Friday, June 05, 2009

The continuing search for the Nigerian car

VICE President Goodluck Jonathan's lamentation at the recently concluded Abuja Motor Show over the absence of a Nigerian manufactured car on display was hypocritical and meaningless, as he didn't state what action government intends to take to reverse the situation. At best, the outburst was an admission of the failure of government to lift the industrial sector in general and the car manufacturing industry in particular. Most industries in Nigeria have closed down due to unfavourable conditions; the automobile industry has been most affected.

The Vice President should be aware that it is the responsibility of government to solve the country's problems, not to lament over them. It was not enough to be bothered; he should have given suggestions on how to make a locally produced car a reality. The ability to chart a way forward is what governance is all about. As a matter of fact, except there is a new industrial philosophy in the country, what would be on display at such shows would continue to be imported cars. That again raises the question of the logic for organising a motor show just to exhibit cars produced by other countries.

The Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Alhaji Adamu Aliero, who spoke on behalf of the Vice President, reportedly expressed the sentiments at the opening ceremony of the event and gave "fresh hope of a Nigerian car coming on stream". He did not, however, say how this would be realised but merely expressed "government's commitment to collaborate with willing private investors" to actualise the dream. What is the nature of that collaboration and what are the expected benchmarks?

We are amazed at the poor representation by top government officials who were shedding crocodile tears over a self-inflicted situation. That in a way amounts to sheer pretence and expression of ignorance. Efforts to develop and manufacture a Nigerian car started long before the establishment of the local car assembly plants. By the 70s and 80s, the country could boast of a number of automobile companies including the Anambra Motor Manufacturing Company (ANAMMCO), Peugeot Automobile of Nigeria (PAN), Volkswagen of Nigeria (VWoN) and National Trucks Manufacturer, which assembled cars in Nigeria and eventually attained a level of local content which raised hopes about the local manufacturing of vehicles.

Sadly, that dream was never realised. By the late 80s, VWoN had closed shop while PAN's fortunes dwindled. ANAMMCO became a shadow of its old self. The latter-day privatisation of these companies has failed to improve the situation due to the failure of policy and unfavourable economic conditions. It is most disheartening that even the local auto assembly plants are not receiving government patronage. There has been no serious attempt to encourage the local industry. Government departments and agencies shun locally assembled vehicles despite the seeming interest in local production. Besides, there have been allegations that government officials insist on receiving financial inducements and payment of commissions from local automobile companies as a pre-condition for patronising their products. How do we reconcile this with the Vice President's lamentation?

Some private individuals have also tried to invest in the search for a locally made Nigerian car without encouragement. Their efforts have been frustrated by the hostile industrial environment and lack of official support. For example, Dr. Ezekiel Izuogu, a private inventor, has been working on the Z-600 model, the first in his Z-car series for quite some time, without any support. According to him, 90 per cent of the car's components would be produced locally, and the unit cost will not be more than just $2,000, making it the cheapest car in Africa and indeed the world. The prototype, which was later assembled and displayed publicly in Lagos raised public expectations. But in April 2006, it was reported that armed men broke into the Izuogu Motors factory in Owerri and carted away various machines and tools including a design history notebook and the moulds for the various parts of the Z-600 car.

The invasion of the Izuogu factory smacked of sabotage. Since then, little has been heard about Dr. Izuogu and the car project. Thus, the continuing search for the locally made Nigerian car, and the attendant failures are a reflection of the crisis within the Nigerian environment: the insincerity of the leadership, the failure of policy, and the hostile social and economic environment. In addition, the Nigerian environment neither cherishes nor encourages scientific invention.

As the situation is now, if the Federal Government wants the country to have a locally produced car, it should start by giving necessary support to the automobile industry, in the form of a bail-out, or the restriction of imports, or the patronage of locally assembled vehicles and the encouragement of research and production-friendly economic policies. Countries like Malaysia and India have already proved the point that it is possible to encourage local industry by looking inwards. For Nigeria, mere rhetoric and righteous indignation would be inadequate