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A country that exports jobs, imports poverty

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By Owei Lakemfa

THIS period has been a sobering one for me even as the country appears gripped in the excitement of politicking leading  to the general elections next February. I am not excited about whether incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari will be returned or be  flushed out of office. I am more preoccupied by the unquantifiable damage our leaders have inflicted on us especially since the 1980s by their incomprehensible, illogical, slavish and criminal de-industrialisation of the country and the attendant massive job losses that has turned our once promising country into the world’s capital of poverty.

Exactly two decades  ago,  the  National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria, NUTGW,  as part of its twentieth anniversary,  gave me the opportunity of writing its story. In the book titled: Weaving Into History published by Malthouse, the union  enabled me to research not just its origins, but also that  of the textile  industry in Nigeria, and the evolution of the employers in the industry.

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What I saw, was a textile  industry in decline, but there  were still hopes of recovery. Some years later, I passed by the AFRINT Textile company along the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway, Lagos only to discover that the premises had been turned into  a car sales show room.  Gone, were the 3,000 textile jobs the company  used to provide. This month, when the union  invited me to its 40th commemoration in Lagos, I felt like a pathologist  having to perform an autopsy.

The United Nigeria Textiles, UNTL,  Kaduna, established in 1965, was an integrated  mill which included spinning, weaving and printing. It provided about 8,000  jobs. It also had two subsidiary companies; SUPERTEX and UNITEX. Even when most textile companies faced hard times, it managed to paddle through the rough waters. By 1990, it exported a quarter of its products to the United States. In 2007, UNTL closed shop. Of course, its subsidiaries had also gone under. In the same Kaduna area, the first textile company in the country, the Kaduna Textile Limited, KTL,  established in 1957, the Arewa, Poly Fibre, Fintex and Nortex textiles had, between 2000 and 2006, gone under with  over 30,000 jobs. The Kakuri Industrial area that never slept as the chiming textile mills were weaving, spinning and printing through the night, had by 2007, become a graveyard.

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In Lagos, textile companies like the Nigeria Textile Mills, NTM, one of the oldest, had gone under with 5,000 jobs, SPECOMILL sank  with 3,000 and Enpee Plc  with 1,522 jobs.  In Kano, Gaskiya Textile Plc went  with 1,176 jobs,  and other  mills including Kano Textiles and  Dangote textiles also  sank. Gone also were textile companies that were prominent   features in various cities; Stretch Fibres in Port Harcourt, Nasco Fibres in Jos, Asaba Textiles, Edo Textile Mills and Aba Textiles.

The near annihilation of the textile industry was, and is, as   incomprehensible as that of the cotton industry. Nigeria began  producing  cotton as a cash crop in 1903 and became an exporter.  Apart from providing mass employment,  it  is a money spinner  as all parts of the crop  are useful. It is used to produce a variety of goods  including   cotton sheets and   towels, paper, furniture, automobile cushions, fishing nets and  tents. It is also used to produce edible cotton seed oil, concentrates in food products, livestock feed, cotton wool and explosives.

As a  large producer of cotton,  we had the raw materials which the integrated textile mills needed. The textile  industry itself was a $4 billion business directly employing some  500,000 workers with over 500,000 others fully engaged mainly as cotton farmers. It was one of the earliest industries in the country and there seem to be no danger whatsoever to it,  more so,  when cheap labour was available especially in un-unionised companies. Nigeria also has  a bulging population of over 180 million people all of  who wear clothes. In other words, Nigeria was, and is, a huge and ready market for textiles.

Despite these, employment in the textile industry declined from about 500,000 in the 1980s, to about 24,000 in 2008.  Given the fact that in Nigeria, the average worker has a family of four and a spouse, it meant that in this industry alone, 2,856,000 lost their means of livelihood.

The unemployment rate was 4.3 percent in 1970, 6.4 percent a decade later, 13.4 percent in 2016, rising to 16.5 percent in 2017. With  87 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty, we now have the highest number of that category of human beings on the universe.

Incredulously, the Nigerian leadership from  1982 managed to destroy the textile industry, first by failing or refusing to check the smuggling of textiles into the country especially through negbouring Niger, Chad and Benin Republics, and even through our ports! Then it signed on to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, IMF,  and World Trade Organisation, WTO,  policies and programmes which decreed ‘trade liberalisation’ ‘market forces’ and ‘free Trade’ under which our borders and markets were flung open for the importation, or better still, dumping of  all types of goods including textiles.

The foreign textiles undersold the Nigerian textiles and our warehouses became full of unsold locally manufactured textiles. Our manufacturers could not pay their suppliers and many  cotton farmers were pushed into poverty.    Used clothes especially from Europe  and America, flowed freely into the country. Additionally, our manufacturers including those in the textile industry had serious challenges of power supply as the ‘Giant of Africa’ with a population of over 180 million, supplied   a maximum 4,000 MW at its peak.

To add to our manufacturers’ woes, is a two-digit interest rate regime that had wrecked many of them or made investment loans unattractive.

Some employers in the textile industry like the Europeans producing lace in the country, shutdown  and began exporting their products to Nigeria.

It is true that countries, like humanity, are interdependent. So, no country is an island.  But a country like Nigeria which  exports jobs, conversely, imports poverty.

The de-industrialisation of our country is a crime against the people, and the elite who brought this tragedy on us do not deserve to remain or return to leadership positions in the country. But beyond this, we need to reverse the World bank, IMF and WTO  policies and  put  our country firmly on the path of recovery, growth and ultimately,  development.

We can begin by  demanding and campaigning around  policies like: “Let us eat what we grow, and grow what we eat” and “Let us wear what we produce and produce what we wear”.   We need to adopt the commonsensical  policy of one’s country first before adopting trade liberalisation or free trade agreements. This is more so, for an underdeveloped country like Nigeria.


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