•Says some Chinese underestimate us to their own detriment
By Victoria Ojeme, who was in China
Ambassador/Deputy Chief of Mission in the embassy of Nigeria in Beijing, China, Ambassador Shola Onadipe, in this interview, speaks on his mandate.
What is the state of the relationship between Nigeria and China?
I think generally the state of bilateral relationship between Nigeria and China in diplomatic balance could be said to cordial. We are good with China and the fact that Mr President was here in July last year attests to that.
A high level official from China after Mr President’s visit has equally been to Nigeria. Mr. Dejing, the Speaker of the Chinese parliament, paid a courtesy call on Mr President.
Senate President David Mark was supposed to be here before the president visited in July; unfortunately the visit was stopped at the last minute but that invitation is still pending.
The Chinese ministers of state for agriculture and commerce and the vice foreign minister have all been to Nigeria after the presidential visit; so now we are on a higher level in our bilateral relationship as attested to by these high profile visits to Nigeria and, of course, from Nigeria. The bilateral relationship between our two countries is not without hiccups.
We have our own teething problems of coordination not only concerning China but also probably concerning a lot of other countries. So, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may not be able to do much in enforcing this collaboration or coordination but we would continue to say that there is the need for inter-ministerial collaboration to develop a common strategy to deal with all these countries that we have a lot to do in common.
How about people to people relation?
It is going on well but a lot of Nigerians have problems coming to China, not because they are not qualified to come but I think a lot of obstacles are deliberately put on their way. China visa regime is a little bit tough, you are expected to have a letter of invitation; so for a business man who is coming for the first time, it is really difficult. The categories of business people allowed to invite foreigners to China, the ordinary traders in Nigeria, even the middle level business people, don’t have access to them.
I don’t know why a typical trader in Guangzhou, for instance, cannot send a letter of invitation to another trader in Nigeria to come to China, but that letter is not recognized. And when they go to the Chinese embassy or consulate, Nigerians are subjected to all sorts of ridiculous treatment. We hear all sorts of stories about how agents are fleecing Nigerians to get them visa; some end up paying as much as N250,000 to N350.000 and they still don’t get the visa, so how do we solve the problems? It is not in our hands, Nigerians need to find out what is going on in the Chinese embassy.
These agents are not faceless; they are human beings, not spirits. We have cleaned up our acts here in the last couple of months. Definitely, in any society, you will find bad eggs, but I think the days of indiscriminate issuance of Nigerian visas for peanuts is gone. The process of visa issuance is now open and transparent. If you don’t have any business in Nigeria from China, you cannot go there.
We do a lot of dictations – documents are being forged, people are desperate to go to Nigeria because they believe it is a place where opportunities abound. So, they resort to all kinds of sharp practices, forging documents. We are nipping those problems in the bud by being extra careful. We have seen candidates for visa posting interpreters who can’t even say two, three, four words of good English, so one wonders what kind of interpretation that would be capable of doing in Nigeria.
The belief of many Chinese is that Nigeria is probably a place where there is no civilization and so they think they are capable of having it their own ways in Nigeria, but then when they get there, they are surprised at the vibrancy of the country and its peoples.
Culturally, the Chinese government encourages people to people relationship, the reason we had the second Nigeria cultural week in the city of Nanjin, about two months ago. Last year, it was in Beijing, and the Minister of Culture was present. He was again here this year with all members of his parastatals and ministry officials.
We are doing what we can to promote Nigeria here,. There has been the establishment of the Nigerian Cultural Centre, the first of its kind by an African country, though a lot still needs to be done at that centre. By and large, those who are going to Nigeria from China must be properly watched because it is hurting Nigerians too. I was in Balogun Market (Lagos) in July and I could feel some resentment on the part of the market people who believe that their retail trade had been taken over by the Chinese. So, how do you tackle that? Somebody must listen to them. This could be a serious issue, so we don’t find ourselves confronting each other over our people to people relationship.
With the recent development of China picking interest in trading with African countries, do you see this as a welcome development?
Yes, it can work, because if we get our acts together and know exactly how we want to trade, it is not a haphazard things. It has to be an organised documented trading. Go to Guangzhou, you will see a lot of furniture being shipped from there and we say furniture abound in Nigeria, so, where are they taking them to? You see an average of a hundred containers every day from Guangzhou alone, going to Nigeria, that is a huge quantum of trade. But are they recorded? Your guess is as good as mine. So what type of trade is that?
