Imported with EU standards but rejected overseas: West Africa’s problems with foreign used cars and spare parts
By Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi
The bulk of used cars and spare parts imported into Africa from Europe are obsolete and release emissions that are below standards. As a result, the cars pollute the air, and when the spare parts are left outside and exposed to environmental conditions, they harm the ozone layer and pollute the ecosystem. Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi investigates how imported used cars and spare parts from Europe are contributing to pollution and having an effect on Nigerian auto parts vendors.
For nearly 18 years, Onyeka Abro has been a vendor at the Ladipo automobile spare parts market in Lagos, Nigeria, selling cars underneath. According to him, his goods are imported from several European countries like Sweden, Germany, Italy, and Spain. But on numerous occasions, despite assurance from the exporters in Europe, the imported goods come in poor shape, beyond usage, and he ends up discarding them (underneath) in a dumpsite close to his shop.
Abro said: “After we choose the imported car spare parts, we transport the rest to the dump site where some scraps purchasers (scavengers) would come and select the ones that they can sell.
“Due to the fact that these are used parts, it occurs frequently. When we acquire it, you will discover that they (spare parts) are not good, even though we may initially think it is alright,” he continued.
The issue of Justice Uche Ogbonnaya, leader of the Ladipo automobile spare parts dealers association is no different from Abro.
He specialises in used truck axles and has been selling engine axles for more than 27 years. His spare parts are imported from Italy, Spain, and sometimes in Belgium, Portugal and Italy.
According to him, when money is sent to his customers in these countries, the axles imported turn out to be in bad condition.
Ogbonnaya said: “You know all these things are fairly used and sometimes unknowingly they put it in the vehicle, and when customers come to complain, we have to change the goods.’’
Ladipo automobile spare parts market is one of the biggest markets where used vehicles spare parts are sold.
The market has different sessions where different car spare parts are sold, and there are various mechanic shops in several sessions of the market where imported Tokunbo spare parts are repaired when dealers have noticed the goods are in bad condition and cannot be used– a noisy market, with vendors calling for buyers and one would hear the noise from the repairs of a spare part.
When asked what he does with the imported axles once he realises they are not functional, he points to an open dumpsite filled with abandoned car spare parts and said: “This place you are seeing is scraps, and the man (scavenger) will buy them.”
The majority of auto parts imported into Nigeria are not entirely made of metal, but when they are exposed to environmental conditions such as the rain and sun, they can have an adverse effect on the ozone layer and degrade the quality of the parts, causing them to lose strength and harm the environment, according to Engr. Nicholas Iwuagwu, Lagos State Coordinator of the Institute of Safety Professionals of Nigeria, an organisation recognised by the Nigerian law to regulate the practice of safety professionals.
Iwuagwu said: “Those parts made of fibre can start disintegrating and if they start to disintegrate, the fibre can be airborne when blown by a small wind and it circulates and once it’s airborne, it means anybody can take it through inhalation.
“When it touches our skins, it can lead to infection, it can affect our lungs and affect the cells in the walls of the lungs and such fibre can cause the cell around the membrane to start eroding and when it starts forming fibre instead of being slimy, it starts the formation of cancer.
According to him, such environmental pollution from the abandoned car spare parts including the body and doors of a car can also disintegrate when exposed to environmental conditions and can wash off into the river and cause pollution.
“Even the paints used on the car and its parts can disintegrate and fade off because of the photocatalyst and when the paints are washed off into a nearby gutter, it gets into the river, pollutes the river, and can be swollen by the fishes.
“If you put your hook and catch the fish feeding on these things, it goes back to the human body and circulates.
“When you eat a fish that eats a poison, it will come back to us,” Iwuagwu, stresses.
Research has shown that informal disposal of metals from used cars and informal automobile mechanic workshops is a major public health concern that has polluted groundwater near the mechanic workshop of between 0 to 50 metres away.
