By Achilleus-Chud Uchegbu
Several years back, as primary school kids, one of the current affairs we learnt, ‘crammed’ and read out even when woken at midnight was that the “largest market in West Africa is Onitsha”. Then, we heard mostly of Ochanja market. I have no doubt that some schools close to Onitsha may have gone on excursion to the market.
Fast-forward to today, Onitsha no longer features in ‘current affairs’ as the largest market though several markets have been developed and expanded with very extensive commercial activities. This has also impacted on population and infrastructure development of the sprawling city.
Focus shifted to Lagos State, where we have big markets that have been developed by Igbo traders, most of who migrated from Onitsha. Many of these traders also maintained some presence in Onitsha but no longer as headquarters of their businesses.
At a recent interaction between the Ohaneze President, Chief John Nnia Nwodo and Aka Ikenga which held at Colonnades Hotel, I engaged some businessmen of worth from the Southeast and asked specific questions. I sought to know their views on why and how Onitsha lost the glory of being the largest market in West Africa. All of those I exchanged views with said the basic reason was lack of infrastructure. They listed absence of airport, sea port, inadequate roads, power supply and even inadequate housing. Some concluded by agreeing that “as things are presently, only Lagos has the infrastructure to support businesses and that is why most of us are here”.
Factly, Lagos has the infrastructure to support business. The airports in Lagos are the busiest in Nigeria. The sea ports are the busiest and most chaotic too. The expanding road network and industrial layouts, which are boosted by independent power supply by the state, means that more traders and businessmen would seek space in Lagos State. This account for reason ASPAMDA (Trade Fair Complex) is a huge market built and sustained by Igbo traders and businessmen. Balogun, Ladipo, Alaba International are just a few of such markets developed and sustained by Igbo enterprises, small, medium and large.
In my personal interactions with some businessmen, I am told that businesses also go to where the population is huge. I disagree. I rather argue that those in need also go to where the supply is. We go to Ladipo market for auto spares because we are in need. Our people fly to China and other parts of the world, for business, through MMIA in Lagos, because that is where many of the aeroplanes connecting those places terminate their journey into Nigeria. If those flights terminate at Enugu or Asaba or Owerri airports, those places will be as busy.
If we read that famous open letter by Gen Adeyinka Adebayo to Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, we realise the strategic importance of businesses owned by Igbo traders and businessmen to the economy of Lagos State. Specifically, author of the open letter stated that Lagos’ huge IGR is a consequence of high presence of businesses owned by Igbo people domiciled in Lagos. For instance, he stated that Igbo pharmacists dominate the pharmaceutical sector of the Lagos economy. The appraisal was educative. The single most important reason for this huge concentration is infrastructure. As it is now, Governor Willie Obiano is updating previous efforts, in Anambra state, at providing the infrastructure that would support the on-going campaign by Ohaneze, to encourage Igbo businesses and investors worldwide, to think home too.
The most audacious effort in this regard is, no doubt, the idea of a cargo airport at Umueri. Irrespective of what politics are behind the decision, for me, it is an economic decision backed by political will to expand the limits and push the frontiers of development and progress in Anambra state. It is most interesting that the $2bn airport would be built on a partnership that encourages private sector investment on a build, operate, maintain and transfer (BOMT) basis. The most important fact is that it is built on Anambra soil and serves purpose –primarily to boost trade and commerce and encourage export of farm produce, from Anambra, for which there have been substantial investments, also from private sector. I also look at the value chain that would be created with this investment. This includes the building of specialised warehouses for storage of perishable farm produce meant for export. This is an area not very well explored by investors in the Nigerian agro economy.
The involvement of Orient Petroleum Plc, Elite International Investments Limited and China Aviation Planning and Development Company Limited takes the project beyond the constraints of government funding. This is a guarantee for its delivery. It is also an attestation that government cannot, on its own alone, pull through the development of any state without active involvement of the private sector. I foresee possibility of the delivery of this project spurring PPP interest in other development needs like monorail system and roads, which would connect major towns in the state. This is a development need which existing airports in Enugu and Owerri have not been able to instigate.
What this means is that Obiano and his team are looking beyond tomorrow in the drive to sustain the change in leadership and development narrative in Anambra State. This is a narrative change that will reverberate in the entire south east and increase competition for service delivery, good governance and delivery of dividends of the investments the people had made in democracy. South east needs it. South east governors and leaders need to build on this, and other initiatives, to drive infrastructure development of the region in such a way that the think-home call of Ohanaeze would find support pillars that will encourage those who return home to inquire or explore, to make final investment decisions in favour of locations in the region.
For now, Anambra is on a roll. Obiano is driving it. Unfortunately, my voters’ card is useless in determining his fate in the November governorship election. However, his airport city project, is good development for Anambra state and Igboland, which has potential to make Onitsha the largest market in West Africa again.