It has been reported in the media in Nigeria that many of our people are being sent to jail without trial. How correct is this ?
That is not correct, China does not just pick somebody and put him in prison. There must be a reason for that and you know our people, that is one big problem that we have been facing even before I came here. When I was director of Asia/Pacific, I remember in 2009, we went to Guangzhou to do a consular seminar. If not that we are in democracy, I would say there are a lot of Nigerians who are living outside the shores of Nigeria who don’t have any business outside.
Invariably these are the people who find themselves in trouble here engaging in nefarious activities. A lot of people want to leave Nigeria by all means in search of greener pastures; so they can afford to pay any amount for visa. They put only $50 or $100 in their pocket and board the plane. By the time they get to China, the story changes. China does not give more than 30days visa to anybody; so after 30 days, you are an illegal resident as you have already run foul of the law.
What the law requires you to do is either seek for extension or go out and renew your visa and come back, but what do you see in China, Nigerians, those who have overstayed for three, four, five, six years, go and open shops, buying and selling. Most of them are not paying tax, most of them use fraudulent means to run the shops, and they say they don’t do retail, that they are only selling to their customers in Nigeria but that is not true. Would the Chinese authorities fold their arms and watch the foreigners, coupled with the fact that a lot of them are notorious for nefarious activities with hard drugs.
Dragon Hotel was raided in August, last year, and majority of the black people picked up in that hotel were Nigerians. Those carrying Nigerian passports were more than 50, while those carrying other national passports were equally there, and some of them were having as much as $1 million equivalent cash on them, half a million, $600,000. As an embassy, how do you tackle such a thing?
You are already operating from a very weak position, so when the law enforcement officers do their job, 1,000 police men marched to that hotel and before then the hotel had been under surveillance for months. The Chinese police didn’t just wake up one day and went to raid the place. After this, we started having complaints from Nigeria, ‘my brother went there, he didn’t know anything about drug, he was only staying there, he was unlucky’. Another will say, ‘my brother was just passing-by’.
We have the right to allow the Chinese authorities to do their investigation. Those who were actually found not wanting were released and those who had cases to answer are still there: drug infringement carries a very heavy penalty here, death sentence, depending on the quantity of what you were caught carrying. One was executed about two months ago, he came into China with about five kilogram of heroine, how do you spare such a person?
There are many of them there and with that notoriety about Nigerians, and you know they are very loud, they will be smoking marijuana openly in another man’s country, that is ridiculous. They drink heavily, they are notorious in that area. The Cote’Ivoire people, the Ghanaians, Camerounians, the French speaking African countries, they have their own sector, the police don’t go there to harass them.
So, why is it the Nigerian sector only? Virtually, all those shops are closed now. I went there last month to meet with the authorities of that province, and I told him that I was there not because of those criminals but because of those honest Nigerians making an honest living, obeying the rules and regulations of their laws, but who are now suffering from the sins of their brothers.
For those ones, they have nothing to worry about even though some of them were condemning the manner of the arrests, they were being chased with dogs and all sorts of things. You know we were not there, we wouldn’t rely on hearsay. Yes, normally if you want to apprehend criminals, you probably have to use force for effective discharge of your duty. I don think that should be an issue, they just want to whip up sentiment for themselves or favor themselves, it is a big problem for us but we are doing the best we can in these circumstances.
We don’t want the problem to overwhelm us. Every week, somebody must go to Guangzhou, why Guangzhou? The notoriety of Nigerians in Guangzhou is unprecedented and I think some of them are crossing the line.
I have seen them in action in the night after the day’s job, you look at somebody who could not find a job in Nigeria or probably he got a job in Nigeria and thought that the job is below him, he spends so much money to get visa and then get to Guangzhou hawking jollof rice illegally in the night and at the end of the day he settles down at night, and start smoking marijuana openly with a bottle of beer in his hand, releasing deep smoke into the air.
Can they do that in Nigeria? I can take you to somewhere here in Yanshun, in Beijing, when you get there and you will see them, they will approach you, Nigerians holding tiny patches in their hands. One was stabbed to death in that vicinity early this year, why? He said another person encroached on his territory, it became a fight and they started stabbing each other. Some Chinese guys killed one Nigerian early this year too. They wanted to buy cocaine and he sold them heroin instead. So instead of smoking, the guy injected and that was the end.