Felix Chukwuwike, a Tokunbo spare parts merchant in Ladipo market, sent money to Europe to buy Toyota engines, but instead received engines that were damaged, costing him hundreds of dollars.
Chukwuwike said: “You can only complain.’’ He has been importing used Toyota engines for more than 25 years now.
“Sometimes when we confirm from the warehouse that the engine is good, and you sell it to a customer, they will return it (engine) because it is not good.’’
He said his engines are purchased from junkyards in nations like Denmark, Belgium, and occasionally Canada, Dubai, and the United States.
According to him, when it is confirmed and reported to the exporters that the goods are defective and unusable, “they never get replaced.”
The burden falls equally on the buyer and Chukwuwike; in certain cases, he provides the customer a portion of the money for the products while keeping the remainder to make up for his loss.
When asked the exact companies where these engines are bought, Chukwuwike said: “When you go abroad, you know they have dumps, and some of the vehicles are owned by the government or individuals. But we choose where to buy, where we know they can give you what you want. That’s how the business goes.”
He said: “You know we have to go to places that are easier for us to get it.”
When asked about how he buys his engines, he refused to disclose the method, saying it is “secret but if anyone wants to do the business, then, we can sit down and discuss, ” he added.
According to Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), the majority of subpar and counterfeit spare parts enter the country illegally, making it challenging for the agency to carry out its duty to assess the quality of spare parts being supplied to Nigerians.
The difficulty has been the agency’s absence from the Nigerian ports for more than ten years, according to the agency’s head of media, Mariam Samson.
Samson said: “For over 11 years, SON has been out of the Nigerian ports but only got approval in August.
“We can not go and chase people with substandard goods on the road to avoid any issues like accidents, however, our issue has been the porous body because most of these goods don’t come directly into the border.
“Anybody bringing substandard produce into the country has criminal intent and they won’t want to come to the areas where SON operates,’’ she said, adding that the agency issue also includes finance to carry out its activities.
Samson also advised Nigerians to stay away from substandard car parts since burning things like tyres would have an adverse effect on the environment and climate, cause traffic accidents, and cost the agency money.
Azubuike Woke, an auto-mechanic, said that defective engines in cars can release fumes that would contaminate the environment after being repaired.
He emphasises that defective engines will use too much fuel, quickly deplete the car’s oil, and also slow the car’s movement.
Woke said: “When an engine is bad, it brings out light blue smoke and sometimes black smoke (fume) that pollutes the environment,’ and such cars he said “will not be allowed to drive in Europe and America. He noted that not all imported spare parts are in bad condition, “some are accident cars that are dismantled to have the spare parts.”
Europe exporting outdated and below standard cars
One of the largest industries in Europe is that of old automobiles and parts. According to information from the Dutch Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT), “nearly a million light-duty automobiles are exported from Europe to Africa each year.” Nigeria was the top-importing African nation of used cars in 2018, bringing in roughly 239 thousand vehicles from other countries. Every year, Ghana imports over 100,000 vehicles, the majority of which are old cars. According to NBS, Nigeria has imported old cars and motorcycles worth a total of N2 trillion in a single year between 2018 and 2020.
According to the Netherlands ILT, the majority of Tokunbo cars and spare parts imported into Nigeria come from European nations like Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany and are typically outdated and emit below-standard emissions.
The impact of importing vehicles with below-standard emissions is primarily felt by African citizens who breathe in the exhaust fumes that are released from the vehicle.
These imported spare components are removed from vehicles that are nearing the end of their useful lives.
When driving a ticking time bomb, Robert Dumeyo, a mechanic in the Accra neighbourhood of Lapaz, nearly died from smoke inhalation.
He had just fixed a broken exhaust pipe on a client’s Hyundai Sonata. He had no idea that the replaced component had a flaw of its own, and during the test drive, the car caught fire.
Dumeyo said: “I was driving a ticking time bomb. My lungs were engulfed in smoke, and I struggled to breathe. I realised there was trouble when I tried to escape but my seat belt got jammed. I could feel the fire under my feet,” Robert recalled with some hint of trepidation.”
