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Moving ‘White Man’s Deads’ is no second hand business

With no right to protection from the states between which they trade and move illegally, second-hand clothing traders in Benin and Nigeria appeal to powerful, but respected, dispute settlement committees to rule in their favour. Olumide Abimbola reports.

The Biafra Market, Cotonou. Photograph by Olumide Abimbola

The Biafra Market, Cotonou. Photograph by Olumide Abimbola

The office is a small rectangular room on the first floor of a two-storey building, in the middle of Cotonou’s Biafra Market. A few feet away from the door stands a rectangular table, with four wooden chairs behind it. It faces about 10 rows of wooden benches. On this particular day, the four wooden chairs are occupied by the four members of the executive committee of the Missebo Market Association. Together they help settle disputes that arise among second-hand clothing traders and this room is where cases are heard.

My interest in the dispute settlement mechanism was piqued when one of the traders told me that his goods were seized by boys, on orders from the committee, and that he had to find a way to pay back the money he owed one of his customers, otherwise they would sell off his goods – of much more value than the debt – for exactly the same amount of money as he owed. That would be disastrous, so he was running around trying to raise the money.

What made the situation even more intriguing was that his customer, who lives in Lagos and only comes to Cotonou to buy second-hand clothing, has never been recorded entering the country, and so has no recourse to the Beninese state’s legal apparatus. Moreover, the goods that he buys are smuggled into Nigeria, so he also cannot sue his supplier in a Nigerian court.

That is the legal crack into which many of these second-hand clothing traders fall.

Since the 1970s, the importation of second-hand clothing has been banned in Nigeria. People give different reasons for the policy. An official of Nigerian Customs told me the practice was banned because they are dirty clothes picked from the streets of Europe, something unfit for Nigerians to wear (the Ghanaian name for second-hand clothing is obroni wewu, which literally translates as “white man’s deads”); an old-time second-hand clothing trader told me that the Nigerian government wanted to punish Igbo people after the Nigerian Civil War so they banned the items in which they exclusively traded; another trader said that a Nigerian politician wanted to start a clothing factory and so decided to ban the competition; and an official at the Nigerian Ministry of Industry said that the ban was in place to protect the local textile industry.

Even before the ban, the headquarters of the second-hand clothing trade had moved to Benin (then Dahomey) and Togo. Igbo traders started importing second-hand clothing into Nigeria through Port Harcourt in the 1950s. Some of their first customers were the people of the village of Okrika – the name by which second-hand clothing has come to be known in Nigeria.

At that time, their main suppliers were Jewish used-cloth traders in New York. Other Igbo traders would procure the clothing from the importers and transport them from southeastern Nigeria to other parts of West Africa. In the late 1960s, at the start of the civil war, many of those exporters were outside Nigeria, having taken their wares to Benin, Togo and Ghana. Because they were to the west of Nigeria, an area not bordered by Igboland, they could not return home. They took up residence in Benin and Togo, obtained refugee status and began importing second-hand clothing.

Those traders who were to the east of Nigeria, mainly in Cameroon, left the country when, according to a number of those who made the move, the Ahidjo-led administration, which supported the Nigerian government in the civil war, made life difficult for Igbo people who were residing and trading in the country.

Second-hand clothing traders at the Biafra Market. Photograph by Olumide Abimbola

Second-hand clothing traders at the Biafra Market. Photograph by Olumide Abimbola

They moved to Benin and joined the other Igbo second-hand clothing traders who were already there. Those who moved to Cotonou were alloted an area of the capital to sell their wares that came to be known as the Biafra Market. The country also served as a base for them to expand supplies northwards to Niger and Burkina Faso. During that period, they also started getting some Beninese Yoruba to help them take the goods into the southwest of Nigeria.

When the war ended, many of the traders’ relatives came to join them and got involved in the business. By the time the ban was instituted, the commercial activities of Igbo traders in Nigeria were already crippled, and there was a thriving community of second-hand clothing traders in Benin. The traders just needed to find a way of transporting their goods to Nigeria to sell.

One of those who went to Cotonou in the early 1970s recalls that he and other traders used to take their goods across the Atlantic Ocean to Igbokoda, from where they would be transported by road to Lagos. Or, even further still into the Atlantic Ocean, to the creeks in the Niger Delta region, from where they would go to Sapele, Warri, and further inland to the southeastern part of the country. This continued until the traders who are based in Nigeria started coming to Cotonou to procure goods and found ways of taking them into Nigeria. My friend, the trader who had told me about the dispute settlement mechanism of the second-hand clothing traders, was dragged there by one of those who came to buy goods in Cotonou.

I had contacted the chair of the committee a week before I arrived in Cotonou. As a rule, only those whose cases are being heard, and their witnesses, are allowed into the sessions. I asked that my friend, who was yet to pay the money he owed his customer, and whose goods were still in danger of being sold, be allowed in with me so that he could help me understand what was going on.

The secretary of the committee gave the details of the case: Okiro, a second-hand clothing trader who lives in Lagos, came to Cotonou to buy goods on 15 January. After paying for the goods, he took them to Slok Line, the area of the market where vehicles that take the goods to Seme border are parked. He handed the goods – eight bales of men’s mixed shirts, two bales of ladies’ cotton blouses and one of brassieres – over to Lawrence, the defendant.

