Gbagada is a sub-urban city, a gentle mix of residential and commercial buildings standing in close proximity to each other. In daylight, the bustling of “I pass my neighbour” generators mixed with the sounds of car engines and motorcycles fill the air, and at night, the noise is replaced with music emanating from highlife bars and makeshift joints, many of which sit on Church Street.
When Okechukwu opened a bar five years ago on Church Street – he was in luck. Set on a long stretching gutter overlooking a Redeemed Church, with tables set directly in front of the entrance, arranged from left to right – there was a crowd of customers on opening day that still continue to patronize the bar five years later. “When I opened this bar, it was like people were already waiting for me,” Okechukwu said as he made his way around the mostly empty bar, collecting money from a few customers while pretending to laugh at their jokes.
The eponymous bar manager is a dark skinned robust man in his 40s, with a thick Igbo accent and has had to adapt quickly to a customer base less eager to spend waning salaries on alcohol and isi ewu. But Okechukwu isn’t only skilled at pretending to laugh. He is also mightily skilled in handling his customers during trying times for Nigerians, in order to keep his business afloat. “It is not as good as last year, but it is still manageable, some people’s own are worse”, he said.
In light of the recession (Nigeria’s GDP fell by a record low -13.70 percent in just the first quarter of 2016) some small business owners have opted to run their businesses on credit in order to keep their customer base – but not all businesses.
Okechukwu has debtors, but not a lot. “I can’t sell on credit o that is one chance! Where do they want to see the money to pay me? People are saying no money, no money, you think it’s a joke? Isi ewu that I used to sell at least 50-80 plates a day now I sell just 20, if God decided to bless me. If I sold on credit this shop would have closed since,” he said.
“This bar used to be very full! Sometimes people even sit down on crates. But now everything is expensive. People complain that isi ewu have become more expensive, what will a man do? Na to drink for empty stomach. And even this drink I am drinking, Oke has increased the price. Things are hard,” one man said to me in his semi-comatose state. His name was Akin, and he had devoured 5 bottles of harp beer or even more. Akin was a banker, but lost his job and comes here to drink once in a while to get away from the loud voices in his head. In 2016, it seemed like banks were vying to see who could fire the most workers as over 3,500 bank workers were sacked within the first quarter of the year, and many more were left without a job as the recession cut deeper.
At Okechukwu’s Bar, I heard the phrase, “in this Buhari economy” more than a thousand times from zealous customers often followed by laughter. Okechukwu, who extended credit to customers during his early years as a bar manager, was forced to abandon the practice, as loyal customers became fond of owing him at times for over a month. “If you want your business to survive, you can’t let your customers have fun on credit,” Ogechi, a waiter at Okechukwu’s bar said.
However, just down the road at Evening Class, both the ambience and the cash flow tell a different story.
Darlington, a 35-year-old is the manager of Evening Class, located on the other side of Church Street. He believes that the spirit of drinking has attributed to the success of clubs and joints like his, “If people don’t drink for one day, it will look like they are forgetting something. It’s a spirit.” Evening Class opened last year when the stage of recession was just being set.
According to Darlington, Evening Class used to be the life of the party, but that day, it made Okechukwu’s bar look like it had won the lottery. The price of drinks and food had stayed the same, yet the number of nightlife tourists had dwindled.
“Before this year, we used to sell over 30 crates in one day, but now we barely sell 10… People that used to buy like 5 bottles of beer, now buy two or three…even if everything has increased, we have not increased our price in other to keep our customers,” Darlington said.
“People drink when they are happy, people drink even more when they are sad. That’s how life goes,” Dotun said. He was a frequenter at Okechukwu’s Bar before the inception of this year, but now, he rarely visits. Dotun a Bricklayer attributes this to low business patronage “Nobody is building houses again, everywhere is dry”.
But the bar was empty and his attempt to keep the bar running, made him incur a loss, as he adopted a “credit system” for payment. “Business has been bad! You are here, so you can see what I am saying! The turnout has been very discouraging. People will come here and drink but they won’t pay me. They will owe me for like two weeks saying no money no money. And I understand. There is no money.” He explained that he has lost a lot of money and retrenched seven workers. These seven workers that Darlington let go of were part of the 4.58 million Nigerians who became unemployed by the second quarter of this year.
Darlington is hardly the sole business owner in Nigeria having a bad year. The alcohol industry has also taken a hit. For example, Guinness recorded their first loss, 2 billion naira, in 30 years, and Nigerian Breweries recorded an 11 percent profit loss in the first quarter of the year. Both companies blame trading conditions in Nigeria, and low consumer sentiment for the decline in profit.
Okechukwu keeps his bar afloat by mandating customers to pay as they order drinks or Isi Ewu. But Darlington’s strategy is the far opposite. Despite the challenges, they both still manage to hold on to their optimism. When I asked them about what they thought next year was going to be like, they both gave me the same answer “it will be far better by God’s grace.”