Robert now blames “unscrupulous spare part dealers” at Abossey Okai, Accra’s biggest Hub of spare parts importers, where he bought the replacement part for his misfortune.
According to the World Bank, air pollution has resulted in more than 11,200 premature deaths in 2018 in Lagos, the commercial city of Nigeria. Air pollution is already the second leading cause of death in Africa, after HIV/AIDS.
According to Iwuagwu, imported poor quality auto parts can result in automobile brake failure, steering failure, and other problems while driving, which can result in the death of the driver, commuters, bystanders, and even the damage of roadside structures. He noted that while the majority of the cars shipped from Europe to Nigeria had been written off the European market, “it is not the responsibility of Europeans to advise Nigerians not to buy it.”
Engr. Iwuaga said: ” Rather it is left for the Nigerian government to have the will power to enforce the law as regards this issue because Nigeria has a good law,” he added.
“There is always an expiration date for everything, when we have cars that are expired, they should be discarded,” he recommended.
According to the World Health Organization, unsafe automobiles are one of the leading causes of auto injuries, and the risk of road mortality is three times higher in low-income nations than in high-income countries.
In fact, one of the leading causes of death in both Nigeria and elsewhere is motor vehicle accidents. Despite having only two percent of the world’s total car fleet, Veronica Ruiz Stannah, a transportation expert at UNEP, emphasised that Africa accounts for more than 60% of all road fatalities worldwide. Technical flaws in old automobiles, such as brake failures, airbag failures, and inadequate headlights, significantly contribute to both the frequency and severity of traffic accidents in Africa, along with other important factors including the poor quality of the roads and adverse weather conditions.
The majority of traffic accidents are attributed to the use of fraudulent or expired tyres, considering in Nigeria, every state has one or two terrible roads. Although it is illegal to import used rethreaded and pneumatic tyres into Nigeria, there are always a number of stores selling them nearby. The Kano State Consumer Protection Council seized hundreds of fake tyres that were being sold—according to the BBC, the tyres easily blew up. Three trucks of subpar tyres were seized by the Standards Organization of Nigeria in Apo, Lagos state, at the beginning of February 2022.
Regulations and policies in Africa and Europe
As refineries update their facilities to generate low-sulfur fuels by 2020, Nigeria decided in 2016 to import low-sulfur fuels (at 50 parts per million) starting in mid-2017. To encourage its members to import cleaner, more efficient automobiles and work toward harmonised fuel and vehicle emission standards by 2020, ECOWAS countries met in Abidjan in 2018.
Ruiz Stannah, UNEP transportation expert said the implementation of these measures has already guaranteed a minimal level of operational safety, which significantly improves road safety and results in a 30% decrease in mortality and morbidity. Due to the 40–90% reduction in roadside emissions, it also has an impact on the environment.
Ruiz Stannah emphasised: ‘The African vehicle fleet is set to grow four to five times by 2050 and 80-90% of this growth will come from import of used vehicles; the global vehicle fleet is responsible for about one quarter of energy related global green-house gas emissions. This is set to increase to one-third by 2050.’
The Nigeria custom on its website and also in 2022 reiterated the Prohibition of importation of vehicles above twelve years from the year of manufacture. The country also banned the importation of foreign used cars into the country.
In 2021, the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) of the Netherlands proposal to the European Commission on the revision of EU regulation on End-of-Life Vehicle Directive concluded that “environmental and health problems will arise in case third countries lack a proper system for handling vehicles that reach their end-of-life situation and becomes waste.”
The Vehicles Directive established EURO 4 as the minimum vehicle emission standards for new and used cars, while restricting the age of imported used vehicles to five-years maximum for light duty vehicles and to ten years for heavy duty vehicles. This rendered over 80% of the vehicles exported from the Netherlands to West African countries unacceptable, as they were old and below the Euro 4 emission standard and do not have a valid periodic roadworthiness certificate.
