The substandard culture

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Dr. Joseph Odumodu

Dr. Joseph Odumodu

The Federal Government set up the Standards Organisation of Nigeria in 1971, and some commentators have said that the failure of the agency over the years was in the nature of things: that the military lack high standards and therefore no moral strength to set up the body.

The point is that standards and standardisation go beyond merchandise, beyond buying and selling, but reflect the true state of life of a people. It must be near-impossible to set and ensure high standards in Nigeria with 70 percent of citizens living on less than $1 a day, which already translates to substandard living.

Substandard wares and ways of life exploded on Nigerians after the civil war in 1970. Basic necessities – water, food, clothing, medicines, housing and transport – were in critical short supplies. Many survivors could not bother about quality. In Lagos, where vast numbers of returnees flooded, there were houses without window or door, without kitchen or toilet, with bare, rugged floors and falling walls. Anyone in need of shelter sighed with relief to have something, with five others in tow! And if you live in a subhuman abode, what won’t you do to survive or keep afloat? So, substandard be came a way of life and thus a culture as both civilians and military regimes did not rise to national challenges.

The British, the Americans, the Japanese, and major economies have recognised national standards made possible by their productive sectors and state surveillance agencies. In contrast, Nigeria has no comparative productive sector in the position to ensure best standards in the face of stiff and sometimes dubious operators. Smuggling has been fingered as the chief culprit in the substandard goods market, but SON must dig deeper. In colonial times, you picked a bottle of Johnnie Walker brandy in an alley in Apapa or Lagos Island, in Sabon Gari, Kano, or Ochanja, Onitsha, and it was as good as any picked from a Kingsway Stores.

The arrival of tokunbo vehicles, electronics and sundry wares has also been blamed for the flourishing substandard market in Nigeria, but the view may not be supported by evidences. Many patrons of second-hand wares say they know better that they would rather buy second-hand that is original than purchase a brand new product and it turns out to be fake or substandard.

Local manufacturers have suffered incalculable losses from the substandard merchandise. Breweries, electric bulb makers and importers, tyre manufacturers/importers, and even table water producers are in constant fear of being ruined by the fake and substandard goods merchants.

For a long time at the ports, racketeering was the rule. People imported wares and declared what pleased them and settled whoever must be settled. It was not uncommon to see electronic goods described as babies’ toys. By the 1980s, some Lebanese, Indians, and some Nigerian traders ruined the markets and soon drove out former great trading names on the Marina, Lagos, and elsewhere. Today, substandard and fake products have become entire industries of their own. According to the SON, substandard consumer goods in Nigeria constituted 85 percent of merchandise a year ago, although the agency claims to have brought the figure down to 60 percent.

It was long argued that no nation survived on imports but must engage in production. And so, some Nigerians responded and established factories, especially in Lagos area. Today, the nation’s industrial sector is on the verge of collapse due to unbridled importation of substandard and fake products. Initially, foreign manufacturers wanted to dump wares which then were of comparatively good quality, but having succeeded in ruining local producers, they have the whole market to themselves to supply both quality and substandard items.

From across the world, goods that won’t sell in countries of origin are specially produced for Nigerian markets. Today, fuel products exclusively made for our markets abound. A few years ago, bad quality fuel in Nigeria could be smelt 20 metres away, but Nigerians bore it!

Ikem Odumodu, the director general of SON, wants to turn around the agency. He wants to leave a name, an institution that Nigerians can depend on. A laudable goal, but he has to rethink the entire SON project. Fortunately, his background may have prepared him for the task – for we recall that he took May & Baker Nigeria Plc from a trading company to a major conglomerate. Had he continued the tradition he met, May & Baker would not be the success story it is today. Therefore, once more, he has to break ranks with SON oligarchies. They are there: directors with decades of experiences who would like to tutor and guide him through real and imaginary minefields.

SON was set up to give Nigerians quality standards beyond manufactured consumable goods. Nigerians need and expect nothing less than composite quality of life assured by the agency.

While SON is checking quality of building materials, for instance, the DG may hint to stakeholders that poor housing has direct bearing on the quality of life and productivity. A manufacturer who expects quality from workers who sleep and dream under inhuman roofs will get substandard products, his quality control systems notwithstanding. He must tell his principals that no element, nothing, gives what it does not have. Nigerians cannot produce or buy quality wares if the majority live subhuman existence. He must also beware of praise-singers. The agency reducing substandard consumer goods prevalence from 85 to 60 percent within his one year in office is commendable.

To tell the truth, we need sector specifics from where the cumulative changes came – is it in vehicles’ parts where 80 percent of tyres and batteries are substandard, or the electronics products where 90 percent of UPS are extension cables? Is it in building and construction where 80 percent of nails are below standard or where?

Nigeria cannot buy quality standard anymore than a woman fixes beauty and hopes it lasts. If we really want high standards, we must begin to grow them locally, from ground upwards. Imported quality wares won’t give us the qualities our children will be proud to inherit and build upon.

In : Business