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Financially pinched Nigerians lose some patience with expatriates in their midst

By David WinderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 1984

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.

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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.