•‘This is our first home; we love the weather, the people and the pepper-soup’
By Cosmas Omegoh
Over the years, the relationship between China, the world’s largest country, and Nigeria, the largest black nation, has been growing in leaps and bounds. Last week alone, it witnessed quantum growth, following the visit of President Muhamadu Buhari to the Asian country. The president was in Beijing to forge closer ties and improve trade and economic relationship between the two countries.
A short while after the president’s return, he said the visit would yield about $6 billion investments in Nigeria, adding that key sectors of the economy, such as power, solid minerals, agriculture, housing and rail as well as transportation, among others would benefit.
In the meantime, some Chinese nationals in the country have applauded the visit, stating that the growing relationship between both countries was a welcome development. They are upbeat that improved bilateral relationship between Nigeria and China would build bridges of understanding, aside from being a catalyst for business growth.
They also expressed worries over living and doing business in the Nigeria. They wished the Nigeria government would work harder towards attracting more Chinese investment into the country.
Way back in the in 1960s, some Chinese products, notably educational, domestic, clothing and others were being used in the country. At the time, many people wondered what part of the planet earth China was.
But the foggy knowledge people had about China and her people did not subtract from the healthy relationship that then existed between both countries.
Going down the memory lane, the road towards improved Nigeria-China relationship officially started in 1971 when both countries agreed to establish formal diplomatic relationship and exchange envoys. Before then, trade between the two counties was at its low ebb. But with the establishment of diplomatic relationship, Nigerian businessmen started travelling to the Asian country to do business. Conversely, the Chinese government began buying Nigerian oil, thus shooting up the trade volume between both countries. At some point, the Chinese government began offering Nigeria some economic, military and political support.
The Chinese government’s effort was apparently in recognition of the growing fact that though it was a communist country, it couldn’t live in isolation. It was against this backdrop that it began building improved, strategic relationship with some countries of the world. It sought to open up China to the rest of the world by offering cultural exchanges while seeking to be better understood.
One of such efforts at fostering Nigeria-China ties was the establishment of Nigeria-China Friendship Association (NICAF) in April 1994. The organisation seeks “to promote friendship, political, socio-economic, cultural, educational, trade, industrial, technological, scientific and sporting collaboration between the government, corporate bodies and citizens of both Nigeria and China on the basis of equality and mutual benefits after the approval of appropriate arms of both governments.”
In 2004 and 2006, Chinese President, Hu Jintao, visited Nigeria. While in Abuja, he addressed a joint session of the National Assembly. Daily Sun learnt that then, both countries signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a strategic partnership.
Before he left office, former President Goodluck Jonathan also visited China during which he sought to build bridges too.
“Nigeria and China have had strong economic ties in trade and investment over the past years. Beyond trade, China has been instrumental to supporting Nigeria with financial arrangement and investment in strategic infrastructural projects like rail, road and free trade zones, among others,” he said
These diplomatic shuttles had opened the way for both nationals of Nigeria and China to begin visiting the two countries on a larger scale. And now, Chinese citizens live in Nigeria in large numbers.
Recently, for instance, the Chinese in Lagos alone gathered to celebrate the China Festival of Spring. Used to mark China’s New Year, it was one event that brought together an average number of 5,000 Chinese nationals. Everyone who featured at the event felt that they were in Beijing, the Chinese capital.
In Nigeria, many Chinese nationals are actively engaged in many sectors of the country’s economy. From commerce and industry, engineering and construction, mining, oil and gas, to tourism and hospitality and in all other sectors, the Chinese are dominant and doing well.
In the engineering and construction industry, for instance, Chinese companies are executing various strategic contract works across the country in areas like roads, airport terminals, and building construction among others. In the hospitality industry, they are frontline players too with several Chinese restaurants, springing up in different parts of major Nigerian cities. They are also major players in the fast food industry. They are equally involved in solid and soluble mineral exploration and exploitation, both on and off shore. They also manage various industries employing many Nigerian hands. They manufacture hard and plastic wares, textile, foods and a lot more items of trade. They import various manufactured commodities mostly from China and own major retail outlets in various Lagos markets. They also have a Chinese town where they do business alongside Nigerians.
During President Buhari’s visit last week, he admitted that the volume of trade between Nigeria and China had grown astronomically, but was unhappy that it was skewed largely in favour of China. According to the Nigeria-China Business Council (NCBC) for instance, trading activities between both countries remained favourable to China.
A few years back, the ratio was $2.7 billion in favour of China and $700 million for Nigeria. Even in the recent past, it was adjudged to have grown tremendously but remained unbalanced with a ratio of $13 billion for China and $10.5 billion for Nigeria. And so, President Buhari wants a better deal, insisting that the ratio has to even up.
