When I first saw Ebeano Supermarket along the Lokogoma axis of Abuja a few years ago, I told myself I would seek out the CEO for a chat on what I considered a remarkable story of business success. That I have not been able to do so is regrettable considering the recent fire incident. As a resident of Abraham Adesanya Estate, Ajah in Lagos between 2002 and 2007, Ebeano Supermarket at Ikota Shopping Complex, VGC, was the place of choice for my family to buy toiletries and essential household items. Before I come to the recent inferno which razed their multibillion Naira store in Abuja, and the tragedy of a nine-year old girl caught on camera igniting the fire, I want to rehash the story of the CEO from what I can pick online from his documented recollection.
Born in February 1971 at Agbor, Delta State, David Chukwuma Ojei graduated with a Second Class (Upper Division) degree in accountancy from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1995. He completed his mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) primary assignment in Jigawa Sate the following year. After failing to secure employment at Zenith Bank, GTBank and FBN Merchant Bankers where he wrote aptitude tests, Ojei eventually got a job at a security company with a monthly salary of N7,000. From that meagre sum, he was able to save enough to set up a barber’s shop to augment his income.
In June 1998, Ojei decided to venture into trading by travelling to Fuga in Edo State to buy ‘Ogbono’ seeds which he then resold in Lagos. That business reportedly ended when the Fuga supplier duped him. But the experience also taught him that he needed to learn the rudiments of trading. For a period of three months, he went to understudy his uncle, Sunday Egede, who traded provision items. It was after that apprenticeship that Ojei established his first shop in 1999 at Shomolu, Lagos State. Operating with the trading name ‘Ebeano Supermarket’, he moved from Shomolu to open another shop in Gbagada and from there to Ikota in VGC. In 2009, Ojei formed a 50-50 partnership with his uncle, Sunday Egede, to establish the Prince Ebeano Supermarket chain of retail stores.
Although I never interacted closely with Ojei when we patronized his Ikota supermarket, the moment I saw the huge Ebeano Supermarket in Abuja, I was eager to meet him so he could share his experience on this page. Such stories not only inspire, but they also confirm the endless possibilities that abound for those who can dream big, even within our environment. And we desperately need such people in Nigeria today.
One of the tragedies of our country is that we no longer promote entrepreneurship, nor do we support or encourage the few who dare. Impediments are being placed along their paths by unfriendly government policies at a time we are desperately in need of jobs. And because of that, millions of our young people are graduating from schools into frustration with too many of them going into crime or voting with their passports.
Meanwhile, I will not be surprised if I receive letters from readers who may feel disappointed that I am ignoring ‘serious issues’ to write about the travails of supermarket owners. With the trial in Cotonou of Sunday Igboho, the Abuja judicial fiasco between DSS and Nnamdi Kanu, the ‘Fatwa’ on Fulani-Bororo by the Emir of Muri, the tragic drama of Niger State bandits who collected N50 million ransom for the abducted Tegina students only to also detain the emissary without releasing their victims etc., I can understand those who may feel that way. But the challenge of livelihood in Nigeria today makes the issue of the Ebeano fire and entrepreneurship also very important.
In a report, “Of Roads Less Travelled: Assessing the Potential for Migration to Provide Overseas Jobs for Nigeria’s Youth” released last weekend, the World Bank estimated that the unemployment situation in the country has pushed the number of asylum seekers from Nigeria to scandalous figures in ten years. The evidence is there for all of us to see. With booming demography, collapsed physical and social infrastructures etc., most of our young professionals have become easy targets for recruitment by many countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The gradual collapse of the global oil regime and the cascading value of our national currency have only worsened the situation.
The statistics that stare us in the face today as a nation are quite frightening as millions of our young people roam the streets, with no clear future. Which is why we need to devise smart regulations and necessary incentives to encourage job creation that is sustainable. When it comes to possible long term solutions for unemployment, according to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the “private sector—which provides about 90 percent of jobs in developing countries—offers an excellent starting point.”
Even at the best of times, the business environment in Nigeria was characterized by policy inconsistencies, bureaucratic bottlenecks, political interference, and lack of basic infrastructure, including electricity. To compound the problem, the general insecurity in the country has engendered a situation in which people in rural communities can no longer engage in subsistence farming with dire implications for food security. While these are the kinds of issues that should engage national attention, the ongoing discussions are essentially about 2023 and the usual cold calculations. At a period that we need to encourage those who have the acumen to create wealth and can help to put our people to work, there is inordinate obsession with politics. Yet the kind of politics we practice in Nigeria does not advance any ideal nor address the welfare of the majority. If it does, greater attention will be paid to how to encourage businesses, big and small, that will engage many of our young people who, out of idleness, now spend their productive hours watching Ebuka and some pretty Maria on Big Brother Naija!
