Verisimilitude: Buying Smokes and Mirrors in Alaba Market
There are words in English language that are rarely used because it is often difficult to find personal life experiences on which they can be applied. Verisimilitude is one of such word: the quality of seeming true or of having the appearance of being real. This word popped into my mind after watching a video clip sent to me by a friend on the analysis of the success of Alaba-Lagos market run by the Igbos. The main point was the unique approach of raising venture capital through a direct apprenticeship scheme, and how it could be scaled-up to improve the overall economic climate of the region.
It is intriguing how logic can easily encompass a complex phenomenon with an obvious formula. How theoretical analysis of a situation can easily be mistaken for the whole truth, and how tempting it is to introduce solutions with complete confidence, even when previous solutions introduced with even higher levels of confidence had failed. Experience has shown that post-hoc analysis of events rarely reflect the reality of the situation at ground-zero.
In the same manner an aerial view of the earth from an aircraft flying at 30,000 feet looks smooth and consistent, so does analysis of success appear logical and easily reproducible. It is only when the aircraft attempts a landing that one realizes the dangerous topography that replaces the smooth aerial view.
The business world is not as it seems and this is a global phenomenon. The TV series Breaking Bad is a more accurate depiction of the business world than the picture painted by economic analysts. And only those who have tried to play by the rules understand clearly that: things are not what they seem.
For starters, Advanced-Fee fraud (419), drug trafficking, religion – churches, smuggling, and politics enshrine a complex network of activities that seamlessly funnel venture capital into the business world. A lot of start-up capital are linked to this network, for even the ‘bad guy’ needs a good image as riches come and values change. This network has a lot of capable, efficient and reliable agents that project the kind of image bankers and economists love to analyze: The nice looking lady fronting as a boutique owner, the big merchant trading on generators or copper wire, and the major importer of automotive components – De Lorean style.
Having been in the pipe line as a small fry in my previous life, and knowing quite a few still in the pipe line in this incarnation, I have interacted with many who went through this apprenticeship program and after a decade of uninterrupted hustle, had to start asking serious questions about the nature of the business world:
“I have been in this business for so long and you seem to be doing so well but I can’t break even, though I have more customers and sell more products. Yet, you’ve just finished a duplex and bought a Hummer, while I am struggling to pay my rent. How can this be?”
This is the turning point that must be reached before stepping up to the next-level, and with the right set of contacts and a bit of luck, this ‘honest enquiry’ opens up other ‘lines’ of business. Though some may rightly insinuate that this business problem arose because of
inadequate ‘apprenticeship’. These ‘lines’ are multifaceted. They include a variety of evolving skills such as: knowing how to ‘clear’ other people’s shipments from the wharf, rebranding of drugs, re-bottling of beer, boosting used cars from overseas, adding some white dust to outbound human-shipments, arranging with store keepers to collect supplied items so that they can be resupplied, planting moles in establishment to generate invoices faster than products are consumed, and printing ‘your-own’ currency. As the business grows and recurrent expenses become harder to meet (as the banker’s honeymoon period expires), installing political office holders and routing bank employees to management positions in order to secure ‘unsecure’ loans, becomes irresistible paths to follow.
The good news is that the business world provides a rock-solid cover for these shady activities. The above analysis does not invalidate the effort of many honest traders, but these honest traders are really not the ones that drive the growth of the market. Rather, they are the ones least capable of fulfilling their obligations to their apprentices at the end of the apprenticeship period; some may even defer to the network in order to meet these obligations. To be profitable, many honest traders rely on the largess of the prime movers in the network who provide goods on credit, and sometimes at a lower cost than the actual landing cost of the goods.
There is usually a huge hidden cost to this supposed growth that puts primary focus on money and business, at the expense of cultural values. So, it is not surprising that new trader-kidnapper, trader-armed robber, and trader-drug kingpin variants have been exported to other countries to launder cash-as-shipment back to the great Alaba, Ladipo, Nnewi, CompuVille, Berger, Mile2, Maza-maza and allied markets. Or that direct Django-style retaliatory strikes are now carried out on Igbos by Igbos locally, and in countries such as ‘malay’ and ‘south’.
The truth is that there is only as small percentage of the numerous variables affecting business that the trader or any one controls, especially in a volatile third-world economy with ever-shifting economic and monetary policies. So if there is continuous growth in a sector while virtually every other part of the economy is falling apart, at least one eyebrow should be raised.
However, no one can take away the fact that these traders have ‘guts’ and ‘gumption’. Many have what most inspirational speakers would envy because they believe that they should be able to achieve what any other trader in the market has achieved: a property that makes them eligible for recruitment by the ‘network’. This internal competition which can also be interpreted as greed and ruthlessness, is the hidden fuel that drives the growth. And there are success symbols associated with it that indicates that the trader is meeting up with the challenges posed by his contemporaries. These symbols changed over the years from: The Honda CD 185/195 (Road master) motorcycle era, to the building of ‘three-decking’ both on the neck and in concrete era, to when Nissan Pathfinders were in vogue – in the ipia-gbu-ozu era, to the Oliver-era when individual and business names were part of song lyrics, to the morphing of trader to the industrialist era, and the current Venza-Hotel-CEO-Church investor-movie producer era.
While the literati and graduates are busy complaining about the economy and making policies, these men just think of how they can survive regardless of what is thrown in their way. These are the properties people must emulate from them. The more educated people seem less adaptable and more scared of the fluctuation in the economy, while these traders would saw-up a Lexus and load it into a container to weld it back on arrival, should the government ban importation of used vehicles.
This is not to discourage anyone from doing business, or suggest that one must be fraudulent to succeed in life, but the truth sets one free from those emotions, heart-aches and self-deprecation that are usually activated by ‘verisimilitude’.
Finally, I will end this article with a quote from a friend ‘one-door’, who was conferred this pseudonym because of his commitment to excellence by working on one door at a time in his auto-body shop. But to foster national and international harmony, a non-Igbo should extend that warmth of friendship and ask any Igbo man especially in Alaba to interpret the quote below.
“A si koo ka esi ri nri abali, odika a na ebe akwa aguu.”
Author of the Python and the Rainmaker