Kano’s Double Jeopardy By Garba Shehu

Nigeria’s Immigration Service showed a rare lack of ingenuity recently when they arrested Chinese traders in the Kano Kwari textile market. It is doubtful if the best interest of the state and that of the nation have been taken into consideration before carrying out this muscle-flexing exercise. The economies of Kano, the North and that of the country have severely been undermined by bomb and gun attacks from the beginning of the year. To add the expulsion of foreigners to this matrix is to doubly jeopardize the business prospects of Kano.
The reader may recall that on Tuesday, two weeks ago, the Comptroller of the Immigration Service in the state, Dr. Brisca Ifeanyi announced the arrest of 43 Chinese nationals, 34 men and 11 women on the basis that they were found to be “scavenging in the market, which is found to be hurting the nation’s economy”.
He announced that this was the beginning of a new policy to rid the markets in Kano and Lagos of “economic saboteurs” but that foreigners who came to “invest and create jobs” are welcomed by the federal government.
As the report on Channels TV went on to add, traders in the market have for years been complaining about the increasing dominance of the Chinese.
I know, for instance, that the Lebanese traders and businessmen who had dominated business for decades, if not centuries in Kano had been speaking against the Chinese who have come to displace them in the city, not only in the textile market but in service sectors such as restaurants, supermarkets and bakeries. “You Kano people now prefer the Chinese. You don’t like the Lebanese anywhere,” is a refrain I have heard many times. But the Chinese who are today Africa’s largest trading partners aren’t just a problem to the Arabs. China has today supplanted the continent’s traditional trading partners, that is the Europe and the United States.
When the KLM airlines ended their more than 50-year run at the Kano airport last week, one reason they cited, beside insecurity is about the fact of the sharp drop in passenger levels. “Your businessmen now travel eastwards, no longer Europe” said their manager.
As for the local textile traders in the Kwari market, the problem is simply one of contest for economic space. Retailers of similar products located in close proximity, located close to one another are considered close substitutes, alternatives or rivals. The Nigerian trader comes into this contest seriously disadvantaged. The great inequality of nations and economic resources amongst nations is a fact. For this reason, it is taken for granted that the small country is condemned to impotence, dependence and exploitation. So when a franchiser or dealer of goods made in China sits next to the outlet of the mainstream firm, direct from China, you know that the contest is unbalanced right from the beginning.
The fate is the same for that “major distributor,” who goes to China to make that order at the maker’s factory, only to find that the maker of those goods has decided to operate an outlet in the same market. The franchiser will be marginalized.
It is also a fact of the economic life of nations that in times of a down-turn, depression on a contraction of the economic space, the tendency is for players in that space to focus upon those differences such as their nationality, race or religion. Limited resources, in this case the economic space, idealistically regarded as a property of all humans, becomes the object of over-exploitation severe contest and ruin. The result is the type of rivalry as Kano witnessed in recent years.
People have been talking about Chinese incursion into the markets for a long time. I know many who view the Chinese as being sly with their eye on this particular market, seeking its takeover, inch by inch. “Their aim is to take over the market,” some have said.
In trying to solve the problem, the best any government could do was to seek an expansion of the economic space by promoting policies and actions that engender growth and development. This not being the priority of our current rulers, it is therefore unsurprising that there would be a resort to actions like this capable of causing public embarrassment.
While I do not propose at all that Nigeria should sacrifice her national interest with any nation, in dealing with China, Nigeria must do a delicate balancing act. I have no accurate sense of the strength or levels of our bilateral relationship. But given what China is to the world today – the fastest growing economy, the largest trading partner on the African continent and the leading provider of support and foreign aid as it now stands – it is no doubt in our interest to be friendly with China.
This country needs China and must be friends with partners who have shown the new way to massive technology transfer and direct foreign investment. To gain from such a relationship, we must extract our foreign policy from the grip of Europe in particular. Yes, the Chinese are bullish and that is how they conquer markets. Nigeria had a neo-colonial past and cannot afford to be duped for the second time. Based on this, it is then for our governments to have the Chinese set a better tone and tenor of their relationships with Nigerians. At the end of everything, Nigeria must have the best of friendship with other nations with our national interest supreme in our mind. But it is difficult to see this being achieved where foreigners are seized and bundled out of the country. Sure, Nigeria won’t herself like her citizens being treated that way.
Patriotic frenzy, if carried too far, can expose a country to ridicule. The whole idea of globalization is to remove obstacles and restrictions to international trade. Perceived disadvantages can be discussed and resolved at political and diplomatic levels. The crude approach adopted by Dr. Ifeanyi’s Immigration Service reminds one of late Idi Amin Dada’s barbaric expulsions of Indian businessmen, a decision that took a toll on the Ugandan economy. Impulsive and impetuous handling of delicate diplomatic, political and economic issues should not be subjected to crude force. These can send the wrong signals elsewhere and hurt Nigeria. There are African countries such as Ghana and Cote D’Voire where the dominance of Nigerians in particular businesses doesn’t go down well with their indigenous competitors. Should the Immigration Services in those African countries descend on Nigerian traders and bundle them off into detention like common criminals?
Protectionist sentiments are realities of American and European markets. Yet it is unlikely if any U.S. or European government will carry out raids and arrests of foreign nationals perceived to dominate their markets. Free and fair trade issues are discussed at political and diplomatic levels so as not to harm existing relations. Dr. Ifeanyi’s ham-fisted tactics are thoughtless and needlessly overzealous demonstration of patriotism. They will hurt Kano, the North and the entire country.

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