Who do Nigerians say they are?

I recently wrote about how Nigeria badly needs social scientists to figure out some of the seemingly intractable problems facing the country. Now, I’m no social scientist but I recently decided to take my own advice and carry out a small experiment on my unsuspecting social media friends. Stay with me.

I asked people on Facebook and Twitter to complete a short survey. It was to be filled in anonymously as I wanted people to be as relaxed and honest as possible. All I requested was the geopolitical zone they came from, their age bracket, sex and religion. No priming, no leading – just basic information.

But the main thing I wanted to know was how Nigerians define themselves. I asked them to write 10 things about themselves starting with ‘I am’. What I wanted to get at was the concept of the self that Nigerians have. Are they independent or autonomous or geared more towards roles and relationships? Depending on how people view themselves, policy makers will save themselves a lot of stress if they better understand the kind of people they are designing policies for.

Now let’s not get carried away here – I had less than 500 people complete the survey and they were mostly drawn from my own social media circles. Whatever the results, we will never be able to say anything definitive about Nigerians as a group with this limited sample. But since it was no more than a fun survey, let’s play along. I went through all the answers people gave and grouped them into one of two categories based on whether they were individualistic or relationship/community oriented. For example, where someone said, ‘I am a mother’ or ‘I am a husband’, I tagged them as relationship-oriented because both of those functions involve other people i.e. they see themselves in the context of their relationships and not as autonomous individuals. Same for where people said, ‘I am a Nigerian’ or ‘I am Urhobo’. Again, those are not autonomous identities – they are defining themselves as part of a larger group.

On the other hand, where people said things like ‘I am driven’ or ‘I am one of a kind’ or even ‘I am resilient’, I tagged them as autonomous as those are things, concepts of the self that are not really based on relationships or communities. Quite a diverse range of answers fell into this category. People referred to themselves as opinionated, angry, tired, happy, full of life and even as a ‘sex machine’.

So, what were the results? Out of more than 4,000 answers, less than 700 or 17% fell into the relationship or community category. The rest or 83% fell into the autonomous category. Now, someone else might analyse the answers and come up with a different percentage but it is unlikely to change the general direction of the result given how decisive it is. Depending on how you view things, this is quite an interesting result (remember we are just playing along with a small sample to reflect Nigeria). As much as Nigerians are ‘tribalistic’ or even religious, it did not show up in this data. Several people described themselves as Muslims or Christians or as ‘children of God’ but overall, they were a small part of the 17% who are relationship-based. This pattern was the same across all the geopolitical zones – far more autonomous people than community-based ones.

This is all very amusing of course. But what if it’s true and this is how Nigerians really are? One safe conclusion will be that it is not possible to take a top-down approach to policy making in the country – such an approach will be doomed to failure even before it is announced. Designing one policy to cover all Nigerians is never going to work when only a small minority of Nigerians define themselves as Nigerians in the first place.

But wait, if Nigerians are more autonomous does it mean you can’t get anything done in the country as the people are just too unruly? Not really. It can be done but it needs more work. We can say that people who don’t view themselves as part of a community are able to remove themselves from a group and look at themselves in a more analytical manner than people in the other group. For such people, you need to give them some ‘work’ to do when designing policies. That is, design the policies in such a way that allows people figure out some of it for themselves as opposed to hardcoding them in a ‘you must do this’ style.

A couple of years ago, the acting head of the FIRS said they hired drummers and singers to shame people in public to pay their taxes. They got the idea from India where it had been tested and proved successful. Alas, when they brought out drums to embarrass Nigerians to pay their taxes, the Nigerians simply came out and started dancing without being embarrassed at all. If it’s true that Nigerians are more autonomous than community-oriented, you can see why that idea didn’t work. Maybe sending direct text messages to the people telling them that the tax man is closing in on them and has all their bank and other private details might work better. The personal lever will be more useful to pull than the relationship one.

You can extrapolate this to other areas – if someone in an autonomous society doesn’t pay his electricity bill, do you think it makes sense to threaten to disconnect the whole community to get them to pay? Perhaps not. In other words, the electricity company should spend its time and money on technology that makes it easier to disconnect individuals directly.

When things are not working in a society, it might be useful to find out what kind of people the members of that society are. Being autonomous or community-based is not wrong or right per se – people are just different. Policymakers thus must work with the people they have not the people they would like to have.

Take all of this as nothing more than food for thought.

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