Secondhand clothes are on the import prohibition list in Nigeria, but you wouldn't guess if you visit its flea markets, which are filled to the brim with a wide variety of secondhand clothing, popularly called "okrika."
Secondhand clothing materials are imported into Nigeria mostly through Cotonou, Republic of Benin, and originate mostly from Western countries. Traders have no difficulty bribing their way though the check points to ensure that Nigeria's flea markets get a constant supply. Sometimes when the goods are seized at the borders the importers have to redeem their consignments with well-placed bribes.
One of the most popular flea markets in southwest Nigeria is Katangua market at Super Bus Stop, Lagos/Abeokuta Expressway. The flea market Digital Journal reporter visited on Wednesday (April 5) is a small one at Gate, Ibadan. The market is one of several such small okrika markets in Ibadan.
Ever since the devaluation of the Nigerian currency, imported goods have become very expensive and Ben daun ("bend down") markets, as flea markets are also popularly known in Nigeria, have gone through a booming surge. Beside secondhand clothing and accessories and such as shirts,T-shirts, skirts and blouses, shoes, bags,curtains, bedspreads and even undergarments, almost all imported items Nigerians buy are okrika: cars, motorcycles, machinery and equipments, electronics, furniture, and GSM phones.
Most of the secondhand clothes brought into Nigeria originate mostly from the United States, United Kingdom and other European countries. Some come from relatively affluent Asian countries such as South Korea, Dubai, and China.
These secondhand shoes were likey imported from the U.S or Western Europe
Digital Journal reporter found that at the Gate flea market, secondhand clothes and fashion accessories are graded. Grade one are the best quality items while the lowest grade are the poorest quality clearance items sold at giveaway prices. Grade one shirts are sold at 500 naira ($3). A pair of "high grade" jeans sells at about 500 naira. Lower quality shirts and jeans may sell as cheap as 250 naira ($1.5).
At the so-called "boutiques" in Dugbe where supposedly brand new clothes with designer labels can be bought, shirts are sold at 2,000 ($12.5) to 5000 naira ($32) and a pair of jeans at 2000 ($12.5) to 3500 ($22) naira. Men's shoes at the Gate flea market are sold at between 200 ($1.3) to 1,000 naira ($6.30) depending on the quality, but at the Dugbe "boutiques" the prices range between 3000 ($19) to 15,000 naira($94).
Imported used clothes displayed at the Gate, Ibadan, flea market
The relatively cheap prices explain why flea markets are so popular in Nigeria. Most of the clothes are imported from affluent Western countries. Clothes categorized "grade one" are generally more durable being made from higher quality fabrics that do not fade quickly with washing. Many Nigerians, therefore, don't think it makes sense to buy clothes made from locally produced fabrics that are more expensive but fade quickly with washing, and they can't afford the high prices at the "boutiques" either.
You would think it is only low income Nigerians who patronize Nigeria's okrika markets, but after many years of playing "cool," middle income Nigerians and even relatively high income Nigerians now patronize the markets, though with circumspection to avoid being sighted by acquaintances. There is a saying among okrika clothes sellers:"Okrika no be poor man klot again." ("Okrika isn't only for the poor")
A crosssection of the crowd at the busy Gate market and bus terminus
Kemi (not her real name), an educated, middle income class Nigerian housewife thinks it simply makes no sense to buy "brand new" made-in-China pair of jeans at a "boutique" when you could get one of "superior" quality for half the price at a flea market. The consideration is primarily economic she says. "Boutique prices are very highly inflated," she argues."Confronted with the fact of a dwindling income you need to make rational choices," she adds with an almost pained expression.
One of the ironies of the okrika trade Kemi alludes to is the well known fact that the best quality secondhand clothes when carefully washed, ironed and perfumed find their way into "boutiques" where they are sold to unwary buyers at the price of "brand new" clothes.
Victoria, wife of a military officer at the Ojoo military cantonment, who imports secondhand clothes from Cotonou told Digital Journal reporter that the only gain for Nigerians who buy "brand new clothes" from boutiques is the satisfaction that comes from bragging "Ah no dey bai okrika." ("I don't buy okrika"). Victoria insists that most "boutiques" stock the best secondhand clothes from United States and Western European countries but palm them off to their customers as "brand new." Victoria insists that only the top boutiques in Ibadan and Lagos sell genuine "brand new" clothes. For those middle income class Nigerians who brag "Ah no dey bai okrika," Victoria answers with a sneer, "Na tolotolo iyanga." (i.e. empty pride)