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LAGOS, Nigeria — “How China Is Taking Over Nigeria” is a typical headline in the national press these days, and it is hard not to feel that this is so, at least here in Lagos. The most visible sign is Chinatown, with its red, castle-like wall surrounding a huge complex in the Ojota district. The main entrance is marked with the inscription, “Long Live Nigeria-China Friendship.”|
I first visited the place shortly after it opened in 2004, which might be taken as the year China began to register its presence here in a big way.
More than 17,000 Chinese are said to be legally resident in Lagos and neighboring Ogun State, but the true figure is certainly much higher. The head of the Immigration Service, David Paradang, gave those official figures last year, but he noted that many Chinese people come into Nigeria on “visiting, tourist or business visas” and remain illegally.
What he didn’t say was that many of them bribe the immigration officials to stay on — as I saw for myself when I visited an Immigration Service office. The Chinese man who was trying to extend his stay spoke very little English but was evidently used to the system. All that needed to be discussed was the official’s price, and you don’t need too many words for that.
Curiously enough, Chinatown seems more subdued today than when I first visited. Back then, it bustled with activity as people filled shops selling clothes and shoes of all descriptions, cosmetics and kitchen utensils — all of it cheap. There were a number of Chinese restaurants, too. Although some Nigerians worked in the shops, most of the staff appeared to be Chinese.
Now, on another visit a decade later, all the restaurants were closed and more than half the shops unoccupied. Those that were open had few shoppers. But this was deceptive. The truth is that the Chinese are moving on to bigger things.
“You see few people here, but the money we make is big,” said a shop assistant. “We merely display the clothes here while we make money from wholesale traders. They come from as far as the north to place orders here.” She reckoned that her shop alone took in more than $1,500 a day.
China’s growing economic presence is evident in Computer Village in the nearby Ikeja area, a warren of streets with three- and four-story buildings, all occupied. More people — almost all Nigerians — sell Chinese goods on the sidewalks or walk about hawking their wares. The fastest-moving items are mobile handsets. According to one Nigerian retailer, they’re cheap but don’t last long. He told me that his supply depends upon a “big boy” — a middleman who has made enough money to be able to go abroad, buy wholesale and offload the goods back home.
The street merchant said that he hopes to travel to China himself when he has saved enough. There are now daily flights between the two countries, and the Chinese Embassy doesn’t give people a hard time over visas. The street merchant said he was also taking the opportunity to learn Mandarin at the Confucius Institute at the University of Lagos, which opened in 2009. More recently, the Lagos state government announced a pilot program to teach Mandarin in selected schools.
The strengthening ties between China and Nigeria are mutually beneficial for several reasons. Apart from a ready market for their goods in a country of 177 million people, the Chinese have a pressing need for Nigerian oil. In January, the Nigerian government announced that a Chinese firm had agreed to invest $10 billion to explore for oil and gas in the Bida basin in Niger State. This is a welcome development, given the reluctance of Western companies to do business in a country plagued by corruption and security threats.
Despite all this, the Chinese themselves remain unpopular. This is partly because they don’t mix with Nigerians, and are widely perceived as too mercenary. This image was reinforced several years ago when it was revealed that China was the source of many of the counterfeit drugs entering the country. The director of the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control at the time, Prof. Dora Akunyili, expressed frustration with the Chinese authorities over their lack of cooperation.
Chinese employers here also have a bad reputation for the way they treat workers. The haunting memory of a fire in a rubber-products factory in 2002 that killed anywhere between 45 and 250 people or more (accurate figures are a rarity in Nigeria) still strikes a nerve. Survivors said that many of the workers had been locked inside overnight — apparently a regular practice. They painted a grim picture of violence and sexual exploitation in the factory, problems that have been echoed elsewhere.
Yet to single out the Chinese in this way is unfair. Nigerian employers are hardly any better, and in some cases perhaps even worse. One sees this clearly enough in the violence inflicted on any number of “houseboys” and maids brought from the villages to slave away in city homes. From time to time one is beaten to death for a minor infraction, but nobody is ever brought to justice once money changes hands.
Expatriate employers can get away with what they do because the system encourages them. During her crusade against counterfeit drugs, Professor Akunyili singled out Marcel Nnakwe, a Nigerian, as the biggest producer in the country. Attempts to bring him to justice proved abortive, despite the huge amount of evidence her agency had compiled. She herself survived a number of assassination attempts and, on one occasion, the commission’s laboratories were burned down. Nobody was charged.
Perhaps it is just easier for us to blame foreigners for what we do to ourselves.
Adewale Maja-Pearce is a writer and critic, and the author of “Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Other Essays.”