To get a better understanding of Nigerian life, we started a series called ‘Compatriots’, detailing the everyday life of the average Nigerian. As a bi-weekly column, a new installment will drop every other Tuesday of the month, exploring some other aspect of the Nigerian landscape.
In this, we checked in with a young Nigerian woman, currently grappling with employment in Nigeria’s geriatric-minded civil service, and how her continued employment might ruin her chances of subsequent employment elsewhere.
Before beginning my role as a tier-one officer of the federal government, I often prided myself on my logic, punctuality and inclination for self-improvement. These days, 6 months into my employment, you can find me sauntering into the office well past the 8 am deadline, signing in an arrival time of 7:15am regardless, while hauling my morning breakfast of pap and akara, purchased from the lady one street away.
In the first 3 months of my employ, breakfast would have been followed with a scintillating 30 minutes with the most High, usually beginning at 9 am. But when one or two missed fellowship sessions turned into frosty greetings and hard stares from my co-workers, I abandoned communal worship for a little catch up on the Korean dramas that would keep me company throughout the day.
Currently living my truth as a Nigerian government worker trope, I could say my descent was almost inevitable when, qualifications be damned, I was granted employment through libations offered to the Nigerian god of nepotism.
Like any 5 out of 6 government workers currently in service, it isn’t enough to simply write the entrance examination, casting the fate of results to the wind. Matters are almost always taken into human hands and how far legs can reach is usually stretched to the limit. All in a bid to beat the inverse supply of government jobs to its demand. Something always has to give.
To explain the demand for the popularity of federal government jobs, two things are usually at play. One, how high-paying the roles are, despite having work schedules that afford the average worker the flexibility to focus on personal pursuits. It is why a role like mine, currently little more than a glorified administrative assistant, accords me a salary beyond the edges of a quarter of a million Naira. Coupled with the fact that this salary is underpinned with 13th and 14th-month salaries, routine bonuses and allowances, and a job security no private firm can offer; a government job might be the only thing liable to beat a foreign visa as the Nigerian dream.
It is also why openings into the said agencies are so (wrongfully) guarded by those with the reach to do so. And the reason my parents exchanged brown envelopes where necessary, using every last bit of influence they could muster, to ensure I was placed smack in the middle of employment opportunity.
As a direct product of a system that allows merit to be side-stepped for influence reach, it would be hypocritical to call out the system while profiting from it. But I do accept the wrong in it.
At first, I began my position mildly riddled with guilt and a manic determination to prove my worth in the agency. Capitalising on my youth and relative technology proficiency, I set out to counter the worrying waste of paper and multiplicity of records that plagued my department. Putting out a detailed plan, I stated from start to finish how an electronic overhaul would benefit my division and even devised a seamless means of keeping track of files, in an email to my department head. After a direction to print out the 24-paged contents of the email, I was told to keep up the good work and make sure fresh ideas like this kept coming in. The last I saw of my plans, they had made the move from his desk to a forgotten side-table to his left, gathering the very best servings of daily dust.
When that overhaul didn’t come to fruition, I again attempted to teach the old dog that was the Nigerian civil service, a new trick with a more coherent filing system.
Although, I’ll admit this was borne more out of self-preservation than any love for efficiency. You see, as the rookie and youngest addition to my department, I made the grave mistake of showing my hand to be just that — offering to purchase food, volunteering to make copies, so it was not too far-fetched that I became the go-to when files needed to be retrieved from the cavernous hell-hole that is the office filing room. When my attempts to re-organise the first few files from the letter A were met with constant disregard and the occasional misplacement of other alphabets into the A row, I quickly gave up and promptly developed a well-marketed allergy that made the filing room a no-go for me.
As I mentioned, I am surrounded by middle-aged to elderly officials. Their camaraderie is characterised by lighthearted jibes, usually delivered in Yoruba, a proclivity for throwing professionally catered for office birthday celebrations and a nimbleness belying their ages, as they make it to the exit doors, once it the close of business at 5 pm. For those living in far-off areas, a sneaky getaway at 4 pm is the usual practice.
For all their conviviality, however, there is always the pre-disposition to cut an illicit deal. Which is the second choicy reason for seeking government employment. Within the amount of time I have worked in my department, varying amounts from ₦5000 to ₦3000 and one time ₦2000 were shared round to the 30 or so workers that make up the division.
At first I was told the money was merely for upkeep, courtesy the department head, but when these amounts became free-flowing after a noticeable closed-door session with the department head, it brought into question their real roots.
These deals, performed under the strictest confidence, are not exclusive to department heads alone and can see the average worker making nearly double his salary from a “transaction” or two in one week.
As of right now, that is a threshold I have refused and plan to never cross. Resolving to switch jobs should pressure mount on me to take part by my colleagues. But when I consider the skillset I have so far developed from my current employ — masterfully maneuvering between WhatsApp web, Korean dramas and slight work on my desktop or building an impressive cache of Yoruba swear words. Or my chances of gaining employment in an institution that sees little wrong in a 10 am resumption to tend to personal errands, I can’t help but wonder if I am doomed to be employable only in the Federal Civil service.