Friday, October 16, 2009

The Buy-Nigerian-goods campaign

THE current attempt by the Federal Government to encourage Nigerians to patronise Made-in-Nigeria products is a re-invention of an old initiative which in its presentation loses sight of the challenges involved and falls short on the scale of honesty. About N200 million has been earmarked for the campaign. Throwing money at a rather straight-forward issue would only serve the purpose of those government officials who obviously stand to benefit from managing the fund.

The Minister of Commerce and Industry, Chief Achike Udenwa argues that the only reason Nigerians are not patronising Made-in-Nigeria goods is due to ego, (self-pride that they are patronizing foreign goods) and not because Nigerian products are inferior in quality. "Attitudinal change is our problem and if our economy must grow, our attitude must change," he said. "We must consume our own product first before others could follow suit." On October 13, the Buy Nigerian goods campaign was flagged off in Abuja (they have started spending the N200 million!). Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, representing President Yar'Adua directed that henceforth, foreign beverages must not be served at official functions. If there would be penalties for flouting this order the Vice President did not say so. But the reports state that no Federal Government official should drink foreign tea, or foreign coffee, foreign fruit juice, or foreign water, foreign soft drinks, or eat any biscuit that is not made in Nigeria, except at home of course. Who is going to police this?

In addition, Nigeria's foreign aid to other countries must include made-in-Nigeria products such as "Nigerian assembled vehicles and Nigerian made blankets", and all contractors must give priority to made in Nigeria products. All uniforms and boots of the Armed Forces must also be sourced locally. And now listen to this statement by President Yar'Adua: "With a population of 140 million people, Nigeria's market is strong enough to sustain a bubbling domestic industrial sector if only Nigerians look inwards at their local products. Unfortunately many industries had to close shop due to lack of patronage of their products by Nigerians. We must, therefore, re-orientate ourselves to value what we produce in order to develop a strong and virile industrial base".

The Federal Government should stop playing the ostrich. The average Nigerian is not guilty of a lack of consumer patriotism as is being alleged. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry is looking for an opportunity to spend money. An old, well-worn, often wrong-headed Buy Nigerian goods campaign looks like a convenient excuse. Many industries did not close shop due to lack of patronage. They did because of the failure of Nigeria's industrial policy and even of the Nigerian state. The re-orientation that is being sought must begin with government. What for example, is the Federal Government's industrial policy? Spending N200 million on a hollow campaign cannot make up for a holistic framework for jump-starting the Nigerian economy "to develop a strong and virile industrial base."

The truth is that majority of Nigerians would rather patronize Nigerian products. Those who out of ego vote for foreign goods and services constitute a minority and they belong to the same class as those who want to spend our N200 million. We should be talking about consumer patriotism among the elite. President Yar'Adua says "if only Nigerians look inwards at their products." This should include government officials patronizing local hospitals, instead of taking hard-earned foreign exchange to hospitals in Saudi Arabia, Germany, South Africa, India and elsewhere. President Yar'Adua should ban all such trips by government officials! One other way to show good example is to make sure that the children of government officials all go to school in Nigeria, not abroad!

Between the President and the Minister of Commerce and Industry so much hot air was blown about buying Nigerian textiles. In the 70s, there were close to 200 textile factories across Nigeria. Today, they are less than 25. Two years ago, many of the factories including the famous United Nigeria Textile Factory (UNTL) closed shop, not because Nigerians were not buying their products but because the cost of production was so high it no longer made sense to remain in business. The Federal Government promised a N70 billion bail-out for the textile industry which it has now increased to N100 billion. Bail-out is one of those fancy phrases the Nigerian government likes to throw around, without the required will to produce results. Today, much better quality textiles are being imported from Ghana, Europe and China. President Yar'Adua's bail-out has not had any effect on the energy and smuggling crises which hobbled the Nigerian textile industry. And no one has yet resolved the mystery of an earlier N70 billion bail out fund which the Obasanjo administration "invested" in the textile industry: cheques were issued to the textile factories but those cheques bounced at the counter!

