Bento and Other Nigerian Employers Will Never Stop Being Cruel Unless…

Twitter has been awash with sordid tales of awful treatment by Nigerian employers. Not a lot of it is new. Anyone paying attention knows that to receive salaries from a Nigerian company or establishment is to put yourself at the mercies of their wickedest whims. If your boss is feeling good, you would have a good day; if she’s not particularly happy, you are in trouble. Sometimes the mood doesn’t matter. You go still collect.

I have had an impossibly good run with my superiors most of my life. Back when I worked as a pharmacist, I was treated nicely and maybe too nicely given my general stubborn head as a kid. The HODs I worked with in Abuja and in Benin both took a liking to me. And when I worked freelance as a magazine writer in Abuja, my boss was a supremely nice human being. I had a short stint with a website in Lagos and experienced my sole not very good work experiment but even so, I realise that my boss at the time was merely reacting to what he guessed was my imminent departure.

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A Personal Experience

I had gotten accepted to a film criticism programme in South Africa. I told him that the acceptance meant I was going to travel. He seemed to have accepted. But when the time came and I left, I heard he wasn’t pleased. Looking back, I think that he had expected me to work from South Africa. But I must tell you that this young son of man was enjoying the view from a hotel facing the beach in Durban. He called a friend of mine to tell him that I didn’t inform him that I was travelling. I did. But that mattered not. My friend said he told him that he would fire me so that I would see life.

Now, I was young and convinced of my own genius, so that line annoyed me greatly. But I returned and went to see him on the same night to apologise. He wasn’t hearing it and that was that. Well, I had worked for some time and so I sent a mail asking for my salary. I received it shortly after. And that was that. At least for me.

But my now ex-employer was pissed for some time. For a while I couldn’t understand why he carried over his anger but these days, I think it’s just human nature. And his “so that I would see life” didn’t quite go like that. From South Africa, I heard about a similar programme taking place in Germany and later the Netherlands. I applied for both. Months later, I was in Europe for the first time. Which was quite a big deal for a kid who grew up in Lokoja and studied pharmacy at the University of Benin.

In the way life works, just last year, almost 10 years after that whole mess, someone I met in the Netherlands supplied a connection from which I have made a few millions (of naira) over a few months in this very trying times in Nigeria. If I stayed back for that job, maybe my life would be better or worse. I don’t know. But I do know that going to South Africa at the time I did and then going to Germany and the Netherlands from what I heard in South Africa has given me the life I enjoy. I sometimes joke that instead of “seeing life”, I have seen the world.

One thing I learned from that episode is that for someone who is really good at what he does and has some luck, it’s not really possible to stop them. Even if you are not really good at your job and you have some luck, you cannot be stopped either. But the combination is superb. I was lucky, I write well, and I have some common sense — you can’t really mess someone like me up. There would always be a way. It just takes time.

What is unfortunate for many people is that they don’t have time. I was lucky to receive that little salary he paid and I was squatting at a friend’s brother’s place. That arrangement came to an end not long later but at least I had a place to keep my head, which is one step into privilege in this crazy city called Lagos. When your landlord is threatening to kick you out, you will take the insults just to keep your job.

The Desperation of Nigerian Employees

I read some people saying that when the man at the centre of the Tech Cabal article was interviewing and throwing insults, they would have walked away. It’s easy to say. But if you are squatting and your benefactor has housed you for 7 months and has said you have to leave his place in 3 weeks and in those three weeks, you are lucky to find a job, would you let some person’s insults keep you from a salary that ensures you are not homeless in a strange city?

If your answer is yes, then I don’t know what to say. For many people, those words will not stand in their way. This is what the casual cruelty of Nigerian employers is based on. The cruelties continue because there is an implicit acknowledgement of the average Nigerian employee’s desperation.

That desperation is what you get when money is the only thing that matters in a country with deep, widespread poverty. Think about it: these crazy bosses who seem to find it impossible to check their anger never get angry at investor meetings. Why? Well, because there is an implicit acknowledgement of the investor’s leverage. The utility of the investor is clear; that of the employee isn’t as clear.

What the Nigerian Dream looks like

The difference is social class and the operating principle in that class stratification is money. Money, money: If you are investing it, you deserve respect; If you are receiving, you have to negotiate your worth. In a poor country, a man who is worth several tens or hundreds of millions paying another person 50,000 naira would struggle to see him as an equal deserving of respect.

