As I made my way out of the chaotic baggage claim, I spotted Zhang lodged in between a motley crew of airport urchins following behind. Like the others, he was aggressively soliciting for patronage from every potential client. Unlike the rest, he wasn’t asking for a tip to help carry my luggage. Armed with a few leaflets in hand, he was laser focused on identifying targets, touting the services of an authentic Chinese electronic shop in the heart of Ojo Alaba.
“Hello! My name is Zhang”
“She she” he said, handing over one of the leaflets. A cursory glance showed some bold Chinese letters with an English subtitle right beneath;
“China helping the world connect”.
Zhang momentarily surveyed the young lady standing nearby, as if in a bid to appraise her purchasing power. He quickly cycled back however, seemingly convinced that I was the bigger game.
Pardon me? I responded.
“She she”, he greeted again, but this time with a patronising smile (I later learnt the correct spelling is Xiexie).
And what does that mean, Mr. Zhang, I quizzed.
He looked at me a little bewildered.
“It’s just a Chinese way to speak thank you. Everybody in Lagos knows. You no living here Oga?” he asked, playing back that same smile and attempting to impress with the local slang.
But that was all Mr. Zhang could communicate in pidgin and neither could he speak nor understood any of the many Nigerian languages. Funny enough, he expected me to be fluent in Chinese.
Oh ok! Impressive! Well…, am Osmund. Very nice to meet you sir.
“Oh, how are you Usman?”
Nah! Its Osmund not Usman. I made an attempt to spell out the letters but midway decided it’s wasn’t worth the trouble.
“Oh aah! Usmandi! Ok k…”. At that point, I made a conscious effort not to get aggravated and so pivoted.
So how long have you been in Nigeria Mr. Zhang? I had asked, smiling back at him.
“I stay Lagos for one year in June.
I live Abuja for 2 years before” he followed, counting with his fingers as though trying to make sense of time.
“Abuja good business but no good place. Boko Haram bomb every time. Not good my friend, not good”.
Aha! So, do you like it here in Lagos?
“Yes of course brother. I part of owner of Lagos”, he said with a mischievous laugh laced with a dose of sarcasm
“Only business slow. No money”.
Mr. Zhang turned out to be a very interesting character. Cocky and projecting an exaggerated sense of self-worth, yet one couldn’t help but notice his uncommon confidence and calm composure. It was a bit of a surprise given the security challenges facing the country with kidnappings especially involving foreign nationals. Hung thick in the air, was that sense of foreboding. For the mere fact that a diminutive Asian man who could barely express himself would feel this at home in a country like Nigeria, automatically earned him my huge respect.
As the local representative of a Chinese electronic giant, Zhang and his two brothers in 2015 relocated to Nigeria from their home city of Zhengzhou in Henan province of mainland China. While he took to entrepreneurship, his older brother Wang and younger brother Li worked for different Chinese firms handling one of the very many projects in Nigeria. Wang was a project engineer with a Chinese construction firm while Li on the other hand worked in oil & gas. Out of curiosity, I researched the two companies and lo and behold, together with three other Chinese firms were blacklisted by the World Bank for fraud and corrupt practices in Nigeria. Surprise, surprise?
Zhang was so convinced that I was a big catch to the point he gambled losing other potential customers. He continued to engage.
“So Usmandi, we sell good phones and accessories. Come to Alaba I give you good price. You talk with Maria, she know English well. She fine girl too “.
At this point, he busted out in raucous laughter pointing one finger at me while doing some sought of semi-circle dance.
Ok. Is Maria your sales girl? I asked
“Yes, my friend. She is one of the sales girls. I have seven sales girls but she know English best”.
I see. So, is any of your sales girls Nigerian?
“No. Not yet my friend. When business good we get more sales girl. But Maria good I tell you. She very good”.
