This weekend, on October 1, the more than 1,000-strong Nigerian community in Cambodia will come together to celebrate their country’s Independence Day.
Abayomi “Austin” Koledoye, the president of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation in Cambodia (NIDO), has lived in Cambodia since the early 1990s. He came here because he was looking for an opportunity to work as an educator and to travel the world; a friend told him about Cambodia, and he decided to take a chance.
“I came here seeking adventure,” he says, as well as “the opportunity to build something”. His work at Northbridge School and his role in building and coaching Cambodia’s national basketball team are just two areas where he has accomplished that. But in his time here and at the helm of NIDO, he, like others in the diaspora, have had to deal with negative perceptions of black Africans.
“People question: ‘What are you doing in that place?’” he says.
It’s a familiar scenario to many Nigerians in Cambodia, including Ken Gadaffi, a former NIDO president who has lived in Cambodia for more than a decade.
A successful agricultural consultant in Nigeria, Gadaffi decided to leave “in search of self-actualisation”.
“I was looking for an opportunity to learn more things, discovering the world,” he says of a journey that took him via China and Laos.
It is more than ironic, he points out, that there is “a notion that [Africans] never travel to explore . . . people see Africans [only] as migrants”. And, Gadaffi adds, when Nigerian nationals appear in the news in Cambodia, it often relates to crime. The numbers of positive stories are dispiritingly few.
Fifty-eight-year-old Has Sareth runs a convenience store opposite the location of a former church that was implicated in a recent drug case involving several Nigerian nationals in the capital’s Boeung Tompun neighbourhood. He has mixed feelings about his former neighbours.
“Some are good, some are bad,” he says before adding: “We don’t know what their businesses are . . . their characteristics are like gangsters [but] very civilised, elegant.”
At a nearby junk shop, the owner – who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals – holds a less tolerant view.
“I think they are involved in drugs and girls,” he says bluntly.
It’s a narrative that is tiresomely familiar to leaders of the Nigerian community. For Koledoye, it makes as much sense as branding all white Europeans as pedophiles.
Or take Prince Lenee Lahben, who has lived in Cambodia for a decade and who is the senior pastor at the predominantly Nigerian Christ Embassy church a few streets over.
The church, which is the very reason Lahben came here, made headlines in 2009 when police raided it during a service following a tip-off about suspected illegal activity. The raid turned up nothing. At the time, Lahben decried the action as “racist”; these days he says simply that the police “were misinformed”. His relationship with the local authorities now is “cordial”, he adds.
Like the other community leaders Post Weekend spoke to, Lahben doesn’t deny that some in the Nigerian community are lawbreakers. They simply don’t want the actions of the few to be seen as representative of the many.
“Our being here is not to cause problems,” Lahben says, adding that such troubles remain rare. “We as foreigners have experienced a lot of peace . . . I would not be here for 10 years [if that weren’t the case]. This is what the Cambodian people should know.”
And, he says, the half-dozen Nigerian churches in Cambodia play an important role in creating a positive sense of community, both as a way to eliminate crime and to address persistent negative conceptions about his countrymen.
“The Nigerian community in Cambodia has improved in terms of what it was 10 years back . . . because the pastors in the churches have worked to send the message that crime is not an option,” he says. “That is why the church is here.”
It would, however, be wrong to assume perceptions among Cambodians are wholly poor. Ly Soriya, 26, who runs a nearby grocery store, for example, says she “cannot judge”.
“I think some are good and some are bad,” she says, “just like Cambodian people.”
And despite the arrests earlier this year of four Nigerians for possession of 2 kilograms of methamphetamines in the house across the street, Soriya’s views are shaped far more by a Nigerian teacher who comes by the store on the way to church: “He is good, friendly and honest.”
And when it comes to crime, the fact remains that – according to figures from the Department of Prisons – Nigerian nationals comprise less than 5 percent of the foreign prison population.
Department spokesman Nuth Savna denies institutional racism is at work, though he does not shy away from generalising the Nigerian community as being involved in criminal activity.
“We don’t have racism against them, but the reality is that they are involved in drugs and fraud. This is what we see, most of them,” he says, adding: “Some countries around us don’t welcome them.”
Bribes and prejudice
In his more than 20 years in Cambodia, NIDO president Koledoye has seen the community grow from just a handful to nearly 1,500 who are currently registered with his organisation – though he believes the true number of Nigerians here is higher, because many individuals do not register with NIDO. (The Department of Immigration declined to make its statistics available to Post Weekend.)
In an emailed statement, Koledoye says that, “the absence of [a] resident mission has turned NIDO Cambodia into the Embassy liaison office . . . performing functions that [a] full embassy will be doing”.
“Coming to a new culture and society is in itself challenging,” Koledoye says, adding that although Nigerians are just one of many groups of foreigners in the country, “being black can sometimes be tough”.
“Cases of racial profiling and prejudices are reported – these are part of the challenges,” he says. “Again, it should be noted that some are isolated cases and some come from perception.”
But when it comes to immigration and obtaining visas, Nigerian nationals are routinely asked to pay more than the official fee, or to hand over additional “fees” upon arrival. Koledoye says NIDO communicates with the authorities to address such matters, and it also meets regularly with community members, including church leaders, to discuss issues they face.
Among this year’s issues was that of comedian Idisi Akpobome. Despite having procured a visa before arriving in August, Akpobome was denied entry at Phnom Penh’s airport after he refused to pay a $1,000 “fee”.
Three senior officials at the department of immigration declined to comment on the issue of visa “fees”.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, while saying he was not familiar with Akpobome’s case, admits he has heard similar complaints. But he denies that Cambodian officials treat black people any differently, and encourages anyone subjected to discrimination to report it to the police.
Sopheak says he bears no ill will towards black people, noting that “the teacher of my children is black”. And, he insists, if Nigerians are paying more, it’s because they agree to do so to expedite entry.
“If they want to get it quickly and gave [immigration] some money and complain that they demanded money, it is wrong,” he says, adding that, “there is no law to charge more. They should not be stupid to let them charge more.”
NIDO’s Koledoye says one way to combat these perceptions is to highlight positive Nigerian role models here – in sectors such as education, athletics, the garment sector and the arts.
Gadaffi, who is an adviser to Cambodia’s National Olympic Committee, says in 14 years of living here, the problem of racism against black people has not subsided. But he sees it as part of a global phenomenon.
“It’s not just a Cambodian perspective . . . this is more about the global perspective about the African man: he is a poor guy and can only survive by drugs,” he says of that perception.
It’s something Gadaffi still faces.“For somebody like me, with my own status, the fact that I’m African, Nigerian, a black man in the position that I hold in Cambodia, I have to be checkmated every time.”
He is regularly asked: “How come you are Nigerian and you’re representing Cambodia?”
“I think if I was American or British or white-skinned, nobody would ask this question,” he says.
Nigerian Independence Day is observed on October 1. NIDO will host a gala on Saturday, October 8, from 7pm to 10pm at the Lucky Star Hotel, #12-14 Street 336.