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China and Aba’s 30 shoemaking Argonauts

By John Kalu

THE original “Argonauts” were a band of heroes in Greek mythology, who in the years before the Trojan War, around 1300 BC, accompanied Jason to Colchis in his quest to find the Golden Fleece. Their name comes from their ship, Argo, named after its builder, Argus. Since then, the word “Argonauts” has become synonymous with Pathfinders in history-making expeditions.


In an article published August 13, 2013, in response to the “deportation” of the Igbo from Lagos to the South East region, Don Adinuba, a prolific writer of Igbo origin, penned the following lines on those we now consider as Igbo education Argonauts:

“When the Great Zik of Africa returned from the United States in the 1940s with a string of degrees in diverse disciplines, he saw that the Igbo were lagging behind the Yoruba because Igboland is in the hinterland, far removed from the sea through which modernity came to our country. He did not induce in the Igbo a persecution or inferiority complex or demonise the Yorubas, but rather took far-sighted steps to make them leapfrog developmentally. He sent to the United States, nine promising young men, including K. O. Mbadiwe, Nwafor Orizu, Mbonu Ojike and Okechukwu Ikejiani, for further studies, and the ‘Argonauts,’ in turn, sent their family members and relatives to the U.S.”

This was the genesis of the Igbo dominance of the Nigerian community in the United States. A gifted anthropologist, Zik recognized Igbo society thrives on village and town competition. He used the instrumentality of the Igbo State Union to promote the establishment of educational institutions by communities. Thus, “in one fantastic burst of energy,” as Chinua Achebe puts it, “the Igbo wiped out their educational handicap.”

By 1965, they had begun to compete with the Yoruba educationally. Meanwhile, Zik had recruited many village primary school teachers with a flair for writing and trained them as journalists on his West Africa Pilot. That’s how the Igbo came into journalism. Emmanuel Obiechina, the eminent professor of the Sociology of Literature, did show in a compelling manner how this development led to the emergence of the first generation of intellectual novels and how the Igbo were in the forefront.

He wrote: “As Eastern Nigerian premier, Zik operated far the lowest budget in the country because palm produce, the region’s economic mainstay, was attracting much lower prices than cocoa and groundnut, which were the main revenue earners for the other two regions. Yet, he was able to establish the Eastern Nigerian Development Commission, able to set up Nigeria’s first indigenous bank, Nigeria’s first full-fledged university,  Nigeria’s first cement company, Nigeria’s first gas company, Nigeria’s first steel company, Nigeria’s first industrial estates in Enugu and Port Harcourt, etc. No wonder, Eastern Nigeria had the world’s fastest economy by 1966.”

In the same vein, on Thursday, January 4, 2018, Abia State Governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, hosted a sent-forth party for 30 shoemakers earlier selected to depart for China to learn automated shoemaking. This batch of shoemakers is expected to return to the state to form the fulcrum of an automated shoemaking industry that would change the face of shoemaking business, not only in Abia State but across the country.

In many ways, Governor Ikpeazu appears to have keyed into the same vision of the great Zik of Africa in pushing for the accelerated growth of indigenous enterprises in the state, anchored on the promotion of “Made In Aba brands.”

Prior to his emergence as Governor of Abia State in 2015, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu articulated five pillars of development he would pursue to enhance the socio-economic wellbeing of the people of the state: Agriculture, Industrialisation, Oil and Gas, Commerce and  Education,

In a recent live radio interactive engagement with Abians via the Broadcasting Corporation of Abia State (BCA, Governor Ikpeazu pointed to his promotion of “Made in Aba” brands as possibly the biggest achievement in the 30-months of his governorship.

While many may not understand the deeper meaning of that statement given that Governor Ikpeazu is also well-known for unprecedented road construction that earned him the tag of “caterpillar revolutionary,” among many other achievements in different sectors, it is the promotion of local enterprises that he has scored the golden goal.

With over 250,000 small and medium scale enterprises, Aba is well known and acclaimed as the number one SMEs hub in Nigeria. What appears to be a minus in the historic acknowledgement of Aba as the entrepreneurship capital of Nigeria is the lack of confidence of Aba craftsmen to take the credit for their quality works.

It is common to see makers of all sorts of things; ranging from leatherwork (shoes and bags), fashion wears and accessories (clothes, beads etc) and equipment fabrication, stamping foreign labels on their products.

Prior to the emergence of Governor Ikpeazu, Aba made  shoes or clothes  and tag them “Made in Turkey” or even “Made in Senegal.” Equipment fabricated in Aba were sold as “Made in China,” while Aba-made wines and spirits carried the labels of South African or Spanish firms and sold within and outside the country without acknowledging the ingenuity of the local manufacturers. The story is now different.

With the focused and well-planned promotion of Made in Aba brands by Governor Ikpeazu, goods and services made in Aba are appropriately branded, “Proudly Aba Made.” Indeed, the campaign has caught national and international attention to the extent that even manufacturers and tailors in Lagos and elsewhere now struggle to stamp, “Aba made,” on their products.

International organisations like Ford Foundation have also taken note and sponsored global marketing campaigns for Made in Aba brands on CNN, among others, at no cost to the Government of Abia State. Yet we are still at the early stages of the focused promotion of local enterprises at Aba which has produced more than N1.6b in direct sales to the Federal Government and other institutions.

President Muhammed Buhari has also keyed into the “Made in Aba” agenda with policy support and physical actions such as ensuring that 10,000 shops at Ariaria International Market now have steady power supply courtesy of Rural Electrification Agency of Nigeria.

An executive order was also signed by the Presidency to ensure that only goods without Aba made alternatives are procured by agencies of government.

*Mr. Kalu, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Umuahia, Abia State


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.