Call Me On… Or On… Or On…

First appeared in Mode Men Magazine, in 2009.

I have two phone lines. Three if you count my Etisalat number for which I haven’t bought a phone. Four if you count my Starcomms, which I use solely for connecting to the net. I would own five, but I chucked my MTN line due to my one-man boycott of South Africa (don’t get me started, and don’t point out that I have DSTV, please. Supersport over principles!). So, if we limit our tally to cellphone numbers on which you can reach me for a voice call (if I’m not dodging you), I have two phone lines. That’s one line less than most of my Big Boy friends, and three less than the average Big Man whom I have had the misfortune of trying to track down.

Yes, Nigeria is a country where owning multiple cellphones and numbers is commonplace and at times to be expected. To many new arrivals, however, the sight of a Nigerian scrolling through his contacts on one phone, but dialing with another is a strange one. I remember watching in amusement when I first came back in 2005, as people would change the SIM cards in their phones over the course of a routine day. It all struck me as quite bizarre, this Naija multi-phone culture.

Then I had my first “Bad Network Day”. You know what I mean. Those days when your phone just WON’T connect to the network. Sometimes, your phone will be honest with you, refusing to display the name of the network to which it is supposed to belong. Other times, attempting to save face, it will lie shamelessly. It will display the full number of network bars, reassuring you that you are still connected to the World. And then you attempt to make a call. Suddenly, the bars disappear quicker than the network recording can say “the number you have called…” That was exactly what happened to me at the start of Bad Network Day Number One. Suddenly America was no longer a comforting recharge card away. I felt like the Astronaut in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, after the ship locked him out in space without a lifeline. “Open the pod bay doors, Globacom!!!”

Of course my friends and relatives sympathetically and indulgently explained to this JJC that nobody knoweth the hour nor the network Sango will strike next, and thus it is best to have as many options as possible. Humbled by my ordeal, I soberly bought my second SIM.

A reasonable solution, I guess, but I wasn’t satisfied. I would ask: why not just stick to the BEST network? Why not throw all the other SIM cards away, and commit to the one that’s been the most reliable? I learned a few things from the responses I got to this suggestion. One, Nigerians have no patience for stupid questions. Two, there is no best network (which I can now confirm, having tried them all). Three, the idea of abandoning a product is completely foreign to the Nigerian mind. Think about it. We have multiples of almost everything, if we can afford them. Maybe you have an account in more than one bank. You have more than one NEPA/PHCN phase feeding your house. You’ve used a second lane of traffic (ie driven “one-way”). You have registered more than one company at Corporate Affairs. You have more than one current romantic link. You have multiple passports. If at least one of the above isn’t true about you, I’m reporting you to Immigration Service, Ghana-boy. Premiership teams appear to be the only brands to which Nigerians can be loyal and exclusive.

This “polybrandy” is so at odds with the American ethic, for example. I remember once in Yankee, my phone company kept dropping my calls. After about a week, I called them up to complain (from a landline no less, since the yeye phone they sold me had now become as useful as an earring on a snake). They apologized, but the calls still kept dropping. Not long after, I switched over to another career. And I wasn’t alone. Apparently they had been dropping lots of calls in my town. The wave of subscription changes even made the local news.

American phone companies fall over themselves to give their customers not just better network service, but also better deals, cooler phones (for some stupid reason, American phone networks own exclusive rights over the use of certain phone brands or models) and sweeter features. They don’t do this because they love the customer (they don’t. Call center operators are filled with murderous rage under the surface). They do it because they don’t want the customer going over to The Competition. Naija GSM companies don’t fear me because I already HAVE gone over to The Competition, but guess what: I’m not LEAVING them for The Competition. So instead, they send me multiple SMSs informing me that I can now call Enugu for free between the hours of midnight and 2am.


So we have a paradox: Naijas have multiple phones because phone service is bad, but phone service will remain bad as long as Naijas have multiple phones. Who can break the deadlock? Government! That’s their job, right? To step in and set industry standards when the market fails? I think so, which is why I leaped for joy (in spirit only) when the National Assembly announced its probe into the phenomenon of “dropped calls” last year. I guess some Senator got sick of being unable to reach any of his multiple girlfriends on any of their multiple lines with any of his multiple lines. I was hoping the woman who lent her voice to Glo’s automated messages would be dragged before the lawmakers. I badly wanted someone to ask her exactly what she means by saying my sister’s number in Amsterdam “does not exist on the Glo network”, and why this was reason enough not to connect my calls. Instead, I had to settle for execs from the Communications Commission (NCC) and the phone companies. After weeks of getting berated by the Honourables, the phone companies agreed to compensate the nation for their past failures. My response was: that’s IT? No undertaking by NCC to monitor the networks and fine them whenever new dropped calls occur? No promise from the network to re-credit my account whenever they interrupt a call I placed? Just this “compensation”? A few hundred Naira credited to each of our phones, and they‘re allowed to go and sin no more? Most people I talked to were as outraged as I was, yet we all just shrugged our shoulders and went looking for old SIMs on which we could claim compensation. Yup. We don’t complain here. We adjust.

Our ability to “get used to” strange situations is one of those gift-curse combinations that Greek Tragedies are made of, I think. It does make life quite interesting. Next time you’re watching TV or reading the newspaper, pay attention to the adverts from the most reputable companies we have. You will notice something you will seldom see anywhere else on Earth anymore: multiple phone numbers. Elsewhere, a company gets a business line and hooks it up to a branch exchange, and voila, they can get multiple calls on the same number. The Nigerian equivalent is “call Biodun at XXX, or Nneka at YYY, or Boma at ZZZ.” You would think the phone companies would aggressively market business lines, given this situation, or that businesses would demand them. But we don’t demand, we adjust.

Maybe that’s why they say we’re the happiest people on Earth. Americans are much angrier than Nigerians about their phone networks. Ironically, theirs work better.