Nigerians wear some of the most expensive watches in the world. If it is expensive, we buy it.
I do not suggest that we mean to tell time by that watch; we usually just want people to admire our wealth. It is the same story on our roads: we amaze visitors by the quality of the expensive cars on our roads. This does not mean that those who buy the cars actually drive them. We live such chores for “drivers” who often cannot read the manuals.
The concept of “African Time” is said to have been invented by a Nigerian, making us heirs of a bizarre way of using the chronograph that has confounded the world for ages.
A Nigerian would announce an event, or send out an invitation complete with the date, the venue, and the time. Determined to honour the wish of the host, you labour to arrive there well ahead of time, only to find the venue to be so desolate you fall into panic.
You return to your invitation card, or your map. You consult with the neighbors, passersby, anyone.
Yes, you do have the right location, they assure you, but you are “too early”. Two or three hours later, long after the event was supposed to have begun—or ended—your host shows up, looking relaxed and on top of the world.
“What happened?” you ask?
He is surprised. “What do you mean?” he asks back.
“Yes, what happened? Wasn’t the wedding supposed to have started four hours ago?
He dissolves in helpless mirth? “Ah…that was just to make sure people arrived on time!” he assures you, hugging your bones to breaking point.
Guests at Nigerian events have been blackmailed like this forever by people who take delight in explaining that “African Time” is no offence at all. In effect, we should not use the expensive watches on our wrists as a tool for planning anything beyond one event.
There are two problems. First, it is unclear that other Africans deploy this menace as irresponsibly as Nigerians do. Even if they do, it is probably the case that Nigerians, in view of their large populations, are a factor in perpetuating it.
Note that Nigerians are not late when they attend professional events, or even social events being hosted by people of other cultures. We save our contempt of time and etiquette for when we are invited by our own people. It is not unusual for people departing a party to find, just arriving, others who are only just arriving despite the event having been scheduled for eight hours earlier.
Perhaps part of the issue is that the guest believes he is doing the host a favour. Some hosts are kind enough to absorb the implied insult; I make no effort to restrain my outrage.
Of greater importance, has the concept of “African Time” spilled over into public policy? I do not refer to official events; I have indeed been present at official events which began embarrassingly late.
And I recall an incident where a Nigerian ruler was so far behind in his official schedule in New York that he simply abandoned a key meeting with major businesses that he had asked for. He was already out of the country by the time his guests found out!
No, I refer to African Time in terms of the meaning of a commitment: when does a government’s or a leader’s credibility expire?
As Nigeria faces general elections next month, I repeat that in 2011, I documented the electoral campaign of Nigeria’s current leader fairly closely, and published some of his commitments. Last week, as he commenced his campaign for re-election, I wondered: is he simply caught in an African time warp?
Mr. Jonathan thinks he should get another four years to do what he should have done, and some Igbo leaders—for instance—seem to agree. A meeting hosted by Alex Ekwueme, a Second Republic Vice President, is said to have obtained yet another promissory note, from Mr. Jonathan’s advisers that the President would meet with them to explain his South East record and present his second term manifesto.
“It is time for the president to give Ndigbo a realistic timeline for the completion of whatever projects, ongoing or on the drawing board, which he has promised the zone since 2011," someone said.
Mr. Jonathan’s promises to the Igbos had included, among many: building coastal roads and rail from Lagos to Calabar; a Second Niger Bridge; the Onitsha Inland Port; constructing all the major roads linking Anambra with neighboring states; upgrading the Enugu Airport to international level; dredging the River Niger; building a dry port in Aba; rehabilitating all the main roads into Abia; tackling the erosion crisis; stamping out kidnapping; making a dual carriageway of the Enugu-Abakaliki Express Road within one year; and converting the Abakaliki Federal Medical Centre into a teaching hospital.
In a new twist on African Time, Igbo leaders want to negotiate another four years to justify the last four.
Here is another time-warp scenario. At last week’s launching of Mr. Jonathan’s Presidential Campaign Organisation in Abuja, the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) topmost official, National Chairman Adamu Mu’azu, issued to the president the worst recommendation to voters it is possible to issue a sitting president, characterizing the PDP as unjust.
“We say that members of the PDP should not be used and dumped again,” the party chairman warned the party’s presidential flag bearer. “Monkey dey work, baboon dey chop. That must stop. This time round, monkey must work and monkey must eat.”
Mr. Jonathan did not appear to understand any of the zoo insults. He did not ask for the primates to be separated from the baboons, the orangutans from the chimpanzees; or whether there was a possibility Abuja could accommodate them all in another four-year feast.
Instead, he travelled to Afghanistan: “Without doubt, the forthcoming elections will mark a critical point in our nation’s history,” he said. “The eyes of the international community are focused on the transition that lies ahead of us; the fifth post-military rule general elections that will be conducted under a civilian dispensation in Nigeria.”
This brings me to my final scenario: About one year ago, in a speech at TEDx Euston, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, made a strong appeal for campaign finance reform in Africa. I said she was to be celebrated for raising it but suggested that she treat it as a Nigerian problem, and address it in Abuja, where the disease was at its most vicious.
“If we don’t solve this problem, people will continue to find unorthodox means of financing their elections, of financing the implantation of democracy. And this very means may be the root of some of the corruption we do not want, which may totally affect the way we do business.”
Three weeks ago, the tragedy was on full display in Abuja as President Jonathan commenced his 2015 presidential campaign by amassing over N21 billion in the illegal funding decried by Okonjo-Iweala.
The question is: what time it is in Nigeria? When will Nigerians understand you cannot change course by driving in circles?