“Not for Sale”: The Dysfunctional Normal

We begin this article with two quotes that should set the stage, and may even be adequate as a concise summary for the day.

“Man [Nigeria] is not suffering by external forces as much as his [its] own dysfunctional mind and self inflicted negative stimulus.”

Aditya Ajmera

“When a big vision meets a dysfunctional system, the dysfunctional system wins every time. Fix the system and success will flourish!”

Daren Martin

While moving along a certain street in Lagos, I noticed a ubiquitous sign “This House Is Not for Sale. Beware of 419” on one building. Ordinarily, since such signs are common in Nigeria, I would not have given it any second thought. However, the state of the building made me wonder why the owner(s) felt they needed such a warning. As I pondered further, I reasoned that the scene I had just witnessed could aptly capture the state of Nigeria today: beautifully packaged dysfunction.

In case you are one of the foreigners wondering why many buildings in Nigeria have “Not for Sale” on them, let’s have a quick exegesis. Whereas in other countries, buildings for sale are marked “For Sale”, in Nigeria, the reverse is the case as it is rare to find any building with such a sign. The Nigerian usage of such signs is to WARN the public, especially when the owner fears that a fraudster (“419”) may sell off a building without any link to the owner. Fraudsters have been known to take unsuspecting buyers on a tour of buildings at a time when the owner is known to be away.

“For Sale” sign in the UK | Credit:

A key driver for this dysfunctional use of the “Not for Sale” warning is the paucity of records regarding who owns what property. In a place like the United Kingdom, the government expects property taxes from each building, hence it has to keep a record of the owners, especially when ownership changes. In theory, this means that a potential buyer could easily verify from the appropriate authorities that the purported seller owns the building or is working on the instructions of the owner. In the event that a fraudulent transaction occurs, the police and law courts offer a credible chance for redemption for whoever may have been defrauded. As this cannot be guaranteed in Nigeria, you see why building owners decide to warn would-be buyers to stay away (“caveat emptor”) as they have no intention to sell. The rationale is that when the owner intends to sell, the owner having unencumbered access to the property would remove the sign. Talk about dysfunctionality!

Several other instances of dysfunction could be cited in Nigeria. One example would be the existence of multiple databases held by several government agencies (Central Bank, Federal Inland Revenue Service, Nigerian Immigrations Service, Independent National Electoral Commission, Federal Road Safety Commission, etc.) holding similar data, whereas a central database of Nigerian citizens and foreigners would be better and more cost-effective from an administrative, security, and operational efficiency perspective. Another example would be the institutionalisation of maltreatment and extrajudicial killings by the police and military forces. Nigeria is one country where it is considered “normal” for a police officer to slap a random Nigerian and order such a person to execute “frog jumps” or roll in dirty pools of water. A final example would be the acceptance that employers, both public and private sector entities, can owe salaries at will, sometimes for over a year, and fire disobedient employees who dare ask for their due payments. Let’s not even talk about the institutionalised corruption that literally permeates all facets of the Nigerian society.

Why have we accepted dysfunction as normal in Nigeria? I would blame two key drivers, namely: government maladministration and public ignorance. On the governance side, successive governments at all levels have failed to institute systems that would dampen dysfunction, implicitly preferring the status quo despite whatever may have been promised during electioneering campaigns or takeover speeches after military coups. On the other hand, an ignorant public is unable to demand that the respective governments do better to address the entrenched dysfunction, and even in cases where some persons may know better, a selfish need to exploit the system, or fear of reprisal attacks from those benefiting, may perpetuate a culture of silence.

Whatever are the causes of endemic dysfunction in Nigeria, we clearly cannot continue to function this way. The benefits of a functional system are apparent, especially if we hope to drive sustainable socioeconomic growth and development to stem the tide of poverty, attract investments, and boost employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for the fast-growing population. I cannot claim to have a silver bullet but I believe that if government maladministration is addressed, there would be an impact on the public’s acceptability of dysfunction, and gradually we can create a new normal—one that is truly normal.

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