“Problem Has Changed Name” – infrastructure, citizenship and the state in Nigeria

On February 25, Nigerians go to the polls to elect a new president. Daniel Jordan Smith discusses the politics of the provision (or lack) of public services and infrastructure in Nigeria. Most Nigerians adapt to the reality that they must provide for themselves, cobbling together fundamental service provision in the context of state failure. But as the country goes to the polls, Smith argues questions of infrastructure are central to both citizenship and state power in Nigeria.

By Daniel Jordan Smith

On February 25, 2023, Nigerians go to the polls to elect a new president. It is impossible to predict with certainty who will win or how Nigerians will receive the results. Inevitably, popular sentiments will run the gamut from hopeful optimism to seasoned cynicism. By the time RAOPE viewers read this blog post, perhaps the election’s outcome will be settled; just as likely, it will be contested, either formally and publicly, or behind the scenes.

While I would not venture to forecast the winner of Nigeria’s presidential election, I can say with considerable confidence that the next president, as well as countless other elected officials and the government they control, will be judged by the Nigerian people, perhaps above all, by whether they deliver improvements to the country’s woeful infrastructure and related services.

No doubt people all over the world judge their governments and politicians based, at least in part, on whether they provide adequate infrastructure. But in Nigeria, the transition to democracy in 1999, after three decades of mostly uninterrupted military rule, created especially high expectations that the government would improve its performance. In the minds of most Nigerians, civilian leaders have disappointed them. As a result, withering criticism of politicians—including presidents—for their failure to fulfill their promises is a mainstay of popular discourse, often in the form of biting humor.

For example, when Nigeria’s first civilian president after the return to democracy, former general Olusegun Obasanjo, ran for a second term in 2003, he made improvement in the production and distribution of electricity a major plank in his promised agenda. Obasanjo won reelection. As part of his reform of the electric power sector, he reorganized the parastatal in charge, then known as the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA). NEPA had long been the object of Nigerians’ derision and the brunt of popular jokes—including that NEPA stood for Never Expect Power Anytime, and other variations on the theme. Importantly, in addition to the organization’s reform, Obasanjo also changed its name. At the time, I imagined the president and his advisors huddled in a conference room eager to find a new name for which the acronym could not be so readily transposed into the kind of mockery long associated with NEPA. The new organization was given the name Power Holding Company of Nigeria, with the acronym PHCN. What could critics possibly do with that, I imagined Obasanjo and his cronies asking with self-satisfaction. But, in their inimitable way, Nigerians immediately invented critical appellations for the new entity. The first I heard was “Please Hold Candle Now.” Soon after came perhaps my all-time favorite example of Nigerians’ incisive critical political humor. PHCN was said to stand for “Problem Has Changed Name.”

There is no end to the jokes, popular sayings, satirical anecdotes, rumors, and conspiracy theories that illustrate both Nigerians’ discontents and their political acumen regarding the failure of their government to provide fundamental infrastructure. The condition of Nigeria’s state-supported infrastructure—be it for the provision and distribution of water and electricity, the quality and safety of roads, or the capacity of law enforcement to safeguard citizens’ everyday security—is so poor that nearly every Nigerian knows the popular refrain “every household is its own local government.” As the saying suggests, Nigerians must cobble together fundamental infrastructure where the state fails.

My recently published ethnography, Every Household Its Own Government: Improvised Infrastructure, Entrepreneurial Citizens, and the State in Nigeria, offers an up-close account of how Nigerians cope with the shortcomings of government-provided infrastructure. I was motivated to do the research for the book because over the 30 years I have worked in Nigeria, efforts to cope with inadequate infrastructure constantly preoccupied people, often on a daily basis, without relief. What is more, since I first arrived in Nigeria in 1989 nearly every domain of basic infrastructure and associated services has deteriorated. Frustrations with this situation have resulted in a prevalent and already-mentioned discourse of complaint, pointing to the political salience of infrastructure. It became apparent to me—as it has long been to Nigerians—that not only were the country’s infrastructural woes holding back both individual advancement and national development, the very substance of state-society relations was also at stake.

Nigerians adapt to the state’s failures to provide adequate infrastructure through a combination of entrepreneurship, informal economic enterprise, and sheer hustle. Given the extent of their ingenuity and self-reliance, one might be tempted to conclude that with regard to infrastructure, Nigerians have rendered the state irrelevant. But in reality, all of these ostensibly private efforts to address infrastructural deficiencies involve regular state-society interaction. Further, these dealings are among the most common experiences of everyday citizenship in Africa’s most populous country and, paradoxically, they constitute a primary arena for the consolidation of state power.

