Another Nigerian phenomenon

Image courtesy of Channels TV Nigeria

Oga — Nigerian term for boss.
Earned as a result of status or wealth. Typically well to do and at least of above average means or with assets or access to using or acquiring assets.

I remember the day our gardener in Ikoyi “Baba John” first called me “Oga Victor” it felt weird. The gardener was a man who knew me as a kid while still in school, and he was now referring to me as “Oga”. I shrugged it off until I started hearing it repeated by the security guards and others. I later realised what it meant; I was expected to play the role and “perform” by giving out the rewards of achieving that status.

It didn’t matter that I was a struggling entrepreneur who was depending on loans from family to run the business and was at that time, still living with the same family. I was an “Oga”, and I had to act like one.

My mother had once told me that as the eldest, I needed to make my position felt by playing the role in full. She suggested that anytime I left home and came back; I had to bring gifts and make people at home look forward to seeing me.

I guessed that was a form of “Ogaship” and to these people in Ikoyi looking up to me, I had to “perform”. Especially as I was always travelling and coming back. I did so grudgingly and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

The burden

The problem with becoming an “Oga” is that the demands and requests never stop. Once you give and confirm your “Ogaship” the news seems to spread to more people that you are in play. Supplications come in all forms, from weekend tips to outright requests for loans that will more than often never be repaid.

The price of seeming success in Nigeria is that you carry the burden of others. You want to stop being an “Oga” at this stage, but it is already too late. All you keep doing is bleeding resources to meet requests. It is probably the reason why some Nigerians are very secretive about any progress they have made.

Making progress in Nigeria is quickly followed by requests after congratulations. When someone is promoted or appointed to a new position, others see it as a windfall for everyone.

Sustaining Ogaship or “Oganomics” is one of the major reasons why corruption is hard to uproot in Nigeria. The “Oga” has to maintain loyalty by “favours”, and mid-level Ogas are especially hit with a double whammy as they also have to show “loyalty” to those above them who facilitated the promotion or appointment.

The only safe and likely rich Oga is “The Oga at the top” or overall boss. All the aggregate benefits of “Ogaship” are maximized there. It is highly coveted and explains why all manner of politics in Nigeria is very brutal. It is also why the Nigerian is seen outside as “aggressive” in everything. We are always carrying our underdog complex with us. I blame the prolonged military rule.

The perks

With all of these issues, why do people still crave the “Oga” title or position so much in Nigeria? Why do some people want it so badly that they commit crimes or even go bankrupt to keep up appearances? It is because being an Oga also has its perks. A lot of people build major fortunes by doing things others cannot question because “Ogas are meant to be respected.” This power distance is very important for the Nigerian ego. It is also why a lot of Nigerian organisations are grossly mismanaged and why cronyism remains pervasive in society.

Being an Oga in Nigeria can range from being a personal branding or “packaging” exercise to real status. To the observer from outside, most Nigerians are “wealthy ogas”; it is one of the reasons why the Nigerian fantasy propagated by Nollywood is popular around Africa and also why 419 crimes are so easy. Most scammers are typically motivated to be ogas or “Chairmen” by watching other bosses.

The truth in Nigeria is that real will recognize real. Fake Ogas cannot finesse the real Ogas, but they must look the part sometimes to be able to be invited into places where they will go to suck up and worship wealth and status. Ogas have a hierarchy, and it is a sign of respect to other ogas for you to show both opulence and humility.

It is a thing of great pride to be an “Oga’s Oga” when your subordinates look prosperous, it is a signaling exercise. Sometimes sub-ogas are recruited for just looking the part. It is why “luxury” in Nigeria is a major industry. The sad thing is that people put luxury and opulence to work for status games and don’t enjoy life and leisure for what it is — “real achievement.”

In a country without proper means of scoring creditworthiness, people cling to appearances. It surprises me so much how people still fall for appearances. A bar owner came online recently to threaten his debtors who seem to be “highfliers” in society.

The perks of “looking like an oga” probably saves you more money from the regular extortionists like Police or security guards. A friend decided to buy a brand new BMW X5 in Abuja because it saved him so much time when going for appointments as a lawyer. He said — “They quickly open the gate to let you pass without issues.”

The appearance of being an oga is also a deterrence to bad behavior. You may not know how high up in the ranks this “Oga” is and it is wiser to err on the side of caution. The oga may be your “oga’s oga”. There is also so much poverty in Nigeria that “pretending to be an Oga” must have taken a lot of effort; they respect that effort or “the hustle”.

Reality

“Ogaship” in Nigeria is mostly a fantasy. We have so many insecure people who cling to it because they have nothing else. I guess that I have been lucky to have been around real wealth to know how hard people work to create it. I have seen wealthy relatives almost go poor and come back again with sheer grit. I have never been a fan of status games as I have seen that status is ephemeral.

I never saw the wealth of others as leverage for myself and maybe that was why I was not a successful Nigerian Oga. I remember a friend telling me that “posterity will not forgive me if I leave my uncle’s house a poor man”. My uncle, on the other hand, ALWAYS told me something very important. He said — “I have made my name, go and make yours”. I am forever grateful to my family not just for giving me a soft landing but also for teaching me great values.

I stopped having a personal car in Nigeria about ten years ago but changed my mind recently because I got a good deal from a friend who was leaving Lagos. Frankly, I was surprised at the change in attitude towards me all around just because of a different car. I had left Nigeria for ten years, but Nigeria still has not left its ways.

I eat Nigerian Jollof and I write things. That is what I do. Chief Fanatic @ Manchester United FC.

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