This book has been germinating in the dark cupboard of my memory for some time. The challenge was always how best to bring it into the light to sprout into some clearly recognised vegetable or fruit. But, which variety? Originally, my intention was to wrote some sort of ‘self help’ book on ‘how to run businesses (as an expatriate) in Nigeria’ using my own experience just to give it colour. Then, so many people told me over a glass of something that I should document some of the ‘strange but true’ stories that have built my familiarity and the uniqueness of my experience with Nigeria. Gradually, these have morphed into the hybrid that is “Never Quite The Insider’’. To what purpose and for whom?
I have chose this particular phase of my career as it provides a definable period of time and with three contrasting set of challenges. Each role has unique characteristics while they all have the connection of being in the Nigerian setting. Although the detailed focus is on three discrete periods, understanding them would not be possible without some explanatory background, so I have included some personal and historical context.
The first period July 1999 to November 2000 documents what happened to one of the old colonial trading houses, finally brought to its knees by corruption and mis-management. By the time I joined John Holt it was already an unrecognisable shell of its former self and still being ravaged by the inability to understand that the world has moved on from a time when a small number of white men could treat those around them with impunity. In case anyone is in any doubt, corruption, theft, fraud, abuse of position and so on are not the sole preserve of Nigerians. Superficial accounts of visits to Nigeria make frequent references to the Nigerian ‘culture’ of corruption. First, it is not a ‘culture’ and secondly, in any case, this is a wild over simplification. John Holt is a case study of the damage done by corrupt and incompetent white people. The key themes for my tenure in this period can be split into two. Managing a loss making business with the attendant structural and commercial issues would have been enough of a task. However, managing upwards with regard to the politics of corruption and deception tainted every decision I needed to take and ultimately, after I blew the whistle, brought this period to a shuddering halt.
The second period November 2000 to February 2002 reflects a contrasting set of challenges. International Equitable Association or “IEA”, being sited in Aba, Abia State threw up encounters that would be much less likely in Lagos where broadly the rule of law is in effect. To many, Aba, is the ‘wild, wild east’ and a sharp intake of breath and a new look of respect are the usual response when I tell people that I spent close to two years there. One of my closest Yoruba friends, when telling me why I could not expect him to visit while I was there, actually said, “Keith, you know they still eat people there, right?” The personal and managerial challenges I experienced could only be found operating outside of the mainstream cities of Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Ibadan and, possibly, Port Harcourt. Nevertheless, this was a lesson in attempting to manage a legitimate business when faced with an illegitimate and hostile environment. These challenges require a whole new approach and should be recognised by host State and Local Governments when they seek to attract investment. Some of the key themes here were attempting to stay balanced between commercial and personal survival and understanding a whole new depth to local ethnicity, tribalism and shareholder interference and conflict. This period had a profound impact on my cultural insight, gave me confidence when taking on the next, far bigger role and delivered genuine local credibility.
The third period February 2002 to October 2005 is another story altogether. Guinness Nigeria Plc., now a subsidiary of Diageo Plc., is a high profile multi-national with international brands. The challenges here were more complex and involved the culture of a domestic business with the offshore politics and overseas management from a head office that was not necessarily focussed on the same priorities as the local shareholders. As global group processes were increasingly being standardised there was less and less room for a reflection of local Nigerian culture and tradition. For a typical expatriate implant on a three-year contract this might not raise issues but as a long-standing ‘African hand’ I had developed strong beliefs on how international firms should behave. Respect for the community of local stakeholders allied to the responsibility that western businesses should have in these circumstances is a Sine Qua Non. This often put me at conflict between my own values and the increasing pan-Atlantic dictat of the majority shareholders and ultimately led to what was effectively my dismissal.
To some extent this book then is a hybrid. It is part a ‘business’ book in that it describes how I ran three specific businesses and encountered a set of managerial and commercial challenges. Many of these would be recognisable to managers anywhere in the world but others would only be familiar to those operating in places usually described as ‘the developing world’, including Nigeria. I have laid out my views of best operating practice and contemplated some of the sensitive issues in areas often considered controversial. In part it could be considered as a ‘travelogue’ as it depicts a view of Nigeria from the position of a sightseer. Aspects of it can be seen as a guide for new expatriates or travellers as there is a vein of a struggle to understand cultural insights and relate those to the circumstances I was in. Finally, it is part autobiography. While I have avoided too much reference to my personal life unless it is relevant to the issue at hand it is nonetheless my account of my experiences. Relationships have always been critical to my well-being and throughout my time in Nigeria they have kept me balanced so it is inevitable they play a major part in my story. Other witnesses to the same incidents might have different recollections or interpretations which might be at variance and which might be equally valid. These are mine.
