The Foreigner In Nigeria

Nigeria has its own fair share of population of foreigners resident in the country. I guess this is the case with every nation of the world, considering the fact that human beings by their nature, are wont to distribute themselves across boundaries on account of the considerations of work, geography, and family relationships or plain curiousity or eccentricity. And I have often wondered about how the expatriate community in Nigeria feels. What do they think of us and our wondrous ways, the twists and turns of our social and political life, the endless drift towards nothing that is at the heart of the Nigerian experience? Ordinarily when you meet a foreigner in Nigeria, except he is a West African, he is likely to tell you what he thinks you want to hear. He would tell you that he is enjoying the country and that he finds the environment challenging. This is what those embassy types are likely to say. They would not add a word more. And they may remind you that they have spent a year or more in Nigeria. They are birds of passage. In another year or so, they would be posted to another country. Diplomats represent only one category of foreigners in Nigeria. They are here to work, observe and report to their home countries. As much as possible, diplomats are insulated from the crudity of life in Nigeria. Many of them living in Lagos, have never visited Agege, Alakuko, Ajegunle, Okokomaiko, Ipaja, all those funny sounding neighbourhoods which have been painted as dens of criminality. They are in fact advised never to go into the hinterland. They are restricted to Ikoyi, Victoria Island, and Abuja. When they have to travel within the country, they avoid the local airlines. The travel advice from the home country is that a Nigerian airline is a disaster waiting to happen. So they put their jeeps on the road, no matter how far the distance may be. The real danger is that the knowledge of the diplomat in Nigeria is often restricted to what he reads in the pages of newspapers, and the ones among them who read local newspapers are the ones who have either stayed beyond two years or whose schedule of duty requires them to do so. I doubt if there is any diplomat in Nigeria who watches Nigerian television except for the purpose of gathering useful intelligence. I doubt if they drink made-in-Nigeria water. What they know about us is restricted therefore to contacts with select members of the elite group: an unreliable representation of the Nigerian community which is likely to be more interested in whatever opportunities such contacts may be bring; persons who are ready to sell their country with their mouths, if this would satisfy the psychological feeling of being recognised as an important person! In other parts of the world, diplomacy requires a close integration with the community, understanding the ways and mores of the people, getting into the groove of the environment. But in Nigeria, the unspoken impression is that the diplomat in Nigeria thinks that he is on a punishment posting. He doesn't know why he is here, what he is doing here, and why he should have been given this punishment in the first place. I admit nonetheless, that in the course of my work in the public arena in the last few years, I have met quite a few exceptions to what I am describing: diplomats and development workers who truly fell in love with Nigeria, men and women who related with every Nigerian that came their way as a brother and sister. I have had friends whom we even gave local names: Oloye, Bature etc, and who with their warmth, and deep knowledge of Nigerian affairs, or their ability to speak Nigerian languages or their closeness to Nigerian families, or their readiness to help and encourage, remind you effortlessly that all men are members of the same family, irrespective of geography or colour or tongue. I pay tribute to these free spirits. Each time anyone of them had to leave Nigeria, the parting was always painfully made. A part of each and every one of them always remained behind. But they constitute the minority. The true face of the diplomat in Nigeria is that of the visa officer at the various embassies. Nigerians have many tales of woe to tell about the visa officer. It is just as well that many of the embassies are adopting visa application methods which reduce contact with frowning, racist visa officers who with one look and statement convey the embassy's impressions about Nigeria. There is yet a second category of foreigners: The Asians who are mostly otherwise categorised as Indians even if they are from Sri Lanka, Or Malaysia or Pakistan or Myanmar. But the more distinct group is the Chinese. They are all over Nigeria. They are in charge of many of the businesses in the land, and in the last few years, particularly under President Obasanjo, Asians have been spreading across the land, in virtually every area of our lives, like cancer. They must be given a special credit for bringing a special dynamism to the entrepreneurial culture in Nigeria, for creating jobs and opportunities, for teaching Nigerians a few lessons about service delivery and the psychology of the consumer. However, Nigerians like to criticise the Asians in their midst. They claim that they are slave drivers as employers of labour; they insist that they pay poor wages, or that they are not committed to Nigeria's development. But what no one can take from the Asian in Nigeria: be he India, Sri Lankan or Chinese, is that he or she feels truly at home. There is no part of the city or the country that they do not go to. They have no psychological hang-ups like the Caucasians; they may feel superior, but they do not wear that feeling as a defence mechanism; they live among the people and identify with them to the extent that cultural differences can permit. It would be hard for example to see a Chinese girl with a Nigerian boyfriend! Or a group