politics, people, places and more. Average Nigerian is very intelligent, well informed/educated and very well travelled. Most Nigerians have travelled to more countries than many of their European or American counterparts. Perfect English is not hard to come by in Nigeria – provided you do not include accents in your definition of perfect English.

It is important therefore to use the small conversations to source out the level of people you are dealing with so you tailor your relationship accordingly. With a typical middle to upper middle class Nigerian, you would find levels of understanding to be very quick. You will also find many professionals (bankers, architects, stockbrokers, doctors, lawyers etc) who really know their onions. You will find that in very many cases you do not have to be a “school teacher” – trying to explain everything at a pedestrian level.

3. High Pitched Voices

Several Nigerians (particularly from certain parts of the country) tend to be a bit “loud” – boisterous and effervescent in an unusual kind of way. This is the direct opposite to the stiff upper lip and sedate cultures. Do not be offended by this “boisterousity” (Excuse the language).

Many times during a debate this mode of expression may seem “aggressive”. Indeed the tone is often deceptive as it is seldom denotes an offensive disposition. It is mostly about “passion”.

4.    Public and private sector norms

The rules for doing business in the private sector differ from that of the public sector.

For example you may have to be extra nice to the aides of a high ranking public officer if you really intend to see that person and to keep the door open for repeat visits. Whilst the private sector is usually very official and business like. Public officers may not always keep appointments, a call from the Governor or a higher ranking public officer can change the schedule of your host. You need to “win” their aides over with your politeness and little keepsakes you have in your ruck sack each time you visit. Tips in cash are not unusual at such visits.

5.   Nigerian time?

Do not express extreme disgust at lateness to meetings. It is called “Nigerian time”. Depending on the pedigree of your business partner, lateness to meetings may be seen as “one of those things”. It is very advisable to call ahead and reconfirm before you set out.

6.  Handling Infrastructural challenges?

Do not show excessive anxiety or disappointment at any infrastructural deficiency – it puts your host on edge if you react so negatively to a power outage for example.

Nigerians are very critical about their Government and the infrastructural deficits, but they however have an extremely good sense of humour concerning these daily challenges. However do not take that as license to make copious comparisons in an overly critical manner as this may come out as though you are “running down” their environment. You may set a wrong tone for the relationship.

7.  Meetings

Some meetings may tend to drag on because one or two people in attendance are long winded. Be patient – get the key issues and keep trying to bring them back to the points that matter. Try to recap decisions and do a follow up email.

Nigerians may use certain English words that even the English would ask for clarification. At one meeting a lawyer used the word “inchoate” to buttress the fact that a request was a bit premature. The Australian born UK based businessman on the other side asked him to spell the word and asked what it meant.

8. Contacts

A lot of Nigerian business is done on patronage. Name dropping is therefore a regular trend in Nigerian business circles – it gives the name dropper leverage in the business equation and indeed when well used those contacts make the difference. If you have this at the back of your mind you would find that very often people bring in other partners into a business just because they know the “powers” that be. Expect this, and do not be averse to it – provided your business structure protects your interest adequately.

9. Hospitality

Nigerians like to entertain people. Being open to suggestions of lunch or dinner would help you a great deal – particularly if you are adventurous with the local dishes.

10.   Telephone

If you will be in Nigeria for a while it makes sense to have a Nigerian sim card in your mobile phone or bring a spare phone for that purpose. Advertise the fact that you can be reached on that number. It makes life easier for people who need to reach you. Nigerians like to send SMS messages, so be open to sending and receiving text messages. It is not unusual to have a Nigerian carry 2 or 3 mobile phones – “in case any network is down, they need to be reached”.

What may be more surprising is that these phones may keep ringing at meetings and a handful of Nigerians are in the habit of picking up their mobile phones at meetings to say quickly “let me call you back, I am in a meeting”. You may have to live with this and it gets worse or better (the extent of the conversation) depending on the pedigree of your business associate.

Nigeria indeed works differently?