Is it a market or is it a town or is it both? Onitsha claimed to be the largest market in West Africa when I visited. It consisted of tens of thousands of corrugated iron stalls, with plastic sheeting crossing the network of narrow dirt-track roads that allowed People to visit and buy and sell virtually any type of product from champagn, to fire extinguishers, from foodstuffs to AK47s. Whatever you wanted, and a lot you didn’t ,was available in Onitsha market.
I was being driven from Benin City to visit some importers of pharmaceuticals. Despite being familiar with the rough and tumble of Lagos and the odd Soukh in North Africa, nothing prepared me for what can only be described as Petticoat Lane on steroids minus the tarmac. As I dismounted from the car, we proceeded into ‘the heart of darkness’ in search of my contacts.
There were no addresses or coordinates. However, amid what appeared to be chaos there was in fact order. The market was divided into sectors of specialization to such a degree that not only was there a pharmaceutical sector, but within it were a series of stallholders specializing in antibiotics.
I was duly pointed to the man I had come to see. He was an elderly Ibo, in traditional dress, looking decidedly paunchy. I greeted him and he quickly called over a ‘boy’ who spoke English as well as their traditional language. I was about to learn one of my most important business lessons, you cannot judge a book by its cover. With the arrogance of youth on my side, I assumed that this doddery old man, who could not speak English and looked considerably the worse for wear was just a small time trader. He quickly taught me otherwise when after I quoted him pricing on the antibiotics he wished to import, he dismissed my prices by quoting the prices of 25mg Ampicillin capsules from almost every location in the world, from Taipei to Milan.
I rapidly learned a further lesson, when someone else came along with a delivery for him whilst we were negotiating, and he promptly lifted up his traditional robe and his paunch turned out to be largely, though not completely, composed of tens of thousands of Naira notes. He counted out the money at lightning speed handing over around £70,000. Lesson well and truly learned.
I later found out, that not only was this where many pharmaceuticals were imported but it was also where many hospitals went to buy back the drugs that had been stolen from them by corrupt staff. The drugs were like a boomerang, often coming back to the trader who sold them to the hospital in the first place.
On my drive back to Benin City, I learned one further lesson that day. During my many days in Nigeria I had frequently been offered and partaken of ‘bushmeat stew’, ‘bushmeat steak’ and numerous other ‘bushmeat’ dishes. Driving along the highway (well as close to a highway as you got at the time) I saw many huge dead rats on spikes by the side of the road, being drained of blood but displayed to passing traffic. There was the odd corrugated iron shack next to them, staffed largely by sleeping shopkeepers. I asked my driver ‘What are all those dead rats on spikes?’ ‘Ah, ‘ he replied ‘they are bushmeat.’
The score for the day was definitely Nigeria 3, Young European Businessman 0’