“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
We have become all too familiar with the gory details of xenophobic attacks visited on innocent Nigerians in the streets of South Africa. Some were murdered and their bodies set aflame in broad daylight, to the cheering pleasure of an angry mob. As I write this piece, many of our compatriots are being hounded into detention facilities by agents of the Ghanaian authorities for doing nothing other than going about their legitimate businesses. What some may not have reckoned with is the sad reality that most of those Nigerian victims are often men and women of Igbo extraction. Even in Nigeria, Igbo businesses outside the southeast operate under a constant threat by groups such as the Arewa Youths and Odua People’s Congress who view them as territorial ‘foreign’ interests. Our nomadic business lifestyle makes us easy targets of hate crime and exposes us to monumental risks. That is why today, the call for Igbos to embrace the think-home philosophy and favour the South East as a priority investment destination is getting louder.
If the success of such a drive is measured by the number of businesses that relocated to the southeast, it’s safe to say that the idea has failed woefully. In fact, the trend over the past few years is that Alaigbo continues to lose big in financial investments to her more business-friendly neighbours. Aba is one sad case where a combination of gross infrastructural neglect and rising crime wave turned a once vibrant commercial city into a ghost town. Security lapses leading to a spate of killings and kidnappings forced a slew of businesses to close shops and relocate to Lagos and Abuja.
There is no point being sentimental about it. A pity party will get us nowhere. Such is but a natural phenomenon, the reversal of which cannot be legislated into existence but rather requires a well thoughtout and carefully executed business plan by Ndigbo. Perhaps it might help to look at what had happened in other climes.
Successive US administrations within the past two decades have deployed every tool there is in the diplomatic arsenal, in an effort to reign in on the excesses of a belligerent China. The Asian giant has been accused of engaging in unfair trade practices considered hostile to the economic interests of the United States.
Today, the world’s two biggest powers are embroiled in a bitter trade war and under Trump, there is no love lost between the US and China. Yet, in 2018 alone, over $560 billion worth of goods came into America from China, accounting for more than 21% of the value of all her foreign imports and creating a staggering $419.2 billion in trade deficit. Fact is, hate China all you want, there is hardly a doubt that the lure of cheap manufactured goods has proved to be irresistible, not just to Trump’s America but to the rest of the world.
In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump campaigned heavily on the promise to bring back manufacturing jobs to the US. Soon after the election, reality dawned on him. All his charm offensive to convince American CEOs to relocate their plants from overseas to the US fell on deaf ears. It turns out that the loyalty of these chief executives lies first to their company’s shareholders. He quickly learnt that just appealing to the high moral ground of patriotism did not cut it and that not even imposing steep tariffs or the threat of implementing unfavourable tax code could change that.
It’s hard to imagine that businessman Trump didn’t quite understand the world of economics. Chances are that he did but knowing his antics, it’s likely he was just exploiting the rise in Sinophobia to win more American voters to his side. Or how else to explain that in the midst of his signature Make-America-Great-Again rhetoric, his own daughter, Ivanka was reportedly using her privileged position to negotiate juicy deals with Chinese manufacturers of her high-end clothing line.
America is in the eve of a new presidential election and media outlets are having a field day looking for salacious gaffes that keep pundits busy and boost ratings. On the other hand, policy analysts and Fortune 500 CEO are busy dissecting the economic policy positions of each of the two candidates. A CEO weighs whose policy will help or hurt his company. He decides on whose policy will lead to cutting staff size or force him to relocate plant to Mexico. He approaches these issues not with the fire of patriotism but how to preserve the entity under his command. These chief executives worry about corporate survival before any other considerations of the larger America.
It’s the same rationale behind why an iconic American brand like Apple produces most of its products in Asia where regulation is less and labour is cheap. It’s the same reason blue chip companies are in love with offshore tax havens. There is a constant pull on businesses to a climate that overall places less demand in investment capital and guarantees more return on investment.
The point here is that the decision on where to live and set up business is dictated by factors outside the realm of national or ethnic allegiance. If an Igbo trader feels his business has a better chance of thriving in Ghana or Ouagadougou than in Aba or Onitsha, off to those places he goes. No amount of ethnic loyalty would make him decide otherwise. For before tribal or ethnic loyalty, is the allegiance to self and family. Self-preservation remains the first rule.
In his address to the World Igbo Congress held in New York City in September of 2016, Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra state lamented that “South Eastern Nigeria smolders in the scorching sun of neglect while we make a show of our success abroad.” He summed up his prescription to the problem by challenging Ndigbo in the diaspora to embrace the think-home philosophy.
The governor, re-echoing the sentiments of those that spoke before him couldn’t have said it at a more defining moment. That said, the big question is why Ndigbo continue to favour investment destinations in foreign soils over Alaigbo, sometimes even at places that pose the greatest risk of threat to life.
As it stands today, the prevailing anti-business climate in states within the southeast geo-political zone seriously undermines the push to invest in the homeland. If we are serious about those calls, it should mean that our governors have to pay serious attention to the issues of security, infrastructural development and the overall ease of doing business in the region. Instead of wasting time and preaching the ‘Invest in Igboland philosophy’ we should actually focus on what we could do to make Igboland livable and become a favoured destination of new business capital.
The bureaucrats in our state governments are a big part of the problem and need serious attention. Feeling cheated out of sharing the spoils with the political class, these sleazebags seize on every opportunity to create a maze of extortion schemes that frustrate potential investors. It’s almost like they are daring you to prove why your new business venture doesn’t deserve a stillbirth.
Governor Obiano was definitely right when he stated that, “there must be increased cooperation among the South Eastern states in crucial areas like security, power generation and supply and of course roads and bridges construction. This will strengthen our social and economic ties and open up new windows of growth in the region”.
If we elect to focus on those goals, not only will our people come back home in droves, they would bring along with them non-Igbo businesses. All that is needed now is for Igbo leaders to walk the talk.
Doing the serious work of building a favourable business and investment climate is Ndigbo’s short answer to the think-home philosophy. It will also offer a gateway to the region’s economic prosperity. Preaching it alone from dawn to dusk is a needless waste of time and productive energy.
The Chinese figured it all out a long time ago. The Asian giant could care less about rising Sinophobia or the abysmal portrayal of her image on the global stage. So long as her focus is on building a better mousetrap, the world will continue to beat a path to her door.
•Dr. Agbo is the president/CEO of African Center for Transparency and writes from USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org