Lest China compounds our woes

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Nnaemeka Meribe

One of my favourite English words is “industrious.” It means diligent, hard-working, productive, active, and energetic.

And because it comes from the word industry, which, besides meaning diligence and productiveness, also means large-scale production and widespread activity, it’s the best way to describe the people and the city of Aba, Abia State, in the 80s and early 90s when I was growing up there.

The people of Aba were really industrious those good days. Aba was both an industrial and commercial city, and it had something for everyone. Everybody did something meaningful. There was little or no idle hand or mind. For sure, there were few scoundrels, but the city knew how to treat them. Teenagers who exhibited a propensity for slothfulness were the butt of the society and ready models of idiocy in family or community moral instruction sessions.

And so, most Aba youths then dreaded to be labelled indolent, and they worked very hard to earn elders‘ praises and children‘s respect. There was dignity in labour. The artisans were respected and there were teenagers who saw them as role models. The youths who desired to become successful traders, businessmen and small scale entrepreneurs, had many role models. And those who were inclined to becoming professionals had lots of professionals and undergraduates to look up to.

During long vacations, holidaying students refused to become the devil’s workshops as they were either attending extramural classes or helping their parents in their different endeavours. There were lots of factories where undergraduates and those who had just left secondary school and were awaiting their West African School Certificate Examination and University Matriculation Examination results earned stipends.

That was then. Aba is now almost a failed city. Almost all the industries have collapsed and commerce has hit a record low. The small-scale businessmen have either relocated to other cities owing to a combination of insecurity, high overhead and lack of patronage or they have become ‘okada’ riders – venting their frustrations daily on their passengers. The number of unemployed youths in the city has hit an all-time high progression and many of them have now turned into local terrorists, kidnapping people for ransom, robbing banks and killing or maiming people in the process.

The famous Ariaria International Market is now everything but international. The fear of the “local terrorists” has driven away those businessmen who came from across the country – West, Central and Eastern Africa to buy their wares at the market.

In probing the causes of the collapse of Aba, I have come up with two main conclusions: lack of electricity and unregulated influx of Chinese products.

I was taught in Ordinary Level economics that the location of an industry in a place waters the ground for the germination of allied cottage industries within that vicinity and that this, in turn, benefits all the firms as they would enjoy external economies of scale. This was the case in Aba. The citing of different industries in Aba led to the springing up of cottage industries that supplied certain raw materials (and services) to the bigger companies.

However, in the 1990s, when electricity supply became most erratic and most firms could no longer cope with the high cost of providing their own electricity, they started laying off their workers in turns - which was almost always a prelude to extinction of the firms. Of course, the death of the big companies arguably led to the death of many dependent smaller firms.

And certainly, workers affected by the downsizing, rightsizing or extinction of the companies sought other ways of survival. Some were fortunate to be absorbed by other companies while others weren‘t. And because life must continue for those still out of job, they either turned to commercial motorcycling (okada) or other menial jobs or finally, to crime.

Another thing I learnt in O‘ Level economics was that one of the ways to encourage local industries is to impose tariff on competing foreign goods. But over the years, Chinese products have taken over the Nigerian market. The unregulated importation of these cheap and mostly inferior products sounded the death knell for manufacturing and commerce in Aba.

It is common knowledge that Aba is the indisputable champion of shoe and bag manufacturing in Nigeria. Shoes, bags and garments manufactured in Aba are sold even outside the nation‘s shores. But when, in the late 1990s, Chinese products bought from Dubai (and later direct from China) flooded Nigeria, what was left of commerce in Aba began to crumble. The cheapness of these products caused many patrons of Aba products (which became expensive because of high overhead) to shift loyalty to the former and consequently, most businesses packed up.

This situation has continued to stifle manufacturing and commerce in Aba, thus discouraging entrepreneurship and killing apprenticeship, which has, over the years, not only sustained business in the city, but has engaged youths who could have turned to crime. With many displaced youths now into all sorts of crimes, it is not surprising that Aba has become a failed city.

Aba is not, however, the only failed city in the country. I have only used it as a case study and the situation in the city is emblematic of happenings in other cities. Truly, many cities have failed and many more are failing. But governments at all levels have been less responsive to some of these factors I have enumerated above.

The issue of electricity supply in the country has been overstressed and what is worse is that just the monies expended on series of meetings and conferences held on the issue so far are enough to turn the sector around. Successive governments have promised to tackle the sector head-on but it has been all motion no movement.

It is regrettable and disappointing that government has failed to protect local industries. Unregulated importation of Chinese goods is killing our economy and until the government takes a drastic action on this, our economy will continue to remain in the doldrums.

It is interesting to know that even China is protecting its local industries from Western competition. In February, the Chinese Commerce Ministry decided to adopt heavy anti-dumping penalties on American products.

The ministry targeted American chicken said to be sold at unfairly low prices. China said then that the low prices were hurting domestic producers and insisted that importers would pay deposits based on the difference between the meat‘s ”normal value” and the alleged cut price.

It is good news that the Federal Government promised late last month that it would check the influx of substandard goods from China. The Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, Mrs Josephine Tapgun, was quoted as saying when she visited the Standards Organisation of Nigeria in Lagos, that President Goodluck Jonathan had approved the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Chinese government on the issue.

She said the MoU would be signed on August 1, 2010, and what remained was to tidy up the arrangement to ensure it works, adding that a committee had been set up to do a proper homework to ensure that there were no loopholes after signing the agreement.

While this is a pleasing development, the government may have to go beyond rhetoric as such promises were observed by previous governments in breach. Successive governments have, for instance, demonstrated that they lack the capacity and the nerve to police our borders and protect our people and businesses from the unsavoury effects of cheap and substandard goods. Whether this government‘s promise would be a far cry from its predecessors‘, remains to be seen.


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