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The end of Igbo business By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

Even the blind can see the storms gathering across the Nigerian sky. The question left unanswered is, will they come together in such a formation that it becomes a perfect storm? If it happens, it will blow a lot of people away. But the people most vulnerable are the Igbo. Unfortunately, they have no clue about what is happening up in the sky.

Some have argued so eloquently that the security situation in Northern Nigeria is not a Northern problem. They argue that the Boko Haram threat to the security in Northern Nigeria is a Nigerian problem. It might as well be. But it is an existential problem for the Igbo.

For so many people in Nigeria, Youth Corpers, students, police men, government officials, who find themselves in Northern Nigeria it is a problem. For the Igbo, it is not just a subject of debate. It is not just a problem. It is haunting reality. Many have fled the North. They have abandoned homes and property.

Depending on where you are, your perceptions of events may differ. Watching from Lagos, you do what Nigerians do very well – you pray that Boko Haram doesn’t attack Lagos and force the OPC to declare war. If you are watching from the East, you see tens and tens of folks from your village bringing back their wives, children, spring bed and mattresses. For them the war is on. The country is in disarray. The dream is over. And watching from abroad, the fear is that the perfect storm is about to set on the sky of Nigeria. A group of people came up with this rudimentary strategy: get some Christians, pay them and assure them of no prosecution. Send them out to plant bombs in a few churches to make it look as if Christians are also planting bombs in churches. That did not work. Then they came up with the plan to get some Muslims to plant bombs in a mosque so that it would look as if Boko Haram is also bombing mosques. The hope was that maybe that move would cause disaffection for Boko Haram with people in that community. Again, that did not work. So rudimentary. So cheap. So lacking in imagination.

The hope that many of you have now is that the prince of Sokoto, Sambo Dasuki, will gain the trust of security agents and Boko Haram sympathizers who feel that this is all political.  With Dasuki, you hope that those who feel alienated in the distribution of power in Nigeria could relax and rejoin the political process. You hope it works. You hope the Boko Haram genie can still be put back in the box.

Like the militants of the Niger Delta, even if Boko Haram group is quelled, we know they can always reactivate their fight whenever it suits them, irrespective of what rehabilitation they went through. When the real and imagined injustices and structural imbalances that permeate every facet of life in Nigeria remain unaddressed, the return to battle is guaranteed. But that is not the biggest threat facing the Igbo. That problem they could see. And the wise ones have reacted with their feet.

The biggest problem facing the Igbo is so subtle. We got a glimpse of it penultimate week when some traders at Balogun market demonstrated against the Chinese who have come into Nigeria to do business.

The Balogun market branch Dealers of Bags and Leather Wears Association of Nigeria had a protest march against some Chinese business men. They accused the Chinese men of retailing leather products at a very cheap rate, thereby forcing these traders to operate at a loss. The traders said it was a systematic plan to undermine and kill off their business in Nigeria.

These traders said that they have been facing this problem for over five years now- that was when the Chinese came. They wanted the Chinese to remember that the reason the Federal Government allowed them to operate in Nigeria was to build industries that would create employment. These protesting traders called for dialogue with the Chinese with the hope that afterwards the Chinese would go back home and bring machines to set up industries.

One after the other they lined up and spoke to the press, begging the government to come to their aid. They said if the activities of the Chinese were not checked, thousands of them would lose their source of livelihood. If you read their statements you would be sorry for them. These men were shedding tears over the Chinese. They did not know that Walmart is on its way.

According to the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Walmart is on its way to Nigeria. This news was also confirmed by the Nigerian ambassador to the United States who told Empowered Newswire that Walmart plans to open two stores in Nigeria. Walmart came into Africa when it bought a controlling share in South Africa’s Massmart Holdings Ltd. Already Africa’s largest grocer, South African Shoprite, is in Nigeria and other big retail stores like Pepkor Ltd are making plans to come. According to Pepkor Ltd CEO, the clothing company “plans to ride on the coat tails of Shoprite.” So the Igbo traders shedding tears over the Chinese have not seen anything yet.

Currently, these stores appear to target high-income earners in big cities. But over time, they would default to serving low-income earners everywhere in Nigeria. Pepkor, for instance, plans to open up to 50 stores in Nigeria. And that is when these traders will shed more than tears.

Of course, people like the CEO of Pepkor, Mr. Wiese are saying, “there’s enough for everybody. It’s a growing market.” And I bet you, if you get the Chinese business men to speak to the media, they would say the same thing.

The real truth is that the Igbo business model of opening stores in markets across city centers is coming to an end. In a generation or two, there won’t be anything like that anymore. It would all go the way Mom and Pop stores disappeared in American cities where Walmart and Targets set up shop.

The Igbo business model is simple. At the top is an importer. His job is to import items from overseas and have a chain of wholesalers move the goods across Nigeria. The wholesalers on their own have a chain of retailers who buy from them and sell at markets across Nigeria. In one swoop, the Chinese and Walmart will replace all the Igbo traders on this chain from importers to retailers.

The question now is what will the Igbo do before Balogun, Ojo Alaba International, Ochanja, Ogbete, and other markets across Nigeria are turned into Malls, theaters and football fields? With millions of Igbo men and women who engage in retail business across Africa, what happens after the Walmarts of this world have settled in? What happens when regular Nigerians have become accustomed to walking into air-conditioned stores; looking up marked prices, paying for what they can afford and returning items they do not want seven days after they purchased it?

I trust that the Igbo will not fold their arms and go on the street to beg. I believe they will find something else to do. But it will be good if they begin to strategize now. It will be great if a ten-year and twenty-year plans for transition are put in place. I believe that a plan to transition into manufacturing, turning Aba and Nnewi and Nkpor into manufacturing hubs will greatly keep the Igbo in play as the Chinese and Walmart take their places in Africa.

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Christian Voice