Building Trust and Relationships in Nigeria
Why should I read this document?
Respect hierarchy, status, and achievements. Nigeria is a hierarchical society. People would likely feel offended if you do not recognise power holders. They also may not trust you if the power holders do not trust you. Furthermore, it is a "masculine" (achievement-driven) society. Therefore, acknowledging an individual's status or achievements would go a long way towards opening them up to accepting you.
Identify and join relevant groups. Nigeria is a collectivist country. Individuals in Nigeria consider it essential to be a part of a group. Joining strategically relevant groups could help open the door to long-lasting, advantageous relationships.
Gifts. Gift-giving (and receiving) is an inherent part of Nigerian culture. It is a much-valued way of showing appreciation and honour. It is also a significant door-opener. However, because there is a lot of overt corruption in Nigeria, knowing where, when, and how to give gifts is especially important for building relationships and trust.
Personal involvements. In societies like Nigeria, business relationships are often an extension of personal relationships. People need to know you before they can trust you. 'Facetime' is a vital investment. You should visit the country frequently, meet with the persons of interest and attend their events – weddings, christenings, funerals etc.
Use tact and diplomacy. Like many other high context societies, in Nigeria, what people say is not always what they mean. So you would need to learn to “read the air” to interpret and contextualise what is being said (or left unsaid).
If you read this article, there is a big chance that you have probably met a Nigerian before. Many people have said that “Nigerians are everywhere on the face of the earth” (Olodimu, 2017)1. One of each six Africans is Nigerian, they make up approximately 2% of the world’s population. It is the largest economy in Africa (with a nominal GDP of around US$400 billion) and the 25th largest economy in the world. It is also the largest populated nation on the continent. Although it is currently (2021) experiencing an economic slump, the country still holds immense economic potential. Nigeria’s economy grew by 7% on average from 2000 to 2014 - one of the fastest in the world. It also possesses large amounts of natural resources. The country is Africa’s biggest oil exporter and has the largest natural gas reserves on the continent (WorldBank, 2020)2. There are almost endless opportunities for doing business there.
Like everywhere else, when doing business in Nigeria (or with Nigerians), there must be sufficient trust between the counterparties. This basic tenet, called uberrimae fidei, (translated from Latin as the doctrine of utmost good faith)3, suggests that the absence of trust makes transactions impossible. However, the critical challenge is that people build and maintain trust in different ways across different cultures. In Nigeria, as in many other high context cultures (societies with high power distance and low individualism), building trust requires time and skill. This article discusses some of the essential requirements to help you achieve this.
1. 10 Nigerians who are big shots in Silicon Valley. Source: techpoint.africa/2017/04/20/nigerian-big-shots-silicon-valley/
2. Nigeria Development Update (NDU). Source: https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/nigeria/publication/nigeria-develop...'s%20annual%20real%20GDP%20growth,the%20rest%20of%20the%20year.
3. Doctrine Of Utmost Good Faith. Source: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/d/doctrineofutmostgoodfaith.asp
Respect Hierarchy, Status, and Achievements
Figure 1: World Boxing Champion Anthony Joshua greets his Nigerian elders. Source: BBC: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari 'floors' Anthony Joshua
Besides, the structure of the hierarchy and the extent of power holders' authority also differs. Several historical and socio-political factors determine the hierarchical structures amongst various groups in Nigeria. Knowing who holds absolute power and showing them respect could be tricky. To contextualise this, consider the traditional vs the modern systems of governance in Nigeria. Today's Nigerian government inherited the authority that its former colonial masters (the UK) acquired through "conquering" various kingdoms and empires (Shasore, 2018; Duke II, 2010, pp. 65-75). The colonial masters ruled indirectly through the kings they conquered or the appointed warrant chiefs. As a result, post-independence, the traditional rulers became largely ceremonial and subject to the Nigerian government. Nigerian state governors can install, depose, or banish kings and traditional rulers existing within their state (Onochie, 2021; Yahaya, 2020, pp. 92-109; BBC, 2020; Ali, 2019).
Nevertheless, while in some regions, governors publicly berate or humiliate traditional rulers, in others, elected officials accord the traditional rulers enormous respect, almost deifying them (Olasupo, 2020; Aliu, 2020). Figure 1 shows Gov Nyesom Wike (Rivers State Nigeria) at an event where he publicly rebuked a traditional ruler (the pictures on the left). The image on the right shows Gov. Godwin Obaseki kneeling in reverence before the Oba of Benin (whom he legally has the authority to depose). Hierarchy is also respected within businesses and other facets of Nigerian life. However, as with the traditional rulers versus elected officials, the mode and codes of respect often prove to be pretty complex.
Figure 2: Nigerian Governors vs Traditional Rulers – "Different Strokes, Different Folks". Sources: First Reports (2020); Aliu/Vanguard (2020)
In addition, status recognition is vital in Nigeria. "Do you know who I am?" is probably the most common statement you would hear during confrontations or escalations in Nigeria. The premise is that you would not confront them if you knew their achievements, status, or standing. The Nigerian culture values and celebrates achievements, whether professionally, academically, or in any other endeavour. Nigerians also treasure being recognised or being perceived as high achievers. Hofstede described this tendency in his 6D model as Masculinity – a strong drive for achievement and success. Hence, in Nigeria, it is usually not enough to attain high standing in society, career or business. There is also a strong need to make everybody else aware of such attainments.
