•Eating what we grow and wearing textiles produced from locally grown cotton

There was a certain Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832-1897) an English land agent in Ireland then ruled by the English who treated the Irish people in general cruelly. But the situation in county Mayo was generally unbearable because of the bad manners of Captain Boycott who worked as an enforcer for Lord Erne, a major landowner who lived off the exorbitant rents charged the tenants. Boycott regularly expelled poor farmers from their land which led to many dying of hunger. The Irish land league organized against the landlord’s cruelty and ostracized Captain Boycott and his family with the whole community withdrawing all services to him. Their action gave the English language the verb to boycott meaning avoid or do away with something.

In the 1950s during the British colonial rule over Nigeria, a certain Mbonu Ojike, the deputy of Ibikunle Olorunimbe, the mayor of Lagos and one of the Nigeriannationalists, led a campaign that Nigerians should boycott all things British. Mbonu Ojike threw away his western suits and began to wear agbada. He dropped the prefix “Mr” and replaced it with “Mazi”. Other nationalists like Raji Abdallah, Ibrahim Zukogi, Ibrahim Imam and Aminu Kano began to prefix their names with “Malam” and Ogedengbe Macaulay, the son of Herbert Macaulay and Kolawole Balogun, a firebrand member of the Zikist movement, also prefixed their names with “Ogbeni” in solidarity with Mbonu Ojike’s campaign and call to “boycott all boycottables”. Nnamdi Azikiwe, their leader, a six footer who looked very regal and handsome in his suits reluctantly followed his radical lieutenants. Obafemi Awolowo and his Action Group were more practical and natural in their Yoruba outfits without calling attention to it. Being conservative in their politics of the time and using the traditional rulers as pillars of their political movement, they preferred becoming honorific chiefs and being referred to as “Oloye” than the plebeian “ogbeni”.The two groups were however united in rejecting the western standards of civilized dressing. This cultural rejection of the appearances of western imperialism was a necessary precursor to political liberation.

In recent times, I watched a presentation by Audu Ogbeh, the minister of agriculture in which he brilliantly appealed to Nigerians to only eat what they produce and boycott all food imports through which our national wealth is transferred abroad to other farmers. He said importers of rice for example, would do anything to sabotage the country’s plan to grow enough rice for home consumption. He said those importers are not only desperate but dangerous in strangulating the local economy. He argued that importers contribute nothing to the economy but use the country’s foreign reserves to bring all sorts of junks including toothpicks and all sorts of furniture we can make from our hard wood timber. Just at the time Audu Ogbeh was making his submission, the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele said all textile imports would be banned from Nigeria in order to stimulate the moribund textile industry. Any student of economic history knows that textile industry is the beginning of industrial revolution in a country because in most cases, at least in the tropics, it is easily adaptable to backward integration. The cotton needed as raw materials can be grown locally, ginned locally and fed to the textile mills. From the mills, the textile materials can be sold to tailors who will then produce apparels of different types for wear and cloth for home and office furnishing and the fashion trade.Apart from producing for home consumption, they can also produce cotton wears for export.

When I was in primary school in Ekiti in the 1950s, our school uniforms were woven by women each of who had local looms somewhere in their homes. I watched these women bring cotton from their husbands’farms, carefully ginned them and removed the seed from the cotton lint. They then turned the cotton lint into thread through the use of manual threaders before rolling them into yarns which were then fed into the looms. All this was done by the women manually as secondary occupation in their spare times since farming was their primary occupation as helpmates to their husbands. They of course were also good cooks. After the weaving of these white clothes, they will then be sent to dyers who produced usually black or blue stripes which tailors then sewed interspersing black and white to make knickers and jumpers for primary schoolchildren. The entire processes from weaving to dying were products of native ingenuity and local vegetable sourcing. This was the textile industry which the white man found here when they came but destroyed when they introduced their khakis as school uniforms. Happily the textile industry still survives as “aso oke” in parts of Oyo. Kwara, Ondo, Kano,Katsina,Zaria, Sokoto, Akwete and Ijebuland. But it seems to have disappeared in most places in Nigeria. Interestingly they can be found in western museums showing African textiles going back to the 15th century.

I remember wearing my agbada made from hand woven “aso etu” when I presented my letters of credence as Nigeria’s ambassador to the German President Baron Von Weisacker in 1991. My southern African colleagues could not believe we had our own textile industry going back to the 15th century. I had to proudly give a lecture on how everything I wore that day was home-grown unlike my other southern colleagues dressed in Saville Row suits.

What Godwin Emefiele and Audu Ogbeh are saying is that we must go back to our past to find our trajectory to a viable and productive and prosperous future! Imagine what we can do with a thriving textile industry. We can wipe out unemployment almost immediately. More than three million tailors would be needed to sew what our teeming population will be wearing. We even look more dignified in our environment and climate friendly Babanriga, Agbada, Dansiki, Jallabia, and kaftans. I remember having to beg my tailors in Maiduguri between 1982 and 1984 to sew my Babanriga on time. The cost of sewing was not cheap either but the skill and dexterity of the master tailors was what we paid for. I would like to see a cultural renaissance in which we all wear what is most appropriate with our hot climate.

What will be saved in foreign exchange can then be used for industrialization in other areas of heavy industries and in chemical and petroleum industries in which we are well blessed because of our comparative advantage. In this way we will raise the value of our much abused Naira and thus make Nigeria great again.

The government must be determined and strong to achieve this. It is Jean Jacques Rousseau in his theory of the “General will”who said it is possible to force a people to be free which sounds contradictory but in real fact sometimes this may be necessary because people don’t usually know what is good for them. A strong government can put in place an agricultural programme to encourage the young people roaming the streets selling junks to go back to the farms by mechanizing farm production and supporting young farmers with monthly stipends until they can fend for themselves. This was how the kibbutz in Israel led to the greening of a desert now producing different types of fruits for the world market. This will require a policy of social and political mobilization involving the universities, community and traditional leaders as well as political leaders. It will only work if leaders are ready to make sacrifices.There is money to be made in agriculture but first it must be divorced from the hoe and cutlass hewers of wood and drawers of water type. If we make our agriculture attractive, money will go into the rural areas. Life there will become liveable with very little attraction and incentive to embark on rural urban migration. If the cities are not overwhelmed by unplanned growth, the rate of crimes and criminality would go down and money being spent on policing and pacification would be spent for social welfare. It is a “win-win” situation and I therefore call on the government to build its programme of taking us to the next level around the well-articulated ideas contained in Audu Ogbeh’s agricultural revolution and Emefiele’s foreign exchange management to force us to produce cotton for our daily wears or go naked .These are solid prescriptions for economic revival. I join the chorus of “boycotting all boycottables “

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