You could sense his unease with this line of questioning and I figured someone may have posed a similar question in the past. At that point a call came in and he excused himself. Not long, my friend pulled up. I waved at Zhang and with phone on his ear, he rushed to drop of his business card, urging me to call him later.
Throughout the forty-five minutes ride before I got to my hotel room, I kept thinking about Zhang and his people.
I observed that unlike western companies that market their products by using intermediaries, mostly drawn from their host country, the Chinese execute a different business strategy and control everything from production all the way till delivered to the end user. Aside from very few inconsequential positions such as an office messenger or a gatekeeper, every other position is filled with Chinese people.
I have often wondered what plan these companies have for their host countries, besides being a dumping ground for cheap and mostly substandard goods. It is a practice that is akin to milking the cow round the clock without giving a care if the poor animal is getting fed. You decide that perhaps it’s more economical to move on to the next cow at that point in time when the current one starves to death.
In my last trip to my Alma Mata, I was in audience during a presentation highlighting what was touted as a giant stride made by the university administration. One of such was the establishment of a cultural exchange programme with Chinese universities under the auspices of the Confucius Institute.
The first Confucius Institute was opened in Seoul, South Korea as a public educational organisation with the goal to promote Chinese language and culture. It is the Chinese equivalent of the British Council or Goethe Institute by the Germans. Like most things, the Chinese cleverly figured out a way to expand fast like wildfire. However, unlike its western peers, many Confucius Institutes (CI) operate directly on university campuses (as is the case with my Alma Mata and others) thus making the host countries worry about issues related to academic freedom and political influence. There were also growing concern that the Chinese communist party was using it as an avenue to engage in espionage activities around the globe. As a result, a good number of CI had been closed in many universities across Europe and North-America. In fact, on 13 August 2020, the United States Department of State designated the Confucius Institute as a foreign mission of the People’s Republic of China. This is the same institute my Alma Mata was gloating over as a proof of her monumental achievement.
And so everywhere I went, I was confronted by the omnipresence of Chinese dominion over almost all critical sectors of the Nigerian economy. This goes way beyond the national government. Our state governments are in mortal competition to outdo each other in their indebtedness to Chinese companies and government.
According to the Overseas Development Institute, almost 40% of sub-Saharan African countries are in danger of slipping into a major debt crisis. The IMF has warned Nigeria on her large appetite for Chinese loans as the country struggles with a crippling debt burden. Towards the end of 2018, Nigeria was seeking a $6 billion loan from China’s EXIM Bank to finance the construction of the Ibadan to Kano rail road.
I had asked my friend on how the average Nigerian felt about all these. He called it the “Chinese invasion “which I believe captured the extent of our dilemma as well as spoke to the urgency of the situation. He went on to educate me on other aspects of the problems I hadn’t even thought about.
It was obvious that many Nigerians understood the graveness of the situation but felt so helpless.
In a rapidly changing world, modern warfare and rules of engagement are in constant state of evolution. Long gone were the days of Cold War that led to build up of intercontinental ballistic missiles and stockpiling of nuclear fissile materials by major world powers.
Just like tech savvy nations are moving away from fossil fuels in favour of renewables, powerful nations in a bid to secure a competitive edge are now shifting tactics to the use of more subtle weapons of war such as precision guided cyber-attacks, espionage and disinformation or even outright brainwashing using a combination of clandestine methods and subtle approaches. The later approach is even more savage and the Chinese to their credit have effectively deployed that asset to take captive of the entire continent of Africa. This weapon is packaged so cleverly to the extent that the victims could hardly find out the full ramification till decades later. Make no mistake however, that the conquest is total and the effect so devastating to the health and overall, well-being of the continent. The disaster will ricochet for centuries to come.
Africa is at war and it doesn’t matter if we realise it or not. The threat is existential and there is an emergent need to use any means necessary to rein in on these treasonous bunch of African heads of government to be on the side of the people. The EndSARS protests may have just heralded the long overdue fight to take back our freedom.
•Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Centre for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]