How about tyres? Michelin, Dunlop, the Odutola Tyres Company of old, used to produce tyres locally in this country. And Nigerians patronised their products. Where are the same companies today? Michelin and Dunlop have since shut down their factories in Nigeria and relocated to neighbouring countries, the Nigerian market now boasts of only imported tyres. There was also a reference to Nigerian assembled cars. Has the Federal Government done anything to support the car assembly plants in Nigeria? Federal Government officials ride imported cars, not so? And petroleum products: Is it because Nigerians are egoistic that the country's refineries are no longer functioning and the country has to depend on imported petroleum products? Nigerians would of course gladly buy made-in-Nigeria petrol, diesel and kerosene. It would be cheaper to do so, and all that scare-mongering about subsidy and deregulation and a likely hike in the pump price of petrol by November 1 would not have arisen.

For close to a decade, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) has been complaining about low capacity utilization. In 2007, the World Bank ranked Nigeria's manufacturing sector 83 out of 117 countries, with capacity utilization at less than 40 per cent. The situation today is worse. The Minister of Commerce and Industry and his team of consultants should be more interested in coming up with workable ideas about how industrial capacity can be raised. In the 70s, both the Federal and state governments created industrial states. In Lagos alone, there were such estates in Isolo, Apapa, Ikeja etc, and they thrived. The factories in those estates have since shut down. Not because of lack of patronage. The ones that are still in business are either operating at low capacity, or they have become warehouses for imported goods.

Cost of production in Nigeria is too high, making it cheaper and more profitable to import foreign products. Government talks about buying made-in-Nigeria goods, but it has no policy for encouraging local productivity. There is in existence a lengthy Import Prohibition List, but all the items on that list are being sold openly on Nigerian streets. Government compromises local industry by not providing any form of protection and by refusing to enforce existing regulations. The Customs and Excise Department is on record as having once declared that the wives of prominent Nigerians are the leading smugglers in the country and that it is in no position to enforce the law due to pressures from the influential husbands of those women! Local industries would continue to fail if Nigeria remains a dumping ground for all kinds of imports.

Government must play its part. It watches helplessly as foreign companies doing business in Nigeria abuse the expatriate quota. A so-called local content policy in the extractive industry is not being closely monitored. Small-scale businesses are not encouraged. Import waivers are granted a chosen few with connections in high places, thus creating distortions in the market. These are the issues. Government needs to create an enabling environment, and a level playing field, for industry to thrive, and this would require fiscal and monetary policies that encourage entrepreneurship. Low interest rates. A strong currency. Uncertainties and instability in the system would have to be reduced. Provision of quality infrastructure is essential. Power. Good roads. These are elementary needs. The crisis of poverty must also be addressed. It is ironic that a country that continues to impoverish its people is campaigning about consumption of products and services. Many Nigerians are not even in a position to buy anything, they just want food, shelter and clothing.

The same week that N200 million was being spent on the Made-in-Nigeria goods campaign, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Youth and Social Development, Mr. Dapo Oyedokun declared that "Of the over 40 million youths in the country, 23 million are unemployable and therefore susceptible to crime..." This is what the Federal Government should be more concerned about. The army of unemployed, unemployable youths continues to grow largely due to bad governance. And the collapse of industry and the education sector. Leadership failure is at the heart of the dilemma. When Michelin closed down its Port Harcourt plant in February 2009, about 1,500 workers were laid off. Over 20,000 Nigerians lost their jobs when the Kaduna textile factories shut down. This year, the Corporate Affairs Commission announced the de-listing of 400,000 companies which had gone out of business. Where was the Ministry of Industry then?

If Nigerians must buy made in Nigeria products, those products must be available to start with and at affordable rates. Achike Udenwa and his team must refuse the temptation to waste N200 million on a campaign that begs the issue. He says the campaign will be taken to the six geo-political zones, and to states and local governments. If he has no idea what to do with that Ministry, let him start by reading a few books on the industrial revolution in South East Asia.