Columns

December 30, 2023

Merchants of death, By Muyiwa Adetiba

Merchants of death, By Muyiwa Adetiba

Muyiwa Adetiba

Many years ago, Femi Ogunsanwo, journalist, scholar and close friend, wrote a defining and revealing book on the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. When I started seeing the book on the streets among vendors and book hawkers, I knew that book pirates, those maggots who do not know or care about intellectual properties, had taken over. I should know.

I once had a printing press which occasionally printed for some of those international book publishers in Ibadan and Lagos. I also had regular ‘visitors’ from pseudo publishers who liked to reap where they had not sowed by acquiringand printing other people’s works. So the terrain is very familiar to me. When I brought the attention of Femi Ogunsanwo to the issue, his response was philosophical – he read politics and philosophy at Oxford.

Part of his purpose he said, was to get the book into as many homes as possible. So that part was being fulfilled. He may be right. But I am passionate about creative people reaping the dividends of their creative investments. So passionate that I once played the whistle-blower on a Chinese who actually brought machines into the country to pirate popular records.

My reward in seeing the raiding of his factory being paraded on national TV was unquantifiable.My stomach turns when I see pirated books – and discs- on the streets. They are relatively cheaperthan the originals because there are no costs to them outside printing costs. What is more galling is that these locusts wait for books or songs to become accepted before they swarm in to cut off economic benefits from those who have invested time, talent and money on them.

A printing press sees a lot. Not just pirated books but also pirated goods because packages have to be printed, labels have to be printed, leaflets have to be printed, manuals have to be printed. Part of what a printing press sees is that the retail market had long been in the hands of unscrupulous businessmen leaving unwary Nigerians at the mercy of fake products. Some of these products are international. Some are local.

But the result is the same; economic asphyxiation leading to death of legal enterprises and sometimes, the eventual death of consumers. This racket has been going on for years and our Agencies should have known if they were doing their job well. It started by bringing substandard products to the country for rebranding – shells of branded watches and electronics would be brought in and stuffed with substandard engines. Nobody paid any heed.

Then they started bringing outright fake into the country. Still, our relevant Agencies didn’t stir. They became greedy and entrepreneurial if you like, and started ‘manufacturing’ the products at home to maximize profit. Our control Agencies still pretended not to notice what was going on. There was a time there were probably more fake antibiotics on the shelves than genuine ones. Even big pharmacy shops fell victim to this scam. If any alarm was raised at the time, it was by doctors and other medical personnel who saw their patients taking prescribed drugs and not getting better. Many even got worse. 

As far back as the 80s and 90s, those who ‘knew’ their alcohol also knew where to purchase them to avoid fakes. As time went on, even those hitherto safe areas became compromised and one needed to be a connoisseur of sorts to tell the difference between the fake and the real- the liver however knows the difference, unfortunately. I don’t know too much about many drinks and I would not be able to tell the difference between fermented palmwine and champagne or even the different kinds of beer like some of my friends did.

But I once did know my cognac and in my younger days, could identify brands by just sniffing them even if they were put in different decanters. I once attended a small 40th birthday party. The husband went to the bedroom to fetch a bottle of XO of a particular cognac to entertain me. I felt grateful at the honour. The case was fine. But my eyebrow was raised as I tried to open the bottle because I knew the seal of that particular brand and the one in my hand didn’t look quite right.

I sniffed as soon as I broke the seal and what met my nostrils was unfamiliar. I tasted. My suspicion was confirmed. I was able to notice because of my exposure to that genre of drink, but how many people would have noticed? Especially if it was at a boisterous party? The liquid would have gone straight to the liverand kidney doing whatever damage these things do. This was some 35 years ago. The country has done little or nothing to arrest the situation since then. The perpetrators have instead become emboldened and have faked every product they could lay their hands on.

 The news recently that 240 factories manufacturing fake products were found on a single street would have surprised nobody except perhaps NAFDAC itself. These factories, from fake diapers to fake engine oil, to fake drugs and drinks are everywhere and hardly ever hidden. Their products are also everywhere. Meanwhile, some police officers would have been going to that street regularly to collect their ‘benefits’. Ditto some members of other relevant Agencies including Local Government officials.

I would not even be surprised if some members of NAFDAC officials are on the take. Those who supply their raw materials know that the finished products are fake and could even be hazardous to health. Many of their main distributors know where the factories are located and know the products are fake and could be poisonous.

Those who print for them are also as complicit. As these merchants of death are smiling to the bank, their many ignorant consumers are groaning to the hospital.No wonder liver and kidney diseases are on the rise. No wonder sudden and unexplained illnesses are on the rise. No wonder that feeling of generalunwellness that is often attributed to a change in weather is on the rise. No wonder untreatable ‘typhoid’ cases are on the rise.

From Customs to NDLEA, to NAFDAC and even the Nigeria Standard Organisation, those who are charged with the job of making sure that fake and sub-standard products don’t overwhelm us have long dropped the ball.Many of those who are supposed to shield us from these merchants of death have become largely complicit. There is an urgent need for a shake-up.