April 5, 2016

My problem with South Africa, Shoprite and Nigerian politicians

My problem with South Africa, Shoprite and Nigerian politicians

By Chizzy Odilinye

The battle for supremacy between South Africa and Nigeria would appear to be age-long, but it wasn’t always like this. There used to be times when both countries were brothers-in-arms, had each other’s backs. My mum, for example, still tells stories of how as students in 1977, they sacrificed their lunch tickets to help South Africans fight Apartheid.

“Nigeria funded that fight,” she would say with pride. But that is not the case anymore. A BBC report recently sampled opinions of how Nigerians see South Africans and vice versa. While South-Africans saw Nigerians as criminals and kidnappers of some sort with an unusual arrogance, Nigerians saw them as hateful (especially since last year’s outbreak of Xenophobic attacks).

President Muhammadu Buhari and President Jacob Zuma of South-Africa

President Muhammadu Buhari and President Jacob Zuma of South-Africa

Clearly, the camaraderie that used to be there is no more and in its place has been driven a wedge of competition. The last rebasing of the Nigerian economy drove it to a head; Nigeria was proclaimed the largest economy in Africa and 26th largest in the world and, as it was touted all over the news media then, “has finally truly assumed her position as Giant of Africa over other counterparts like South Africa.”

It sounded rosy and our leaders made sure to repeat it more often that it was necessary, but there were a number of other things they did not say. Like the fact that statistics may have changed but reality remains the same.

In comparing Nigeria and South Africa, the similarities might end in both being African countries, colonized by Britain. In terms of Human Development Index (HDI), these two countries are miles apart.

While South Africa (SA) is one of the top 10 in Africa with a rating of 0.666, Nigeria rests somewhere in the middle at 0.514. Comparing in terms of electricity generation capacity, Nigeria currently generates 5,000MW for her 160 million populace (this is me being generous) while SA generates over 40,000MW for less than a third of Nigeria’s population.

Nigeria’s mortality rate is at 814 for every 100,000 births while SA is at 138/100,000. In access to health care and Universal Basic Education (UBE), let me not bore you with more statistics, but suffice it to say that we (Nigeria) are not doing great on that front either. One might say in our defense that we are more populated than SA by over a 100 million people, but shouldn’t that be an advantage? A larger population surely means more man power and ‘productive youths’.

So why bring up this discourse? Certainly, it is not to continue the argument for supremacy, rather to plead a case for our ailing economy. Because it is truly, truly, ailing.

Recently, I stumbled on a picture of my dear Governor Willie inspecting yet another city mall. This time it was the ‘Onitsha mall’ which is expected to host the South African retail giants Shoprite, Game and a host of others. A second mall is also under construction at Nnewi, where for the love of all things foreign, local spare part dealers were evacuated to ‘create space’.

When I see pictures of our governors commissioning malls to host foreign businesses, I ask myself when the time for our local brands will come. Growing up in the Coal city, Roban Stores which faithfully served the needs of the town was a precious part of our childhood. And I imagine how so easily that single store could have grown to become a large retail chain like Shoprite, if an enabling platform had been provided for it. And this is the story of many Nigerian businesses and innovations.

I have come to find that a lot of the reasons for this neglect – by Nigerian leaders and followers alike – lie in our fragile pride and pagan-like worship of status. “Wait, is there Shoprite in the East?” “Off course, there is one in Enugu.” “Wow.” How unfortunate! The continuous growth of South African retail shops and businesses in Nigeria will ensure the paralysis and eventual death of our local brands.

It’s the story of DSTV and MTN all over: MTN has successively grown its brand for the past 15 years while NITEL lies comatose; we are forced to put up with DSTV’s indiscriminate price hike because we have no choice – stories we’ll tell with Shoprite soon enough… But as is typical of Nigerians, the stories will end with “it is well”.

But it is not! It is not well if we refuse to learn from our history. It will never be well as long as ineffective governance persists. The egomaniacal leadership of Nigerian politicians will not make it well. As long as the Senate is filled persons who would rather berate women as “made in Nigeria” than solve economic problems, I fear it will not be well.

As long as the financial institutions will rather lend to a selected few, the SMEs will not grow and the G20 dream will continue to elude us. Because among other things, no economy in the world achieved dominance by having foreign brands run and detect the pace for her. Where is the Primark and Macy of Nigeria?

In the ancient city of Benin where I reside, the Comrade says Shoprite is a dividend of democracy. His colleagues in Imo and Anambra states are saying similar things to their people. Dividend of democracy? I disagree, because pictures like this one constantly remind me of all things Nigeria may never be.

My problem is not with foreign brands operating in Nigeria, after all it is a sign of economic stability. What I find abysmal is the fact that a company which started in 2005 already has 14 retail outlets with an audacious ambition of 700, All built through partnership with the Nigerian government. The same government that could not and will not do same for citizens.

That, is my problem.

Chizzy Odilinye is a Chemical Engineer. She writes from Benin-city, Edo State.