Muguism and why they must pay.
‘Mugu’ is a Nigerian Pidgin term which means ‘Big fool’. In the West, it is mainly known in the context of Advance Fee Fraud.
When I landed in Lagos in April 2010, I didn’t fully realise what Mugu meant. Of course, I had heard about 419 and the Mugu/Maga’s who you, like an oil gusher, ‘hit money from’. But I always thought those were a small, sinister internet-based community of fraudsters who stayed in the shadows. How wrong was I? After six years of living and running a business in Lagos, I now fully appreciate the 360 all day, every day fight to not be the Mugu. And it’s tiring.
But a few small instances this week have made me hit peak annoyance. So do indulge me, as I rant.
I am naturally sceptical / suspicious / uninterested in trusting people. I am pessimistic in nature and seem to see the negatives / downside in most things. It’s just my delusions of grandeur propel me to do risky adventure capitalisms. I was like that when I landed in Lagos. But let’s say I was 9 (on a 1–10 scale). That scale in Lagos is 1–100. Once you realise you are dealing in a new scale of honesty and suspicion, you need to recalibrate your scale and crank that up real quick. Otherwise, I don’t believe you can live and work in Lagos. If you are overly trusting and decent and see the best in people in Lagos. You’re finished.
I have observed that there are three prices in Lagos.
i) Oyinbo = x5 = N5,000
ii) Returnee = x2.5 = N2,500
iii) Lagosian = 1 = N1,000
Let’s use a few examples to illustrate
Ankara and my friends from out of town
Near the Iroko office in Anthony, there is a small fashion store which retails fabric handbags. We had a few of our partners from Canal+ in France visit, and Mary was interested in buying them some parting gifts. She passed by the shop herself and looked at their selection of bags, got some price ranges N1,000–2,500 (there is always a celebrity premium which she always has to negotiate down), but as she wasn’t buying immediately, she didn’t bother. The next day, she had someone call the shop girl to the office with a selection so our Oyinbo visitors could choose. Mrs Njoku wasn’t around so after they chose the bags, they innocently asked the price. The Oyinbo price =N5,000 — N15,000. They weren’t paying so they waited for Mrs Njoku to come. When she came, the same shop girl who she saw and discussed prices with the day before was steadfast in her belief that the bags were now priced at N5,000 — N15,000. And she refused to budge. In essence. The Maga must pay. There was no version of this reality where she was going to sell to Oyinbo at the normal Lagosian price. No way. She readily jeopardised the deal. Because the Maga must pay.
Handkerchief in traffic
Mrs Njoku and I were travelling along Mobalji Bank, Anthony and we needed to buy handkerchiefs. We stopped seller #1. Asked him how much a pack cost. He looked at the car, looked at the driver. Looked at my wife and I in the back and thought for a second before saying N850. (I buy these weekly so know they are usually N700). We playfully tried to haggle but he refused. That was the price for those in the RR. I care less about these small Muguisms, they positively infuriate Mrs Njoku as she hates when people try to take advantage of her. So we didn’t buy. We moved ahead in traffic and called another seller #2. Before he could come to our car seller #1 incepted him. They had a brief conversation and the seller #2 steadfast refused to budge from the N850/pack price. So we left it. The next day I was at Mobil roundabout in Maryland. I called a seller. It happened to be seller #2. I asked him how much? He looked at me. Heard the accent and point blank told me N1,000. I reminded him that yesterday he had said N850, he started smiling. I drove off. I went on to a supermarket in Anthony Village to buy higher quality handkerchiefs for N850.
In 2013, in the midst of the Nollywood content wars (where content prices went from $2.5k to $25k in 9 months and Alaba dead stopped selling content to irokotv), we started financing movies from script. The logic was that once they went to the open market, it was a question of cash at hand and balance sheets. At that time, little Iroko’s war chest was very, very limited. So we moved up the value chain.
One of the top producers in Nigeria told me he needed at least $50k per movie. At the time this was x2 an already very inflated and unsustainable market price. I smiled and left it as is. Couldn’t afford it so onto the next one. Six months later, he came to the office to speak. He was wondering why so many of his peers were being commissioned. When I told him he demanded for $50k / movie he was shocked. He actually asked me ‘I told you that? Wow’. That I shouldn’t have taken that price too seriously. He was now ready to work. We probably co-produce in excess of N100m/year with him today.
Onto the High Seas.
In August 2012, one of the top Alaba producers pitched us two stories with a glorious script. Glorious cast. Top director. We were excited. Handed over $60k. The first movie came out amazingly. Folks loved it. The second movie became delayed. For weeks, then months. Finally after he stopped answering my people’s calls I tracked him down via his in-laws (who were also producers). What was the issue? After a few weeks of the delays, he couldn’t just leave the money in his bank. He thought he could do a quick trade, import something things from China. Make a profit, shoot the movie. except for some reason my $30k was ‘on the high seas’. That was August 2012. To-date? Nothing.
These are just a few examples. But I have seen the exact same thing happen at N1m / N10m and N100m transactions. It’s basically the same spirit. The Maga must pay.
In Lagos, anyone who is Oyinbo or a returnee is basically a big fool waiting to be taken advantage of. That is the default of 99.9% of Nigerians I have come across. It’s their moral and ethical imperative to seize that opportunity to place you in your bucket. This is my formed opinion and actually creates mutant machinations at Iroko Nigeria. It means I still see / review / approve any transaction over $100 at Iroko. As when we didn’t, any person involved in procurement, essentially, when double checked, was discovered to have inflated prices and topped up his or her salary.
Mrs Njoku has a simple reason why most internet companies in Nigeria have failed. If you allow the staff to believe it’s okay to lose money, if you legitimise the burn money / growth at all costs VC-backed style of company building which kinda works in the West, then Nigerians will ensure you lose the company. Not a little bit. The whole damn thing. It’s a quiet and yet little known fact that most VC-backed companies in Nigeria have had multiple seen (and unseen) instances of fraud. Sometimes massive. Depends on the Oyinbo / returnee / Lagosian make up of the management.
So it is what is it. When I landed I was a suspicious hippy. In the early years, my Mrs Njoku protected me, screamed on my behalf. Taught me how to not be a Mugu. How to reset the way I saw the world. Hardened my core.
So I am now Mugu no more.