by Siru (Rose) Zhu
Staff Writer

In 2009, a Nigerian immigrant in Guangzhou, China, died during a police immigration raid. The man jumped out of a second-floor shop window in order to escape the passport check, because he had overstayed his visa. His death resulted in a protest that involved around 100 African immigrants calling for justice in front of a police station in Guangzhou. While this incident highlighted the tensions between the African immigrants in Guangzhou and the local police, it also drew attention to the poor living conditions and tenuous status of China’s undocumented African immigrants.

Guangzhou now has the largest African community in Asia, with at least 100,000 African immigrants. The exact population figures vary depending on the source, due in part to the difficulty of gathering accurate information on a population who live on the margins of the larger Chinese community. A large number of African businessmen and traders, mostly from West Africa, moved to the city in the late 1990s. Most of these immigrants were involved with international trade, buying cheap products in China and selling them back to their home countries at higher prices. Since then, increasing numbers of African businessmen from other parts of the continent have migrated to Guangzhou due to its status as an international trading center, as well as “one of China’s biggest manufacturing hubs,” with nearby textile and electronics factories.

Some of the African immigrants have valid visas or local residence permits; many face difficulties getting their visa extensions approved and are forced to overstay their visas, remaining in China illegally. African immigrants usually enter China with short-term business visas that last four to six weeks, while three-to-six month or one-year visas are reserved for regular travelers who “have been in Guangzhou for over a decade.” Despite having valid visas, some immigrants find themselves overwhelmed by the adjustment to life in a foreign metropolis, and fail to “take advantage of the mobility provided by a valid visa.” [1] As the renewal deadline approaches, many find it difficult to extend their visas. Between the choice of returning home and staying clandestinely in China, many immigrants choose the latter because they simply cannot afford to go back to their home countries. Additionally, there is pressure from family members and friends back home who harbor expectations that immigrants will naturally “accumulate wealth abroad.” [2] Or as one Nigerian expatriate put it,“When you go back to Nigeria, you are expected to ride a car, buy a house, set up a business. If you don’t do that quickly, you are recognized as a loser.” [3]

In their home countries, immigrants apply for their visas through the local Chinese embassy under the auspices of the central government in Beijing. Yet once in Guangzhou, they have to apply for a visa extension through the local government, which does not have the same directives or procedures as the central authority in Beijing. This difference in standards for granting visas causes difficulties for immigrants who need visa extensions. “You apply for your visa extension with the local government who decide not to extend it,” said one Nigerian immigrant, who noted Guangzhou extends very few Nigerian visas, “…then you face a problem when you overstay and become illegal.”

A recent change in migration policy has made the problem even worse, and the lives of these immigrants even harsher. Previously, immigrants would travel to other cities, which have lower standards of visa extension, to extend them before they expire, and then move back to Guangzhou. But the Chinese government closed that loophole by “requiring that applicants live in the province where they received their visa extension.” Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province; if immigrants want to stay in Guangdong province, they have to apply for visa extensions through registries in Guangzhou. Legitimate traders who want to stay and do business are often turned down by these registries, which approve visa extensions at very low rates.

Losing legal status causes many problems for both African immigrants and the local community. African immigrants with expired visas cannot relocate or travel and lose the ability to obtain legal accommodations and jobs. Many immigrants only go out early in the morning or late at night in order to avoid local police, who frequently check their passports. Without valid paperwork, these immigrants cannot travel to other cities through common transportation systems, which require valid passports and visas, and cannot participate in legitimate businesses with local people. Their lapsed visa status, coupled with the fact that some cannot afford to go back to their home countries, lead many African immigrants to resort to illegal activities, such as drug trafficking in underground markets, to survive. Yet this severely undermines the security and social order of the local community, as well as the reputation of African immigrants generally; ultimately this process leads to increased restrictions on visa extensions. The limits on visa renewals, combined with poor living conditions and other factors in Guangdong, results in a hostile environment for African entrepreneurs, with some choosing the international markets in Vietnam, Thailand or Turkey instead. The decreasing number of traders entering China has also led to the decline of local Chinese economies; African traders are the main clients for many local businesses. “From 2006 to about 2010, this warehouse used to be completely full all the time…” but inventory has dropped by 75 percent, said one Chinese shipping agent.

Many African businesspeople in China are trying to make a living through legitimate business practices. But some of them are forced to live “underground” in squalid conditions and resort to illegal activities because they do not have valid documents required for the legal operation of a business and must therefore avoid local police. “I would stop tomorrow if immigration gave me a visa. I go to church, I love my family, I am a good man, but when they make you illegal you can only do illegal things,” one Nigerian immigrant surmised, explaining the reasons why some Africans immigrants resort to drug trafficking. Many undocumented immigrants live in small suburban bedrooms that often house seven or eight other people, because they either cannot afford better housing, or cannot rent better apartments without valid visas. Their abilities to pursue legitimate activities and participate fully in society are largely limited by the difficulty to get a visa extension.

The undocumented immigrants who want to return to their home countries are discouraged from coming forward and seeking help from local governments because, if caught, they face prison time and a fine of more than RMB 5,000 (US$750), and are required to pay the costs of repatriation. [4] Most of them cannot afford the cost of traveling back home, so they are forced to contact family members to send money to pay for their detentions or deportations. Those with insufficient funds to be released may stay imprisoned for months or even years. [5] The harsh treatment and high costs of prison are infamous among African immigrants. BBC has reported 30 Nigerian deaths in Chinese prisons; at that time only 700 Nigerians were imprisoned in China. It costs around $300 a month—twice as much as on the outside—to buy extra food for adequate nutrition in prison, due largely to inflated prices for food. [6] Without the money to leave China, and facing potential imprisonment by staying, African immigrants must remain in the shadows of the larger population.

There are some government services beginning to cater to China’s African immigrants. For example, government offices in the areas in which most immigrants live are now providing services in Chinese, English, French, and Arabic. China has long been a single-culture state– its laws were not designed for a multicultural population. “The backbone of Chinese immigration legislation is the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Control of the Entry and Exit of Aliens,” which was adopted in 1985. However, the law, and the institutions that are implementing it, was not designed for the current situation of high immigration volumes, such as the case of African immigrants in Guangzhou. [7] The Chinese People’s Consultative Conference generated a report on the situation in 2008, and the government now has plans to reform the regulatory system. The report points to many problems regarding the immigration pressure including “unreliable statistics, weak enforcement of tenancy registration, lack of control over the housing market for foreigners, insufficient cooperation between government bodies and shortage of resources for law enforcement…” [8] While the report addresses the problems caused by large numbers of undocumented immigrants, it does not address the fundamental problem of a system that makes them “illegal” in the first place.

It is reasonable for the government to set visa restrictions for immigrants because immigrants might affect local employment or increase the cost of housing and education. However, the disparity of standards can only lead to immigrants being trapped in the city. In order to solve the fundamental problem, the alignment of the standards of the central and local migration registries is very important. The central migration registry in Beijing should consider raising its visa-granting standards by taking the local effects of the immigrants into account, while the local authority in Guangzhou should lower the standards of granting visa extensions to qualified, legitimate traders. The government should do thorough background research of the applicants before granting them visas. Once the applicants qualify for visas granted by the central migration registry, the local government should not set high standards of visa extensions when they re-apply. The government should issue long-stay visas to some “regular and legal immigrants in accordance with the duration of their work contract or business purpose.” [9] If they are doing legitimate business in Guangzhou, the government should not close the door on them, especially if doing so hurts the local economy in the process.

Photo by Xianyi Shen


[1] Haugen, H. Ø., “Nigerians in China: A Second State of Immobility.” International Migration 50 (2012): 65–80. Wiley. Web.20 Apr. 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cisse, Daouda. “South-South migration and trade: African traders in China.” Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University (2013): n. pag. Policy Briefing. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.


By Alexis Coopersmith
Staff Writer

A video uploaded to YouTube in August showed a Nigerian police officer stop a car, sit down in the passenger seat and demand 25,000 naira, or $155, from the driver, claiming that he committed an offence. When the driver responds saying that he does not have that much money to give, the officer threatens him with arrest. The video was recorded secretly by the driver in Lagos, Nigeria and within a few days of being uploaded to YouTube, it had over 150,000 views (Agence France Presse 2013). The video made public a common occurrence for many Nigerian citizens, igniting outrage among Nigerians and bringing the issue of law enforcement corruption into the national spotlight. The short video illustrates a greater issue that currently threatens the development of Nigeria: public sector corruption.

Transparency International defines public sector corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain within the government and its decentralized units—including the police force, primary education institutions and the healthcare system (Slater 2011). The public sector is “the part of the state that produces or allocates goods and services for the benefit of the state and its citizens” (McNab & Bailey). Corruption that occurs within the public sector is particularly damaging to a nation’s development because it directly disadvantages the everyday lives of citizens. Amartya Sen, economist and Nobel laureate, defines development as the removal of unfreedoms that restrict peoples’ choices, actions, and opportunities (Sen 1999). Public sector corruption perpetuates extreme poverty, exacerbates social inequalities, and “diverts scarce funds, denying poor people access to basic social services and resources to improve their livelihoods” (Transparency International 2012). Corruption fuels feelings of powerlessness among the poor masses in Nigeria by undermining accountability of those entrusted with power. It ultimately disadvantages everyone who depends upon the integrity of those in positions of authority. In these ways, corruption obstructs development by denying people the social, political, and economic freedoms necessary to exercise fully one’s agency.

Nigeria lags behind much of the world terms of development, as is shown by various development indicators. Nigeria is ranked 153 on the Human Development Index, with an index of .471 and an inequality-adjusted index of .276, making it a “low human development” nation. The average life expectancy at birth is 52.3 years, while the mean years of schooling for adults is only 5.2 years. The gross national income per capita is $2,102 (United Nations Human Development Reports 2013). According to the United Nations Human Development Programme (2013), 68 percent of Nigeria’s 170 million people live on less than $1.25 a day. Nigeria is considered partly free by Freedom House, but is noted to have experienced a decline in political rights and civil liberties in 2013 (Freedom in the World 2013). On Transparency International’s scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean of corruption), Nigeria scored 25 in 2013, an even lower score than it received in 2012, placing Nigeria at 144 of 177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. These indicators demonstrate the urgency of Nigeria’s need to pursue policies that can usher in development and provide tangible benefits in the lives of citizens.

Of the various forms of public sector corruption, corrupt law enforcement is a particularly devastating problem for Nigeria’s development. In “Locus of Control and Self-Efficacy as a Means of Tackling Police Corruption in Nigeria (2008), police corruption is described as being context-dependent. There is no one definition of police corruption because it can occur in various forms, “any unethical behavior on the part of a police officer is corruption” (Aremu, Pakes, & Johnston 2008, 98). As the video posted to YouTube demonstrates, police officers bribe, extort and embezzle money throughout the nation on a daily basis. Because these acts of corruption figuratively and literally takes money out of the hands of poor Nigerians with the threat of imprisonment, it has the immediate effect of directly robbing citizens of their ability to act freely as agents by limiting their daily resources. In the long-term, police corruption diverts money away from impoverished masses who already live below the poverty line and destroys citizen trust in its nation’s institutions. The Nigeria Governance and Corruption Survey found that Nigerians rate the integrity of law enforcement as the lowest of all state institutions (Aremu, Pakes, & Johnston 2008). This blatant lack of trust in an institution intended to ensure citizens’ security significantly detracts from the legitimacy of the government (Agbiboa 2012).

Corrupt conduct within Nigerian law enforcement has been a national issue since the establishment of the Nigeria Police Force in 1930 (Human Rights Watch 2010). Under colonial rule, Nigeria’s police force had a reputation of incivility, ruthlessness and unpredictability. Law enforcement continued its criminal conduct and disregard for people’s rights post-independence. In the decades after Nigeria declared independence from Britain in 1960, political instability allowed police corruption to go unchecked. Impunity incentivized officers to continue their corrupt actions. Failing to earn the public’s support, the police force’s legitimacy has since suffered dramatically (Alemika 1988). Currently, Nigeria’s police force, the largest police force on the African continent, is “a symbol of unfettered corruption, mismanagement, and abuse,” and the officers “are viewed more as predators than protectors” (Human Rights Watch 2010, 2). Police officers have garnered such a negative reputation because, for decades, officers have threatened the economic well-being of Nigerians, abused people’s rights, and undermined rule of law.

Though people of all socioeconomic statuses are negatively affected by police corruption, impoverished Nigerians suffer the greatest. Nigerian police officers routinely demand money from the public and threaten arrest or assault when people fail to pay. Drivers and passengers are often targeted for bribes during traffic stops or during police roadblocks in which officers demand a toll fee to pass (Human Rights Watch 2010). Officers are also reported to conduct mass arrests of innocent citizens in public spaces such as markets and demand money from them and their families for their release. When impoverished individuals are forced to give up their money or are arbitrarily detained, their livelihoods are severely threatened. The physical safety of the individual and their family is put into jeopardy, denying them freedoms and ultimately restricting their choices and opportunities in society. Extrajudicial killings, torture, and holding hostages for ransom continue to be common practices that blatantly disregard human rights and violate citizen’s entrustment of power (Human Rights Watch 2013). Furthermore, criminals with money can “avoid arrest, detention or prosecution, and influence police investigations” through bribery, leaving citizens unequal under the law (Human Rights Watch 2010, 3). The police activity threaten the nation’s development by disempowering the poor, undermining the rule of law, failing to provide for people’s security and creating cash flows outside the national economy.

Previous leaders of Nigeria, General Abacha and Olusegun Obasanjo, failed to bring an end to the police’s corrupt practices. According to Agbiboa (2012), General Abacha’s kleptocratic regime did little to stop corruption and rule of law crumbled. President Obasanjo, on the other hand, gained popular and international support when he enacted tough anti-corruption measures in Nigeria’s police force. He formed the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, a law enforcement agency that recovered $5 billion in stolen funds and prosecuted corrupt businessmen and policemen (Nigeria’s elections: Big men, Big Fraud, and Big Trouble 2007). Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police was even convicted and imprisoned in 2005 on corruption charges under Obasanjo. Within a couple years, however, Obasanjo’s regime no longer enforced anti-corruption initiatives, and private and public sector corruption once again flourished with impunity. His international and domestic support dwindled drastically as a result (Nigeria’s elections: Big men, Big Fraud, and Big Trouble 2007).

More recently, the Nigerian government under President Goodluck Jonathan has acknowledged problems with the nation’s police force and has taken measures to improve the quality of law enforcement. In an effort to curb corruption, the government has increased funding to the national police force as well as improved officer wages (Human Rights Watch 2010). Despite these efforts, enforcement has been intermittent and the government has failed to seriously address citizens’ grievances and to implement policies that adequately prevent officer impunity.

Law enforcement corruption shatters citizen’s trust in Nigeria’s public sector and in other government institutions and it devastates the nation’s rule of law (Aremu, Pakes, & Johnston 2008; Human Rights Watch 2010). Rule of law is the foundational mechanism to end private abuse and public mismanagement (Agbiboa 2012). Without functioning rule of law, Nigerians will remain impoverished and the nation will fail to provide its citizens with the freedoms essential to development. Economic development efforts require robust restrictions on the arbitrary exercise of power and without well-established laws regulating the law enforcement sector, national development will be significantly undermined. Corrupt police officers weaken Nigeria’s future for their own personal gain, because ultimately, “all corruption is a deceit, a lie, that sacrifices the common good or the public interest for something much less” (Caiden & Truelson 1988, 19).

Work Cited

Agbiboa, D. E. (2012). Serving the few, starving the many: How corruption underdevelops nigeria and how there Is an alternative perspective to corruption cleanups. Africa Today. 58(4), 110-132. Indiana University Press. Retrieved March 2014, from Project MUSE database.

Agence France Presse. (2013). Nigeria’s police corruption problem highlighted by youtube clip of cop soliciting bribe. Huffington Post.

Aremu, O. A., Pakes, F., & Johnston, L. (2008). Locus of control and self-efficacy as means of tackling police corruption in nigeria. International Journal of Police Science and Management. 11(1), 97-107.

Caiden, G. E., & Truelson, J. A. (1988). Whistleblower protection in the usa: Lessons learnt and to be learnt. Australian Journal of Public Administration. 47(2), 119-129.

Human Rights Watch. (2010). “Everyone’s in on the game” Corruption and human rights abuses by the Nigeria Police Force. Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch. (2013). World report 2013. Human Rights Watch.

Freedom in the World 2013. (2013). Democratic breakthroughs in the balance. Freedom House.

McNab, R. & Bailey, K. Manuscript 2: Defining Corruption. U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

Nigeria: Corruption Fueling Police Abuses. (2010). Human Rights Watch.

Nigeria’s elections: Big men, big fraud, and big trouble. (2007). TheEconomist.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. Random House, Inc. New York.

Slater, R. (2011). What is public sector corruption?. Transparency International.

Transparency International. (2012). Poverty and corruption in africa: Community voices break the cycle. Transparency International.

Photo by Zouzou Wizman