ECONOMY - 29 JUL 2015

Running On African Time

Running On African Time
Digital Clock

Does anything ever run to time in Nigeria? For passengers at Murtala Muhammad Airport 2 in Lagos, begrudgingly accepting yet another delay in their scheduled departure time, the answer is a brief and resounding no.

In Nigeria, besides local flights, infamous for their unpredictability, meeting and appointment times are rarely honored, salary payments are too often delayed and even national elections are not immune to postponement. The offence list is endless. Moreover, every Nigerian you meet has their own favorite tale of tardiness.

Unfortunately, this tardiness is costly. Perennial lateness deprives Nigerians of the benefits of schedules and prevents the efficient use of time. So far, economic research has shed very little light on the aggregate costs of tardiness yet there are some that are immediately obvious to a country like Nigeria. Firstly, foreigners who engage in business activity in or with Nigeria tend to be much more time-conscious and therefore struggle to adapt. Furthermore, in a developing country where uncertainty abounds and disrupts lives, it makes little sense to exacerbate it through erratic timing.

So why does this situation persist? Here is one possible answer: African Time – the peculiar phenomenon that means that Africans, Nigerians especially, do not simply accept tardiness but actually take pride in it. It is unclear why this particular practice has become so widespread in the African continent but there are two observable trends: The first is that similar behaviour is found in Caribbean nations, and the second is that this behaviour is considered as part of a wider divergence in attitudes toward life between African and Western cultures.

This hints at a worrying relationship between African timing and business reliability. Game Theory offers one approach to understanding this. Any business that expects its customers to flout appointments becomes incentivised to do the same. This in turn makes it even less likely that customers will keep to time and quickly leads to a race to the bottom that benefits no one.

A sociological approach elicits similar results. Services in Nigeria are unreliable because the providers operate within an environment that endorses African Time. Put simply, it is likely that the existence of African Time has contributed to a culture that fails to value punctuality or punish tardiness. Customers are less likely to hold businesses accountable to time if they themselves are not accustomed to a culture that promotes punctuality and reliability. A service industry that does not value punctuality is likely to hinder socio-economic development.

This idea that African Time could be hindering economic development has been embraced in certain parts of the continent. For example, Côte d’Ivoire has identified novel ways of tackling the problem. The most sophisticated economies have a close relationship with timekeeping. In many ways, they have to. Financial markets operate and respond within milliseconds as trades can be executed instantaneously while automated systems require precise timing to operate like clockwork. The amusing frenzy over the leap second that occurred on June 30, 2015 shows the importance of precise timing in highly developed markets.

In Nigeria, the benefit of all the time we spend waiting is that we get a chance to stop and smell the roses. Yet our tardiness is only holding us back. The personal frustration is only compounded by the aggregate social and economic implications. For all our sakes, African Time must go.

 

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Kitan Williams

Kitan Williams

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