The Nigerian Petrol Pump Attendant Syndrome

The Nigerian Petrol Pump Attendant Syndrome

From my vantage point in Ubud, Bali, I see that people have been queuing for petrol back in the UK. This reminded me of a phenomenon I noticed in 1999 when I first visited Nigeria. It describes why change is difficult, even if the alternative is blindingly, obviously better.

There was an election on. Olu Falae and the former general Olusegun Obasanjo (who I only knew of because of his infamous co-starring role in Fela Kuti’s Coffin for a Head of State) were contesting the first presidential election in sixteen years. One of Obasanjo’s election promises, I heard, was that under his leadership he’d get Nigeria’s petrol flowing.

At the time of the election Nigeria had an economy which the BBC described as being in “abject decay”. The oil boom of the 1970s, which led to Nigeria building some of Africa’s plus grande projets (like the elevated highways from Ikoyi and V.I. to Ikeja), seemed like ancient history, and its ailing economy had relied more and more on this single commodity. Even so, Nigeria’s oil industry still had the potential to make it one of Africa’s richest, most self-sufficient and powerful nations. Instead, back in 2000 a drive through Lagos (as across the country) saw frequent queues for the pumps as rickety supply lines, corruption, poor management and an emphasis on exporting oil to earn precious foreign currency, meant that, at worst, commuters had to park their cars outside petrol stations overnight to ensure their supply of gas.

To me, a promise to get the petrol flowing was a big promise indeed.

I asked friends in Lagos whether they believed Obasanjo’s promise. Their answers were neither affirmative, nor negative. Surprisingly, their answer tended to be a wry shrug. After a few too many of these, I plucked up the courage to ask why the shrug? Didn’t they believe he could do it? Didn’t they believe he’d try? Did they just think he’d salt away any upside for himself? The answer was both simpler and more intriguing:

It wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.

When I probed further, here’s how it was broken down to me:

When you queue for an age for petrol, the lady who’s pumping gas is a strong woman indeed. You drop her a few extra Naira, she’ll give you an extra couple of squirts of gas. If the petrol’s flowing, what’s she to do?

And if the queue lasts all day or all night, and you’ve a busy day with business or family affairs to attend to, you can normally pay someone to mind your car for you. What are they to do if the petrol flows? They’ll have to find a living elsewhere.

And what of the boys selling you stuff through your car window while you wait. It’s dangerous work walking the highways in a go slow, plying your trade. In a petrol queue, you’re a safe, captive audience. What will they do? Where will they go?

You see, this “petrol flowing” business. It’s not all good.

And that’s when it hit me: the Nigerian Petrol Pump Attendant Syndrome.

It’s a syndrome with good news and bad news. First the good news: people are by nature positive and resourceful. No matter how dysfunctional a system may seem to be, people find function in it, and make the system work for them.

But here’s the bad news: This resourcefulness builds in vested interest in a system – no matter how inequitable, illogical or downright perverse it may be. These vested interests make systems profoundly difficult to change.

So how do you achieve change in similarly entrenched environments?

Chip & Dan Heath, the authors of the brilliant Made to Stick, argue in their follow up, Switch, that the conflict between the emotional and rational sides of the brain is hard-wired in. They propose ways of uniting the two sides to effect change. I’m not so sure; the idea that emotions are separate from rational thought seemed a little too tidy and glib. As Tim Harford more convincingly explores in The Logic of Life, there are plenty of examples of where emotional responses are entirely rational (i.e. they respond to incentive in order to maximise benefit). An emotional response that makes one resistant to change (I’m comforted by the familiar; I’m angry when people propose changing what I know; I’m scared of the new and unproven) sounds pretty rational to me.

To challenge the status quo of the economy of Nigeria’s turn-of the-millennium petrol-pumpers, or any system where inertia is the (non)driving force, it’s always going to be an uphill struggle to convince those with a vested interest that there’s a better way elsewhere. What seems to work better – not just in Nigeria, but anywhere – for instance for the many industries who have struggled to adjust to the transition from analogue to digital economies – are a couple of other strategies.

Ignore the status quo and build anyway 
When I first visited Nigeria, telegraph poles hung heavy with the tangle of thick black spaghetti-like cabling of many failed years trying to build and maintain a telephone network. The government’s monopoly as the supplier of fixed-line phones was broken in 2002, with the introduction of a second provider. However, this did little to fundamentally change the situation. The game changer was the deregulation of the cellular phone network around the same time. Basically, the country seemed to give up on a fixed line network. As of 2011 there are an estimated 5 million fixed line phones in Nigeria.  The most reliable figures I could get my hands on suggest there are close to 90 million connected mobiles. The new system simply circumvented the old. Besides this direct alternative, there have also been new, unanticipated solutions which didn’t start within traditional telecommunications at all, like the growth of VOIP services like Skype.

Build benefits that can be shared with the status quo
Creating win-win, which can be shared by those with a vested interest in the status quo, can convince even the most inert to try new approaches. There’s nothing stopping inhabitants of existing industries exploring new income streams. That second Nigerian fixed-line provider? Starcomms, now one of the country’s eight mobile network providers. That’s not saying that existing players have a head-start. As part of the status quo, they’ll likely have systems and cultures wedded to what’s existing. These can be the wrong shape for new approaches. Shell may have an “Future Energy” division, but I’ll not bet on them being the market leader when the world eventually moves away from fossil fuels.

The last time I went to Nigeria, I didn’t see a petrol queue at all. They seemed to be a thing of the past (the queues only returned early this year when Nigeria’s fuel subsidies were scrapped). What exact part Obasanjo’s government played in this improvement, I cannot say, but to me it offers hope that even the most seemingly intractably situations can improve over time.

So the next time you’re trying convince others of a bright new idea or even trying to improve a seemingly hopeless case (I’ve got relationships with family members I can think of) spare a moment to think of the forecourts of Port Harcourt, and hope and plan for better to come.