They came back on reprisal attack and that was the end for him. This is not why we are here, but once it starts happening like that, you just have to face it. We know that there are Chinese who are equally evil. If the Chinese are implementing their own laws, that retail business cannot be undertaken by any foreigner, it is left to us not to allow such things to be done in Nigeria, but when we are complacent, what do you do? They would have filled them in. So you will find them baking bread or selling Ankara in the streets, operating shops like inside Wuse Market in Abuja.
How many documented immigrant Nigerians are currently living in China?
Very difficult to say because they don’t register. I remember when we came to the consular in 2009, we got less then 100 Nigerians for the two days we were there, because some of them thought we came with a plane to kidnap them. Virtually all of them had overstayed, so it was only on the second day we could get the hundred.
After we had negotiated and the Chinese authorities agreed that they would look the other way, and then the mandatory 5000 RAM that you pay, when you overstay, was increased to 10.000 RAM, which is about $1,600 fine. Now when they could not pay 5000 RAM, they are kept in immigration detention until such a time that they are able to pay, or their people in Nigeria are able to secure them ticket to go back. Chinese government does not deport, if the Nigerian government is not ready to deport, the family of the people must be prepared to get the ticket and their relative will be allowed to go.
We can only give you an estimate of Nigerians in Guangzhou, but then maybe 90 percent of Nigerians in China are there. There are other pockets of cities where there are Nigerians too, maybe about 200 living in Beijing, apart from the professionals, I mean those who are working with the United Nations and oil companies and other professionals. One was held about a month ago. This guy had no job, he rode in a Porch car, robbed ladies of their hand bags, got them drunk, and after robbing them, he would go and drop them off somewhere.
The police here will not jail you on unsubstantiated evidence, they investigate thoroughly. I will say they investigated this guy and he bagged only 10 years. These are disgraceful acts. When we get to know about it, we talk to them but, to them, you are talking nonsense. You know that they don’t have any visible means of income, how are they surviving, riding Porch cars, patronising the best night clubs and restaurants? Of course, let us be realistic, would we allow such things back in Nigeria?
So why do we think that as Nigerians we have the audacity to come to another man’s country and be smoking drug openly and be drinking and making noise. Things we can hardly do in Nigeria, you are doing it in China. It cannot be for a long time, they are bound to react one day and now it is reflecting on those who are legally doing their businesses here.
So, I think we need a new orientation, especially, for those young ones that are being used to carry drugs here. Everyday, I receive on my table drug related arrests. Towards the end of the year, the number continues to increase. These are young men in their prime, now they are languishing in jail. Every quarter, we have to go to various jails in different provinces to see them to boost their morale. When we can afford it, we give them stipends.
The prison condition may not be much to write home about, some of them may end up with serious health challenges. We are doing the little we can, they won’t allow us to go in there with phone or camera to take evidence of torture but sometimes we insist and we have seen changes, some of them have been removed from one notorious prison that have the penchant for maltreatment from officials; in collaboration with inmates, they beat up and torture Nigerians.
One even lost one of his eyes recently. We are still on the case on what compensation will be paid to him. These are young men that should not be here; that is what I was saying the other time that if I have my way, a good number of them would not be allowed to leave the shores of Nigeria. Some of them can’t even write their names, so you wonder, how did they get the visa to travel all the way from Nigeria to China? Give them a paper and biro to write their names, they cannot, what are they doing in China?
It was reported recently that a visa sorting processing outfit that was opened by the Nigerian embassy here was shut down by the Chinese government. Is that true?
The Federal Government of Nigeria concessioned visa processing to private companies. For example, such codes like global, meaning, if you want to pay for visa outside, you pay online through them, so they decided to extend it to China. So, the guys came here, we got the services of a lawyer and registered the company for that purpose. There was a misconception on the part of the Chinese people that the office was opened by the embassy. No, we had since corrected that impression.
The embassy didn’t open it because that office had to do with visa collection, visa sorting and revenue collection, we had to work hand in hand. They sort visa application, bring them here, we vet, we reject it or approve, they settle with the Federal Government, we reconcile how many applications are collected from them, how many were returned and rejected, how much had accrued to government.
So, according to the Chinese law, the foreign ministry informed us when that office started operating on the 14th of October, that it was illegal, that it was not properly registered, that was after the embassy had given to the foreign office all the papers of registration by the company Online Integrated Services which they submitted to us. We gave it to the foreign office and they looked at it and said, ‘no, there is a mistake somewhere’, so it was right on this table.
