Our past might save the future
In just a few months, the Chinese virus has done what decades of official mismanagement and entrenched corruption had failed to do: bring our economy to its knees. Thanks to the lockdown put in place by governments all over the world, factories have gone to sleep, airlines’ wings have been clipped, tourist destinations have become mere landmarks and, in Nigeria, our oil has become nothing more than a blotch on our economic blueprint (if we had any). Yet, for all the change this virus will bring to our world, our government is still stuck on the oil economy. In reaction to falling oil prices, the Federal Government has yet again adjusted our 2020 budget to face the reality of a world where a barrel of oil today costs less than a third of what it did last year. Yet, no matter how much this may sound like a broken record, without a diversified economy, Nigeria will continue to be enslaved to the vagaries of an uncertain future.
And it is not just the Chinese virus that should wake us up: another war in the Middle East, another disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Russia, a tweetstorm by Donald Trump, a new trade deal between, say, Canada and India, another virus outbreak — all, or any of these could set things in motion that will see oil prices go up or down and, in essence, dictate the direction of our economic progress. Right now, Nigeria is dancing dangerously on the brink of another recession. One has to ask, therefore, what is it that makes us stubbornly enslave our economic growth to the whims of countries who, bluntly put, do not give a hoot about us?
If we are going to somehow have a future worth looking forward to, I believe that we must cast our gaze at the past.
Nigeria is a land rich in history, with a culture as colourful as it is diverse. From Igbo Ukwu to Nok, Benin to Ile Ife, Nigeria has contributed immensely to making the world a much richer place. Sadly, this wealth has largely eluded this country. Right from the slave trade through colonialism and up to the continuous brain drain with its attendant reevaluation of our cultural values, Nigeria has always been that waiter serving others its delicacies, but never partaking of it. But we can change this. And we can start small.
Specifically, we can start with our cultural identity as expressed through fashion.
It is not difficult to spot a Nigerian. Our boisterousness aside, when we walk into a room, it is as if we’ve graced those present with the sartorial splendour of a private fashion show. Whether we’re adorned in Adire or Bubu, Agbada or Ishi Agu, Nigeria’s fashion adds colour to any space it finds itself in. And a few have been cashing out.
As at 2019, the Nigeria’s fashion industry is worth an estimated $4.7 billion. This is fuelled mostly by a huge appetite for our local styles globally. However, by tapping into our unique cultural identities, we can give even more fillip to an industry in much need of help, and build an army of entrepreneurs itching for an opportunity to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. If we are going to be able to do his, I think that there is no better place to start than Aba.
For years, the Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu has has championed the “Made In Aba” campaign, making himself its brand ambassador of sorts. However, this hasn’t yielded the gargantuan transformation of the Aba fashion industry as was hoped — and not for want of trying. I would argue that taking a few tailors to trade exhibitions in far-away Abuja or gifting a few trunks of shoes and fabrics to select politicians is neither the effective nor ground-breaking idea we need to turn around an industry hanging by a thread.
I would argue for a different approach. I would argue for coopting the private sector into a campaign to revitalise our fashion industry by celebrating our culture and changing our attitude to it. In doing this, I would specifically approach the banks and schools, as well as other private sector operators that have a large number of people on their roll.
Let me explain.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the Nigerian banking sector has an estimated strength of over 120,000 employees. As for the schools, the Federal Ministry of Education suggests that we have approximately 25.8 million children in primary schools alone, all over the country. Of this number, the South East contributes 2.8 million, while Abia State, contributes 293,688 pupils. This is a huge ‘customer base’.
My plan is simple: why can’t we make our dashikis or ‘natives’ and ankara our official work clothes, and use same for our school uniforms? If I was the governor, I would lobby every bank board, urging them to show their pride in the Nigerian culture by doing away with suits and ties and adopting our ‘native’ instead. Our politicians already do this — and look extremely dapper too — so why can’t we? Besides, think about it: why, really, do we need suits and ties? Who has made another person’t traditional attire the standard for us? Should the banks adopt this dress code, this policy alone will keep not just the Aba tailors, but tailors all over Nigeria busy for a very long time to come. Think of the resultant effect on the textile sector. Think of the banks easily meeting their loan-to-deposit ratio quotas (many fashion houses will need loans to expand). Think of the increase in Internally-Generated Revenue. Think of the employment opportunity it will provide for those in the different points of the fashion value chain. Think of what this policy alone will do to our national psyche!
The adoption of this simple culture focus will, I believe, drive growth in different sectors of the economy: fashion, marketing, public relations, modelling, photography, textile manufacturing, sales and of course, information and communication technology.
But will we adopt it? Even though we are in very uncertain times, one thing is certain: in the wake of this epidemic, countries will first look to build their own economies before building another’s. We must look inwards and use what we have to grow how we must.
Many Nigerians are not asking for too much; we just want the opportunity and an enabling environment, and we will soar. But the question now is, is the government willing to take pride in our culture, or will they continue dressing up the urgent need for a radical approach to making our economy work? If we are to build the future, we must look to our past. But are we willing to travel a road less fashionable?