Locally made uniforms for (para)military organisations

PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari’s recent Executive Order (003) on Support of Local Content in Procurement by ministries, departments and agencies of government, directing all uniformed institutions to patronize locally made garments, shows that, for all his administration’s inertia on economic matters, the president’s heart is in the right place. By directing that the Nigerian Army, the Nigerian Navy, the Nigerian Air Force, Nigeria Police, Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), government hospitals and others henceforth source uniforms for their members locally, President Buhari hopes to kill two birds with one stone: jumpstart a comatose local cotton, textile and garment (CTG) industry and create millions of private sector jobs.

The Federal Government’s resolve to resuscitate the textile economy will gladden the hearts of millions of ordinary Nigerians, traders and economic experts who still remember the time in the 1970s up till the late 1980s when the textile industry was one of the most buoyant sectors of the country’s economy, employing millions of people (both in its core and derivative aspects) and exporting Nigerian-made garments (Ankara, for instance) to different parts of the globe.

The collapse of that hitherto ebullient industry is one of the saddest aspects of Nigeria’s ongoing economic decline, and the Federal Government is deserving of applause, if only for placing its plight on the front burner of official attention. Furthermore, that the Federal Government is willing to work with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in order to see this through, and to see that it explicitly ties the spike in criminal activities and general youth unrest, especially in the northern part of the country, to the decline of the cotton industry, indicates that it may have done its homework prior to the release of the Executive Order.

However, while the Federal Government deserves approbation for confronting the decline of the CTG industry head on, a quick overview reveals that it might be mistaken in its understanding of the causes behind the industry’s decline and its diagnosis for resurrecting it. For instance, there is no arguing the fact that official patronage will be good business for the few garment makers who manage to secure those contracts. But then, government can only order so many uniforms, and since the government’s potential share of that market is so minuscule, it tells us that reviving the CTG sector is something that has to transcend government patronage. Much more than government patronage, which is welcome, what the CTG industry needs is reliable physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, electricity, water) and other policy initiatives (e.g. access to credits) that will allow garment makers and others within the industry to focus on what they do best. Once physical infrastructure and a system of incentives are in place, official patronage becomes just an icing on the cake.

Second, the Executive Order assumes that ‘local’ necessarily means cheaper. The Federal Government should take note that that is not always the case, and that there are many instances when imported garments are, due to the economics of mass production, cheaper than their local counterparts. Furthermore, much more than cost, consumers place a premium on quality and have been known to opt for more expensive garments (local or foreign, it does not matter) when they are sure of the quality. All of which is to say that the Federal Government should not only not expect locally made garments to be cheaper (government contracts have a way of being inflated after all), it should not necessarily purchase local materials simply because they are local either, lest it should end up with exorbitant and shoddily produced local uniforms.

Third, and finally, while it is all well to insist on buying locally, we wonder why buying locally has to stop at garments and textiles. Why not local universities, for instance? Or local hospitals? Why uphold one at the expense of the other? Why insist on local uniforms when the president himself does not trust local hospitals and doctors to do a common medical checkup? The Federal Government means well, but if it wants to be true to the logic of its Executive Order, it should put its money where its mouth is by going local in all its transactions.