The fashion and leather shoes market in the West African region is dominated by shoemakers and traders in Aba, the economic hub of Nigeria’s south-east region. Aba footwears and clothes are sold in millions of units in Cameroun, Gabon, Benin Republic and several other countries in the sub-region. Aba branded fashion wears and shoes, styled after the best Italian and American brands are designed, produced, packaged and transported to the West African markets through border communities in Akwa Ibom and Cross River states.
Sadly, the arbitrary closure of the borders on August 20, 2019, by the Muhammadu Buhari administration means that businesses for the traders, tailors, shoemakers and retailers of ancillary leather, fabrics, rubber and related products stopped abruptly with severe consequences for the livelihood and family concerns of the affected individuals.
If people who operate small kiosks in front of their homes are unwilling to close shop for an hour, imagine then the plight of the Aba traders and entrepreneurs who have been forced to close shops for close to five months even as they keep incurring running costs- paying staff and routine taxes to state and LGAs, servicing bank debts and rental charges. Most of the traders have supply agreements with dealers in neighbouring countries who buy in bulk quantities and retail within the domestic markets. The failure of Aba to supply to their customers in the West African market simply means loss of the markets as the dealers would simply switch to alternative markets for similar products- including European and American businesses.
The shoe manufacturers, tailors and fashion designers and their employees are not the only ones reeling from the pains of the senseless idea to close the border by the Buhari regime. Around 2016, the Abia state government as part of its policy to standardise the quality of shoes made in Aba to make it more appealing to the international market, create more job opportunities for the youths and enhance the IGR profile of the state selected about one hundred shoemakers in the city and sponsored their trip to China and other parts of Asia to learn how to improve their craft, interact with international producers and see what they can learn about the foreign shoe market. When they returned to the state after about six months, the state government voted funds to acquire state-of-the-art shoe making facilities and had them installed for use on a structured payment arrangement by the shoemakers.
The closure of the borders means that the traders can’t meet their financial obligations to the state government while the government would be hamstrung to extend similar gestures to other businesses and ventures across the state.
It is also important to point out that while the focus is on fashion, shoe making and distribution, other forms of leather works including bag making, belt and items of home decoration are also produced in large quantities in Aba and shipped off to local and regional markets. Beyond just taking these products to the dealers themselves, daily, thousands of traders from all over West Africa troop into Aba to come get the items at the best cost possible.
This is a business arrangement that had ran smoothly for more than fifty years until someone put the crazy idea of closing the borders to the government and sadly, a regime that has never rejected a bad idea quickly latched on to it. Without any proper assessment or analysis of the costs and benefits of the pronouncement to the Nigerian economy, the government hurriedly announced the closure of the country’s borders. Even goods that were already in transit through the borders were affected.
The 200 billion naira Aba shoe and fashion market, the hundreds of millions of naira worth of investment made by the Abia state government and the local Abia economy are just few of the many victims of what now seemed like an ill-willed decision to keep the borders shut. In Akwa Ibom communities where the locals survive on selling seafoods across the border to cross-regional traders, things have not been the same since late August 2019. The story is also not different for border communities in Cross Rivers where the residents sell everything from tobacco to spices, farm produce and whatever it is they can produce and package to the delight of consumers across West Africa.
The closure of the borders has had one and only one effect when carefully analysed: misery for businesses and communities. To be clear, no rational person would support the smuggling of products and services from neighboring countries into Nigeria as claimed by the government.
However, the general knowledge is that Nigeria has a Customs service whose duty it is to police the borders and stop the smugglers from their nefarious activities. Why make the citizens pay for the failure of Customs officials? If the Service is facing problems associated with understaffing, would it not be rational to have requested for approval to employ thousands of Nigerian youths into Customs to help with policing the borders? Why does a family man on a minimum wage of N18, 000 monthly be forced to pay N30, 000 for a 50Kg bag of rice simply because officials of Customs are unable to do what they are paid to do? Does it make sense that the Aba shoe factory is facing its worst business cycle since the end of the Civil War on account of the failure of the Nigerian Customs Service?
Now assuming that the problem with Customs is not understaffing but one of inefficient management, why not sack the management and recruit new faces who can inject innovative ideas into the agency? Is Hameed Ali tied to the Customs CG’s seat? If he is unable to manage the inflow of goods into the country as it now seems obvious, why would Aba shoemakers and dealers be forced to pay for his incompetence?
