When Japan’s Olympics Minister Yoshitaka Sakurada was forced to make a public apology after arriving three minutes late to a parliamentary meeting, I wondered how many ministers of state, governors and even commissioners in Ghana and Nigeria thanked God they were not Japanese.
It is accepted practice in Nigeria and Ghana that public officials are late to functions. Indeed, they are expected to be late.
I know how entrenched this is in our attitudes because when I was a minister of state I would regularly arrive at functions at the scheduled time and find that nobody was expecting me to have arrived on time says Ghanaian minister.
Worried over this norm a number of us in the government thought if we could get the president to arrive on time for functions, it would change the culture.
So, the minders of then-President John Kufuor set about on an ambitious scheme to get him to be on time for public functions.
I remember the first time he got there at the scheduled 09:30, there was near pandemonium; there were diplomats running to get to their seats, there were dignitaries rushing madly and there were traditional chiefs abandoning their usual majestic pace of walking and trying to get to their seats as a bemused President Kufuor looked on.
We were determined to persist with getting the president to functions on time in the hope that if people realized the president would be at the function at the advertised time, everybody else would endeavor to get there on time. It was not a pleasant experience as the time experiment was abandoned
It has always been a deep embarrassment that diplomats sent to these country spend so much time waiting for functions to start but I then discovered they were often late themselves but after some time spent in Nigeria and Ghana, the diplomats go native and accept that nothing is expected to start on time.
The main arguments against continuing with the TIME experiment came from the protocol and security people working with these president and ministers.
They insisted the president should not be taken to places that were not ready.
At his inauguration, the Ghanaian President, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, bemoaned the culture of official functions starting late.
He promised he would set a personal example and be on time. He has since then been making a special effort and arrives on time for functions.
This, however, does not appear to have led to much change in attitude towards time-keeping. While in Nigeria the president Mohammed Buhari has not made official statement as to keeping to time, or even tried to attend functions on time. He just does as instructed by his protocol team.in February 2019 during the round up to the Presidential and national assembly elections in Nigeria the president’s party faithful’s and supporters had gathered at the Adoikiye Amiesimaka stadium waiting for his arrival, the crowd was made to wait for hours under sun without food and water while the president touched down in port Harcourt exchanged pleasantries with the governor Nyesom Wike and was flown to Bayelsa state to perform similar functions and campaign for his re-election. The resultant effect was that the exhausted crowd as soon as the event was over thronged out to get out of the stadium which was filled to capacity caused stamped that claimed fourteen lives and several others wounded.
Will this culture change?
Meetings scheduled to start at 10:00 routinely start anything between 45 minutes to an hour late.
The crazy traffic situation in African towns and cities probably accounts for some of the lateness, as it is impossible to predict journey times and also provides justifiable excuses for arriving late.
A journey from my house to an office where I regularly go for meetings can take 20 minutes, or 40 minutes or, an hour, or, as it did on one occasion, one hour and 50 minutes. But the traffic surely cannot be the explanation for people arriving for lunch at 16:00 when they have been invited for 12.30. And why would your host think it is OK to invite you for lunch and start serving food at 15:00 or invite you for dinner at 19:00 and offer you food at 21:00?
The Church not helping time’
This culture of total disregard for scheduled time extends to, and affects, all other parts of our lives. My dressmaker promises to make a dress for me in three weeks and I am lucky to get it in three months. But the problem is not only about starting things on time, there is a correspondent problem of not ending things on time either.
The church I go to advertises and indeed starts at 09:00, but there is no advertised closing time – and so the service closes at 11:30, or noon, or 13:00 or, as it once happened on a feast day, 15:00.
It is better not to look at your watch on such occasions.
We are simply not bound by time here in Nigeria and Ghana.