Going by the Nigeria Country Report of The Economist Intelligence Unit released on 20th July, the 2021 to 2025 projections for our country are quite troubling while “the near to medium-term outlook is made more uncertain by the scars of recession in 2020 and rising unemployment (at about 33%—one of the highest levels in the world) and poverty.” Sadly, these are issues that hardly command serious attention in a country where fixation is almost always about where the president should come from and what religion he (always he by most reckonings) should profess. The greater shame is that we refuse to wean ourselves of the obsession with oil. Thanks to my friend, Waziri Adio, I yesterday read again that timeless March 2012 article, ‘Pass The Books. Hold the Oil’, by respected American journalist, writer and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Thomas Loren Friedman. It is something I will recommend to our policy makers: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/opinion/sunday/friedman-pass-the-books-hold-the-oil.html.
In my December 2019 column, ‘Illusion of a Food Pack Economy’, I alluded to the current challenge. I borrowed from the ‘2019 Nigeria Economic Update Report’, to make my point. In the report, the World Bank had projected that our country could be home to 25 per cent of the world’s destitute people within the next decade if government, at all levels, fails to revive the economy and create jobs. “With population growth (estimated at 2.6 per cent) outpacing economic growth in a context of weak job creation, per capita income is falling. Today, an estimated 100 million Nigerians live on less than $1.90 per day.” That report predated the Covid-19 pandemic and the havocs it has wrought so one can only imagine what the projection would be today.
To support businesses that will create jobs, taxation should never be the priority. But with dwindling oil money, the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), as well as the tax authorities in the states and the touts employed by the local governments are on a crazy revenue drive. Once you begin a business, they will harass you to pay all kinds of taxes and levies. And to demonstrate that there is no strategic thinking going on, you now hear of a plan to increase the Value Added Tax (VAT) to 15 percent. Since VAT is a regressive tax usually paid in the value chain, any increase, no matter how small it may seem, is a further squeeze on consumer disposable income in Nigeria. The businesses it will impact most are the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). Yet, if we are ever to take our young people off the streets by getting them productively engaged, these are the businesses we need to grow.
Unfortunately, impediments to entrepreneurship in Nigeria do not only come from the government. Given what happened at the Ebeano Supermarket in Abuja, we now must include deliberate sabotage from society. In a closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage that has gone viral, a girl (whose age was later put at nine) could be seen walking to a section of the supermarket where gas cylinders and electric cookers were kept. She picked up a lighter, ignited an item and walked a distance away, evidently to confirm that the process she had set in motion was on. She then moved out of the building. Also in circulation are CCTV footages, including when she arrived the supermarket with two ladies, how the three mingled with the crowd, watching the building go up in flames as fire fighters arrived and the ‘interrogation’ of the girl by some men in a dingy room.
I commiserate with both Ojei and Egede for their loss. But the Ebeano tragedy should teach supermarket owners in Nigeria some important lessons. Installing CCTV cameras is not enough. There must be someone in the monitoring room. If Ebeano had such a person, they would have picked up the girl’s mischief and reacted immediately. Besides, a smoke detector would have alerted attendants the moment the fire went up and a timely reaction could have saved the day. There was no indication that the supermarket had any because no alarm was triggered by the fire. I am also not sure there were industrial fire extinguishers or water sprinklers that could have helped to mitigate the disaster. These and other lessons should not be lost to business owners in Nigeria.
Meanwhile, the handling of the case has been, to put it mildly, unprofessional. The recorded questioning of the child who lighted the fire is shameful. Subjecting a nine-year old girl to a media trial is abhorrent and irresponsible. Aside the insensitivity, such predisposition explains why crimes are never resolved in our country. From Evans to Chidinma, some people just enjoy entertaining the public without obtaining justice for victims. The Ebeano Supermarket fire incident deserves a thorough investigation to ascertain whether the little girl was doing the bidding of someone. And her mental state must also be evaluated. It is not normal for a nine-year-old girl to carry out such an egregious act, and in the furtive (indeed stealth) manner she did it.
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