Now that the Chinese are here, should we be worried? – By Kenneth Ibegwam
So how about the workers?” my mother asks in igbo
“Oh, I am working on that you know”
“Have you already gotten staff? My mother asks flatly surprised.
“Well, my brother has concluded that. He’s getting the Chinese; you know the Chinese are made for these things”.
My mother looks at me from where she is seated; her plan to recommend a distance cousin of hers will definitely be unproductive. “Chinese ke”? She presses suddenly not giving up.
“Yes the Chinese, they are good with management of supermarkets, they will turn the place around overnight. And people will take it much more seriously when they see expatriate staff” Mrs Olandu stressed.
“But that means, our own people won’t have any jobs” my mother says almost in resignation
“But you know the counter attendants will be our young people oh” Mrs Olandu adds smiling.
I look up from meal and to see the blankness on the face of my mother, as she also immediately changes the conversation to something about Nigeria’s performance at the Olympics.
What truly intrigues me about that conversation after the fact that we didn’t win any medals in the Olympics; is the sense of well meaning necessity there is to have a foreigner in your business for it to grow. China’s rapidly expanding presence in Sub-Saharan Africa has sparked intense debate. With reports of 14 percent of china’s overseas investment directed to Sub-Saharan Africa between 2005- 2010, compared just under nine percent to the USA, this new special relationship is thought to be worth more than $120billion. So it least surprises me why African leaders are courting the Chinese like never before. It makes more sense why it seems like the Chinese are in every sector in Nigeria from Telecoms, Manufacturing and Individual Entrepreneurs to construction workers. The list can go on; they have their hands in every pie. Isn’t that why the only confectionary in Dutse, Jigawa state, Nigeria is a Chinese company called “Great wall”? There are those in construction; those we come across everyday as they work to fix better roads for us even against all the rains or harmattan haze. Shall we not talk about those in Telecommunication? All that is going on in that sector is a story for another day – did you know you could “win” an “Aeroplane” courtesy a telecom company promo? China’s interest in Africa is evident, but who’s to gain?
My consciousness is driven to the fact that China is on a remorseless course for resource grab in Africa. But this is not same with every other nationality? Something that has been going on for centuries. Why then is the heat on China? I certainly understand that China needs resources that Africa can supply, so there are huge strategic interests behind these projects. At least they seem to be putting money into the continent, after all how many other countries are investing in Africa at this level? But then again, they are taking our jobs, jobs which we have qualified citizens to be employed in such capacities. Chinese Labour practice specialist at Human Rights watch, Matt Wells talks about Zambian copper miners who insist the Chinese are “good investors and bad employers”. The copper miners insist how much they appreciate China’s investments but described dour labour abuses, long hours, which resulted in substandard pay, poor health and safety practices that brought along with it accidents and health complications. It is certainly the same here in Nigeria, they press down all sort of practices that go on to be psychologically detrimental. China’s presence will benefit the Chinese, there’s also the hope for some infrastructural development in Africa, but will it be worth the level of market infiltration? Isn’t it the responsibility of the Chinese government to ensure that local and international standards are followed by their state owned companies operating in Africa, but responsibility also falls to our own leaders; African leaders. I believe China developed fast because the government insisted foreign investors partnered with local organizations to guarantee a transfer of skills. Imagine the Chinese road construction company partnering with the small Nigerian construction firm in Okigwe, Imo state. Just try to envisage all that the small construction company workers will learn, even without going abroad or getting a higher certification. But the Chinese are not offering this to Africa or are they? And I think it’s up to the African leaders to insist on it. I don’t mean getting a handful of Nigerians to work with, I desire integrating local construction companies as joint entities for given projects.
There’s a belief that Africa is selling its birthright to china for a bowl of Sushi, this I have not come to understand properly. Hasn’t China’s interest in Africa’s resources increased competition and created a form of decline in prices of goods and services? (Even as another issue is the durability of these things). Is the competition not good for the African market? I personally think that they want to do business and their approach is bringing vital infrastructure – the roads we see them working on is testimony and then what I have read concerning their zeal to work with our leaders to revamp our railway services should eventually be a solid testament). There’s also a broader phenomenon of millions of Chinese living and working in Africa and the thousands of Africans living in Asia. These exchanges are gradually changing how Africa and China view each other.
With the accusation that China is stripping Africa of its resources, but the issue is China seems more interested in trade and investment as opposed to forcing down their own ideas on us or any form of militarization. No one is putting a gun to our heads or forcing us to change our way of life while pillaging our resources. China is giving Africa a powerful alternative, almost bigger and more reward yielding than the World Bank or IMF. Causing these financial institutions to be more creative in dealing Africa, not just expecting their offers to be accepted. It’s more rewarding that China sees Africa as a land of opportunity, rather than a charitable course with Children in dire need of kindness from a white strange foreigner, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wary.
I recall reading in a newspaper where the Nigerian Afro beat Sensation Seun Anikulapo Kuti insists that China’s presence will almost not benefit Africans. He went on to liken the situation as “It’s like being colonized again but this time economically”. There are beliefs that the Chinese are leading a second wave of colonialism grabbing Africa’s resources to secure their spot as the new topnotch power – even being referred to as “neo-colonizers”, while others insist that the investment and oceanic infrastructural development they are bringing into the continent is invaluable. So I ask, Now that the Chinese are here, should we be worried? This is something I find somewhat disconcerting and somewhat inspiring. It could bring a downside, neocolonialism in the guise of economic gain or a better economy. Most crucial is for Nigerian leaders and citizens to keep watch and make sure we aren’t selling our birthright to China for a bowl of sushi.
Follow on Twitter: @ken_ibegwam
Kenneth is reading Toni Morrison’s novel “Paradise”. And hopes that China’s presence in Africa will lead Africa to her own Paradise – literally.
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