by Ian McCall


Gift-giving is a means of symbolising relationships the world over. In traditional societies it can take a number of forms. In its simplest form in Nigeria it is a handout usually solicited by someone young who accosts you and invites you to ‘dash’ him. At the next level up it is an invitation to give something for which something is given in return. This is the traditional level in which there is a two-way obligation which some expatriates did not have the sensibility to recognise and insisted on conducting themselves as if they were at home. Dash is not all that different from words in other languages like baksheesh (Egyptian), mordida (Mexican Spanish meaning ‘the bite’), tangenti (Italian) sometimes referred to in its intention-to-influence form as bustarella or little envelope and slush (American English). There is an expression which sounds more innocuous and apparently less demanding that comes from the Cameroons where they called it smol wata (pidgin for small water). There is usually a reciprocity involved that makes the word ‘bribe’ often inappropriate as a translation. Those who take an inflexible, moral position irrespective of the situation are either blind to the local culture or are trapped in a way of thinking from which they cannot escape, making value judgments on another culture in terms of their own. Certainly there is an ethical dimension but it rests on an understanding of the motivations of the giver. There is sometimes a problem distinguishing when there is merely a mutual consideration and when there is intention to influence.

Gift giving in general in Nigeria was determined by relationships. These have a primacy and compulsion in West Africa and certainly in the south of Nigeria where most of my work took place. You can be doing your job to the best of your ability and lo and behold a gift arrives from someone who thanks you for your help and courtesy. Good manners dictate that this is acknowledged and perhaps reciprocated at a later date. For the colonial servant it was the subject of a dilemma. For did it not state somewhere in Colonial Regulations that any gifts given in the course of the performance of an officer’s duties should be handed over to the Chief Secretary to the Government? Such rules were no doubt made with the intention of preventing officers from being suborned with gifts of some value by someone who wished a particular outcome on a given issue. It had the effect of relieving some officers of the responsibility of thinking issues through even where the present was of minimal value. It was black or white. A gift was a bribe. You accepted one or you didn’t accept one. For them there was no bending to local values - automatic, mindless decision making was officially sanctioned in the absence of a definition of what constituted a gift. The reluctance or inability of some to accept the ambivalent nature of the process of gift-giving in the Nigerian context compounded the problem. There are people who need specific rather than general guidelines. Some just cannot cope with situations of perceived uncertainty and that poses problems for them when exposed to a culture very different from their own.

The problem was that the relationships necessary for sensible functioning could not exist under such circumstances. A provincial engineer who had great difficulty in working with contractors when he applied the easy solution of refusing or sending back gifts, told me he found these problems disappeared when he started to accept them without its affecting in any way the decisions he made. A senior colleague, the same one indeed who invited two of us to coffee and a drink after dinner shortly after our arrival in Lagos, and ushered us out almost as soon as we got in, told me that a certain Lebanese businessman buying cocoa on behalf of the Marketing Board asked him to release for shipment, and therefore payment, a consignment of cocoa suspected of having been adulterated. When he returned to his car there was £200 in notes on the seat. He immediately returned to the businessman, threw the money on his desk and informed him that every man had his price and his was £30,000 paid into a bank in Cuba (intended as irony). Apparently the reply he received was that the sum was too high. The point of recalling this uninspiring exchange is to demonstrate that all gifts were put in the same category as this one in terms of intention and effect by those who automatically rejected a gift.

When I was Senior Produce Officer of an area which included Lagos/Apapa and the main cocoa-producing belt centred on Abeokuta, I refused a number gifts, graciously I hope, which arrived well before Christmas time. On one occasion on which a gift had recently arrived, Richard my steward was in obstructive mode.
‘What’s this?’ I asked
‘A turkey, sah.’
‘Where did it come from?’
‘A man come in motocar and bring am’.
‘Send it back’ I instructed, ‘you know what I say about these things’.
‘I never know where I send am’
‘Who go bring am?’ I demanded, warming to the occasion and reinforcing a seriousness by saying it in pidgin.
‘He never leave his card’ Richard averred by way of explanation.
It was his way of telling me I was being a bit boorish in my behaviour. So I continued to feed turkeys for weeks with my own guinea corn until nearer the holiday when I in turn would give them away.

To the African business mind the line of demarcation between legitimate gift giving and bribery is a clear one. If one offers a gift to a government officer to influence him, that is corruption. But if someone receives afterwards a gift for services rendered, that is a commission or tangible acknowledgement. If one-sided or greatly unequal in value, or given with the purpose of inducing favourable treatment, then such gifts become bribery and should be handed back or handed in. The Anglo-Saxon mind also distrusts the Nigerian use of personal ties and connections because their reciprocal nature means using up old ‘credits’ or accumulating new ‘liabilities’ depending on one’s ‘balance sheet’ of reciprocal transactions. The value attached to the use of personal connections is not always an economic one. When a friend or relative intervenes on behalf of a particular individual, he will have several costs, one of which might be the cost of capital; there was too his personal ‘ties/connections’ capital. For these services he expects a form of payment now or in the future. Such is the way people look after each other in a collective society. Thus, while there is one line drawn between payment and bribery for a European doing his work in a Nigerian context, the dividing line may be drawn differently for the Nigerian businessman. Morality is not absolute. It is not always easy to determine the best course of action. Ethical decisions are not always clear-cut. That may be why people who dislike uncertainty like rules to work by.

Instead of issuing instructions on handing over gifts received by government officers in carrying out their duties, it would have been smarter for the old Colonial Office to have given those being offered appointments in Nigeria a testing interview to establish whether they were able to adjust to a different culture and possessed the character to address these dilemmas, perhaps supported by training and education in the ethics of decision making in a cross-cultural setting. Or is that bringing turn of the millennium solutions to 1950s problems?

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003