Skip to main content

The Nigerian Mindset by Arnold Obomanu

November 4, 2014

As an observer of the Nigerian condition, once you realise this it is as if the scales are suddenly taken off your eyes and a lot of confusing Nigerian behaviors immediately begin to make sense.

Most Nigerians do not believe anyone is seriously working to ensure that they get their fair share of whatever is due them. This makes most of us believe that we are on our own. This belief, in turn, drives a survival-of-the-fittest, every-man-for-himself mindset, which pervades every activity, dictates the rules of engagement between citizens, and fashions the pattern of everyday life in Nigeria.


This subconscious state or mindset, by guiding the thoughts and actions of the majority of Nigerians, is the brush that paints the picture of Nigeria.

While every Nigerian deeply and dearly yearns for some assurance that someone is looking out for his or her interests, the majority have learnt from experience to equip themselves as well as they can and protect their interests by themselves. As an observer of the Nigerian condition, once you realise this it is as if the scales are suddenly taken off your eyes and a lot of confusing Nigerian behaviors immediately begin to make sense.

Until you recognise the existence of this mindset, you will struggle to understand what appears to be the irrationality and complexity of Nigerian behavior, and many people have been so baffled as to posit complex theories about the inferiority of the black race. But what we see is basic human nature at play.

This mindset of being on your own is not always true but is constantly emphasized whenever one hears of or experiences the various forms of injustice that go on in our society, and it tends to drown out every other positive act.

In Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa, one Nigerian civil servant describes his experience this way: “You bribe to get your child into school; you pay to secure your job and also continue to pay in some cases to retain it; you pay ten percent of any contract obtained; you dash the tax officer to avoid paying taxes; you pay a hospital doctor or nurse to get proper attention; you pay the policeman to evade arrest. This catalogue of shame can continue without end.”

When you consider the network of people and institutions connected in that “catalogue of shame”, you see how pervasive this mindset is. And this mindset is particularly insidious because as people act to ensure their individual survival, their actions negatively affect others and reinforce to them that they, in turn, are on their own and need to look out for themselves. We thereby set up a vicious spiral of selfish, survivalist behavior that has turned our nation into a jungle.

For instance, as a result of the experiences of that civil servant, he could easily feel justified to demand bribes at his duty post. As a matter of fact, a lot of the people he has encountered in that chain of corruption may have started their activities as a means of ensuring their own survival or because others are doing it.

This mindset tells Nigerians that they must get all they can now because they have no guarantees for the future. It tells them that the patient Nigerian dog will see no bone and that has significant implications for every developing nation because it means that people live for the moment and are discouraged from thinking for the long-term in many areas of life.

This is not helped by the fact that the young observe the treatment of government retirees and see no incentive to think for the long term. Pensions are stolen regularly and retirees are treated callously when trying to obtain their pittance.

It is the reason being fast and smart is a national virtue while demonstrating trust is the worst social crime a Nigerian can commit. It also explains why a lot of Nigerians demonstrate systematic indiscipline, refusing to form a queue or respect an existing queue but rather spending their time looking for a way to get the better of the system.

It is simply because they have no confidence that the queue will work for everyone. This theme is further explored in Part II of this book because it is symbolic of our current reality as a nation.

Indiscipline is very common and manifests itself in different ways, which continue to entrench this mindset to observers and participants. People deviate from social mores and standards to favor themselves; for example, they urinate anywhere they like and drive against traffic. Government officials and their escorts terrorize others on the roads with constantly blazing sirens.

People of affluence and power shove their power down the throats of less powerful Nigerians; military and police officers humiliate average Nigerians, make them kneel or crawl on the streets at the slightest offence, beat them, or mete out other dehumanizing treatment that is aimed at putting them in their place in the social order.

One of the behaviors that completely baffles Nigerians and foreigners alike is the way people will often queue dutifully to board a plane at Heathrow in London only to start rushing for their hand luggage as soon as the plane gets into Nigerian airspace even before the plane taxis to a complete stop. Such behaviors have led to the absurd theory that there is something in the Nigerian weather that gets in people’s heads.

But in light of our discussion, it is obvious that there is instinctive awareness by every experienced Nigerian in that plane that they need to get their luggage off the conveyor belt as quickly as possible before the luggage is stolen or the belt breaks down or something worse happens. At the end of the day, it is still a reaction to the mindset that no one will look out for you.

Many years ago, I read a Yahoo! Travels article, which described Nigeria as a country that is filled with type A personalities. I believe that observation is the manifestation of this mindset; since everyone is required to be alert and on their toes to defend themselves or seize transient opportunities, the country has spawned aggressive citizens.

Similarly, at any sign of confrontation a lot of Nigerians ask, “Do you know who I am?” Careful analysis shows that this question shows up when people are worried about not being treated well, because they are not important. This omnipresent question is also a tacit admission that if you are not important or influential in Nigerian society, you are likely to get a very raw deal in your various dealings.

It has been made very obvious that if you are not a Big Man—if you are not influential—you will not get served.

Being influential means having power or having the money required to buy power. The greatest form of this power is political power. This straightforward arrangement creates a clear trajectory that points anyone who wants a good life in Nigeria straight to politics or the pursuit of wealth by all means. It explains why virtues like hard work, patience, honesty, delayed gratification, and so forth are pushed to the background.

As the late Nigerian economist Professor Claude Ake put it in Karl Meier’s This House Has Fallen, “we have essentially relations of raw power in which right tends to be co-existential with power and security depends on the control of power. The struggle for power then is everything and is pursued by every means.”

In the context of our discussion, then, the struggle for power is also the struggle for survival. It creates a clear dichotomy in power relations between those who have access to power and those who do not. This dichotomy is well understood by both the strongest and the weakest (who often are the richest and the poorest people, respectively, in Nigerian society).

They know how it works, and they largely go along with it. It is the middle class that rebels and demands a fairer system. Too often, however, their demands fail because they are—or are perceived to be—selfishly fighting to have more of the privileges of the richest rather than fighting to extend their existing privileges to the poorest.

A lot of people who analyse the state of the nation point at leadership failure as a major reason Nigeria has not progressed. Since leaders do not exist in a vacuum, it is possible that their failure is tied to some of the behavior’s that are driven by this mindset. In the next chapter, we will examine the place of leadership in our challenges.

Excerpt from 'The Survival Mindset: A Systematic Approach to Combating Corruption in Nigeria' by Arnold Obomanu. Website: