African Time: Game Theory Analysis on Why We Love Being Late

Certain parts of the world are notorious for what Nigerians would call it ‘African Time’. African time is described as the ‘perceived cultural tendency, in most parts of Africa, toward a more relaxed attitude to time’. All events begin late: our meetings, parties, naming ceremonies, church services etc. Heck, brides and grooms arrive at their own weddings late! Lateness is widespread and when asked why, we Nigerians will nonchalantly declare that ‘African time’ – as the name implies – is part of whom we are. Apart from chucking this down as a cultural trait that all Africans possess, how else can we explain why Africans (as well as a lot of other nationalities) persistently come late to events?

Uncertainty plays a significant role in the phenomenon of late coming. Specifically, two sort of uncertainty: structural uncertainty and uncertainty regarding the behaviour of others. Structural uncertainty arises as a side effect of living in a nation like Nigeria where anything could happen the next day: the Police stops you (happened to me), traffic jams happens (shout-out to Lagosians), buses/cars randomly break down or the First Lady could be having those parties that shut the whole city down…literally. These factors contribute to involuntary late coming; you get held back even when you plan to be early.

The other type of uncertainty – distrust concerning the behaviour of others- explains why we love to voluntarily arrive at events late. Game theory – the study of strategic decision making – does a great job at explaining why uncertainty makes people come late. It’s been used in Economics, Political science, Psychology, as well as Logic and Biology. Interestingly, it’s also pretty handy at explaining our culture of African time. Now let’s apply this to our habit of lateness. We’ll start by using two Africans – Tunde and Ada – who have arranged to meet up. They want to spend as much time as possible at this meeting. However, neither Tunde nor Ada is certain that the other party will arrive early. This modified venn diagram illustrates the outcome based on their individual decision: Image

As we can see, predicting the decision Tunde or Ada will make poses some difficulties. Clearly, if they both come on time, they get the most out of the meeting. But if they’re both not certain that the other person will arrive early, this makes them more likely to hedge their bet on going late. Depending on what Tunde does, the utility maximizing decision could be to come on time or come late. Ada also faces the same dilemma. Evidently, uncertainty/lack of trust between the two exacerbates this issue.

Next, imagine what happens on a much larger scale where there’s a meeting of 100 people. Since the level of accountability and trust is lower in a bigger group, the attendants will have less faith in everyone arriving on time and feel less guilty about arriving on time. In the case of Africans, we already start off with the mindset that others will come late, consequently we plan to also arrive late. Funny thing is…every other attendant is thinking the same thing.

Tie this into conformity (our strong desire to follow the majority) and you have few individuals who want to be seen as different or as mumus (‘morons’ for Non-Nigerians) for coming early. Eventually, almost everyone will certainly come late. Let’s take this a step further. If everyone expects everyone to come late, the next issue would be to figure out how late one can be in order not to be the first person at the event, but also not completely miss the event. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the Game Theory computation we all create in our minds when making our decisions based on ‘African time’.

Btw: Have you noticed how no one is ever late to wedding receptions or interviews at the American Embassy?

  • Loool. No one is ever late to wedding receptions eh? Hehe. This was quite a read. I’m definitely guilty of the African time ish but I’m honestly working on it 🙂 . A meeting is set for 2 and you figure it won’t start of till about 3 so you likely find yourself leaving home at 2pm. Pretty sad though. Time, a very precious resource once lost cannot be regained. We must change our mindset particularly as we’ll sometimes find ourselves with people from other continents who do not have “African time” as part of their culture.
    Thank you for bringing this up. Cheers

  • chidi

    we don’t appreciate the essence of time, that is other Nations have left us behind, our leaders are the worst culprits.Chuba great write us again and i just love the game theory analysis, it took me back .

  • Kelly

    Nigerian choose where they want to be late to. A Nigerian will never be late to the American embassy, he will get there one, two or even more hours before and happily wait…….

    • Haha. True. I should add that to the article. Cheers.

      • T. Temesgen

        Thanks for bringing this up, Chuba — at least this provides us with an opportunity for us Africans to assess ourselves using a game theoretic approach (which by the way I think is a great subject). Let me add two cents worth of my inputs here —
        — I think it is unfair to start by saying that “It’s impossible to grow up in Africa and not be a victim (and culprit) of lateness ..”. let us call it ‘difficult’ instead.

        On the geme theoretical approach. I agree with the attempted specifications, and the approach is in a way similar to the ‘prisonners’ dillema’ type… and particularly in a situation where asymmetry of information exists, this is a typical outcome.
        Let us now see how to avoid this being accepted as a norm and on the solutions:
        – The first is use technology: I was in Abuja a few months back, and dropped a line to my friends of more tan 20 years in Nigeria. Upon my arrival, I called them — and we arranged to meet. Apparently I got stuck in a meeting, and they in a traffic. So we called each other about whare we are, and postponed our meeting by an hour. In the current tech savvy world therefore, we need to adjust our assumption in this specification..(unless we assume that eevty one has access to and enjoys technology in Africa, and if not this is another justficiation to invest more n our communications infrastructure… It save us time, and enables us to use our time efficiently..
        – Open communication – Let us upfront be open to each other and let each other know that we both need to use our time efficiencly — we both have just 24 hours all in all in a day. So, let us firmly tell to each other that we need to respect time — and say that there is no such ‘African Time’ but there is just equal ‘Time’ to all. By the way this should also be uderstood to mean to the bride and groom that ‘you come too late, then expect to have the whole dancing hall to yourselves.. and if it is a lunch appointment, whoever comes late will foot the bill. That way we can ensure that the payoff remains to be at 10+10=20 🙂

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  • Pastor David O Uduma

    This is a leadership piece. African time slogan is a symptom of leadership problem. Tanks for d research

    • BS low – raiinoaltty high! Really good answer!

  • Brilliant write up man. You hit on a subject that has been hitting me!
    At first i thought it had something to do with our GPS/GMT but realized it
    is a thing of the mind.
    And you can’t rule out genetic traits, probably our forefathers ‘watchless’ era got passed down,LoL.

  • This is a really interesting way of presenting the theory of what is often assumed to simply be a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps we’re wrong to lambast ‘African time’ though. As an Australian, I see the flip-side of this where strict adherence of time schedules is desired often to the detriment of process and outcome – a meeting is scheduled for one hour and stops at 55 minutes regardless of whether consensus won’t be reached for another hour or could have been reached 30 minutes earlier.

    Meanwhile, in my experience, ‘Africa time’ is also known as ‘Indian time’, ‘Fiji time’, ‘island time’, etc… Maybe the fact that so much of the world practices time this way should be taken into account more widely. Even by the US Embassy…

  • It’s all about mutual understanding.

    I’ve heard only Nigerians say (me included) while scheduling a meeting, “I will meet you around 3” What is ‘around 3’? Every other time is around 3. What I concluded from this indefinite time setting was that, people automatically try to factor in 1. the other person’s lateness, 2. their own lateness due to any circumstance, so that when they eventually meet up, nobody can truly say the other was late. Lateness will not come into play. If my boss knows I live very far and can only come to work at 10am and allows me to do so, while others get in at 9:00 am, am I late?

    I think African time is based largely on that mutual understanding as you have illustrated, so whats wrong? nothing. It will only be wrong when it is imported into a system that does not have an understanding of the phenomena e.g the American Embassy.

  • Dear Chuba,
    Thank you for bringing this up. The ‘African time’ has been so inbred in us that even here in the United States, Nigerian events start late. In fact, it is factored into planning for events. For instance, if a program is to start at 5PM, the host would put “4PM” on the invitation cards or e-mails.
    It would take a lot of effort and a change in our mindset to put an end to the trend. I remember making some friends go to church early with me. I had to hide a chuckle when I saw their faces. Their obvious discomfort at being so “early” – being at a 9AM service by 9AM – was to me comical, considering the fact that these friends make it to work 15 minutes early.
    I like the visual and I’ll be sure to show my friends. Who knows? It might help them rethink their attitudes toward time; just as it has helped me.

  • Nuesity

    This is a good use of the Game Theory. Not sure your Profs would appreciate it though, but then again why shouldn’t they?, it’s perfectly applicable. Although, it might have been over-simplified here, as I think (and it’s just my opinion..not necessarily correct) that a lot of our ‘vices’ and ‘well-publicized weaknesses” as a nation/people like Lateness, Corrupt tendencies, et cetera have many other factors than ‘strategic selfishness’ as the Game Theory would propose. A lot of historical, cultural, social, psychological and perhaps even common genetic-traits (if plausible) might and would be ‘arguably’ responsible for those traits, which are now ingrained in our ‘culture’, our psyche and everyday practices. All arguable though, as again most issues are. Neither here nor there, all about perspectives and perception.

    • Haha. Yeah. As you’ve said, there’s never a sole linear relationship when it comes to factors that affect a lot of our ‘vices’. All these perspectives accumulate to create the bad behaviors we end up exhibiting and seeing. This post was just one of those several perspectives from a simple game theory angle. 🙂

      • Nuesity

        Lol. Good methodology though. As cited, ( ‘fashionably late’ and ‘risk aversion’ might also play an underlying role, although I’d be careful in attributing such ‘rational decision-making’ to most Nigerians as I have discovered the basic economic assumption is extremely basic and a mere, mostly surreal assumption! :). Good blog, though…you should upload more often (hard to meet up…I should know! Touche 🙂 )

  • Wow!

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