of Chinese having a meal with Nigerians in a Chinese restaurant. They tend to maintain a certain distance. Invariably every cultural group in a foreign land, bonds together and seeks to maintain its own independent identity. The third group is the Lebanese community. For some reason, Nigerians seem to hate the Lebanese in Nigeria, and I guess this is partly for historical and cultural reasons. The Lebanese are a gregarious, go and get the results type of community. They have been in Nigeria for so long that many of them in fact insist that they are Nigerians. They speak any local language that you can think of. They are not afraid of anybody. They know Nigeria inside out. They compete with Nigerians in beating the system and taking advantage of it. They are perhaps the only group of foreigners with a different colour who have resolved that they are in Nigeria to stay. Whereas the diplomat or the Asian is here to work and hopes to return home someday, the Lebanese insists that he is a stakeholder in Nigeria. Indeed, they are the only ones who speak of Lebanese-Nigerians. If care is not taken, a Lebanese may one day aspire to a political office in Nigeria. In spite of this cultural integration however, the average Nigerian thinks that the Lebanese feels unduly superior whereas he lacks the moral basis for his haughtiness. Besides, the Lebanese keep their women away from adventurous Nigerian men. The men mix, but the women are just not available; they maintain an invisible presence. The fourth category of foreigners is the parachuters: these are either tourists, visiting government officials, portfolio investors, media correspondents, development consultants or conference participants. These ones know nothing about Nigeria other than the prejudicial information in their heads, but still they pretend to be experts about the Nigerian condition. Some of the media correspondents may know a lot from what they pick up on the internet, but the danger with parachuters generally is that they do a lot damage because of the influence that they wield. The majority of Nigerians are not even aware of their existence. They come in and go as their schedules demand. The fifth category comprises the West Africans and Africans. Due to cultural and racial affinity, these ones do not particularly stand out. They find it easier to integrate themselves into the Nigerian community. Many of them are actually Nigerians. They carry Nigerian passports and may have lived here all their lives since the time of their grandfathers. They know Nigeria as well as everyone else. They vote during elections. They join in the political debate. They are in the armed forces, corporate Nigeria, and they have held political offices. Many of them no longer publicly indicate that they are from another country, and the ones that do so are careful not to overstate the fact in public. They have houses and other property in Nigeria, in fact, there are Ghanaians who sell land in Nigeria! Nigerians are indifferent to the presence of their ECOWAS brothers and sisters in particular, tension is reserved almost exclusively for those rare moments when an ECOWAS or African tries to put down Nigeria. Then, the Nigerian feels compelled to act superior. He may be intimidated by other foreigners but the average Nigerian thinks that he is the most important person on the African continent!
The foregoing categories are by no means exhaustive, since I have not talked about the odd businessman from a foreign country, with a small population in Nigeria (may be not even up to ten) who then chooses to stay in Nigeria, marry one of our women and produce Nigerian children for the future. But if we may attempt a reading of the mind of the foreigner in Nigeria, we would discover that, across the various categories, the impressions and attitudes are similar. Nigeria never ceases to amaze the outsider. They are all aware that every country has its own problems but they are amazed how Nigerians manage to survive from one year to another, one government to another, under so much chaos. The foreigners in our midst do not take us seriously. They think this is a lawless country where anything can be done, where there are no rules and the leadership is infernally corrupt. So, every foreigner tries to do in Nigeria what they would never attempt in their own countries. Embassy officials use racist language, Asians pay their workers slave wages, foreign-owned businesses in general abuse the expatriate quota. They do not allow Nigerians in strategic positions such as the cash office, or the leadership of sensitive departments because they believe that the Nigerian is a potential thief waiting for an opportunity to steal. They do not respect Nigerian institutions because they know that as a foreigner if you are willing to pay the right price or offer incentives, the Nigerian in a position of authority will treat you more kindly than his own compatriot. Multinational companies doing business in Nigeria do not observe their own international standards. They do not have to, once they bribe the men in authority. Generally, every outsider sees how powerless Nigerians are, how they are treated shabbily by their own leaders, and so, they take advantage of the situation. We cannot blame the outsider. We lack the moral right to do so. Why should we complain about the Asian entrepreneur who pays poor wages when many Nigerian employers do not even pay their workers at all? Why should we grumble about visa officials when it is so difficult to get a Nigerian passport from a Nigerian office? Why should we complain about the Lebanese when Nigerians are among the most corrupt in the world? Why do we want others to treat us with respect when we treat one another so badly. If I were a foreigner living in Nigeria, I would find it difficult to respect Nigerians too.


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