Do Chinese firms in Africa employ convicts from China? The allegation has resurfaced in Nigeria. But so far, no facts have been produced. There are reasons, though, for the rumor to persist across Africa.
The rumor has been making the rounds among Nigerians, fed by a number of Nigerian officials, including the Senate Committee on Interior Chairman Adams Oshiomhole.
“I have on good authority that prisoners from foreign land are working in Nigeria as construction workers,” Oshiomhole said earlier this month. “I even believe and dare say it that there are foreign prisoners who are working in Nigeria. They were shipped to our country to serve their prison terms,” he later reiterated.
The newly inaugurated Comptroller General of Immigration (CGI), Caroline Wura-Ola Adepoju, commented on the allegations last week, without agreeing or denying that prisoners had indeed been brought to Nigeria.
“Saying that Chinese prisoners are brought in and employed in their companies in Nigeria is very subjective,” Adepoju said. “It is contrary to the international convention to name a particular race. However, before anybody comes into the country, they are subjected to thorough checks before issuing visa applications.” Such practice would not be tolerated, Adepoju said, stressing that “there is a new sheriff in town.”
However often the practice of bringing prisoners to Nigeria is reiterated, proof of it is hard to come by. Nigerian economist and public policy expert Zuhumnan Dapel spoke to DW about the difficulties with providing facts.
“Immigration, they are law enforcement. They bear firearms to enforce the law,” Dapel told DW. “[Caroline Wura-Ola Adepoju is] part of Nigeria’s national security team. So she will have more information than the common man on the street — but I cannot verify this as an individual.”
No place for foreign prisoners in Nigeria
Provided this were actually taking place, legal experts leave no doubt that there is no basis for such a practice. “The Nigerian labor law, the international labor law and its conventions and the Nigerian Immigration Act — there is nowhere the laws contemplate a foreign prisoner to be given a work permit and to be accorded the status of a worker of a foreign company in Nigeria,” Zakari Sokga, a Kaduna-based lawyer, told DW.
“There is also no bilateral arrangement between any foreign country and Nigeria to legitimize prisoners serving prison terms in their own country for whatever crime to come into Nigeria as employees of a foreign company. Such a practice is illegal and it cannot be defended in law”.
Dapel, the economist, said such instances required action by the CGI. “If Chinese prisoners find their way to Nigeria through the back door, they don’t have rights or work permits to work. That’s illegitimate, and as the chief immigration officer in the country, it is her [Caroline Wura-Ola Adepoju] job to clamp down on illegal immigrants coming to work in the country.”
Why rumors spread
Social scientist and China expert Barry Sautman has been looking into rumors of Chinese prisoners working in various African countries for more than a decade. They are persistent in Nigeria and Zambia, but also circulate in countries like Tanzania or Angola, Sautman told DW. During his enquiries, however, he has not been able to produce any hard facts to prove such a practice.
“Not a single person has ever confirmed any aspect of it,” Sautman said. The Hong Kong-based academic, who is renowned for his thorough research, has also been subject to criticism for holding views close to the line of the Beijing administration.
Chinese businessmen found talk of prisoners sent to Africa to be unimaginable, according to Sautman. “Of course they have all kinds of problems in terms of bringing their personnel to Africa. And those problems are bad enough with bringing people who are free laborers. To bring somebody who is a convict and have to manage and secure that person — to them is just comical.”
One cause of the rumor, Sautman suggests, is the kind of gated and secured compounds found across Africa where Chinese workers live. “Some Africans who I speak to about it have seen these kind of compounds and they think ‘this looks like a prison to us’. They also know that in some cases companies will bring their workers out as a group to go shopping, they have entertainment… and then they come back.”
The politics behind the allegations
To understand the dynamics behind the narrative of Chinese prisoners working in African countries, the timing can be key. “These allegations most of the time rear their heads during election cycles,” said economist Zuhumnan Dapel. “Nigeria was due to elect its next president in 2019, that was when these allegations came up.”
At the time there were protests by unemployed Nigerian graduates, Dapel explained. “These protests were obviously that ‘you’re taking over the jobs we should be doing.'”
Four years later, the argument still circulates. “It’s more-or-less like you’re making people who can carry out the job effectively, you’re making them redundant,” one woman in Nigeria’s capital Abuja told DW. “Why do you get people who are in prison to come and serve in another country? I think it’s unfair.”
This holds for other African countries as well, social scientist Barry Sautman said. “In those African countries where the opposition has made China an issue, the idea that there are Chinese prisoners taking jobs away from local people, that’s something that might be useful in their political discourse,” Sautman told DW.
He mentioned from his research in Zambia that several opposition figures who opposed Chinese dominance on the continent loosened their stance once they were in government.
Chinese companies in Africa
One major reason for the outcry, it seems, is the strong presence of Chinese companies across Africa, companies that are known to contract workers from China. According to data collected by the Johns Hopkins University in the US state of Maryland, the number of Chinese (contracted or hired) workers peaked at 12,199 in 2019 — the year the allegations of Chinese companies bringing convicts to Nigeria first made the rounds.
This, together with a perceived lack of transparency in Sino-Africa cooperation, may have laid the ground for the debate to spring up.
“What leaders owe to their people is to be telling the truth, to be transparent,” economist Zuhumnan Dapel said. “When there are grey areas people try to understand the unknown, and in an attempt to understand the unknown, they come up with conspiracy theories. And to give no room for conspiracy theories is to come out clean.”
Dapel also pointed to the fact, irritating for many, that Chinese companies have a record of outbidding local and international competitors — although, as he explains, China’s minimum wage is roughly seven times higher than that of Nigeria.
Sautman, the Hong Kong-based expert, however, has a reason for that: “A lot of Chinese companies don’t have the same conception of profits.” Whereas Western companies often expected projects to produce at least 30% profit, things are different for Chinese bidders, Sautman said: “Five to 10% profit is just fine because in the Chinese market, the range of profit is anywhere between one and four percent.”
Ben Adam Shemang in Abuja contributed to this report.
Edited by: Benita van Eyssen
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Publish date : 2023-12-23 11:00:55