As highlighted in the anecdote about PHCN, when it comes to the way that powerful people benefit at the expense of ordinary citizens, Nigerians are not fooled. They commonly blame the country’s infrastructural shortcomings on political elites who steer the state. But in my book I argue and try to show how citizenship and state power are constituted in more mundane interactions between the people and their government, not least, ironically, as they regularly encounter low-level government officials in their private, entrepreneurial efforts to create reliable access to clean water, steady electricity, safe transportation, and protection from crime, not to mention decent health care, effective education, and affordable housing. To fully understand how Nigerians’ responses to infrastructural deficiencies shape the experience of citizenship and contribute to the constitution of state power, it is necessary to illustrate and explain the prevalence and salience of these routine, mundane, seemingly administrative and bureaucratic encounters with government. These dealings are, in fact, highly political interactions, mirroring and reproducing the dominant dynamics of citizen-state relations in Nigeria.

Although Nigerians’ cynical assessments of the country’s political elites are by and large quite accurate, it is through this more routine administration, in which government bureaucrats and ordinary citizens interact, negotiate, cooperate, and even collude, that much of the work of reproducing state power is accomplished. In these encounters, the complex interplay of formal and informal and official and unofficial rules and their associated moral economies are revealed, navigated, and often reinscribed. All of this means that as Nigerians pursue their needs and desires for better infrastructure, they often unwittingly further enable the power of an only-apparently-absent state.

A couple of cases will illustrate how private entrepreneurs managing informal infrastructure-related enterprises constantly run into (and often inadvertently reinforce) state power. My book, based on long-term research in southeastern Nigeria, has chapters about six domains of infrastructure: water, electricity, transportation, communication, education, and security. I could have selected evidence from any of these spheres, but for the sake of brevity I describe examples only from the water and transportation sectors.

Entrepreneurial enterprises to address deficiencies in government-provided water infrastructure include, among others, private boreholes constructed by small-scale entrepreneurs who sell water in the neighborhoods where they reside because there is little or no municipal piped water service; cart pushers who transport multiple 50-liter containers of water to paying customers in urban neighborhoods with few other options; and manufacturers of “pure water,” the ubiquitous half-liter clear plastic sachets of drinking water available for sale on nearly every street corner. While borehole vendors, cart pushers, and pure water manufacturers all launch their businesses in response to the government’s failures to deliver water, ironically, each endeavor leads to extensive engagement with the state as officials draw upon laws and regulations to compel entrepreneurs to pay fees for licenses, registrations, inspections, and numerous other formalities required for government approval. Or conversely, state officials sometimes solicit bribes in order to exempt entrepreneurs from having to obey the rules. Once water-selling businesses are established, similar dynamics unfold regarding the payment of taxes—especially value-added taxes (VAT). At seemingly every turn, the same state apparatus that appears incapable (or unwilling) to organize the provision of water finds it no problem to mobilize itself to collect fees and taxes (or bribes in lieu of them).

The situation regarding transportation is similar. Among the plethora of private entrepreneurs and enterprises that provide “public transportation” in Nigeria, two examples will suffice to convey the ways that these businesses are entangled with the government, like it or not.  Motorcycle taxis (known in southeastern Nigeria as okada) provide a popular form of urban mass transportation that is completely private. But the many thousands of motorcycle taxi drivers, most of whom are in business for themselves, face periodic efforts to regulate and tax them through various short-lived measures related to registration, licensing, uniforms, helmet use, and much more. In addition, the police are a source of constant harassment, looking for any excuse to extract a portion of okada drivers’ meager earnings. The police are also the main source of governmental contact, control, and plain and simple extortion for the minibus drivers and their conductors who ferry commuters to and from town as well as between nearby cities. Known in Nigeria as danfo, these minibuses are a major target at ubiquitous police checkpoints, where drivers are expected to hand off some cash in order to be allowed to pass without major delay.

These are but a few of the countless ways in which Nigerians’ private, entrepreneurial, and informal economic efforts to address the state’s failure to provide basic infrastructure and related services ironically result in deep entanglements with government officials. These experiences are the most tangible interactions that many citizens have with the state, reminding them of the state’s power, even as it fails with regard to providing them what they most need and expect.

Whether all of this makes the Nigerian state weak or strong depends upon whose interests it is designed to serve. Except for elites whose households are better equipped than many local governments, for most Nigerians the fact that every household must be its own local government is not a reality they prefer. The vast majority of people want the state to do better. Whoever the next president is, if he is able to deliver improved state-supported infrastructure, he will be applauded for doing more about the problem than changing its name.

Daniel’s book Every Household Its Own Government: Improvised Infrastructure, Entrepreneurial Citizens, and the State in Nigeria is published by Princeton University Press.

Daniel Jordan Smith is the Charles C. Tillinghast, Jr. Professor of International Studies and professor of anthropology at Brown University. His other books about Nigeria include A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria and To Be a Man Is Not a One-Day Job: Masculinity, Money, and Intimacy in Nigeria. 

Featured Photograph: Protests in Nigeria against the police force called (SARS) Special Anti-Robbery Squard (31 October 2020).


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