Bullying in the Nigerian Workplace


That bullying has become entrenched in the Nigerian workplace is probably not surprising or noteworthy because after all it is a fitting reflection of the predatory and exploitative behaviour that has come to typify interactions across various facets of our social sphere. From street gatemen who refuse to open gates for not having been properly recognized with tips to silent threats of an unfair hearings and refusal to approve budgets if you refuse to play ball with members of the various houses of assembly. Parents have successfully sent a clear message to schools that if their wards are so much as chastised, there will be hell to pay and all manner of uniformed personnel, including Police, Air Force, Navy and LASTMA go so far as to take lives to demonstrate their power and superiority over citizens.

So bullying is an accepted part of our existence, another way to diminish the self worth of Nigerians that even foreigners in our midst avail of. It is after all not illegal and when in Nigeria, you do as the Nigerians of power do. Ride rough shod over everyone around you, not least by driving down other road users, pedestrians, all if they fail to give way at the sound of your siren and sight of depraved security operatives wielding horsewhips and hanging out of the windows of fast moving SUVs and pickup trucks that make up your cavalcade. Companies with foreign managers routinely do not let their staff join unions or form staff associations as bargaining units. From time to time newspapers report abuse of Nigerian working for foreign nationals. In my opinion, they only took to extremes some of the treatment meted out by Nigerians themselves to their own compatriots.

And bullying in offices has come to take pride of place with individuals setting themselves up as demigods and forcing colleagues to come worship at their shrines just by exploiting a system that has become so dependent on patronage. Remember that transport officer who somehow just never has a car to support your legitimate official trip, the boss who persistently queries your competence and denigrates you at every opportunity but can’t seem to get anything done without you. She will not even let you take leave since somehow your absence will bring the department to grinding halt. The worst of the lot are the gate keepers of senior management. They determine who gets promotion and who will eventually rise to join the ranks of the power brokers within the structure of the organization. They can make or break you and even cost you your job if you don’t join their corps of disciples. Many of us are left with no choice; jobs are scarce in Nigeria not to mention jobs that pay well enough so we never risk the one we have by daring not to conform. Besides it makes the difference between getting by on bare bone salary and enjoying perquisites that include personal computers to do the work, dedicated official cars, trips abroad and photo opportunities with even bigger bosses. A senior colleague nearly broke his neck the other day trying to get into the picture with the visiting Chinese Ambassador. While he failed to understand my refusal to see the importance of being in a photo with the Chinese ambassador, I failed to see the relevance of a photo shoot to the professional life and progress of a man due for retirement in a couple of months.

This lifelong dedication to ingratiation and obsequiousness is not peculiar to government establishments but cuts across all sectors including private and development organisations. More so, I dare say, in international organisations like the UN, World Bank and other development partner organisations where the prospect of international postings is dangled before professional Nigerian noses who gladly sell out colleagues and their country. It is no longer possible to make professional progress by knowledge, expertise and a positive attitude, those attributes that are advertised as required for the job. Management cadre staff, especially those who feel that they have paid their dues, having kowtowed their way up the ranks, exact their pound of flesh by bullying subordinates and making life as miserable as possible for those who will not align with their personal agenda no matter how much at variance with organisational goals those are.

At an upscale bank some years ago, I heard a manager calling a teller a lemon and an empty head very loudly. I expect he wanted to communicate his importance to customers in the banking hall and establish control over his colleagues, many of whom laughed appreciatively at what was not a joke, their way of showing that they are on his side in all things, even cruelty to another colleague. Such incivility is common in the Nigerian corporate world. And we become complicit, many times willing accomplices looking to better our own personal lot, when we do not protest such mistreatment of colleagues.

We are masters of offensive nonverbal conduct and behaviour. Without saying anything really we threaten, intimidate and humiliate each other. We undermine professional colleagues and seek to trip them up on administrative details when we find ourselves trumped by their technical knowledge and expertise. Reminds me of the philosophy common among denizens of deuxieme bureau who are seldom as well educated and cultured as the wife they seek to upstage when they tell her to keep the ring while they keep the man.

Office bullies adopt many methods and tools to frustrate their victims and are experts at sophistry. They make unwarranted and invalid criticisms, pass blame without factual justification, are verbally abusive and would conduct job discussions out on the corridors loud enough for others to know and hear and accompanied with threats of poor appraisal reports or dismissals. They micro-manage, shout at and humiliate subordinates and give unrealistic deadlines. When none of this works they enlist support of unwitting colleagues who desperate to keep their own place in the pecking order work with the bullies to socially exclude victims.

The sad thing is that it has become the Nigerian workplace culture to protect and even promote bullying. Guidelines on conduct for rising swiftly up the corporate ladder is rife on the office grapevine through which staff receive personalised advice on how to butter up the boss, the same grapevine that sets you up in competition with each other and ensures progress only for seasoned brown-nosers. God help you if you come with that seemingly foreign orientation of operating with standard behaviour appropriate to a professional setting. You will actually need prayer and fasting and mullahs on skins pulling at prayer beads 24/7 if your boss perceives for any reason that you are not sufficiently humble. A very vague and elastic term frequently applied in the Nigerian work place. At a staff retreat recently when it was pointed out that a senior member of staff was not assigned an official car nor given an official phone line, the reason proffered was that the woman in question was not humble. She did not befriend the Admin Officer, dared to interrupt her rambling speech at a management meeting, and expressed an opposing view. So she was taught a lesson and denied work benefits contained in her contract. Her only recourse, the Programme Director was himself being bullied by the Admin Officer who had close ties with powers beyond the organisation

How do you win with man or woman upon whom your continued livelihood depends but who is determined to bring you to your knees just to demonstrate dubious superiority? The solution for many is simply to resign and move on to the next job, but that is for those who have that option. The effect of that on the individual is that they really do not gain enough traction for professional progress and may end up making precarious living as on again off again consultants depending on their professional field. The loss is more to the organisations, who lose perfectly good hands, retain non-performing staff and wallow in the non productivity evident in public and corporate space of today’s Nigeria


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