A good example is a Ph.D. holder who refused to speak at a conference because the announcer erroneously addressed him as "mister" and not "doctor". This seemingly trivial issue is significant enough to ruin business deals and relationships. Nigerians want to be known for their successes and achievements. Establishing a good relationship and trust with them will be challenging if they feel that their accomplishments are disregarded or overlooked. Being aware of people's status, titles, and achievements and recognising or celebrating those accomplishments can create a basis for building relationships (and eventually trust). At the very least, you would avoid many hurdles caused by not recognising them.
Furthermore, while it is essential to focus on building relationships with the real power holders, they usually have the final say. It is also critical to “work the line”, i.e., maintaining relationships with other persons in the 'chain of command'. Therefore, foreigners must engage a local partner to help them decipher the complex hierarchical context as the best way to show respect.
Identify and Join Relevant Groups
Collectivist countries, like Nigeria, emphasise the importance of belonging to groups. In Nigeria, many relationships, including business relationships, are forged based on ties or affiliations to groups (ethnicity, family, religion, professional bodies, etc.). It does not take much to form a group in Nigeria. For example, people who met at an open nomination course could quickly begin a WhatsApp group to stay in touch. They would also start getting involved in each others' personal lives - attending special events or making contributions towards such occasions. Comparably, in societies like this, people usually try to conform to the identity and opinions of the group. Therefore, the group would heavily influence its members' choices, including who they trust or exclude. Knowing how to "work the group" could be a huge business advantage for relationships and trust-building. It is, therefore, essential to identify the strategic affiliations to align your business or brand with to gain access and trust that will enhance your business goals.
Gift-giving (and receiving) is an inherent part of Nigerian culture. It is a much-valued way of showing appreciation and honour. When going to see a business stakeholder for the first time or after a long while, it is advisable to go with a gift. Learning what the appropriate present in different contexts is, is also crucial.
Figure 3: Nigerian Christmas Hampers. Source: Nwankwo/The Punch (2016)
Business partners or colleagues often give each other lavish gifts – especially when the gift receiver celebrates a significant event. Nigerians often emphasise gift-giving during the Christmas season. Although the country is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims (Reinhart, 2019), individuals from both religions usually give and expect to receive a Christmas or end-of-year gift.
New businesses often take advantage of this period to "introduce" themselves to prospects with gifts. Christmas hampers are trendy end-of-year gifts – the delight of power holders in organisations, from procurement officers to CEOs. Nigerians would likely become more open and trusting when you give them a gift. You should also expect Nigerians to provide you with presents. Accepting a gift is a way to honour the giver, making them feel that you trust them. In cases where you must decline a gift, do so tactfully and respectfully. Otherwise, it is recommended to accept presents when your counterparts offer them.
Like many other points discussed in this article, gift-giving could also be a complex activity. Nigeria has been notoriously (and perhaps unfairly) identified with bribery, corruption and fraud globally. Hence, Nigerian government agencies and businesses are trying to regulate gift-giving, with guidelines on distinguishing between a gift and a bribe (Akor, 2017). Different organisations and industries have varying policies on receiving gifts. Therefore, it is imperative to find out what is acceptable and appropriate before offering a present, and a local expert or partner could help with this.
You should expect that Nigerians will tell you about their family and personal lives and would probably expect the same from you - even during business engagements. Showing concern and becoming involved in the private lives of business partners is generally accepted and even recommended. Making small talk about family and personal life will make most Nigerians warm up to you almost instantly. In societies like Nigeria, business relationships are often an extension of personal relationships.
Figure 3: Bill Gates Attends Aliko Dangote's Daughter's Wedding. Source: Daily Post (2018)
Someone in your target group (preferably a significant influencer) must introduce you to the relevant people. It is not uncommon to see many people clamouring for attention from the rich and powerful, as having the right relationships is key to fast-tracking. Your first meeting would most likely be an opportunity to become familiar. People need to know you before they can trust you. 'Facetime' is a vital investment. You must visit the country and the persons of interest frequently. The phrase "show face" is commonly used in Nigeria. This phrase means being physically present at your potential client's or business partner's celebrations (weddings, funerals, christenings, etc.). If they invite you to such events, it usually means that you are being accepted in the inner circle. It is an excellent investment to attend such social events of your business partners when invited. Remember to find out what gift(s) would be most appropriate for the occasion. If you can not attend such events, respectfully let them know and send a gift ahead if possible. The picture in Figure 3 shows Bill Gates, seated on the "special table" with Aliko Dangote (the world's wealthiest black person), and other dignitaries, including Nigeria's Vice President, at Dangote's daughter's wedding.
Use Tact and Diplomacy
Like many other high context societies, in Nigeria, what is said is not always what is meant. The need to respect the hierarchy and "keep the harmony" in the group makes it difficult for individuals to say what they truly mean, especially when it comes to negative feedback or comments. Being direct and frank in discussions may be perceived as arrogance or rudeness. To build good relationships and trust in Nigeria, one must learn to use tact and diplomacy. The idea is to read between the lines, listen for what is not said, and avoid saying "no" directly or giving negative feedback. Most people are generally able to figure out what you mean without you having to say it directly. This kind of communication may seem time-consuming, but it could be advantageous in building relationships. It is recommended to partner with someone locally to help you read the air and interpret the context.
Short Case Study
Resources and interesting links
DMastermind. Consumer Analytics, Market Entry and Brand Positioning Professional Services. Source: ttp://dmastermind.com/
Nigeria's National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Statistical data on Nigeria. Source: https://nigerianstat.gov.ng/elibrary
Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission. The Nigerian Federal Government agency that "encourages, promotes and coordinates investments in Nigeria." Source: https://nipc.gov.ng/
Naijalink Limited. Local market expertise, relationship builders, hand-holding services. Source: https://www.naijalink.eu/