Radical lecturers such as the late Bala Usman and Mahmoud Tukur, Bjorn Beckman, Patrick Wilmot, Claude Ake, Okwudiba Nnoli, Akin Fadahunsi and Baba Omojola among others moulded my political upbringing. What we learnt was that our economy and society was not serving the interests of the masses or the majority of the people and we had a responsibility to do something about it. As progressives, we learnt that history had given us the mission of changing society for the better. It is a political upbringing I am very grateful for because I learnt that life was not just about my family and me but also about the wider community for which we have a collective responsibility.
Within this broad framework, Bala Usman was extremely critical of a political economy in which the ambition of our ruling class was to be part of the commercial class of importers and exporters. Bala argued that no country had developed on the basis of commerce alone and that we needed to develop an iron and steel complex as the basis for rapid industrialization so that we can transform our economy and lives of our people by propelling the nation into the club of industrial nations. The ten percenters whose sole ambition is to extract state resources to import luxury good were the enemies of progress and no one can seriously challenge this perspective.
There was pioneering research during this period of transforming the developing Nigeria’s commercial bourgeoisie into an industrial class and “Kano Studies” became an important laboratory in this regard. The pioneering doctoral thesis of the late Ibrahim Tahir in Cambridge described the Kano commercial class as having the “protestant ethics” of saving and investment that was being used to industrialise the economy and called for state support for this process. Sule Bello’s thesis on “State and Economy in Kano” drew attention to centuries of international commerce that has created the basis for a commercial class that was capable of transforming it. Adebayo Olukoshi’s doctoral thesis in Leeds university demonstrated how the Levantine commercial class had been effectively replaced by a local industrial class that was responsible for the vibrant industrialization of the 1970s. Earlier, Paul Lubeck’s doctoral thesis on the working class in Kano had stressed the importance of the new working class consciousness in galvanizing production. When therefore Nigeria took the decision to establish an iron and steal complex in Ajaokuta, we all believed that we were on the right track of economic transformation.
And then we woke up to discover that not only was the iron and steel complex abandoned, even the buying and selling is now being taken over by the multinationals, by the new “UACs” now called Wal-Mart and Shoprite. The story last week was that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has plans to open 90 new stores across sub-Saharan Africa over the next three years as it targets growth markets such as Nigeria and Angola. It even plans to open a trial stand-alone food store in West Africa by the end of the year.
As part of its strategic approach to takeover a significant slice of distribution in West Africa, Wal-Mart last year invested $2.4 billion to buy 51% of the South African retailer Massmart so that it comes into our shores as an “African” player. Using Massmart as a decoy, Wal-Mart intends to be the dominant player in our grand distribution over the next three years. Of course Wal-Mart and Massmart aren’t the only companies setting their sights on Africa. Companies from the U.S., China and India have poured billions of dollars into the continent, investing both in its emerging consumers market and in infrastructure deals, amid forecasts for strong growth in the region.
Shoprite that pioneered this approach into the Nigerian market through South Africa plans to expand its present seven stores into 600 stores in the coming years. These companies are very conscious of the growth of the economy and the middle class and are positioning themselves to ensure Nigerians will not be the beneficiaries of the commercial élan. We need to think of our future as a Nation. When you visit shoprite for example, you find jollof rice, raw okro, omo detergent and sunlight soap on sale alongside electronics, apparels and housing accessories from China. This means they have a totalizing approach to completely takeover commerce in the country at all levels from local governments to the nation’s capital. They have clear intentions of not only driving local importers out of business, but they are also aiming at crowding out the millions of Nigerians who survive as local traders. The target is to drive that shop keeper next door out of business. This approach poses not only serious economic concerns for millions of Nigerians but also should raise security concerns of having all aspects of our economy in the hands of powerful foreign companies.
India has so far resisted massive pressure to allow major international distributors entry into its market on the argument that it is a country of millions of retailers and it has fears about the implication of destroying their businesses. What is the Nigerian debate on the issue and why is Olusegun Aganga celebrating the takeover of our retail by foreigners. In France last week, egg producers were demonstrating because the major distribution chains were forcing them to sell their products at less that the production cost. Will we allow that to happen here before we start complaining? If we allow this to happen, of course a few jobs will be created but the impact on millions of Nigerians who survive on retail trade will be devastating.
My dear Bala Usman, as you look upon us from out there, our country has abandoned the path of industrialization and even retail trade is being taken over by foreign companies. My dear Ibrahim Tahir, Kano is today a shadow of its former self. You celebrated how the Kano merchants took over Kantin Kwari from the Levantine “Kwara” traders. Today the shops are run by Chinese shop keepers selling Chinese textiles. My co-columnist Issa Aremu, you have watched with anguish how your members of the textile union have been “transformed” into the unemployed, what de we do about it.
Our Commerce Minister Olusegun Aganga is likely to tell us that in today’s world, no country can resist the rules set by the World Trade Organization (WHO). I will respond that we study what India is doing. Lets us loudly proclaim our commitment to support our own retail trade and raise the security considerations over the total loss of economic sovereignty. But let that be the first step towards posing the larger question of how we can become one of the top 20 economies in the world when we control nothing in our own economy.