During a week in Maiduguri, the city at the centre of the conflict, and beyond, I met those who had fled violence and death. In UN camps and on the steps of an abandoned emir’s palace near the Cameroonian border, every Nigerian spoke of lack: monthly food aid that ran out after 20 days, family farms controlled by militants, and household resources stretched thin with the addition of family who arrived from the lawless hinterlands.
But the Today’s Super Store that Mohammed Suraj manages is positively bursting. He walks me through the shop, the kind of cramped, nondescript store familiar to anyone who has ever been on a commercial drag in a developing country — thousands of items spilling over and on to each other, more in the back, on top, underneath, all over.
In the past few years, Mr Suraj says, his business has grown at least fivefold as a steady stream of expatriates working for international non-governmental organisations flow through the city. It has completely transformed an enterprise his boss started with N35,000 ($96) in 2010, at the height of the insurgency. He now tailors his goods completely to the tastes of expats.
“You see this? We don’t eat this,” he says, pointing to a tin of John West kipper fillets. “This isn’t our food,” he adds, holding up a bar of President brand French butter. “They’ll pay N1,500 for one of these!
“This, a man from an NGO he told me to get it for him, Barilla pasta — they pay N1,200 for this,” he says, incredulous. “This, Pringles — they love this a lot.”
Horseradish sauce, shortbread butter cookies, Alpen muesli, chilli salsa tortillas — six for N1,700 — chia seeds: “What is this? We don’t eat this.” An entire refrigerator case of imported chocolate bars. Two more for yoghurt and milk. Not only the workers but the organisations are customers, which must buy from local merchants to provide for the 2m people displaced by the crisis. They place large orders previously unheard of in Maiduguri.
“Before, you might sell 20,000 bars of soap in a year,” Mr Suraj says. “Now one organisation will come and buy 200,000 items at one time . . . The business is completely beyond your imagination now.”
The presence of NGOs is double edged. Photographer Mohammed Bukar tells me how difficult it is to find a decent flat in the nicer parts of town — they have been taken by NGOs paying exorbitant rents, driving up living costs. At the same time, he knows of people who have let their homes and made enough to build new ones. One NGO worker tells me Today’s is where most of the about 1,000 expats in town shop.
The surge of NGOs into Maiduguri is barely two years old. Natural disasters tend to have an end date. “But the response to conflicts goes on and on and on, and I don’t see this one being any different,” the aid worker says. “I think we’ll be here for another five years at least, especially . . . with security getting worse.”
Back at Today’s, Mr Suraj gives me a sly look: “Do you want to see our new store?” When it opens early next year, the new Today’s Super Store supermarket will be the first of its kind in Maiduguri. Inside, he raises his hands, beaming, showing off 450 square metres of gleaming white retail space. The check-in lanes — complete with scanners and conveyor belts — are imported from Dubai. So were the bug zappers. The new store has two large diesel generators and two extra emergency exits — purpose-built at the request of his expatriate clientele, whose security teams require such measures.
I note that he’s making a pretty big bet on the fact that the NGOs will be sticking around. He says he doesn’t know when the insurgency will end but he sees a market beyond foreign workers.
“We are businessmen — this is what we do. You have to risk it if you will make anything,” he says. But “even without the expatriates, we are planning for the future . . . people in the town will come and they can afford it — we are going to look at the local market, products that Nigerians buy, we’ll put a lower mark-up on it. It will satisfy our needs and it will make them want to shop.”
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