By Ifeanyi Afuba
If there was any lingering doubt whether the mall culture has caught on with Nigeria’s urban society, the keen mood at the commissioning of the Onitsha shopping mall on April 14, 2016 said it all. The hundreds of shop spaces in this Anambra State Government, private sector venture had been taken up before the public opening. The excited traders and visitors could not even wait for Governor Willie Obiano to finish with the ceremonies before jostling to have a slice of the action.
In the mid-1980s, the residents of Onitsha beheld an unusual building construction at Nkpor, a suburb of the commercial city. By the standards of the city dictated by scarcity of land, the site of this construction was vast, leaving significant space in front of the emerging building. But what tasked the imagination of locals was that the unfolding big structure did not fit into any of the known building purposes. It was not a residential edifice; not blocks of offices and it was not a factory either. Was it a hotel? No. Curiosity mounted as the seeming lavish, one room apartment structure progressed. It turned out that the Joedone Complex was intended to be a mall. Mall? Okay, shopping mall, some sort of variety retail outlets when you do not want to go to the main market. Many pitied the entrepreneur for misapplying considerable resources in a scheme they saw as standing no chance in a competition with the markets. To be sure, the Joedone spaces were unutilised for many years after construction but as the owner had also explained, it was a business concept for the future.
That early proprietor deserves commendation. In his role, we find once more some of the attributes for achieving success. He had not just the foresight but more importantly, the patience and courage of his conviction to stay on in those difficult years when nobody believed in him. The mentality of shrinking away from new ventures because of their perceived risks is one sure way to make a society live on the margins. I recall that sometime in 1994, in the early days of the home movie, I was approached to write a script by a potential producer. I still recall vividly the alarm on the prospective investor’s face when I said I would render the script in English. At the time Nigerian home movie videos were made almost entirely in vernacular. My friend found my proposal tantamount to a leap in the dark; a plan too risky for business. He could not be persuaded and we parted at that end of the road. A couple of months later, majority of the movie productions were being done in English.
With globalisation, assimilation of socio – cultural trends has proved easier. South Africa’s deep historic and economic ties with the West naturally make the former an extension of western society in some important respects. To a large extent, it was through the depiction of South African middle class lifestyle on DSTV channels that many Nigerians were drawn to the mall ‘magic.’ Even Mr Peter Obi, whose regime initiated the recently commissioned Onitsha complex, had business relations with South African firms before assuming office as Governor.
While on the face of it, the provision of modern shopping malls by a state government in Nigeria may not be highly rated achievement; there are a number of significant sides to the N9b Onitsha shopping mall. The facility underscores the trend of the current administration’s socio – economic efforts.
In a business environment such as defines Anambra State, a standard shopping mall takes on greater worth than would ordinarily be associated with it. The entrepreneurial energy of the Onitsha – Nnewi axis is ever seeking outlets for their expression. An increasingly socially sophisticated population tends to view the conventional market as bordering on the analogue age. It is rowdy, exposed and stressful. The mall, roomy, tasty and orderly, is the alternative of the time. Should it not be the business of government to respond to the yearnings of the people?
And there are malls and there are malls. The Onitsha complex offers an integrated service package for facilitating business operations. Sitting on 40,000 square metres, the facility is made up of the sprawling mall, an international conference centre and a four star hotel. However, the job creation – benefits of the enterprise underlines its huge economic worth. The value of the thousands of jobs derivable from this undertaking becomes clearer when we ponder that for ten thousand vacancies recently declared by the Police Service Commission; over eight hundred thousand applications were received as at end of April 2016.
But perhaps, the greatest tributary of the Onitsha Shopping Mall story is in the challenge of continuity of government policies. Not only do incidences of arbitrary project discontinuation lead to investor flight, it introduces the element of instability in governance as well as stalling development. In 1983 the Lagos State Government had concluded arrangements to introduce the metroline transportation system in the State at the cost of $100m. Indeed, preliminary work had started at Yaba when the December 31, 1983 coup occurred. The new ruling junta unilaterally cancelled the project which action attracted a default penalty of $60m on the country.
Today, Lagos is in even more urgent need of this complementary mass transit system; yet the cost of the scheme is prohibitive at billions of dollars. Consider also that the expatriate consultants who produced the road map to Nigeria’s steel development had chosen Onitsha as the fitting site for steel industry. But this expert decision was discarded by small minds in strategic government positions who changed the location to Ajaokuta. Four decades later, and trillions of naira pumped into the bargain, Ajaokuta has neither grown into a town capable of hosting a modern industrial complex nor has it started producing quality steel.
With its commitment to continuity and completion of inherited projects, the Willie Obiano regime has saved Anambra State losses associated with policy inconsistency. It is a sad reality that projects are sometimes discontinued for new ones by successor administrations for the lure of taking political credit. The spectre of abandoned work sites is also about contractors absconding from site after collecting hefty payment sums. As it were, without completion on schedule, government contracts are vulnerable to manipulation to the detriment of the society.
•Afuba writes from Nimo, Anambra State.