In early July, two Chinese nationals were kidnapped by armed gunmen in Edo State in southern Nigeria. The two expatriates reportedly work for a glass company. This was the latest in a string of kidnappings of Chinese citizens in Nigeria in the past several years. Most recently, two other Chinese nationals working for a road construction company were abducted and later rescued by police in Nigeria’s southeastern state of Ebonyi in late April. Incidents of this nature typically garner little international press and are a byproduct of Nigeria’s often volatile security conditions and China’s increased investment and presence in the west African nation.
Sporadic kidnappings have not stymied the growth of economic ties between China and Nigeria. As Africa’s largest economy, endowed with oil reserves and a booming population, Nigeria is an attractive destination for Chinese outbound investment and exports. Cooperation between the two countries has led to the development of critical industrial infrastructure for Nigeria, including railways, roads, airports, and telecommunications networks. Currently, Nigeria has taken more than $70 billion in loans from China to finance its development.
Two-way trade between China and Nigeria totaled $2.8 billion in 2005 and by 2017, the volume had grown to $12.3 billion. Although China is not one of Nigeria’s top trading partners, imports from China account for more than 18 percent of Nigeria’s total imports, while exports to China amount to slightly more than 1.6 percent of the African country’s exports, illustrating a significant trade imbalance in China’s favor.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has been a vocal supporter of Chinese investments and funding, stridently decrying concerns about a Chinese debt trap. In February 2019, Nigeria formally signed on to Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, while broader regional cooperation between China and African countries often takes place via the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Despite the pomp and circumstance that typically surrounds official state visits and publicized summits, the reality is that Chinese policy in Nigeria is likely far more fragmented than the official narrative depicts.
Approximately 40,000 to 50,000 Chinese people resided in Nigeria as of 2017, according to estimates from the Chinese ambassador to Nigeria. While many of these people work on large-scale projects with direct or indirect government ties, there is another contingent of Chinese nationals who have traveled to Nigeria, as well as other African countries, to start private, entrepreneurial ventures. While Chinese investors and business leaders tend to be more risk-tolerant, business decisions and locations are often conditioned and influenced by on-the-ground security concerns.
When it comes to Nigeria, outsiders typically focus much of their attention on insecurity in Nigeria’s northeastern region, where Boko Haram has been leading an insurgency. But the country also suffers from other forms of violence, including clashes between farmers and herders in what is known as the Middle Belt region, militant attacks in its southern oil-rich delta region, and more localized communal conflict.
China’s commitments to Africa in general extend beyond economic and investment interests, with funding and programs dedicated to conflict prevention as well as active contributions to UN peacekeeping operations. While this suggests a recognition by Beijing of the need to help create a more stable and peaceful environment in countries across Africa, Nigeria’s complex and nuanced security landscape makes it an unlikely test bed for a more integrated approach to security and economic development. “China’s security interests in Nigeria are an outgrowth of its trade and investment priorities,” writes Matthew T. Page in a September 2018 U.S. Institute of Peace report. Moreover, he argues that some business practices, including bribery and no strings attached arms sales, may inevitably exacerbate the security challenges in Nigeria.
Workers generally bear the brunt of any local backlash or response to China’s presence in Nigeria. Groups with grievances and political agendas are wont to use kidnapping more indiscriminately, targeting Chinese nationals and others alike to enrich themselves or pursue specific interests. International firms are typically dependent on private security providers or off duty local police for protection in Nigeria and while Chinese victims of kidnapping are rarely subject to violence, its potential is pervasive.
Several Chinese construction workers and doctors were killed between 2012 and 2014 in Nigeria’s northeastern Yobe and Borno states, Boko Haram strongholds, and Chinese factory workers have also been killed in Lagos. The Premium Times reported in April 2018 that following a spate of kidnappings, Chinese expatriates fled a construction site for a road connecting the cities of Lokoja and Benin, fearing further attacks.
Nigeria’s insecurity is likely to persist and the current wave of kidnappings seems to have become a nation-wide phenomenon. As Chinese firms continue to double down on investment in Nigeria, these are some of the questions that investors may want to consider. Will additional kidnappings dampen recruitment of Chinese workers willing to travel to Nigeria for construction, manufacturing, and entrepreneurial opportunities? How much risk are Chinese firms willing to face? What kind of incident could alter the risk-tolerance of Chinese firms? For now, however, the zeal for profit seems to outweigh the security challenge and threat of kidnapping for ransom.