In Nigeria’s crowded economic Capital, Lagos, a young man dorns a red t-shirt that screams, “Here comes trouble”.
A teenage girl wears another with the inscription “I taught your boyfriend that thing you like”.
It’s a scene that repeats itself in towns and villages across Nigeria thanks to donated clothing from the West that is sold by the charitable entities that receive it to exporters, pressed into bales and shipped to Africa’s most populous nation.
The rich world’s hand-me-downs offer many Nigerians the chance to dress smartly in designer wear while not paying a lot for them. Yet by law, the sale and importation of second-hand clothing is banned in Nigeria.
The government believes they are a threat to locally manufactured textiles. At the sprawling Gatankoa market in Lagos, stalls are filled to the brim with a wide variety of the prohibited commodities.
The clothing is so popular that thousands of small-time traders bribe border officials to bring in their own bales through neighbouring countries. Traders open the bales of garments each morning, grade them into three categories, and ship the lowest-quality items to impoverished villages in the countryside.
On a good day, retailers move enough clothing to fill five 40-foot shipping containers. The routes they use to bring in the banned goods to Nigeria remain a closely guarded secret for the traders.
“I cant tell you how they bring it because I don’t know how they bring it,” Alhaji Idrissu, the Chairman of the Gatonkoa Market traders union loudly declared.
With a little more digging though we found out some more details. We were told the clothes are imported into Nigeria mostly through neighbouring Benin and Togo.
Traders have little difficulty bribing their way through the borders and checkpoints to ensure Nigeria’s flea markets get constant supplies. On one of the markets narrow lanes, loaders unloaded a truck that just brought in a fresh supply of clothes from across the border.
On seeing our camera, traders and porters quickly closed its doors and urged us to leave. Trade in second-hand clothes not only benefits hundreds of thousands of Nigerian traders but also governments across the border.
“If you close the Nigerian border today, within two to three weeks Benin Republic’s economy will be shaken. Because the revenue they get from these goods that Nigerians import through it goes along way in helping that country,” trader Sunny Nwajiofor told us.
Gatonkoa market provides a wider selection, quality, and style of clothes. Everyone is assured of getting something that they will like.
Traders say even Nigeria’s celebrities flock to Gatonkua in search of bargains and unique pieces they find stylish.
“These Nollywood actors and actresses, those things you see them them wearing, they buy them here. I can tell you that authoritatively,” Nwajiofor quipped.
The trade in second hand clothes provides thousands of jobs at the Gatonkoa – from tailors who repair any torn garments clothes to those who wash and iron them to make them more presentable and appealing.
And nothing goes to waste. Any rejected pieces of cloth in Gatonkoa are quickly turned into children’s wear by the enterprising tailors.
In the long run most people benefit from the trade in second-hand clothes – the bulk of which were originally donated to be worn by the poor.
The main losers are those for whom the clothes were originally intended who never receive them and the authorities who lose lots of revenue from the booming trade taking place right under their noses.