Financially pinched Nigerians lose some patience with expatriates in their midst
Lagos, Nigeria — In what is often considered Africa's most African city, they are scarcely visible in the crowded market areas of Lagos. But in the late afternoons and on weekends they swarm in their air-conditioned cars into the mahogany-paneled Ikoyi Club, and from there onto its squash and tennis courts and its oasis of green fairways.
They are the expatriates - the big business men, the construction engineers, the agricultural experts, educators, and technocrats - who streamed into Nigeria when it was sloshing in oil money.
Although West Africa and Nigeria, in particular, were once viewed as the ''white man's grave,'' because of the trying climate and tropical diseases, the number of expatriates or ''expats,'' as they are called here, has risen tenfold since Nigeria gained independence in 1960.
Official statistics indicate there are more than 60,000 expatriates in the country. Britain, the former colonial ruler, leads with some 6,500, but there are substantial numbers of people from other European countries, from North America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
Their presence was accepted in a country that was growing by leaps and bounds and needed sudden expertise to run a more sophisticated economy lubricated by billions of dollars of oil revenue.
Now that the economy is squeezed by large debts and a declining supply of oil money, the role of expatriates is coming under much closer scrutiny. In some cases it amounts to a frontal attack.
In part it is a reflex reaction among economically pinched Nigerians who view the expatriates as high rollers who see no need to cut back on their comfortable life styles. A foreigner recently felt the sting of Nigerian nationalism when he went to exchange traveler's checks into local Nigerian naira.
''What are you doing here?'' demanded a glowering bank teller. When the answer failed to satisfy him, he raised his voice for the benefit of his listening African colleagues and rasped: ''You foreigners come here to exploit us.''
Such condemnation is by no means typical of exchanges between Nigerians and foreigners. Nigerians usually exhibit goodwill toward expatriates or view them with indifference.
But at the same time the criticism leveled against the white visitor to the bank points to a rising undercurrent of tension toward expatriates that is attracting attention and comment in the news media.
A cartoon in a recent Lagos newspaper depicts a well-dressed, white businessman of sufficiently rotund appearance to suggest he enjoys the good life , turning to an emaciated Nigerian dressed only in baggy shorts. The white man sniffs: ''Who owns the land?'' The word ''owns'' was not emphasized. Yet it was clearly intended to convey the message that while Nigerians may have won political independence, they remain economically dependent on outsiders.
In an article in the Lagos Sunday Times entitled ''Should expatriates be treated like lords?'' columnist Roseline Umesi says:
''When one hears the word expatriates, what readily comes to mind is the cost of houses they occupy in Ikoyi and Victoria Island at an average cost of 70,000 niara (some $90,000) a year rent. Other goodies include Mercedes-Benz cars and other heavy cars, constant supply of water by water tankers, standby generators, cooks, stewards, gardeners, baby nurses, and basic salary of not less than 30, 000 naira ($39,000 a year). They also have security guards and dogs.'' Ikoyi and Victoria Island are the more expensive areas of Lagos.
In Nigeria, the columnist goes on, the word expatriate is synonymous with exploitation because of the huge cost associated with expatriate maintenance.
Dr. A.C.A. Ogansanwo, a political science lecturer at the University of Lagos , has charged that expatriates have cost the Nigerian government 600 million naira (more than $800 million) in foreign exchange at a time when foreign reserves are very low.
On a nighttime television program, Dr. Udo-Udo Aka, director general of the Center for Management Development in Lagos, asks: ''Is it fair to ask foreign consultants to do the job because Nigerians have had no experience? I asked them to give them (Nigerians) a chance; then judge them.''
In Anambra State, workers revolted because three expatriates on a three-year state contract at a state-owned hotel were paid 5,000 naira a month each, given a weekly allowance of 100 naira, and a 7.5 percent interest of the total annual income of the hotel, tax free. Reaction was so sharp that the contract was terminated early and the expatriates deported.
As economic pressures increase, Nigerians are likely to demand that more jobs be given to Nigerians. But a spokesman for the influential Nigerian Institute of International Affairs cautioned in an interview that Nigerians should be ''rational and reasonable'' about excluding foreigners from key positions. Where possible, Nigerians should be employed, but in certain highly skilled jobs that is not feasible, he said.
Expatriates approached about whether they felt unwelcome because they were foreigners said they were unaware of any shifts in attitude. Their views on living in Lagos depend less on the kind of reaction they receive at the workplace than on their view of the city as a whole.
A health engineer who had lived in many parts of the world has a totally negative outlook on life here.
''This is by far the worst place. This is the last resort. This is the end,'' he says. The social calendar, he explains, is tightly restricted. ''There is such violence. Everytime you go out at night, you go out at risk to your life.'' The result, he says, is that many of his colleagues start their social life right after work at the Ikoyi Club and see to it that they get home by 7 p.m.
A Nigerian, hearing that comment, says it is typical of many Europeans who live an artifical life shuttling between the office, the club, and home, and not making any contact with the real Nigeria.
A Briton who has a Nigerian wife and doesn't seclude himself in an expatriate compound says: ''I love this country. It's difficult to put it into words.
''The people are genuine, sharp. Yes, they're out to make money, but I can take a Nigerian who wants to con me and I can slap his hand and he will laugh and back down.''
This is certainly true of Lagos taxi drivers, who set out attempting to charge almost extortionate fares. Suggest a destination and the driver is likely to respond with: ''12 naira.''
Come back with, ''That's ridiculous,'' and he'll volunteer ''6 naira.'' If you reply, ''3, that's enough.''
The driver may volunteer four, and the deal be settled. Or, as often happens, he may at your last offer jerk his thumb to the back of the cab to suggest he acquiesces and you should step inside.
Once inside, you would never know from the driver's pleasantries that a disagreement had ever arisen.