A Chinese Chief in Africa

Matthijs Bijl
May 4 · 5 min read
Photo credits to BBC.com

The newest chief in Kano State, Nigeria is a Chinese trader named Mike Zhang. On 19 April, Muhammadu Sanusi II, Emir of the northern Nigerian state, approved the appointment of Zhang as Wakilin Yan Chanan Kano — leader of the Chinese residents in Kano.

It’s not the first time non-Kano people were made chief in the state, with the press statement mentioning similar appointments of representatives of the Igbo and Yoruba communities. These chiefs were, like Zhang, appointed to “establish a peaceful coexistence between non-indigenes and their host.”

But Zhang was also not the first Chinese to be awarded the title of chief in an African country.

There is Hu Jieguo, a successful businessman who in recognition of his charity work and contributions to Nigerian society was awarded the title of chief in 2001. Or Fang Yibo, who was dispatched to Nigeria in 2003 by the Shandong Electric Construction Corporation and was crowned chieftain in 2007 by the Akam Oba (king) in Ogun State for being responsible for the construction of a modern school facility.

Left: Hu Jieguo with his private security forces. Right: Fang Yibo.

What does seem to be different, however, is that known examples of Chinese citizens being awarded the title of chief were usually of a more symbolic nature. These men were rewarded for their contributions as outsiders to the community. Unlike Zhang, they weren’t raised to the level of chieftain in order to lead a segment of that very community and resolve conflicts between ethnic groups.

Zhang’s turbaning, therefore, seems to be indicative of broader socio-economic developments rather than just rewarding the feats of a single man. It highlights the significant presence of Chinese in African countries, which amount to around 1 million. It underlines how, over the past decade, an increasing amount of Chinese traders and workers decide to settle on the continent. And, above all, it signifies the state of the integration process of Chinese immigrants among the local population.

The headline of a Chinese chief in Nigeria thus appears to bear the message of harmonious Sino-African relations. But, besides accommodating the current Chinese community, the apparent bid by the Emir to draw more Chinese money and businesses to Kano Sate also uncovers tones of simmering conflict as a result of the increased presence of Chinese in the state.

A spokesperson said the appointment “followed an increase in the number of Chinese businessmen who engage in different forms of businesses in Kano without organised leadership.” Zhang’s appointment as chief also would make it easier to solve conflicts emanating from business transactions between Chinese and Kano traders.

The rise in Chinese traders has caused conflicts between the newcomers and Kano traders in recent years. The spokesperson detailing the Emir’s decision highlighted how Muhammadu Sanusi II intended to prevent “a more complicated situation in the near future.” In 2012, for example, news of 45 Chinese nationals having been arrested for illegal textile trading in Kano city reached the headlines of major media.

Economic conflicts involving Chinese traders are not limited to Kano state but can, in fact, be observed in most if not all African countries that have a significant presence of Chinese immigrants.

But it is not only economic reasons that give rise to skepticism and sometimes downright xenophobia in African countries in response to the growing Chinese immigrant population. Ugandan immigration officials expressed their dissatisfaction in 2016 with the trend of Chinese men marrying Ugandan women:

“But we have many who are marrying and even producing… Even our Ugandan women are accepting to [reproduce] with these men.”

However, accounts of tension between Chinese immigrants and their African hosts often misrepresent the whole story when exclusively focusing on themes of imperialism and racism (with racist attitudes being observed from both sides).

Lack of government control over (illegal) Chinese-run mines and infrastructure projects in countries like Zambia is an important factor exacerbating labor conflicts and exploitation by Chinese companies. It requires Beijing to take more responsibility for business ventures undertaken by its citizens and punish those who violate local laws rather than actively using its political sway to protect those who do, and asks for African governments to launch initiatives and actively protect land from environmental degradation and safeguard labor laws.

The case of Ghana highlights the effectiveness of a combined effort and could be followed as an example by other African nations. Following Ghana’s crackdown on illegal mining in 2013, tens of thousands of Chinese illegal miners returned to their country. China recently affirmed Ghana’s policy by issuing a statement warning its citizens they would not be protected by their home country in case of their arrest.

Furthermore, qualitative studies looking at the lives of Chinese immigrants in African countries and their place in society highlight, above anything else, how there is a lack of interaction with locals and their customs. Small-time traders and farmers often cater to other Chinese rather than servicing the local community, reducing the potential of a well-developed symbiotic relationship.

Successfully tackling the issue of integration of Chinese migrants in African countries goes beyond the level of macroeconomic programs and boils down to the problem of a lack of intercultural understanding between both parties. Increased government attention and programs focusing on raising intercultural awareness, both by Beijing and African governments, would likely help the integration process and reduce conflicts caused by the newcomers.

In that regard, it is an important step taken by Kano State to award a Chinese trader a chieftaincy. In his role as Wakilin Yan Chanan Kano, Zhang will act as a representative for the Chinese at the Kano royal court, interacting with the various ethnic groups present in Kano and establishing closer relationships. Zhang’s new position will make it easier to increase intercultural awareness for both sides and embeds more firmly the position of the Chinese community in the emirate.

Zhang, who has lived in Kano State for 17 years already, highlighted himself the important role given to him in his newfound role of chief, saying in the local Hausa language during his turbaning ceremony: “I will work towards strengthening the relationship between the people of Kano and the people of our country, China.”

Matthijs Bijl

Written by

Studying in China, interested in Sino-African and Afrasian relations. Contact for research/writing opportunities: https://www.linkedin.com/in/matthijs-bijl/.