ILT study in 2020 on the European export of used vehicles to West Africa revealed that 80 percent of 280,000 vehicles exported to West Africa from the Netherlands were “old and below the Euro 4/IV emission standard,” and often lacked requisite “roadworthiness certification.” The study also noted that the trend was not entirely different among other European markets such as Germany, Belgium and France, Netherlands, and Italy.
Marietta Harjono, ILT coordinating specialist said the Dutch government took a clear position on the export of used vehicles, stating that Europe needs to ‘take more responsibility for the quality of used vehicles being exported.”
Harjono said: “At the harbours, inspectors can stop the worst vehicles, when they are waste or hazardous waste, after conducting checks with customs officials,” explaining that, while a lot of the used cars may not be categorised as waste, they might still not be appropriate for export.
The European Green Deal is an ambitious set of policy initiatives that aims to ensure no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 and decouple economic growth from resource use in order to address the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, which pollution from car exhaust fumes was a contributing factor to. The European Green Deal was approved by the EU Commission. The objective is to make the EU the first continent to achieve carbon neutrality by transforming it into a “modern, resource-efficient, and competitive economy.” In achieving this goal, a crucial element is ensuring that all new cars and vans registered in Europe will be zero-emissions by 2035. An intermediary step towards zero emissions is requiring the average emissions of new cars to come down by 55% by 2030.
Harjono said: “With the European Green Deal, there is a realisation that if you only ban fossil vehicles in Europe, but they continue to drive for another 20-30 years in
another part of the year, for climate benefits, you don’t win so much.” She concluded that the perspective on this issue and the solutions must be multilateral in order to be effective.
Harjono revealed that the Dutch government has asked the Commission to create a EU regulation on ELVs that all Member States would have to abide by and to come up with very clear and objective criteria where to put the cut and define what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of exports.
The Netherlands requested the Commission to only allow the export of vehicles, which have a reasoned roadworthiness certificate and have a minimum Euro 4, meaning produce CO emissions of no more than 1.0g/km.
More issues for Nigerian car spare parts vendors
Nigeria does not forbid the importation of international used car engines, but according to some Tokunbo spare parts sellers, the cost of clearance in the nation puts most car dealers at a loss in addition to some of the faulty items brought into the nation.
“Things we buy for one hundred thousand ($200), we now buy for $900,” he added.
“Before now, the prices of engines were inexpensive, one can boast of the business and with the little amount you have, you can buy more.”
Most merchants of used vehicle components raise their costs as a result of the high cost of dollars, making it difficult for most buyers to purchase these things.
“When you tell clients how much the engine costs, the price will increase when they return the following time. Will you expect them to repay the money without paying interest if they occasionally borrow it? Chukwuwike, who also serves as the association’s vice-chairman for the Ladipo spare parts market, asked.
“The cost of buying these goods abroad is not expensive, but the cost of clearing here in Nigeria has been an issue for us,” said Ogbonnaya.
“Just to transport the goods here from Apapa, a container driver will charge you N800,000 ($1,000), and it is expensive
” This issue is a problem and it is affecting our customers here too. “We(Nigerians) need good leaders,” he exclaimed.
“Second hand spare parts are 50-50,” said a mechanic who preferred not to be on camera, while working on a spoilt engine at the Ladipo market.
He noted that some of the used spare parts are dismantled from cars that had accidents abroad before importing them into the country.
“Such parts work better than the vehicle that the parts were removed and imported.”
He said on a regular basis, he works on foreign used engines that have been imported, and some faults have been detected.
“Such problems delay our work,’ he added, noting that some of the importers in Nigeria usually bring engines to him for repair, and they will export to some African countries like Cameroon and Angola
All importers in Nigeria are to pay one per cent administrative fees for goods imported into the country in addition to a 15 per cent ad-on levy fee on imported vehicles.
Additional reporting by Gideon Sarpong and Raluca Besiliu.
This report is supported by Journalismfund.eu.
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