Managing in Nigeria
Working in a Culturally Rich but Divided Country
Nigeria is Africa's largest economy. It boasts lush rain forests and sweeping savannas, a rich cultural heritage, and vibrant music and art.
Nigeria is also a country of extremes. For example, rebel groups and terrorist organizations make life dangerous in some regions. In others, however, the friendliness, warmth and hospitality of the Nigerian people shines out.
You're likely wondering how to get the best from your team if you're relocating to Nigeria. You might also be concerned for your safety, or feel unsure about which language to start learning before you arrive.
In this article, we'll look at how you can live and work successfully in the vivid country that is Nigeria.
This article is intended as a general guide only. Nigerian culture is extremely varied, which means that you'll need to treat each person as an individual, and demonstrate sensitivity and respect. Always use your own best judgment, and stay flexible.
People and Culture
Nigeria is in West Africa, and is bordered by Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Benin. It was a British colony until 1960, after which it went through a violent civil war and several military coups. Nigeria became a democracy in 1999 and held its first fully democratic election in 2011.
It is an incredibly diverse country: there are more than 250 ethnic groups, speaking around 500 recognized languages. Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba are the most widely spoken of these.
English is Nigeria's official language but it is not widely spoken outside the major urban areas. Nigerian – or "Pidgin” – English is far more common, especially in the Niger Delta region. (See our article on Cross-Culture Communication for more on how to communicate effectively with people from different cultures.)
Nigerians practice many different religions. However, most of the population are either Christians (who mainly live in the south of the country) or Muslims (who generally live in the north). Keep in mind that working hours and holidays vary greatly between the two regions because of these religious differences. Always check times and dates carefully before making an appointment or scheduling a meeting.
Nigeria shares borders with Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Benin, and has a coast on the Gulf of Guinea.
According to the Labour Act of 2004, employers must provide workers with a labor contract within three months of starting a job. It should define the nature of the role, the period of notice that the organization will provide upon terminating the contract, and the terms and conditions (including wages and working hours).
Women can take six weeks' maternity leave, which they must start during the six weeks before giving birth. If you have worked for an organization for six months or longer, you will be entitled to 50 percent of your wages while on maternity leave.
It's important to remember that Sharia law – the Islamic legal system – exists in the predominantly Muslim north of Nigeria. Some states observe this system more strictly than others.
Sharia can apply to various aspects of life, including business law, banking, economics, dress, food, and drink. Learning more about it before traveling or doing business with northern Nigerians is essential. This demonstrates cultural intelligence and allows you to approach people with sensitivity and tact. It also helps you to stay on the right side of the law. Punishments for falling foul of Sharia can be severe.
Vacations and Holidays
Publicly recognized holidays vary between the north and the south, so make sure that you research which ones your region observes before setting deadlines or making appointments. Public holidays in Nigeria include:
- New Year's Day – January 1.
- Women's Day – March 8.
- Good Friday – Date changes each year (March 30 in 2018; April 19 in 2019.)
- Easter Monday – Date changes each year (April 2 in 2018; April 22 in 2019.)
- Worker's Day – May 1.
- Democracy Day – May 29.
- Eid al-Fitr – Date changes each year (June 15 and 16 in 2018; June 5 and 6 in 2019.)
- Eid al-Kabir – Date changes each year (August 22 and 23 in 2018; August 12 and 13 in 2019.)
- National Day – October 1.
- Birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (Eid al-Maulud) – Date changes each year (November 20 in 2018.)
- Christmas Day – December 25.
- Boxing Day – December 26.
The Interior Minister chooses when some Muslim holidays are held each year, so check with your organization for the current dates.
Every Nigerian is entitled to at least six days' vacation after 12 months' employment, in addition to these public holidays.
Getting the Most From Your Team
As in many cultures, personal relationships are important to Nigerians. Don't rush the "getting to know you" process when you meet your team members for the first time. It can last several hours, and it's vital to building strong relationships.
Family connections are considered a high priority in Nigeria. One of the best ways to gain the trust of your new team is to ask about their relations' health and wellbeing, and to share information about your own.
These connections have a significant impact on how Nigerians behave at work. For example, a family's honor is affected by the actions of its members, which means that people in non-leadership positions might be reluctant to take risks or to stand out. Many Nigerians will focus on consensus building and maintaining harmony within the team, rather than on achieving individual success.
You might have to encourage your team members to speak up because of this, especially when they disagree with colleagues. Try to spark discussion and debate among them to avoid Groupthink.
Hierarchy is important to Nigerians, so you'll automatically have your team's respect because of your position. However, this also means that people might be reluctant to let you know when you've made a mistake or when you're heading in the wrong direction, and they may hesitate to say "no" to your requests.
