Corporate social responsibility in Nigeria

Nigeria is a developing country that is abundantly rich in many natural resources and as a result has a good number of multinational corporations ranging from oil companies, banks to consulting firms. Unfortunately, CSR is a concept that I personally believe the government has left to expectations, believing the multinational corporations would do what is ‘right’ by offering certain benefits to the society and the environment.

As a result of this approach, Corporate and social responsibility has become a forgotten issue thus not playing a vital role in Nigeria as it does in some African countries and the developed world. Both the government and the corporations are happy to maintain that status quo and go on with business as usual. Although there is very minimal CSR in the country, the government constantly highlights and expects total transparency from all businesses.

This is one of the principles of the United Nations Global Compact, which promotes ‘work against corruption in all its forms, including bribery and extortion’ . Paradoxically in a country where CSR is almost non-existent, the government constantly emphasise the importance of transparency even though everyone, the corporations included, operate with impunity.

Most of the companies understand how the system works and how to get around the system due to the relentless corruption going on in the country and only use CSR or ‘promote’ transparency mostly as propaganda to promote the company’s image to a mostly illiterate population . Nigerians are very charitable and have a culture of ‘looking out for your brother’; the affluent people try to help out through charitable donations and other benevolent programmes in the community. Most of the companies get in on the programmes, make some donations especially to the influential elders and opinion leaders of the community and call that CSR.

However, there are still some companies that have been exemplary when it comes to social responsibility and one of those is telecom giant Globacom. Globacom is a privately owned company that operates in 4 African countries, has over 25million subscribers and employ over 3,000 people worldwide . As a Nigerian it’s easy to choose this company and highlight their achievement in terms of social responsibility because it is almost impossible to escape one of their social programmes in Nigeria. Glo, as the company is usually called, has improved the lives of the local people in numerous ways.

The company is the biggest sponsor of local sporting events, traditional festivals as well as international events that even improve the countries image. Through their program such as ‘Stimulating African Development’ that began in 2003, the company has so far spent over 4billion Naira ($30million) in developing and promoting local talents. They have provided relief programmes that help their customers in impoverished areas by providing them with basic amenities such as electricity, medicine and schools for their young kids.

They also have sponsored programmes such as African Voices on CNN, it is a socially conscious programme that promotes the whole continent as a whole. It highlights the talent, investment opportunities as well as the beauty of the African continent as opposed to the usual hunger, poverty and disease ridden picture that is usually seen as Africa’s representation. That I believe is commendable corporate social responsibility. On the other hand, there are the companies that only treat CSR merely as a PR stunt and it will probably not come as surprise that the company I want to highlight is an oil company.

Royal Dutch Shell has been operating in the oil rich Niger Delta region in the southern part of Nigeria for well over 5 decades and as a result have made that whole area almost inhabitable. I am a 25-year-old Nigerian but have never been anywhere near that area due to the unbelievable amount of pollution- air, land and water. The BP Gulf oil spill in the US that cause much outrage dwarfs in comparison to what Shell has done in that region. A geological survey of the area that came out last year shows it will take at least 30years for the environment in that region to be restored .

Shell makes profits in billions of dollars every year, a very good percentage of that coming from Nigeria but instead of trying to improve the life of the people they destroyed or at least be more responsible operationally, they simply do their own version of ‘CSR’ by giving out millions of dollars to highly placed government officials, lobbyists as well as local community elders or anyone whose voice is loud enough to be heard. The Gift and the curse of oil is common knowledge, only that the curse goes to the next level, an inhumane level, with regards to what Shell does in Nigeria.

The most ridiculous part? This has been going on for decades, has destroyed and entire region, millions of lives and still does not show any sign of stopping or slowing down. Nigeria is a complex environment to do business in if you don't understand the simple things and the dynamics. Most of the MNC’s in the country have been there for many years and have almost become Nigerian in terms of the way business is done.

I think the biggest deviation from standard business practices is how time is observed. When an executive tells you in Nigeria a meeting starts at 10a.m, what that translates to is that the meeting starts sometime around noon. Although most of the companies are Western companies and have a different corporate culture they have for the most part adapted to this way of doing business.

The most difficult to deal with though especially for new businesses or investors is the corruption. Corruption has gone so deep in some aspects of the business to the point where it has become a norm and even accepted, albeit unofficially . A simple business deal goes awry when you are not willing to ‘play ball’ or ‘grease the wheels’ and the sad thing is everyone including the Multinational corporations, local businesses and the government have become institutionally corrupt.