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A world apart

The process can be messy, but China and Nigeria are developing strong economic ties as Nigeria hopes to become the world’s next big economic surprise

The China market in Lagos. Onize Ohikere

A world apart
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ABUJA and LAGOS, Nigeria—Away from the swerving traffic and honking cars of the busy Ojota highway in Lagos, Nigeria, lies a quiet, untarred street where pedestrians walk in an unhurried pace and a middle-aged woman stirs a steaming pot on a circle of firewood, the smoke rising above her. Down the street, the typical Lagos scene suddenly ends as a red, castlelike wall looms with the words “China market” written in Chinese characters over its arched entrance. Both Nigerian and Chinese flags fly above the wall, and the painted inscription “Long Live Nigeria China Relations” decorates a lower wall in both languages. At exactly 9 a.m. the large red gates swing open, signaling the beginning of the business day for dozens of Chinese clothing shops inside the three-story market.

On the ground floor, the shop of a lanky Chinese man named Johnson is already bustling. Clothing dangles from rods on the walls as two rotating ceiling fans noisily blow air into the humid space. Johnson runs the shop from behind a wooden counter with a handmade sign reading “NO RETURNS, NO CHANGE.” Two Nigerian salesmen attend to the customers while Johnson, who speaks little English, receives payments and issues receipts. At about 10 a.m., a boisterous middle-aged woman from Ibadan, a town two hours away, brings a bundle of children’s jeans to the counter and asks Johnson if he’s sure the set includes five pairs of jeans.

“I don’t do wayo,” Johnson said, using a Nigerian slang meaning “to cheat.” As Johnson turns his attention to another customer, the woman interrupts, asking Johnson to finalize her payment. “Oya, oya (I’m hurrying),” Johnson responds, as he quickly packs the woman’s purchases into a plastic bag and hands her the receipt.

China and Nigeria may be 7,000 miles apart with a continent between them, but the two disparate cultures are mixing in the Lagos marketplace, in Beijing universities, and even on sweaty Nigerian dance floors. Part of the reason is China’s drive to grow its influence in African countries like Nigeria with billion-dollar loans, infrastructure projects, and multinational state-owned enterprises. But another driving factor is the horde of Chinese businessmen like Johnson acting independently of the Chinese government, eager to make money in an import-dependent country.

As official reports focus on warm handshakes and talks of cooperation between President Muhammadu Buhari and President Xi Jinping, many more factors are at play on the ground. Nigerians are impressed by the Chinese’s hard-working attitude and the affordable goods they bring to the country. Yet at the same time, they worry the Chinese are destroying already-weak domestic industries and bringing in their own workers and materials. The Chinese see Nigeria as a source of cheap labor and a growing market for Chinese products, but also face corruption, a lower living standard, and lower outputs than in China.

Still, China provides something to Nigeria that the West can’t: China has the recent experience of moving from poverty to the second-largest economy in the world in a mere three decades. The Chinese give Nigerians hope: If China can do it, why can’t Nigeria?

THE MARKS OF CHINESE state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are imprinted all around Nigeria’s capital of Abuja. Travelers arriving into Abuja’s international airport see the name and blue logo of the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) printed on the temporary fencing surrounding the ongoing airport construction. In the town of Dakibiyu, the letters CCECC are impressed into the concrete of a completed overhead bridge. This July, Abuja’s only rail station began operations to Kaduna state, also thanks to CCECC.

In the 1960s and ’70s, China first engaged in Africa with government aid projects to convince the newly independent African nations to recognize Communist China rather than Taiwan and to counteract the influence of the Soviet Union. As China opened up, China saw Africa as a natural resource base, a market for Chinese goods, and a place for corporations to expand overseas. Large SOEs started moving in as the government parceled off foreign aid funds to send Chinese corporations overseas. With government backing, Chinese SOEs won numerous construction contracts in countries like Nigeria.

One draw of Chinese investment over the West is China’s policy not to interfere with internal affairs. China first developed diplomatic relations with Nigeria in 1971, and the tie strengthened as the West halted trade with Nigeria in the ’90s over human rights abuses by its military dictatorship: China provided an eager market for Nigerian oil. After Nigeria transitioned to democracy in 1998, elected Nigerian presidents continued work with China, accepting billions of dollars in loans to fund infrastructure projects—railways, roads, hydropower plants—in exchange for oil. Since 2005, Chinese construction companies have started $24.6 billion worth of projects, according to the American Enterprise Institute.

The two became close allies: China endorsed Nigeria’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, while Nigeria officially insists that Taiwan is a part of Chinese territory. China has also supplied the Nigerian army with technology and military trainers in its fight against insurgencies in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

Bilateral trade between the two countries in the first half of the year was $6.5 billion, which makes up over 7 percent of the total trade volume between China and Africa. Yet the trade remains unbalanced as Nigeria imports 10 times more than it exports to China, and nearly all the exports are in oil products. Imports from China include a variety of goods, such as textiles, which have caused the local textile industry to lose 95 percent of its jobs in the last two decades.

In the 2000s, small- and medium-sized private businesses from China started moving to Africa. With the growth of China’s economy, both wages and competition increased, so profit-minded businessmen turned their sights elsewhere. Nigeria attracted many people because of its growing middle class and the fact that the country’s focus on oil left much to be desired in Nigerian manufacturing sectors.