To overcome this, let them know that you value their opinion, and that speaking up will help the team to succeed.
Many northern Nigerians are reluctant to show negative emotion: they might smile or laugh to hide feelings such as anger or confusion. Pay attention to their body language, so that you're able to read their non-verbal cues. Southern Nigerians are more likely to be direct or even loud, but this isn't necessarily a sign of aggression – they may simply feel excited and passionate about a subject.
Perceived future benefits can be less important than immediate ones to Nigerians, so, when motivating your team, praise people as soon as they're successful. Practice Management by Wandering Around, so you can spot opportunities to reward your team and say "thank you."
Remember that Nigeria is an incredibly diverse country. It's best to get to know your team members' backgrounds, so that you don't risk offending them. Read our articles on the Seven Dimensions of Culture and Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions to get a better understanding of how to work successfully with people from different cultures.
Nigeria has major social issues, including extreme poverty and serious sectarian violence. This can make traveling and working in certain parts of the country challenging or even dangerous.
Violent crime is common. Foreigners are attractive targets for muggers, armed robbers, car-jackers, and kidnappers. Violence can erupt quickly and unexpectedly at mass demonstrations and religious gatherings, too.
Terrorist acts by groups like Boko Haram and Ansaru are also a reality in Nigeria. They occur most frequently during public holidays and festivals, in crowded public places such as transport hubs and markets. International organizations are sometimes targeted, as are places of worship and even restaurants, shopping centers, and sports venues.
Crime and terrorism are dangers throughout Nigeria, but the north – particularly the northeastern and north-central states – and the Niger Delta are especially dangerous.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activity is illegal across the country, and many Nigerians view it with violent hostility. The Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2011 has made public shows of same-sex affection and other acts illegal, and it obliges Nigerians to report suspected LGBT activity or face jail themselves. There are no laws to prevent anti-LGBT discrimination, assault or even lynching.
There are some common-sense ways to boost your personal security when doing business in Nigeria:
- Taking public transport is extremely risky. Use hotel cars, with drivers.
- When driving, make sure you have a cellphone with you. Be vigilant when your car is stationary at lights or in traffic jams, and lock your doors.
- Avoid traveling at night away from city centers.
- Let people know where you're going, vary your routines, and stay alert wherever you are.
- Make sure that you know who will be attending business meetings, and that you meet them in a secure place.
- Don't carry large amounts of cash, and leave your valuables at home.
- Avoid large crowds and busy public places, such as markets, stations and anywhere you notice a heavy security presence.
- Check with your country's government for tips and warnings before traveling. Your employer might also have security protocols in place that you should follow. If you're traveling to a risky area, take professional advice about security.
Infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, cholera and malaria, are a risk here and throughout West Africa. Check with the National Travel Health Network and Centre or the World Health Organization for updates on any outbreaks and precautions that you should take.
Nigeria had a small number of Ebola cases, but it has been clear of the disease since October 2014. Expect heightened awareness of Ebola, though, and cooperate with measures that have been put in place to control it.
- Always use his or her title, or Mr or Ms, when addressing a Nigerian. He will invite you to use his first name once you've established a relationship.
- Acknowledge each person individually, in order of seniority, when you meet or leave a group. It's considered rude to say "hello" or "goodbye" to everyone at the same time.
- Most Nigerians will greet you by shaking hands, and some will also put a hand on your shoulder. Always wait for a woman to extend her hand to you first.
- Be careful of giving gifts in the workplace. Bribery, or "dash," is common, and some consider it the cost of doing business in Nigeria. However, remember that giving a bribe might be illegal in your home country, even if it happens abroad. In particular, take care to understand anti-corruption laws, and to respect your company's policies on the subject. For example, in the U.S., the legal distinction between a gift and a bribe is not completely clear. See the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for more information. And, the U.K.'s Bribery Act 2010 explains what constitutes a bribe in Britain, and for any British company operating overseas, regardless of location.
- Many Nigerians love soccer, and this is one of the most risk-free topics of conversation. You can also safely ask about a person's family and hobbies, as well as Nigerian music, art and history. However, avoid asking questions or talking about politics, current events or ethnic conflicts.
Nigeria is Africa's largest economy and its most populous country. Religious and cultural divisions are common.
Get to know each person individually to work successfully with your Nigerian team. Relationships are important here; you'll build trust by asking about family and home life.
Nigerians have great respect for seniority and position. You'll need to encourage your team members to speak up, especially when they suspect that you're making a bad decision. Remind everyone that their opinion will help the entire group to succeed.