Owerri, the Imo State capital, is unique among southern Nigerian cities with a significant population of northern Nigerian migrants. In the other cities, ‘Hausas’ (to most Igbos, any person from northern Nigeria is a Hausa) generally congregate around sections of town designated for life-stock (cattle, rams, and goats) and abattoirs; and also around markets for staple foods like yams and onions, or mosques.
The ‘Hausa’ residents of Owerri are different. They congregate mostly at ‘Ama Hausa’ (abode or avenue of the Hausa, in Igbo language). Sandwiched between Nekede and Douglas Road junction, and a township primary school, and situated on no more than three plots of land, Ama Hausa Owerri has, over the past three decades, been transformed into a virtual ‘World Bank’ dominated by northern Nigerians; 90-95 per cent of whom are from Sokoto State. Every major convertible currency is traded openly by more than three hundred hustlers of all sorts.
This riotous foreign exchange market also boasts other more notoriously chaotic scenes—from the ubiquitous unsightly tricycles (‘Keke’), to smoke-filled ‘suya’ spots and vendors of all manner of foods (kola nuts, yams), cheap cell phone accessories, bootlegged watches, cigarettes, and home brewed drinks (‘fura de nunu’ and kunu). The vehicular traffic jam, and the Muslim faithful praying amidst the brackish water, as well as fumes from loud generators in an open space large enough for a modern living room, all make Ama Hausa Owerri a sea of humanity to behold.
The first thought that crosses your mind as you come into Ama Hausa is why government would ignore clear violations of its foreign currency and money-laundering laws, building and zoning codes, let alone the much-trumpeted ‘Imo Clean & Green’ slogan of the Imo State Government. The N5,000,000 limit on cash transactions per our anti-money laundering laws does not apply here; neither could the operators be bothered by CBN’s ‘know thy customer’ injunctions. In fact, all the naira and some foreign currencies sold here are delivered straight from the banks across the street, often with freshly stamped labels. Consequently, analytical labels like ‘informal’, ‘black market’ or ‘underground’ clearly misrepresent what goes on here. After all, a special Mobile Police squad is stationed here permanently, in addition to several plainclothes detectives providing cover for the operators.
The traders divide along ‘Hausa’ and Igbo ethnicities, with the ‘Hausa’ clearly dominant under the aegis of the Al-Amanat Association of Nigeria Limited Bureau de Change. Founded about 20 years ago, Al-Amanat is a nation-wide organization that controls the non-bank foreign currency market in Nigeria and much of the eastern zone of West Africa. Its Owerri branch boasts about 226 members. New members who must be introduced by a guarantor and member of Al-Amanat, are required to pay a N50,000 registration fee; face a rigorous interview and screening panel, and issued with an identity card, upon unanimous approval. They must also undergo a period of tutelage before they are allowed to commence trading as an apprentice to a ‘brother’ or patron (‘oga’). The selection process is so tightly controlled along ethno-religious and familial lines that Al-Amanat must be one of the most inwardly segregationist organisations in the country.
Their Igbo counterpart is the Igwebuike Traders Association, founded about 13 years ago and registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission, instead of the CBN. It has about 50 registered members, each of whom employs up to two male helpers/apprentices and up to two salesgirls. The association boasts members from various parts of Igboland, unlike the largely Sokoto origin of the ‘Hausas’. Like Al-Amanat, prospective Igwebuike members must undergo rigorous screening and background checks, and must be sponsored by current members. Though very costly, formal sector financial institutions could benefit from some of the personnel risk management strategies found in Ama Hausa Owerri.
Trading on the World Bank of Owerri is a clientelist operation undergirded by trust and social capital. Few traders start out with any cash; instead, trades are negotiated by apprentices and hustlers who then approach ‘the Dealers’ in the inner chambers of the market to advance them the cash to settle their customers at an agreed price. The Igbos call it ‘oso ahia’. Economists would indeed be amazed at the shrewdness of these traders who make anywhere from N0.20 to N0.50, but rarely N1.00, per trade. Like any informal sector ‘hustling,’ traders could go for days without ‘market’ or take home as little as N1; but with ‘God on their side’, savvy operators could earn as high N5,000 per day. Success depends on the volume of trades, rather than on unit gains. At the close of business, returns are made to the Dealers who then sell the hard currencies to mostly Igbo traders and importers at Aba, Onitsha, and Lagos.
Subsequent column will explore the political, social, and economic implications of the World Bank of Owerri vis-a-vis CBN’s much vaunted financial sector reforms.