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Nigerians look east to China for business, opportunity

22 June 2016, 06:30

Lagos - Emmanuel Iyayi's love of China, its culture and language began early when he watched kung fu films as a child in his native Nigeria. Now 26, that enthusiasm has paid off.

"I am a translator, an interpreter for Nigerian and Chinese businessmen and I also compere at Chinese events," Iyayi, who also goes by the Chinese name Kong Yi, told AFP.

"All these generate good money for me. I am happy with the pay I get and this has transformed my life tremendously."

Also read: Nigeria: A corrupt culture or the result of a particular history?

Iyayi isn't alone in being able to reap the benefits of knowing a language that few of his compatriots speak, given Nigeria's historic preference for learning European tongues such as French.

Grace Moses teaches and translates Mandarin when she is not studying in her final year at the Confucius Institute at the University of Lagos (Unilag).

"I get a lot of job opportunities from Nigerians who have businesses with Chinese people," said the 25-year-old, likening herself to a go-between for local and Chinese businesses.

Iyayi and Moses could soon have competition, however, as a new scheme gets under way in Lagos state to teach Mandarin in primary and secondary schools.

The move comes at a time of increased investment by Chinese firms in Nigeria, which is in desperate need of overseas cash because of the fall in global oil revenues on which its economy depends.

Closer ties

On a sunny afternoon at Unilag, Moses, or Li Minghao as she is also known in class, sits with a dozen other Nigerian students, most of them women.

Mandarin teacher Fu Yongsheng uses audio-visual aids to teach pronunciation, words and phrases at the institute, set up seven years ago in partnership with the Beijing Institute of Technology.

Fu and seven others also teach Mandarin to some 1,700 primary and secondary students across Nigeria's commercial capital.

Yongjin Wang, the director of the institute, said more teachers were needed and is convinced learning Mandarin "can help to enhance relations and communications between both countries".

Segun Awonusi, Yongjin's Nigerian co-director and a linguistics professor at Unilag, said learning Mandarin makes sense because of the Asian giant's economic and political clout.

There are more Mandarin speakers than any other language in the world, making knowledge of the language essential for greater economic and diplomatic cooperation in the future, he added.

"Nigeria has also also opened a wide market for the Chinese," added Awonusi.

"There are efforts to build a generation of Nigerians who can teach Chinese," he said.

Some three dozen Nigerians are currently studying for language and culture degrees at Chinese universities while a second Confucius Institute has been opened in southeast Nigeria.

Lagos has five pilot project schools where Mandarin is taught.

"Learning of Chinese language aims to enhance political and economic ties between Nigeria and those countries," according to the Lagos state ministry of education.

Two-way street

President Muhammadu Buhari visited China recently and came away with a $6 billion pledge to fund much-needed infrastructure projects across the country.

Abuja is looking to deepen economic and political relations with Beijing, building on the $1.79 billion China invested in Nigeria last year.

Trade volume has grown from less than $2 billion at the turn of the century to about $15 billion in 2015, according to government figures.

There are currently more than 200 Chinese companies working in engineering, food, agriculture, railway and road sectors, according to China's consul-general, Liu Kan.

China is also present in Nigeria's key oil and gas and power sectors, aviation, merchandising, information technology manufacturing, healthcare, textile and transport.

The China Railway Corporation and China Civil Construction Corporation are handling multi-million-dollar railway and road construction in Lagos, Abuja and other cities.

Buhari, however, complained about a large trade imbalance between the two countries in China's favour by some 80 percent to 20 percent.

"You must not see Nigeria as a consumer market alone but as an investment destination where goods can be manufactured and consumed locally," he said.

Image problem

Despite its sizeable investment, China has nonetheless room to improve its image in Nigeria, where the country is often associated with the dumping of inferior and even counterfeit products.

Nigeria's health authorities have previously said some 70 percent of drugs in Nigeria were fake or adulterated and pointed accusing fingers at imports from China and India.

Customs officials have also repeatedly raided and shut illegal textile importers in Kano and Lagos' China Town, a sprawling shopping complex, over the alleged failure to pay relevant duties.

Initiatives such as the Confucius Institute, which is similar to the British Council, Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institute, can help dispel myths and misunderstandings.

"After these sanctions, we have held several meetings with Chinese importers and we have intensified our intelligence and monitoring," Customs spokesman Wale Adeniyi told AFP.

"Certainly the importation of substandard goods from China has reduced drastically."



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