There is a division of labour in the transportation of the goods from the market to Lagos. Those who transport the goods from the market are normally Beninese Yoruba. Their job is to get the goods from the market to the border. Most of them transport the goods in Peugeot station wagons, whose shock absorbers have been enhanced to such a point that they can take the weight of several bales of second-hand clothing combined with a number of passengers.

Lawrence is Igbo and his main responsibility is to take the goods from the buyer, arrange transportation to the border and oversee the transportation of the goods into Nigeria.

In this case, Okiro watched as his goods were marked with his name and loaded onto the station wagon. Because the car was not ready to leave for the border, he got into another car and left. At the border, he crossed back to Nigeria as he normally does – through the back route on a motorbike. Like most people who cross the border daily, his trip into Benin and back to Nigeria was not recorded. His goods were scheduled to arrive in Lagos a couple of days later. But a week later he got a call from Lawrence, who said they had to meet and talk, and asked whether he could come to Lagos. Okiro knew that something was wrong so he asked Lawrence to tell him what it was. Lawrence replied that it was better to talk about it in person.

When they met, Lawrence told him that on the night of 10 February, his vehicle was stopped by Nigerian customs officials, and all the goods were seized. Lawrence assured Okiro that the goods were still at the Seme border post, and if they worked fast they could pay a customs official to make sure that the consignment was not taken to Ikeja, the office of the Federal Operations Unit of the Nigeria Customs Service, Zone ‘A’. Once it got to Ikeja, it would be impossible to get the goods released.

Okiro was furious. How could a well-known “crosser” like Lawrence, who had been working the border for years, get caught by customs? Did he not pay the border officials as is the routine? He called other traders who had given their goods to Lawrence on the same day. They confirmed that Lawrence had reported the same story and that they were considering putting some money together for the customs officers. But before they could do so, they heard that the goods had been taken to Ikeja. Everybody knows that anything that gets to Ikeja, even cars, should be forgotten.

Second-hand clothing stockpiles at the Biafra Market. Photograph by Olumide Abimbola

Second-hand clothing stockpiles at the Biafra Market. Photograph by Olumide Abimbola

The other traders, who did not give as many bales as Okiro gave to Lawrence, decided to forget about it. Later, one told me that it was simply a case of bad luck, that this was the first time it had happened to her and that everyone knows the risk. All you can do is hope that it does not happen when you have a lot of goods. It could wipe you out if all the money you have is tied up in the goods that are seized. She told me that she understood why Okiro took the case to the committee; she would have done the same if she had lost that much.

Back at the hearing, Lawrence was called to explain what happened. He confirmed what Okiro said, and explained that it was not the border officials who had seized the goods, but rather members of a customs task force sent from headquarters in Abuja. He had not spoken to the officers at the border because he had “booked” his passage in advance and was unaware that the task force would be present on the day he planned to move the goods. It was just simple bad luck. To compound the problem, although his contact in Customs told him that he could pay to get the goods released, they were unfortunately taken by the task force to Ikeja soon after they were seized. He repeated that it was all bad luck.

After hearing both sides of the story, the members of the committee told us to leave the room while they deliberated. Outside, I looked at the two men. Okiro looked more sad than angry and Lawrence looked agitated. I felt the full import of the situation. Here were two parties who had no other way to settle a dispute than to bring it to this particular ‘court’.

Legal anthropologists refer to this kind of situation as legal pluralism, a situation in which multiple legal regimes co-exist, even if they do not recognise each other. The state often assumes that it is the only arbiter, as if all legal disputes can only be settled by its judiciary. In Okiro and Lawrence’s case, this is clearly not so. In addition to traditional rulers, who hear cases in their own courts, there are other legal regimes. Associations make their own rules and have mechanisms for settling disputes when they arise.

Here I was, witnessing how one such mechanism worked in practice: they have the authority to enforce their rulings; they may order goods to be seized until a person pays back what he owes, as in the case of my friend; and they can even make it difficult for a person to obtain credit in the market. Then it struck me: the reason this committee can enforce its rulings is because most of those who appear before it have fallen into a legal crack, a place in which there is no access to the legal apparatus of the state. Many of the traders are not legal residents of Benin and so have no recourse to justice through its formal legal channels. But in that crack, there are ways of making sure that disputes do not escalate.

When we were called back into the room, the chairman told us that although this case was easy, it was difficult to pronounce a simple settlement. It was not Lawrence’s fault that the goods were seized and it was difficult to tell him to pay for it. On the other hand, Okiro had lost a lot of money and it was equally difficult to tell him to forget about the loss. However, they had decided that they could not make Lawrence pay for what was not his fault. Lawrence looked relieved; Okiro looked pained.

On their way out, Lawrence spoke to Okiro, presumably to say again that he was sorry. But I imagine that he made it clear that the next 10 consignments that Okiro sent to Nigeria would cross for free.

That, at least to my mind, felt like what a settlement would be.


Olumide Abimbola’s report features in the Trade Routes section of Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).

Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.

Buy the Chronic

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