By Dr. Austin Maho
In the August 31, 2021, article in the “Global Voices” an online publication. there was a piece by one Nwachukwu Egbunike title: “Chinese firms in Nigeria face widespread labour abuse allegations, tainting bilateral relationship”
This piece is a response to the article, because it falls within the growing spat of misinformation about China and the Chinese which is fuelled mostly by Western-sponsored media misinformation and propaganda.
A response is appropriate to the convoluted and one sided article to correct his misrepresentation of facts.
Moreover, the outbreak of the coronavirus has led to an increase in “sinophobia”. It is a season of Chinese bashing, pulling China down and looking to humiliating the Asian giant by all means necessary has become the past time of many paid hack writers and media platforms who have no respect for the ABC of journalism that is: Accuracy Balance and Clarity.
The entire article is a well-worn out rehash of conjectures, hearsays and tittle-tattle. The central thesis of the article is that Chinese companies operating in Nigeria too often mistreat, exploit, and abuse their Nigerian staff and condemn them to working in slavish conditions. He also Accuses the Nigerian government of rarely taking action against these abuses, because of its debt obligations to China which has “tainted bilateral relations” .
These allegations he says, are “shared in Nigerian newspapers and on social media by reporters, witnesses, and others” Which according to him “together build a narrative that paints Chinese factory owners and business people in Nigeria as abusive and indifferent to the health and rights of their employees” .
The key words here are “build a narrative” that is being shared in Nigerian newspapers and on social media.
However, to build a “narrative” does not equate to fact. As a journalist one would have expected that Nwachukwu Egbunike would have taken up the challenge to do a proper and independent investigation of these “narratives” to establish their varacity or otherwise rather he chosed to regurgitate these self same narratives to build his own narrative without saying anything new in a predetermined ploy to hoodwink the unsuspecting.
Allegations of Forced Labour
At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic when the world was not yet sure of what it was dealing with, the Chinese community in Nigeria saved lives, they feed the hungry, clothed the destitute, brought succour to the sick made medical donations to empty hospitals, provided funds, and expertise to built isolation centres among others. The Chinese government, busines mogul like Ali Baba, the CCECC at one point or the other sent plane load of life saving medical supplies to the Nigerian people.
People were told to stay in one place as one of the preventive protocols because when people move the virus moves which was a significant aid to the spread of the virus.
The Chinese were able to stem the spread of the virus through adent adherence to protocols and rigid dicipline. It is that same dicipline they brought to bear in their operations and facilities in Nigeria.
The dictum was simple: If you want to go home, go home, but if you want to stay and work stay and work, not roaming in and out putting others at risk.
How ridiculous does it sound that a full grown man can be held against his will, in his own country to work in a “slave like condition” in a factory owned by a foreigner!
Such statements deminishes the free spirit and independent mindedness of an average Nigerian. The truth is that it was a choice and many opted to stay and earn a pay.
For christ’s sake the World was dealing with an unknown virus that as at then had no cure or vacinne, people were dying in their thousands and palpable fear was spreading across the world and you expected people not to act in their best interest to protect themselves and those entrusted in their care?
The writer accused some Chinese owned companies operating in Nigeria of forced labour at the peak of the covid-19 pandemic.
Nwachukwu specifically mentioned, Goodwill ceramic, a Chinese couple in Abuja, and the Inner Galaxy Steel company. He however avers that “not every allegation has been proven”, in any case he still used the cases together with posts and tweets by faceless and unverified individuals as evidence of unfair labour practices which is rather curious.
Inner Galaxy steel company for instance is arguably the biggest factory in the entire South- East region of Nigeria providing direct and indirect employment to thousands of Nigerians.
The company has positively impacted its immediate community through aggressive corporate social responsibility (CSR) obligations, to their host community with whom they have lived in peace and tranquility for several years.
While Nwachukwu failed to mention that the company gave out Covid-19 palliatives worth millions of naira to its surrounding communities at the height of Covid-19 pandemic he went at length over events that have been proven to be mere fabrications.
He failed to mentioned that the over one thousand workers of the company earn more than the federal government approved minimum wage and that even while the country was on lockdown they continued to pay staff who decided to remain at home.
The talk of forced labour was peddled for mischief. The evidence in the public domain is that Inner Galaxy Steel company signed agreement with employees who were willing to stay and work, and those who were willing to stay agreed on their own accord to abide by the epidemic prevention regulations as issued by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC,
Wages were raised as attested to by the workers themselves. The average worker’s salary doubled, far exceeding the minimum wage set by the federal and state governments in Nigeria.
