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Our lives in Cote d’Ivoire, by Nigerians in Abidjan

Cote d’Ivoire is an unusual place to expect to see Nigerians. It is four countries away from Nigeria and its official language is French, which…

Cote d’Ivoire is an unusual place to expect to see Nigerians. It is four countries away from Nigeria and its official language is French, which is hardly spoken anywhere else in this country except in classrooms. So, you would not expect to find Nigerians in droves in Cote d’Ivoire, but you are wrong. There are said to be between 1.4 and three million Nigerians in that country. Most of them are legitimate migrants doing business as Ambassador Soyombo would testify. But then, there are an estimated 300 of them in jails showing the percentage of Judas’ in the comity of worthy disciples. Their negative influence reduces the tempo of Iwuchukwu’s voice but it does not stop this young Nigerian from carrying his head and shoulder high.

Although he wouldn’t tell, his fellow compatriots credit him with exceptional gallantry. And he is said to be one of the most respected and feared Nigerians living in Cote d’Ivoire. In 2002, Frank Okpene, a Nigerian undergraduate of Rivers State origin, was travelling through the country when he was murdered in cold blood by a gendarme who stole his bale of cash. The story did not make newspaper headlines, but it did not stop Iwuchukwu from taking it on. It was an act of bravery in a country where even citizens do not willingly confront the authorities.

It was also a difficult battle for a country that was going through a civil war. Okpene could as well count as a casualty. The second reason is the language and legal barrier, but none of these daunted the young man who took the government and its agent to court on a long and tortuous four year legal battle. He won, a generous acceptance of guilt and the payment of amend and some form of compensation to the victim’s family. Iwuchukwu and his colleagues have proven the doggedness of the Nigerian spirit, something akin to courage under fire.

But that is not something he talks about. He is more concerned about giving recognition to the enterprising spirit of the Nigerian in Cote d’Ivoire even in the face of deepening political crisis in that country. He says: “the new generation of Nigerians in Cote d’Ivoire are not interested in the local politics. What they want is a peaceful atmosphere to transact their business, contribute to the growth and development of their host community and repatriate their profits back home. Apart from revenue coming home from the US and the UK, I think Nigerians resident in Cote d’Ivoire contribute the third largest foreign funds home. We deserve a special recognition.”

Iwuchukwu could pass for a historian too with a good grasp of the historical evolution of the Ivoirian-Nigerian business relationship. He explains that there are four sets of migrants into Cote d’Ivoire. The first set came in 1902, mostly from Ejigbo, in present day Osun state and could be seen comfortably assimilated into the Ivoirian life in the comfort of Treichville, a suburb of Abidjan. It is here that Nigeria has its community office painted in the national colours with officials running it amid the hustle and bustle of a thriving motor spare parts business.

Treichville is home to the Hausa, whose head; Ibrahim Lamin, is a fourth generation Ivoire-Nigerian with an expansive mosque as prove of integration and acceptance. Lamin’s great grandfather came into this country and for the four generations that followed, only him has touched base with Katsina, his ancestral root. The remaining 19 children of his father have no place they call home than Abidjan. Treichville is home to Chief Simeon Oyedele, the Oba Yoruba of Cote d’Ivoire who migrated here in 1947, long before Treichville became the centre of trade, commerce and residency. Unlike the Lamins, Oba Oyedele’s children, all born here have returned home to Ejigbo and are doing well. He dreams of joining them and would have no other choice, because he has not been lucky enough to build here. “A couple of times I have tried to build here, but my house has always been demolished. At the fourth count, I decided it was not my destiny, so I returned home to build and have since sent my children back. I hope to join them soon and I go home sometimes four times in a year.” Oba Oyedele speaks fluent French even without formal education.

To the first generation of Nigerians in Cote d’Ivoire, home is Abidjan. A second set of migrants arrived here as refugees running away from the ravages of the Biafra war. They are people of Ibo and present Niger Delta extraction who established a trade route across the Atlantic. To them, there’s an entire area of Abidjan called Quartier Biafra. At the end of the civil war, most of them returned and the remnants who remained are a minority in their own quartier. But they are not complaining. Their hosts and other nationals who met them there are treating them well.

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