There are also some things that this book is not intended to be. It is certainly not my intention to suggest that my responses or answers to particular questions are the only correct ones possible. Indeed, many of my actions were clearly not the correct or most effective but they were
just what I did at a particularly time. Then it’s a matter of accepting responsibility and dealing with consequences. Other capable and talented people would have taken different and, possibly, better decisions. There have always been and still are in Nigeria many expatriates I would defer to for their wisdom and experience. Whilst I have been a visitor and resident for quite a few years these are as nothing to many others who have spent most their lives in Nigeria. On many occasions I have sought their consultation, sometimes accepting their advice, sometimes not. I would never necessarily claim “I know better” than men who have built their own businesses or run charities and NGO’s, raised families and made Nigeria their way of life.
Where my experience has been unusual and gives me a breadth of experience is that it is rare that an expatriate comes to Nigeria and stays to run such a wide range of organisations. From early stays as a visitor for the Crown Agents and then Guinness, including a short spell as acting Finance Director, thence to full terms as Divisional CEO in John Holt, and as Managing Director at IEA in Aba and Guinness Plc. and thereafter (outside the scope of this book) of Promasidor Nigeria (makers of Cowbell, Onga, Top Tea and so on) has given me a wide perspective. Working predominantly in the consumer sector is also very different to working in oil & gas or banking. One cannot afford to sit in offices or compounds in Ikoyi or VI looking out of the window. Ours is to get out and about. The consumers of Truck Soap, Guinness Stout or Cowbell Milk are the everyday Nigerians in towns or villages from Abakaliki to Shaki and Kano to Sapele. Engaging with people in the bars and markets across Nigeria has not just been an honour and privilege but has given me an opportunity for insight. It has also been a huge source of inspiration, for humour and occasionally tragedy, for anger but above all warmth and laughter. Spells as a Columnist for and member of the Advisory Board of BusinessDay newspaper, twelve years on the Board of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, immersion into the creative worlds of music, visual art and literature, organiser of music festivals, worker in community groups and charities and as a shareholder/director of a PR/Communications Company, all provide additional perspective. In addition, one of my sons has spent over three years trying to set up a business and a Foundation focussing on re-cycling electronic waste and the other made a documentary for his Masters in Wildlife Film making in Cross River’s Afi rain forest. In all of these experiences I have tried to be authentic: knowing that when presented with situations and obstacles that I have choices to take decisions as I see fit. I should take responsibility for those choices and understand that those choices have consequences for which I am also answerable. In that way I have become the person that I have, no one else is responsible.
No matter how long one spends as a visitor in such a distinctive and vibrant culture, one can never be truly of that culture. I often compare it to Pyramus and Thisbe’s ‘chink in the wall’. One can just peer through it, one can widen it to improve the view and even break it open to put one’s face through, but one can never cross over the wall. The title of my BusinessDay columns and book “Outsider Inside” was meant to reflect that vision. One of the great compliment that can be given is when someone slaps you on the back and exclaims, ”Keith, you are truly a Nigerian!” but this can never be true and nor should it. In his March 2009 forward to the collection of my Columns from 2005 to 2007 Amb. Patrick Dele Cole, said:
“Funnily enough Keith’s writing reminds me of the common expatriate saying that so and so has gone ‘native’ or ‘bush’. `This can be the highest praise or the most damning condemnation, depending on who is saying it. If the saying is used by a western employer in reference to of one of his staff it means that the expat has lost his job, and his objectivity and the purpose for which he was originally sent out – to exploit the country with extreme prejudice. The serious expatriate should keep his African staff in their place. He is not there to convort with the locals nor look out for their progress. However, for his ‘hosts’ to suggest he has gone native describes that person as sympathetic to the African cause, no longer obsessed with the hardships of his post but as some one who can relate to the position of those around him.”
This is an accurate reflection of my journey. As a manager it has not been that I wanted to become African but I wanted to eschew that traditional expatriate point of separateness, to be a truly engaged and to respect the position of the local stakeholders including shareholders and employees, as much as the foreign ones. If this means that to some I have ‘gone bush’ then so be it.
This then has provided the opportunity for a closeness and insight that has been beyond what the typical business expatriate might have experienced. To be accurate and to genuinely document some of the issues I have observed and the challenges myself and many other managers have had to contend with, it is necessary to broach controversial subjects. Topics such as corruption, ethnicity, tribalism and the colonial legacy are still very much part and parcel of managing in Nigeria today. Few written accounts attempt to tackle these issues truthfully and with a balanced, pragmatic perspective yet without them any genuine account is incomplete. There have been times when colleagues, black and white, have thought I have been too direct or crossed the line. Consequently, while I regret having caused offence I make no apology for raising or tackling matters that needed to be raised or for discussing them here.
Never Quite An Insider.
A Nigerian memoir.
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