The general collapse of education in Nigeria is hardly news. However, any attempt to address the issue is of interest to those trying to improve the hapless lot of Nigerian students. There was therefore a purr of approval on Twitter yesterday that this year’s Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) event would focus on “Transforming Education Through Partnerships For Global Competitiveness.” The NESG is Nigeria’s premier think tank on private sector development and is best known for its annual conference in Abuja, which brings industrialists and entrepreneurs together with government figures to discuss Nigerian private sector concerns. At last, people felt there might be a commercial solution to a sector in terminal decline.
It was ironic therefore that yesterday was the day it became widely known that the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has imposed a 62.5% tariff (a mix of levies, duties and VAT) on imported printed books, where previously there has been none. The tariff was approved in a ministry circular on the 28th February but applies from the 1st January 2014. Needless to say, Nigerian publishers had not been consulted. For six decades, Nigeria has kept to a UNESCO agreement (signed in 1950) “on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials” which in its first Article states that signatory countries will not impose customs duties or other charges on importing books, publications, educational, scientific and cultural materials.” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala therefore has the distinction of being the first Nigerian Finance Minister in over sixty years to break this convention.
An outsider’s devil’s-advocate response to the news might be, “well, this might contravene a UN agreement, but ultimately it’s good news that Nigeria protects a sector that it wants to develop. Nigeria should try to stimulate the production of its own books in country.”
The main problem with this view is that it confuses printing with publishing, a blurred perception common in Nigeria, perhaps due to the collapse of the publishing sector during 1980s structural adjustment. Publishing in Nigeria is nowadays often thought of as a guy with a press and little else besides. However, from a serious Nigerian publisher’s perspective, it’s just not possible to print books locally to a consistent level of quality and at a price that would make the books affordable to Nigerian readers. We experienced this problem directly when we printed locally 10,000 copies each of our first two books at the very beginning of Cassava Republic in 2006. The sample copies supplied by the printer bore no resemblance to the pallets of books eventually delivered. The books were so poorly put together, with thin sludge-grey paper that they were unsellable. We had to throw them away, with no hope of compensation. Our business was nearly killed off before it had begun.
The reality is, Nigerian publishers who wish to sell good quality books at an affordable price are forced to print overseas. There’s nothing particularly innovative or unusual in this: many Western publishers now print in Asia too. Cheap electricity and labour, access to international paper markets as well as technical know-how limit globally competitive print facilities to a small group of countries. Nigeria has no hope of competing with these countries any time soon. A wiser alternative policy decision would be to not even try. Nigerian paper mill and printing companies catering to local (non-book) printing needs can be supported through tax breaks and subsidies to nurture market development, without the need for protectionism. The lesson learnt from other sectors in Nigeria (such as textiles), is surely that tariffs and import bans stimulate piracy, rather than local market development. It is therefore also likely that book pirates may benefit from the punitive tariff. In other words, authors as well as Nigerian publishers will suffer.
The sad unintended-consequence of the UN-defying tariff is that Nigerian schoolchildren will no longer have any access to lovingly created and well-made books from around the world (or those published by Nigerian companies using international printers). Even those who wish to donate books to Nigeria will no longer be able to do so without additional (and prohibitive) costs. When Nigerian children do have access to books – which will be far from always – they will be in black and white, printed on shoddy paper and with a diluted glue binding, on a limited range of subjects. They will grow up not considering books as possessions to be treasured for life. The quality of the books will not be a subliminal inducement to learn to read and love reading, as elsewhere.
For policymakers focused on education, the new tariff is therefore a disaster. On their website, NESG explains the focus of this year’s gathering thus: “At present, our adult literacy rate of 61% as well as the low level of tertiary enrollment portends a threat to the ability of Nigeria to become the 20th largest economy in the world by 2020.”
Despite the good intentions behind the policy, the draconian imposition of a 62.5% tariff on imported books will only limit access to reading materials and can only lower the literacy rate in Nigeria.
The additional consequence of the Minister of Finance’s protectionist policy is that life as a small publisher in Nigeria will from now on be close to impossible. Being forced to use Nigerian printers means that we will not be able to maintain the quality and pricing points of our books. Nigerian readers of all ages will suffer. They will have access to a limited range of books at a higher price. Not for Nigerians anymore the literatures of elsewhere. Not for Nigerians anymore children’s picture books which will stimulate a love of learning. Protectionism for the printing industry will help close the lid on young Nigerian minds. It will effectively kill-off any hope of local knowledge production in Nigeria from now on.
The reaction on the twittersphere was general dismay – as if Nigeria doesn’t have enough bad news just now. Teju Cole’s response to the announcement was simply, “It’s insane.” Ebi Atawodi, organizer of Africa’s first literary prize for debut fiction, commented that, “this duty may unfortunately do the same to the publishing industry as loading an already struggling mule with more luggage would. It will only make the journey we have embarked upon longer.” But let’s leave the last word to our fellow Nigerian publisher. Eghosa Imasuen, Chief Operating Officer of Kachifo, expresses well the effect the Finance Minister’s decision will have on the Nigerian publishing industry:
So now, the company I run, with a shipment in port, and several more coming in, has just incurred a 300% increase in clearing costs. This will translate to a doubling of the price of these books in the market. The printers in Nigeria cannot match the efficiency or quality or cost of the printers in India, Turkey, Dubai and China. Even European publishers print in these countries. In a situation where you cannot impose a levy on its competitors, then you award subsidies and grants to local printers, you remove all duties on paper, on printing material, you pull in technical know-how. And you wait, and hope that the industry picks up.
What you do not do is – in a single line of bureaucratese – throw out sixty years of precedence by instituting a 62.5% tariff on books. It is mind-bogglingly inconceivable that anyone would do that. You do not kill your publishing industry to save your printing industry.