The Nigerian people demonstrated, once again, their rejection of monopoly in any sector of the economy when hundreds of them marched on Friday, October 3, 2014, on the premises of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) in Lekki, Lagos, against a blatant measure to create a monopoly in the cement industry.
The demonstrators were led by one Omeife Omeife, described as president of the Alliance Against Monopoly (AAM), who, obviously echoing popular sentiments, argued that the monopoly being created in the industry is designed against not just the masses but also the middle class.
Nigeria, a nation of over 170million, is suffering a housing deficit of 17million units. As a result, most citizens do not have their own houses and, worse, are finding it increasingly difficult to pay rents. The worst-hit are such places as the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. In the FCT, there is a terrible phenomenon called Abuja marriage. It refers to a situation where women, desperate for accommodation, cohabit with sometimes total strangers; even married women whose spouses live in different cities are involved in this awful practice. A monopoly in the cement industry will only exacerbate the practice and similar vices.
Why did the demonstrators choose to protest against the impending monopoly in the SON premises? SON, a parastatal of the Federal Ministry of Trade and Investments, has taken certain controversial steps in the last few months in the name of standardising and pigmenting cement in Nigeria. First, it stated without evidence that the use of cement is a major cause of the recent building collapses in the country. Second, it stated that the traditional 32.5mpa cement grade in Nigeria is for plastering, and not good for moulding blocks or for construction generally. Third, it announced a 60-day ultimatum for cement producers to start labelling the cement grade of their products or face outright ban.
If, indeed, there was ever a doubt in the mind of anyone that SON was acting under undue influence, it was extirpated by SON’s latest action. How could SON, run by very intelligent people, give a mere 60-day ultimatum for a change in labelling? The labelling machines are not made in Nigeria. They have to be imported, and the process does take time. Besides, labelling machines are not configured so easily. These are some of the reasons why cement producers have asked for time extension, but SON would not hear of it. Why? The reason is obvious enough: it is merely acting a script from above.
SON is being used by vested interests. It is being used to confer undue advantage on a major producing firm which is already labelling its new cement grade. The new policy is meant to destabilize competitors who, while trying to adjust to the new regime, would lose more market share to the one already labelling its products! Interestingly, the one already on ground is in control of 60% of the cement market and is determined to increase the market size by all means possible.
This is why it has embarked on all manner of arm-twisting and disinformation. No one heard of the 32.5mpa cement being a factor in building collapse until the company began to produce the 42.5mpa grade some months ago. But not even one body of experts has ever supported the claim because it is spurious. At the public hearings last May of the House of Representatives ad-hoc committee on cement standardization and pigmentation, such authorities as the Nigerian Society of Engineers, Council for Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria, Nigerian institute of Builders and Nigerian Institute of Architects as well as Association of Cement Manufacturers of Nigeria stated categorically that cement does not cause building collapse anywhere. They pointed out clearly that cement is not used alone as an item in building and construction, but used in conjunction with sand, granite, iron, rods, etc; and how these items are used has implications. It is immaterial if the cement is 32.5mpa or 42.5mpa. If the later grade is superior, all a greedy contractor or block moulder, for instance, would do is produce more blocks from the same quantity of cement.
Therefore, what is required to check building failures in Nigeria has absolutely nothing to do with cement grade; after all, every cement in Nigeria meets international standards. What is needed revolves around complying with building codes and professional ethics. How many Nigerians conduct soil test before building a house? How many architects or engineers in the town planning office examine architectural drawings of buildings and visit the site before giving approval and without collecting bribes? How many engineers in the town planning office go to the site to inspect the quality of rods and other building materials used?
It is paradoxical that the very firm claiming, only a couple of months ago, that it has migrated to the 42.5mpa cement grade because the 32-5mpa grade “has been banned in places like China” on account of its inferiority only three weeks ago announced it has resumed production of the 32.5mpa grade! While it was demonizing the 32.5mpa grade in Nigeria, it was promoting the same grade in South Africa as incomparable because it is the largest single investor in Sephaku Cement pty which produces this grade. If the 32.5 grade is responsible for building failures, this firm has to be held responsible because it was for 10 years producing only this grade. Indeed, since it has been in control of 60% of the cement market, it should rightly be held accountable. Of course, we all know that it has engaged in is sheer propaganda.
It is axiomatic that SON is a state instrument being used by a well-known monopolist to destroy competition in the cement market. Nigerians are ready to fight the monopolist this time and all those being used by the monopolist because of the severity of the direct effect of what the monopolist wants to achieve. Our future will be ruined. As things stand today, SON has a serious credibility challenge imposed on it by vested interests. The least it can do now to retain a modicum of respect is to revisit the mere two-month deadline for cement grade labelling to start in earnest. It has to do something concrete to be seen as a credible organization working for the common good, rather than an instrument in the hands of a private monopolist.