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China in Africa: The Real Story

Irene Sun: Chinese Businesses and Corruption in Nigeria

Deborah Brautigam

Irene Yuan Sun's analysis of Chinese Businesses and Corruption in Nigeria as published in The Guardian (Lagos), September 21, 2013. Here, Irene finds herself in a Lagos market, unexpectedly translating the negotiations between Chinese and Nigerian businessmen over the cost of importing a container of contraband blue jeans. She concludes this provocative article with this summary:

Many Nigerians have the impression that the Chinese are incredibly corrupt. I would make a slight modification: the Chinese in Nigeria are incredibly corrupt, because the Nigerians in Nigeria are incredibly corrupt.
What I mean is this: on their own, the Chinese are neither devils nor angels. They simply amplify the characteristics of the existing business environment in Nigeria. For now, this means that they aid and abet corrupt practices, because that is what individual Nigerians demand as the price to play in the Nigerian market. Unlike Western businesses or development institutions, the Chinese generally do not speak English fluently, so they cannot read the laws for themselves. Moreover, they are here to make money, not to take a stand for law and order. All of this means that the Chinese have the effect of reinforcing the status quo, and today, that status quo is the corrupt diversion of public monies into private hands.

As this textile importation example shows, for Nigeria’s business environment to improve, it will require not only passing thoughtful legislation, but also honoring those laws in everyday practice. But the power is in Nigeria’s hands. The Chinese will go to great lengths to do business in Nigeria; today, they brave murky laws, shady characters, and underhanded practices to play in this market.
Imagine what they would do if Nigeria cleaned up its act.