Officially, about 45 percent of Chinese foreign direct investments in Nigeria comes from the private sector, yet the actual percentage is likely much higher since China’s Ministry of Commerce only tracks investments over $10 million, and many businesses avoid registering. While small businesses can apply for government funds, many don’t even know this policy exists due to the lack of communication between the government and the private sector.

Irene Yuan Sun, a researcher on Africa-China relations and the author of the forthcoming book The Next Factory of the World, noted that these private businessmen often fill niches in the market, hire locally, and use local materials. When Sun asked a Chinese grocery shop owner in Nigeria if she had come here because of the Chinese government, the woman angrily replied, “The Chinese government has nothing to do with me, and I want nothing to do with it.”

Chinese workers in Nigeria often face difficult challenges in a new, foreign country. Beijing resident Ricky Xu, who works at a textile store in Lagos’ China market, arrived in Nigeria in 2007 at the bidding of a friend. As his plane touched down, he felt a sinking feeling in his heart. “As I drove from the airport to my residence, everything looked very poor,” he said. “Beijing has never been this bad.”

Xu ended up staying in Lagos because he’s able to make more money in Nigeria to support his wife and young child. He spends half his time in Lagos and the other half in Beijing, but he doesn’t have any local Nigerian friends and speaks only a little English. He says the Nigerian government is corrupt: When he lands at the airport, everyone from customs to security asks him for bribes.

Other Chinese workers try to make the most of their time in Nigeria. Raymond Lee, a 35-year-old from Shanxi in northern China, moved to Lagos in 2007 to work at a printing and manufacturing company. Like Xu, Lee struggled to adjust: He didn’t have many places to go after work, and the ongoing kidnapping of foreigners posed a security threat. With Nigeria’s present economic troubles, business is suffering, and he plans to leave the country soon.

Still, he’s made some good memories. Lee said he perfected his rusty English in about two months. He also picked up some Yoruba language, a Nigerian dialect common in Lagos. He made Nigerian friends who often invite his family over for food and drinks. Lee was most impressed with Nigeria’s music and dancing. “Everyone can dance well,” he said. “In China, it’s not like that.”

NIGERIANS ALSO HAVE MIXED VIEWS of the influx of Chinese businesses. While the overall consensus is positive, some complain that the Chinese overwork their employees for low pay, smuggle products over the border with Benin in order to skirt high tariffs, and produce low-quality goods that crowd out the market. Yet Nigeria depends on these imports, as electricity is unreliable in the country and local factories run on diesel generators, which are expensive to maintain. This means local fabric merchants like Omah Ezekiel Omah rely on Chinese goods to survive.

Omah, who owns three stores in Abuja’s Garki International Market, said he ships in 15,000 to 20,000 fabrics every two weeks from different companies in China. Two of his stores sell colorful laces and fabrics folded in piles on his shelves, while the third store sells fabrics for menswear and materials for school uniforms.

He lauded his Chinese suppliers for their efficiency in responding to requests, but noted they sometimes cut corners. Omah pointed at a bundle of navy blue fabric wrapped in a white sack with Chinese inscriptions on it. “It’s tagged 145 yards,” he said, “but it could actually be 140.” Other Nigerians WORLD spoke with mentioned that Chinese companies bribe officials to land lucrative construction projects or sell low-quality products that quickly break down.

For Toye Oyelade, a Ph.D. candidate at the Beijing Institute of Technology, the unequal relationship between Nigeria and China is revealed in who may go to each country. A Lagos native, Oyelade noticed that while Chinese businessmen are showing up in Nigeria every day to set up businesses, it’s nearly impossible for a Nigerian to work in China. All the Africans he’s met in China are like him, studying on a scholarship.

Oyelade previously worked for the Chinese telecom company Huawei in Nigeria, and he says Chinese people are very hardworking, something he believes Nigerians can learn from. Despite the high living cost of Beijing, he loves the city—the efficient subways, the 24-hour electricity, and making new friends on campus and at Beijing International Christian Fellowship. His wife and three children have joined him in China and are quickly picking up Chinese.

Yet he also believes his home country is getting the short end of the stick in its dealings with China. Oyelade noted that in his previous work building mobile phone masts for Huawei, most of the material—besides the concrete—was imported from China. (Chinese businessmen counter that they import materials because local materials are lower quality and that Chinese investment has the potential to help Nigerian development.)

Still, Sun, the author, says China has a better relationship with Africa than the West often has with its donor-recipient mindset. She noted that she’s met more Chinese people living in rural parts of Nigeria than Western expats.

To Sun, who was born in China and moved to the United States at age 6, Nigeria’s current growth reminds her of the China of her youth. Sun grew up in Changchun, the headquarters of FAW, a Chinese auto company that Volkswagen had helped resuscitate in 1990. While conducting research in Calabar in southern Nigeria, Sun stumbled upon a factory only to find that it belonged to FAW, which was now investing in Nigeria. Many Chinese people she’s spoken to also say present-day Africa reminds them of China in the 1980s and ’90s.

“Chinese people in Nigeria are looking backwards with the context of what they see now, and saying, ‘I can imagine in 20 to 30 years this place is going to be wealthy, people are going to live longer, and people won’t need to worry about things like having electricity or sending kids to school,’” Sun noted. “They see [Africa] as the next big transformation.

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.


Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.



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