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Aba’s renewal and smart power


Former president Olusegun Obasanjo receives made in Aba shoes from Gov. Ikpeazu of Abia State.

Former president Olusegun Obasanjo receives made in Aba shoes from Gov. Ikpeazu of Abia State.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s economic policy may not be generally considered wonderful, but the commitment to a substantial increase in the domestic content in the real sector of the Nigerian economy may go down in history as his most enduring legacy. The commitment in the agric sphere is represented by the steady growth in local rice production and consumption while the commitment to industrial development is symbolised by renewed nationwide interest in locally manufactured goods.

Buhari did make a mark in the country’s agro-industrial growth in his first incarnation as Nigeria’s leader from 1983 to 1985 when breweries were compelled to use local maize in place of barley malt. The breweries went a step further by producing lagers with an overwhelming local content. Guinness, for instance, came up with the Merit brand while Premier Breweries in Onitsha, Anambra State, introduced Masters beer in the market. Though the breweries were to declare crop failures because, in the words of Pius Okigbo in his Essays in the Public Philosophy of Development, the brewers were not farmers, the local content in the Nigerian beverage industry has changed for the better.

Recent months have seen growing nationwide interest in domestic goods, often called Made-in-Aba products, though most local manufactures are not from this city in Abia State. The interest did not stem from sheer patriotism, as our people are still bewitched by foreign goods and services. It rather arose out of the high costs of foreign items in the wake of naira’s drastic depreciation against international currencies. Every mono-product economy which is import-dependent is bound to experience acute difficulties if its foreign exchange earner crashes. This is Nigeria’s lot, forcing the president to become the cheerleader of the campaign promoting patronage of domestic goods.

If Made-in-Aba goods have all of a sudden become synonymous with locally manufactured goods, it has to do with a well-choreographed campaign initiated by Enyi Abaribe, the economist representing Aba South in the Nigerian Senate. Since his election into the National Assembly, Abaribe has been organising the annual Made-in-Aba Trade Fair in Abuja. The choice of Abuja, rather than Aba, as the location is strategic: to get the Federal Government to buy into the campaign. When he commenced the campaign, he was almost derided as an incurable optimist and idealist. But he persisted. The awareness grew. He was joined by Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, who appears far more purposeful than his predecessor, Theodore Orji. Senate President Bukola Saraki has now joined the campaign with gusto, almost taking charge. When the army announced it was ordering 50,000 pairs boots from Aba, Saraki responded with a well received statement which not just commended it but also enjoined the navy, air force, the police, National Youth Service Corps, and paramilitary organisations like the Federal Road Safety Commission and the Nigerian Security and Defence Corps and Customs Service to take a cue from the army.

It is most likely that the army will increase the quantity because Aba products are quite competitive in terms of quality and price.

Aba manufacturers’ ingenuity is recognised internationally. It goes beyond the considerable exports to Cameroun, Chad, Mali and Democratic Republic of Congo. As World Bank president, James Wolfohnson  in 2004 visited Aba, accompanied by Ngozi-Okonjo-Iweala, then Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, to have firsthand knowledge of problems militating against mostly small and medium scale leather manufacturers at Ariara Market. The producers identified irregular and low-quality electric power supply as the foremost constraint. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala therefore, appealed to Bart Nnaji, a well-regarded Nigerian engineering researcher based in the United States who had by 2001 built and successfully run the country’s first indigenous power plant located in Abuja, to build a plant dedicated to Ariara Market. Nnaji took up the challenge, and with a little prodding from members of the Aba Chamber of Commerce decided to make the plant serve big manufacturers in other parts of the town. Individual residents were added to the list which would make Aba an electricity island. That is, Nnaji’s Geometric Power would generate electricity in Aba, supply it to residents and commercial organisations in the place, and recover the cost from revenue paid by the people and firms.

The fact that the Nigerian Army has placed an order for 50,000 boots from Aba producers, which is bound to have what economists call productivity spillover effects, is a milestone in the support for local manufacturers. It is, indeed, a triumph for Senator Abaribe who understands the value of soft power. When the United States in the 1980s unabashedly adopted the jackboot approach in its relations with the world, Joseph S. Nye of Harvard University developed the soft power theory which advised the American government to go on a charm offensive around the world because, as he argued, the world loved American politics, government, media, sports, music, religion, education, science and technology. He was misunderstood by some Americans who thought that Nye, a former Deputy Secretary of Defence who had admirals and generals reporting to him, was asking the United States to become a wimp or lamb, in world affairs. Consequently, he changed the term soft power to smart power. But in his recent writings, Nye reverted to soft power, a term now used extensively across the world, from educational institutions to governments. It has caught the global imagination.

A former business manager and economics lecturer, Abaribe is familiar with Adam Smith’s comparative advantage of nations as well as Michael Porter’s competitive advantage of both nations and firms. Having done an analysis of the Nigerian environment, he has applied the principles in these theoretical frameworks for the benefit of not just his Aba constituency but also the Nigerian nation. In a series of articles earlier this year on the Igbo condition, one had suggested that Igbo political activists replace their “nzogbu, nzogbu” approach to national politics with soft power. Like Nye, one was misunderstood. The critics were blissfully ignorant of how the Jews, who were discriminated against in the United States up to the 1960s, became extremely powerful in today’s America despite constituting less than 6% of the American population. They were obviously ignorant of how the Chinese who are a minority in places like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam became a great force in each of these countries. Yet, neither a Jew has become the American president nor has a Chinese-led Malaysia or Indonesia or the Philippines.

Today one pays public homage to Abaribe for strategic thinking. He understands the value of smart power. And this fact has stood him out for most effective representation of his people in the legislature. Abaribe’s constituents must be satisfied. May his tribe multiply in the Senate and elsewhere.

• Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.

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