“Although the Nigerian and Chinese business communities have recorded tremendous successes in bilateral trade, there is a large trade imbalance in favour of China as Chinese exports represent some 80 per cent of the total bilateral trade volumes. This gap needs to be reduced. Therefore, I would like to challenge the business communities in both countries to work together to reduce the trade imbalance.
“You must also imbibe the spirit of having a mutually beneficial relationship in your business transactions. You must not see Nigeria as a consumer market alone, but as an investment destination where goods can be manufactured and consumed locally,” the president told the Chinese.
For Chinese nationals resident in Nigeria, improved relationship between both countries remains uppermost in their minds. They believed that a more mutually beneficial business relationship could be achieved in an atmosphere of friendship and conviviality.
Although many Chinese live in Lagos, getting to engage them in a conversation is as difficult as water flowing uphill. Even after finding one, communicating with him is a huge challenge. This manifested when Daily Sun encountered Wutan, an engineer, who said his name translated to Leo.
Wutan had so many good things to say about Nigeria and her people. But he could not say much, as he could not express himself robustly in English.
“My name is Wutan, (which means Leo in English),” he told the reporter. “I’m an engineer. I’m a specialist in machine repairs; I work on a whole range of industrial machines. People whose machines have problems call me for maintenance because I’m good at them.
“I came to Nigeria alone not long ago. Nigeria is a good country. If I have regular work, I would prefer to stay here. There is a lot to be done here.
“I worked at China generator factory in Gwanzou before coming here. I love Nigerian business. I love Nigerian people,” he said.
But Lu Lu is better by miles, even though his knowledge of English language is smattering. He works at the China Town, Ojota.
“I have been in Nigeria since five years ago. Since then, I have only gone home on three occasions.”
He is a keen promoter of business, who loves Nigeria and her cultures, but wishes that a whole lot of things would improve in the country for the good of both Nigerians and Chinese nationals.
“I love Nigeria,” he told Daily Sun. “I love Nigerian food. I eat porridge yam a lot. I eat noodles too. I enjoy a lot of suya.
“I like the Nigerian weather. The dry season here is like summer in China. I go to Nigerian parties and I love to dance.
“Business-wise, Nigeria is good. But things can’t improve here with the kind of nerve-wrecking traffic congestion we experience. Besides that, the police and the government need to protect the Chinese community. We face the menace of robbers. There are too many thieves around us.
“More worrisome is the plummeting value of the naira. It makes business unstable. No meaningful business can improve with the present regime of the naira. But we hope that with Buhari’s visit to China, things will begin to improve in Nigeria. I’m confident about it.”
More penetrating was the discussion Daily Sun had with Sun Gouping, who is also known as Jackson. Jackson, 66, the founder of the China Town, Ojota, has spent 30 years in Nigeria.
Speaking through his interpreter, Precious Nzewunwa, Jackson said he was now half Chinese, half Nigerian.
“Nigeria is such a green land,” he told the reporter. “In the past 30 years, I have contributed a lot towards building a solid Nigeria-China relationship. Take for instance, in the year 2000, I went to China and spent over two million Chinese Yuan to promote Nigeria. Then, I told as many Chinese people as possible about the opportunities here.
“Since then, I have not ceased to be ambassador to both countries. At some point, I took some Nigerian food to China and to teach the Chinese how to cook and eat them. I also began teaching them Nigerian culture and tradition. It was wonderful.
“And so, if you ask me, the kind of relationship that exists between us, I would liken it to that, which exists between brothers and sisters.
“Nigerians go to China to do business and we are here doing business. We import goods into Nigeria at low prices.
“Now, I see Nigeria as my first home. If I go to China, that is my second home. My memories are here. I have a whole lot of good things to say about Nigeria and my home, the China Town because I’m half China, half Nigeria.
“I love Nigerian people male and female. I have made a whole lot of friends here too. I love yam and stew and enjoy Nigerian pepper soup a lot. I prepare the Nigerian foods I eat myself.
“I love the weather too because the hot season here is just like summer in China. For us to be able to come here means that we love Nigeria. Chinese too love strangers and eagerly welcome them.”
Sun Gouping is happy with President Buhari’s visit to China. He believes that it would attract massive Chinese investment. But he wants trade and visa restrictions removed. “This improved Nigeria-China relationship would encourage massive investment in Nigeria. If the country can collaborate with the right persons from China, we are going to experience massive improvement in electricity, roads, agriculture, and railways among other things. Trade will grow too.
“But visa obstacles need to be relaxed for the right Chinese people to come in and help. Nigeria has to remove obstacles in the way of Chinese obtaining the necessary permits.”
He admitted that Nigerians were unhappy with the kind of inferior goods that arrive daily from China. But he insists that his country should not be blamed for that.
“We have strong and very serious regulatory authorities back home, which ensure compliance with standards. But the fact is what most Nigerian businessmen bring in are what they requested from Chinese manufacturers. To that extent, that is not really our fault,” he said.