Does anyone notice that the closure of the borders is effective only across the south? Do not take my word for it. In November 2019, Fatuhu Muhammed, the House of Representatives member representing Daura/Mai’adua/Sandamu Constituency, Katsina State revealed on the floor of the house during plenary that massive smuggling is still taking place in Daura, the hometown of President Muhammadu Buhari, despite the closure of Nigeria’s land border by the Federal Government. Muhammed, a nephew of President Buhari alerted Nigerians that smuggling is still thriving at the border between Daura and Niger, which is just 13 kilometres away from Buhari’s private residence.
Buhari’s relative is not the only one making revelations about the hypocrisy of the Buhari administration on the closure of the borders. The Punch newspaper reported on November 7 2019 that smugglers at the Jibiya and Kongolam borders in Katsina State and the Illela border in Sokoto State encounter very little difficulties moving contraband into the country from Niger Republic. The report announced that items such as rice, vegetable oil and second-hand clothes were continuously brought into the country through the borders despite the closure.
In these border towns, rice and vegetable oil is sold for just 50% of what southern consumers pay for the same volume of commodity. In these towns also, local goods such dairy products and farm produce are taken to Niger Republic where there are ready buyers. In places where there is Customs presence, the smugglers quietly wait till around midnight when the officers vacate before they move large consignments of goods into the communities from where they are distributed to other towns in northern Nigeria.
Although rice and other food items top the list of smuggled items by volume across northern borders, they are by no means the only items unscrupulous business operators from Buhari’s region of the country bring into Nigeria illegally. Car smugglers are having the best time of their lives operating through the northern borders and with their colleagues from the south put out of business, it is full monopoly for those who know how to game the system. All forms of commercial and luxurious cars are quietly smuggled into the country from the north and sold at cut-throat prices to buyers.
The larger economic question is: why on earth would an administration stop its local businesses from exporting to neighbouring countries and expanding the national brands? Is that how USA, China and European nations achieved global dominance? How can a country advising its nationals to go into manufacturing and production close a major market channel for produced goods? Inconsistency and poor economic logic have remained the hallmark of the Buhari administration and this is another glaring example.
Another instance of economic injustice against southern Nigerian businesses is the current state of operations at the Nigerian ports in Lagos. It has been established that the bulk of imports into the country originate from southern businesses. Southern retailers, manufacturers and producers rely on foreign markets to source their products, machineries and raw materials. Sadly, the inefficiency at the ports means that imported goods stay longer at the Nigerian ports than it takes to move them from China through the oceans and into the country. Businesses are forced to pay demurrages and other penalties to port operators and shipping lines for the incompetence of the ports authorities.
At the ports, businesses are exploited to no end by agencies of government- from Customs officers to NAFDAC staff and other officials who were deployed to the port to make things smooth for the importers. The dominant speculation at the Lagos ports is that officials deliberately create obstacles and artificial hiccups to extort and force the importers to pay more through bribery and arbitrary charges. While several businesses are able to weather the storm, pay the bribes and tolerate the sky-high extortions at the ports to clear their goods and remain in operation, many businesses- unable to cope with what you can describe as man’s inhumanity to man- quietly abandon their cargoes and move on to retain their sanity. An importer I interacted with recently told me that the often times, the charges and bills you have to pay at the ports outweighs the value of the imports and whatever you intend to make when you take them to the markets. “At the ports,” he told me, “most business dreams die.”
What does it take to run a port? Who has ever imagined that managing imports into the country would be the equivalence of rocket science? In the first place, how is it that of the six seaports in the country, only the ones in Lagos are functioning at full capacity? Why are Onne, Port Harcourt, Warri and Calabar ports dysfunctional? Does Nigeria need to borrow Albert Einstein’s brain to fix the ports and make them available for use by the country’s importers?
Well, for those who have the wisdom to appreciate what is going on, the general understanding is that the administration is deliberately punishing southerners while creating loopholes for the president’s kinsmen to exploit at the expense of the Nigerian economy.
It is about time patriots woke up from their slumber to challenge a feudal leadership system that is systematically sinking Nigeria. The total closure of southern borders while leaving things loose at the northern end, the dysfunction at the Nigerian seaports, the filling of every strategic government position with Buhari’s kinsmen and the willful allocation of capital vote to favour infrastructural development in the north are public issues that must be of concern to all patriotic Nigerians.
What if future presidents follow the Buhari leadership manual? Will Nigeria survive another Buharisque president? Some would say God forbid.