Temporary accommodation was provided and later upgraded to permanent structures for the comfort of the workers who chosed to stay in the company facility.
The workers were given free meals including free health care and Covid-19 protective gears. It is as a result of the proper prevention measures that no staff of the company contracted the virus.
These efforts have been acknowledged by its workers, ocal communities and state governments.
Should such company be condemned or commended? Nwachukwu did a shoddy report,, he didn’t even border to represent the views of workers of the company or host community but yet reached a conclusion. Certainly that falls short of the time tested tradition of Accuracy, Balance and Clarity in journalism.
The Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) operatives which visited the company in an on-the-spot assessment of the allegations of unfair labour practices against the company exempted the company of all allegations leveled against it, including the Abia State government which set up a committee on the matter. These are information in the public domain which Nwachukwu ignorantly or mischeviously ignored.
TAINTED BILATERAL RELATIONSHI BETWEEN CHINA AND NIGERIA
Nwachukwu Egbunike believes the Nigerian government is unable to act as a result of its heavy indeptedness to China which has tainted bilateral relationship between both countries.
The fact, however, is that many people who express reservations about Chinese loans rely on hearsay and propaganda and have failed to do their own independent research on the subject.
All Chinese loans in Nigeria are tied to projects. The most unbiased, research-based and independent report on the subject of Chinese loans is contained in the June 2020 report of the “China Africa Research Initiative (CARI)” at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) or SAIS-CARI.
The peer-reviewed report concludes that “Chinese loans are not currently a major contributor to debt distress in Africa”.
Additionally, in a 2019 peer-reviewed research paper on the subject, Johns Hopkins professor Deborah Brautigam wrote, “The evidence so far shows that the drumbeat of alarm about Chinese banks’ funding of infrastructure across the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and beyond is overblown.”
She believes it was Trump’s Presidency agenda to demarket China.
Irrespective of these reports even by a top-rated Western institution, people, including journalists that should know better refuse to seek the truth for themselves and continues to brandish the debt trap argument.
Furthermore, report by the Debt Management Office of Nigeria shows that as at the end of 2020, the total borrowing by Nigeria from China was USD3.121 billion. This amount represents only 3.94% of Nigeria’s total public debt of USD79.303 billion.
This data shows that China is not a major source of funding for the Nigerian Government and as such cannot wield the influence over the Nigerian government and its officials that Nwachukwu Egbunike spoke about even if it wants to
Chinese government foreign policy as everyone knows has always been based on the policy of non interference on the internal affairs of other nations.
This policy of non-interference was captured by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2018 during the FOCAC Beijing Summit 2018
“We respect Africa, love Africa and support Africa. We follow a “five-no” approach in our relations with Africa: no interference in African countries’ pursuit of development paths that fit their national conditions; no interference in African countries’ internal affairs; no imposition of our will on African countries; no attachment of political strings to assistance to Africa; and no seeking of selfish political gains in investment and financing cooperation with Africa.”
The world is in the cusps of anti-intellectualism. Intellectuals who ought to bear the torch of enlightenment have themselves become hired pens, spin doctors of misinformation and half-truths.
Since establishment of diplomatic relations between Nigeria and China in 1971 the relationship has grown steadily. China is today considered as one of Nigeria’s closest allies and bilateral partners. China is also one of Nigeria’s important trading and export partners.
According to a 2014 BBC World Service Poll, 80% of Nigerians view China’s influence positively, with only 10% expressing a negative view, making Nigeria the most pro-Chinese nation in the world. If Nigerians feel different it would have been reflected in the independent poll conducted by the BBC.
It is important that journalists and Nigerians in general should desist from allowing themselves to be used to propagate the virulent hatred currently being exhibited against China as a result of the global geopolitical struggle for supremacy between the East and the West.
The infractions of a few should not be used to tar the image of the many law abiding Chinese citizens living in Nigeria and contributing in no small measure to national development.
That some Nigerians and worst still journalists are ready to believe the very worst of allegations against Chinese business men without seeking or obtaining verifiable evidence, should be deprecated and condemned by all well-meaning people.
Opinion is free but facts are sacred. “Global Voices” which presents itself as pan global news outlet should have done more investigative journalism rather allow its space to be used to publish wild allegations and misinformation.
The writer, Dr. Austin Maho is a lecturer at the International Institute of Journalism, and publisher Daybreak newspaper. A weekly newspaper based in Abuja