We had a meeting, the lawyer was sitting there and she acknowledged the fact that she made a mistake in the registration that she did for them. So, that again, already, put the online registration services in a weak position. We had to appeal to the authorities asking them what to do knowing fully well that this organization was here on behalf of Nigeria, by virtue of an agreement signed with the Federal Government.
The place was not closed down immediately it was closed down by mutual consent or advice by the foreign office at the public security bureau. They went there, did their investigations, took away about 200 Chinese passports and advised those operating there. As a matter of fact, aside the Nigerian general manager who is here to supervise the opening of the office and then proceed to London or Nigeria, the Chinese people manage that office after putting them through on what they are supposed to do.
Right now, two options were given to them: match them with any other company that is doing this service or register it as an independent Chinese outfit. The problem there is, they had to reserve certain positions like general manager, director of finance for the Chinese, so there comes an organisation and coordination. Do we have such things in Nigeria, no. Sometimes what we have is abuse of quota; they are still on it, so whatever the company they come up with, we will support them, so that they can go back to work without violating China’s rules and regulations.
There have been some complaints on diplomatic post being under funded. How true is that?
For those missions suffering from funding, I don’t know how they are managing. Let me say that the Federal Government of Nigeria has tried tremendously in funding diplomatic outposts. If you see a mission that cannot pay local staff, it is because they didn’t get their priority right.
Government has brought a lot of formation, we now have a separate account for personnel, a separate account for over head, you dare not touch funds for personnel for any other thing aside for personnel. That has helped a lot.
I have worked in a mission where I was getting paid every quarter when money comes and, by the time every body takes what is received, you will wait again till the next quarter. But in Beijing, it is well funded. I came from Washington, it is well funded. Even when I was in the Congo, it was well funded. Most of the missions are well funded, officers have to be very careful, corruption has its hand in it, a lot of people are ready to spend so much money just by the virtue of the little that goes into their pockets, they waste a lot of money.
These are issues of corruption. How do you come and sell yourself so cheap at a foreign outpost like that? They are saying you are corrupt and every thing about you is corrupt. Do you feel comfortable about that? And at the end of the day, you cannot pay your local staff because the money meant for them has gone into your pocket through corruption. Even in countries that are known to be corrupt too, the simple fact is that this local staff are right there with you and they see everything. Nigerian government is funding its mission, I will say 80- 85 adequately, corruption and recklessness is what is causing problem in some missions.
If such missions are going to be truthful to you, they don’t need to complain. When you take your FSA and every thing, what are you complaining about? You operate according to the budget you present. Government has done well in funding missions, it is the operators of the mission that need to do better.
We are aware that you are going to retire next year, what has been the journey so far?
So far so good, I will say to God be the glory. It has been 33 years of a very rich experience. I and some of my colleagues have come this far because of the challenges that we saw, that kept us going, the kind of training that we received even though we were complaining then that it was not enough. But then, it is a job we have enjoyed and we know that one day it has to come to an end, we have to vacate for the younger ones to have the piece of the action. So, I want to thank God and my family for that.
One thing is that you have to understand that this kind of job has its own way of destabilizing your family, going from one place to the other, back home, we don’t have much. I remember I couldn’t buy a house in Abuja. One year after I left my house, former President Olusegun Obasanjo came with that housing policy that didn’t give consideration to those of us who were serving outside, it was very unfair, I think for Ministry like Foreign Affairs, such a thing should not have applied to that ministry but it has happened already, there is nothing anybody can do about it. I will probably go back to my village, to work with some youths, it was nice giving me that opportunity to work.
What has been your challenges in service and your interactions with Nigerians?
Challenges? I mentioned it while I was talking about what Nigerians do here, I served in Indonesia for six years; when I was in Abuja as Director of Asia, I had the opportunity to go with Ambassador Ojo Maduekwe ten years after I left Indonesia. When I was leaving in 1998, there was only one Nigerian lady who carried South African passport in Indonesian prison for drug trafficking. Ten years later, when I went back, there were more then 60; 22 on death row. I went back with Ambassador Maduekwe to plead for the 22, so they won’t be killed.
When you have such characters who make you negotiate from a position of weakness, it is a very big challenge, it makes you not to enjoy your job. I remember when Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged, the whole world descended on Nigeria in condemnation. Sometimes I got very embarrassed when you hear somebody asking how come your country is still importing fuel, how do you answer such a question? So, these are the challenges, you just have to find a way even if it is to rationalize it, and it is not possible to rationalize, and that is what makes me a diplomat.