Why We Are Cheap

About three months ago, I lost my phone. It was a sleek Nokia phone, complete with all the appurtenances and accessories – camera, music and was internet compliant. The person who sold me that phone said that the phone was a ‘machine’, and an original Nokia phone. I didn’t take notice of the word, ‘original, at first until I lost it, knowing that the taxi driver in whose vehicle I had forgotten the phone would never deign return it to me, I guess because it was an ‘original’ and again because the phone cost the equivalent of $200. And since I was not going to be buying the equivalence of $200 a phone just to be forgetting them in taxis, I opted then for something ordinary, something that I would first of all not invest any of my emotions and something that would give me the utility value I could ever get from a phone – the taking and making of calls and the receiving of text messages. So I got another phone. Someone close by took one look at this phone, wrinkled and raised his nose in disgust like some supercilious camel and said, ‘Chinese…!’

At first, I didn’t want to respond to this supercilious camel or belabour the embarrassing scenario more than it turned out. And that was because I was not baffled at that quip, particularly as I’d heard it for the umpteenth time. The quip does not begin and end with just ‘cheap’ mobile phones. It is thrown in your face whenever you buy anything – just about anything ranging from automobiles, building and household appliances, apparel and etcetera that are considered ‘Chinese’. But my answer or question to this supercilious camel was not supposed to annoy or prove a point – I was just curious to know two things – one, what is that tangible thing that we as Nigeria or Nigerians have ever produced that is of benefit to the world? Two, what is it that Nigeria has ever produced that has come cheap and which is affordable like those Chinese phones?

Well, I have used the word ‘produced’ up there bearing in mind that our minds would quickly race to the supposed fact that we are the sixth largest ‘producer’ of crude oil, and that we earn a princely sum from such ‘production’, making us a rich people who can afford those expensive toys…phones and ipads and bipods and cars. But that, indeed, is a lie. We are not rich and we do not produce any oil, in the same way that the Chinese produce phones, building materials, cars and etcetera. What really happens when you produce something is that you apply your know-how to the raw materials at your disposal and come up with something that is of benefit to mankind. Is that the case with our oil? I doubt it.

Two things strike me whenever I visit any market anywhere in Nigeria and I see that nearly everything there on display for sale is Chinese – they are cheap and affordable and the trend is very dangerous. Nigeria is China’s second largest export market in the world. In 2002, the volume of trade between China and Nigeria reached US$1.168 billion, of which China’s exports to Nigeria were US$1.047 billion, and imports from Nigeria to China was a paltry US$121 million. China brings in all manner of industrial, and mechanical and electrical and domestic products, while Nigeria sends in unfinished products like cassava and crude oil which the Chinese process and send back to us, forming part of the USS$1.047billion of their exports to Nigeria. Maybe it would interest you to know that a lot of those very expensive electric irons and other toys and the very cheap things we buy or refuse to buy were made from the items we export to China. Now, the questions concerning the cheapness or affordability of the Chinese goods in our local and supermarkets vis-à-vis the quality of those goods have nothing to do with the Chinese. Bear it in mind that even though we are as finicky in our tastes for expensive toys as birds picking maggots from shit, it is a well known supposition that it is our own people who go to China and mandate the Chinese to produce these cheap and substandard items for us. Our people bringing in these inferior and substandard goods argue that if the goods are durable and to standard, there would no longer be a market for the massively produced goods from China.

But there are several aspects of this shenanigan that really annoy. Here we are on the one hand unwilling to buy made-in-Aba or cheap Chinese goods. Here we are as well on this other hand with these Aba merchants going to China to ask the Chinese to produce the kind of goods that are considered inferior to markets in Europe, Asia and the Americas. A great part of what should break this deadlock of dependence on cheap and expensive foreign made goods should be a recommendation to the authorities that they should provide the enabling environment for our people to produce cheap phones as well. But we shall not make this recommendation because the government already knows about it and seemingly cannot handle it. But if our people can go to China and can determine the standard of the kinds of goods that they want to bring back home to Nigeria, I am at a loss why they cannot do the same thing with asking for cheap power and potable water supply. I refuse to believe that the reason they cannot do this is because these things are on an exclusive list.

Some years ago, China was just a struggling country like Nigeria. And like Nigeria, they had their challenges as well as prospects but what made the difference was that they were lucky to have had a great leader in Mao Zedong who believed that power was nothing if it did not belong to at least 80% of the Chinese. Therefore, he went to great lengths to invest in the education of young Chinese. One notable thing he did was that he embarked on a policy of sending droves of young Chinese into the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. They were all on scholarship and they had only one mission – and that mission was to understudy the productive systems of the West. While they were at it, they shut themselves out from the rest of the world and embarked upon a programme of internal restructuring. About two decades after, the plan has paid off, and the biggest nation in the world catches cold anytime China sneezes.

Even though our country sometimes invests in the creative energies of young people, it does not respect the belief that the people are the true custodians of the power they hold. That is why government officials can tell us to go and die, or provide scholarships to children that stowaway on planes. If the people at the forefront of our democratic experience believe that the people are the true custodians of power – that belief would translate in providing an enabling environment where our people can produce and consume what we produce.

Written by
MajiriOghene Bob Etemiku
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