By Lawrence U. Ekeh
Could the sealing of factories, impounding of equipment and products worth more than N2 billion be regarded as acting in Nigeria’s national interest? The Sundiata Post internet newspaper on October 29, 2014 published a report that the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) closed factories that were producing goods such as mattresses, shaving sticks, tooth brushes, razor blade, etc. This action is not only unjust but also against the spirit and policy with which other nations got industrialised. In addition, SON claimed that imitation is frustrating the industrial revolution master plan of the Nigerian government. Closing factories and making people lose their jobs will not lead us to where we are going – our own national interest.
With HEGEMONIC STABILITY THEORY, the concept of national interest for the more powerful states was expanded to include expansion of free trade. It does not seek to inject morality into foreign policy and it leads to weakening of independence of smaller states. Toolboxes in use to achieve this include Intellectual Property Rights law. It hinders developing countries such as Nigeria from bridging the gap between them and the developed countries. The inventors of products put the price of patent so high that our manufacturers can hardly afford the cost. As a result organisations tend to copy the product rather than go through the expensive patents. Most if not all of these products patents come from the developed world. This recent action by SON has left me wondering if the organisation is not a puppet of the International Patent Office located in Nigeria. The Patent Office is the watchdog for the Western countries whose citizens are the inventors of these products and want Nigerians to continue to import their products rather than manufacture them.
“The world is a market place, my grandmother told me” was the last sentence in my book, ‘Industrialization and National Prosperity’. When one compares our industrial master plan with other nations’ industrial master plans, one sees similarities on paper but at implementation stage, nations are discrete in punishing those who violet international patent laws in their countries.
However, some nations actually encourage their businessmen to copy foreign goods. In China for instance, the leaders called on Chinese businessmen to imitate the foreign goods. Call it “imitation” or “replication” or “copying”, this model was at the heart of Zhang Guanying strategy of trade war with the West. Even Chen Chi who succeeded him, stated “We must use machinery in order to copy foreign goods, only then can we recover our economic rights”. That was the Chinese during their “National Goods Movement” crusade. This spirit was not only among the leaders to encourage production, it was everyone’s obligation to patronise such imitation goods. After the collapse of the Qing government in 1912, the movement for national goods spread by public meetings, public speeches and the publication of specialised journal called NATIONAL GOODS MONTHLY. Without this movement, China would not have been the manufacturing hub of the world it is today.
The international patent law existed even at the time the Chinese government was encouraging their businessmen to copy foreign goods. While this breach was in the 1920s, patent law existed as far back as 1450 in a decree issued in Venice by which new and inventive devices had to be communicated to the Republic in order to obtain legal protection against potential infringers. But in China who cared? The interest of their nation particularly in creating job opportunities for their people was more important than obeying patent rules and regulation.
Secondly, obeying the international patent rights meant that foreign manufacturers would continue to exploit them and hold back their technological development. Thirdly, they saw that further consequences would include the loss of their sovereignty. Fourthly with the spirit of nationalism, more consumers preferred the cheaper goods produced locally.
Like the Chinese, SON was supposed to help Nigerian businessmen to meet the required high standards, for instance getting foreign designs of products which could be copied periodically. They should not only test but also train them on how to copy foreign goods. Again this is what the Chinese government was doing. The Chinese government also embarked on promoting made-in-China products. Between 1912 and 1915, they carried out propaganda campaign to encourage people to buy made -in-China products using advertisement, speeches, lectures, rallies, boycotts, exhibitions of made-in-China goods, etc. To encourage copying of products, there were guidelines on manufacturing and management procedures which gave local producers detailed instructions on mistakes to be avoided when imitating foreign producers. All these obviously undermined the patent rules and regulation but as I noted earlier, in China nobody cared about the intellectual property rights. Without this flagrant disregard of patent law, how can any developing country including Nigeria, industrialise?
While I was in Abuja in 2011 and I visited Transcorp Hotel. There I saw a list of big foreign car manufacturing companies conspicuously displayed on the hotel’s foyer. Realising that they all had only but showrooms for their products rather than assembling plants in Nigeria, I felt ashamed. When I got back to my hotel, I wrote an article titled “Made-in-Nigeria, Panacea for Unemployment” which was published in BusinessDay of 15th December 2011. But today the Nigerian Motor industry master plan has changed. Since the change, many of those world leading motor manufacturers displayed in the foyer have declared their plans to establish assembly plants in Nigeria.
Our national interest should be job creation for Nigerians. When SON closes factories, they are not creating jobs for our people rather the opposite will be the result. The multiplier effect includes increase in criminal activities by those who have been sacked by SON.
The action of SON does not really surprise me. I remember during my five days visit to Nigeria in 2011 I picked up a copy of the Nigerian Guardian newspaper of May 18, 2011. I saw a story at the back of the paper saying that American officials were in Nigeria to discuss Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) with the Nigerian government. Yes, Intellectual Property Rights regime protects the rights of inventors of product but the West is using it to widen the technological gap between them and African countries. Who knows what the Nigerian government agreed with the Americans?
SON has to study the historical development of industrialisation before they rush into a policy that will hinder our quest for industrialisation. There is nothing wrong in SON monitoring the activities of our infant industries to ensure they adhere to high quality standards and helping them to improve, rather than severe punishment such as the closure of factories. Closure, if necessary, should be the last resort after series of warnings on quality adherence.
*Ekeh, who is based in London, is the author of ‘Industrialization and National Prosperity’. He can be contacted via email: [email protected]