This is complicated by bosses who are borderline psychopaths as seems to be the case with some of the bosses who have had their behaviour discussed online since yesterday. Unfortunately, the people who are able to call these people to order are just like them — wealthy and belong in the same circles — and so they either have no idea that these people behave the way they have been accused because the status gap that propels that bad behaviour is missing. Or these other people behave the same log in their eye and can’t see their mates clearly.

A friend told me how her superior who leads a fintech spoke about local hires as though they were naturally inferior to their foreign staffers. Nigerian education is, of course, inferior, but leaders should not dampen the morale of their staff on that basis and doing that publicly has to have untoward consequences. By all means, let go of underperforming staff but insulting and threatening them has no place in a business.

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The Cruelty of Employers

Then there are business owners who also expect their employees to kill themselves for the business and when you ask what they pay, you hear mindboggling figures. You really expect your worker to give their all to do an 8am to 9pm job while coming to an office in today’s Nigeria for 40k? They will take the job but it’s not going to happen. I understand that they have signed the contract but you would have to understand the psychology of incentives. Someone online explained how she wakes by 4am and works till 11pm at her business, implying that she would expect a staff to do something close or similar. I was tempted to ask her if she gives them a fair wage and equity.

Not like it matters. There already is so much that makes it impossible for that arrangement to be a fair one. For one, there is the chance that employer lives close to the office and the staff is likely coming from Egbeda to Lekki for the job. One gets in an airconditioned vehicle home, the other enters a sweat-reeking bus that would get stuck in traffic for hours to get home. But when Madam Business Owner speaks, she tells you about her long hard-working hours but those are hours in optimally comfortable conditions. The staff coming from afar still gets money deducted from her salary if she comes in 20 minutes late and spends six hours in transit daily.

Last year, the Financial Times said wrote about how the western system encourages “the wealthy to believe “they got where they are because they are worth it” and so they can treat “front-line service staff like lesser human beings. Because, on some level, [they] think they are”. It is the same in Nigeria and may even be worse because we have quite a lot of employers who have grown up or gotten educated in the west and then return to poor Nigeria where the average person is poorer than the average person in the west and so gets even more awful treatment. Someone we have a horde of young rich employers who manage to combine the worst of the west with the worst of Nigeria.

It’s instructive that the Bento CEO, who has provoked these discussions with the devilish behaviour he has been accused of, was in a 2020 viral video featuring rage, expletives, and a non-Nigerian accent. Would he still have a job if he had displayed that level of rage in an American institution? But rather than take that better bit of America to Nigeria, it is American brashness that has proven to be transferrable.

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Solving the Bento CEO and Other Problems

The solution to this nonsense behaviour will have to be carried over from the west. In the case of the Bento CEO, whose conduct recalls the violent tendencies of Scott Rudin, the American producer’s treatment would be appropriate. People and businesses he has worked with would have to dissociate from working with him until he makes a public apology and enters into therapy and anger management classes with demonstrable results.

The celebrated screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said Rudin got what he deserves following his disgrace. And that is the same pattern that needs to be followed with the man at Bento: his powerful clients and investors have to demand more from him, otherwise nothing changes as we saw after the noise generated by his rage in that viral video. Social media is good for attention but if it isn’t followed by accountability, everyone would move on to the next story after a couple days.

Of course, this isn’t treatment that everyone shamed online needs to receive but the man in question isn’t actually denying that he has done what he has been accused of. His argument is that the people who have been damaged do not belong in the A team. Tech Cabal says Bento has 900 businesses as clients, including many celebrated startups. A decent chunk of them have to come out and take a stand for Nigerian workers if anything is to change. But as many of them belong to the same circles as the accused CEO, nobody needs hold their breath.

And yet, even if they do take a stand in public, that would not be the cure of all bad treatment of employees in Nigeria. Poverty and bad labour laws are what lie at the base of all of this maltreatment.

If inequality is treated, there would be no need for staffers to take bad treatment from employers knowing that they can find decent paying work elsewhere. And if workers were protected better by the laws, employers would think twice before dishing out evil to their staff. As it stands the poor are at the mercy of relatively wealthy employers and those ones have proven to be reckless.

It is as Scott Fitzgerald pointed out about one of literature’s most brash and rich pair of characters: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

If things are to change, the man at Bento and his ilk would have to clean up the mess they have made by themselves. It begins with accountability and ends with stronger laws that protect workers in this poor country we live in.

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Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer.