NIDO President Austin Koled (L) on the Nigerian Independence Day on October 1. Photograph supplied
Shadrack Adjekota causes a stir when he manoeuvres his grass-green, enormous motorcycle through Phnom Penh’s rush hour traffic. Two long gold necklaces dangle from his neck, his pink stovepipe jeans are skin-tight, and a black wife-beater hugs his broad shoulders. The fitness coach, model and electronics merchant is used to the many Cambodians turning their heads towards him, and enjoys the attention.
“Nigerians just love to show off. We cannot hide it and that arouses suspicion,” Shadrack explains.
Nigerians are noticeable in Phnom Penh. Some wear blingy jewellery, order champagne in clubs and drive fancy cars, Shadrack says. They have made headlines in the past: in September, four were arrested in a major drug trafficking bust. Shadrack says it’s the combination of bad press and flashy behaviour that leads people to believe that all Nigerians in Cambodia are drug dealers.
With only 500 members, according to NIDO (Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation) Phnom Penh statistics, the small size of the Nigerian community does not seem to merit its reputation.
“In 1992, 300 Nigerians were part of the UNTAC peacekeeping force in Cambodia,” NIDO president Austin Koledoye, 45, says as he explains the genesis of the community here. Austin, like many Nigerians, is a determined man. To make sure that I understand where the first expat bar in UNTAC times was he sketches the Independence monument and Norodom Boulevard in blue marker on the table at a coffee house.
He’s equally adamant about lambasting the perception that the Nigerian community is almost like a criminal organisation.
Anthony Obadin Odion, 23. Photograph: Alex Crook/7Days
Kingsley Metu Njoku, 26. Photograph: Alex Crook/7Days
Rather, he says, the tribal structure, imported from Nigeria, creates a welcoming community where differences that may have led to war at home are put aside.
The single Nigerian men in Cambodia often lack a family structure to support them: of the 500 Nigerians living in Cambodia only 25 are women. Austin says that in Nigeria the men seek out to make a living and earn money, even abroad, while the women stay at home.
“We encourage people to form tribes when they come here.” Austin says. “If someone comes to NIDO with a problem we ask him: “what group, church or tribe do you belong to?”
Most Nigerians belong to a couple of ethnic groups - each with individual languages - they can fall back on in case of a problem, such as the tribes of Igbo, Hausa or Edo. With more than 250 different tribes Nigeria has a rich ethnic diversity.A lack of economic opportunity and territory disputes have led to tribal conflicts in the past, sometimes resulting in the death of many civilians.
“Once you leave the shore of Nigeria there is no problem with possession and territory any more.” Austin says. Shadrack for example is an Igbo but he sees Austin, who is an Edo, as his older brother. “I respect him.”
When the different groups and tribes cannot solve a person’s problem, such as finding a job for them, NIDO steps in. They are concerned about their countrymen as well as the Nigerian image in Cambodia. “We tell the people either they can contribute here or they have to leave again.”
Some Nigerians who come here hoping to make a living through playing football, Austin says, struggle to do so and sometimes end up in crime instead. Others have been trafficked here, by people who pretend to be football agents promising a career.
“Many Nigerians that come to Cambodia are looking for a good life. The downside of this is that they often don’t have the full knowledge of the country. People that come here are often stranded,” Austin says, sadly. “Many Nigerians committed crimes and violence. It often happens with people that are desperate.”
When members of the community commit a crime they are kicked out of NIDO and are on their own. It is part of the association’s constitution.
Austin and Shadrack are angry with the Nigerians that are involved in criminal activity, because they undermine the honest work done by community members in the country.
Many Nigerians that leave Nigerian shores for Cambodia dream of a professional career in football. “We are a football nation,” Austin says proudly - but the chances of success are comparatively small: there are ten teams in the Cambodian premier league and not all of them allow foreign players.
Additionally, a league rule limits the amount of foreign players to five per team. The situation among foreign players is highly competitive.
Kingsley Metu Njoku (an Igbo like Shadrack), has been living outside Nigeria for nine years and played football in four different countries. He and his flatmates Anthony Kingsley Metu 26, and Anthony Obadin Odion (a Hausa) make a decent living from football.
“Anywhere we make our living we consider home. We are very happy to make a living here,” Kingsley says.
It is around 4pm and about 20 African players occupy a small dirt pitch with two small goals next to the vast cobbled plane that opens up behind the main entrance area of the Olympic Stadium.
Despite their small number and the scope of the area, the African football players are the centre of attention.
They shout louder, kick the ball harder and run faster than the groups of Cambodian boys quietly kicking around footballs next to the pitch. The majority are professional players.
Every afternoon at four, after they train with their regular league teams, they gather here to play at their full energy.
“African players are known for their powerful and aggressive football,” Kingsley says.
Initially, Cambodian players joined the afternoon football sessions but they couldn’t keep up and stopped coming. Kingsley and Anthony have played for the premier league club, the Phnom Penh Crowns, for the last two years.
They are sportsmen through and through. Every morning at 5:30am they are already warming up, running around the Olympic Stadium athletics track. They usually train until 10am. After a few hours of break and rest the next training session starts around 2pm, followed by an extra ‘African session’ at 4pm.
“These guys don’t even have time to be criminals,” Shadrack says. It annoys and saddens him that people in Cambodia treat him and his friends with resentment.
“It really p****s me off. Not every black man is a Nigerian and not every Nigerian is a criminal.” He raises his voice and shakes his arm and index finger, swiftly moving it up and down, and goes on: “That is racism! Please write down that I said it like that.”