Nigeria has close ties with India going back to over a hundred years. In this interview with EZRA IJIOMA, the Indian High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mahesh Sachdev, explains the thrust of that relationship and how to address stereotypes between the two nations. Excerpts.
How are you enjoying Nigeria?
Nigeria is enjoyable in a number of ways. Firstly, from climate perspective, Abuja is a benign city. The temperature is moderate. The weather is quite friendly and it allows one to move around without any hindrance. There is neither snow nor hailstorm, nor inclement temperature. People are nice, warm and friendly most of the time.
Each person that I have met has a story to tell. There is no uniform description because you come from such a diverse background in terms of tribe, experiences, language and religion.
Thus, one has to be alert all the time to know where the individual is coming from, what are his predilections, habits, and these are not predictable unlike in many other societies.
Before you came to Nigeria as a High Commissioner, what were your expectations of this great country?
Well, I had never been to sub-Sahara Africa before. When I was told that Nigeria was the next mission I was going to head, I was in Norway and had not visited any sub-Sahara African country. Though I was at one-time the Indian Ambassador to Algeria, I had to start from the scratch. Being in northern Europe, it was not easy to meet people who knew Nigeria.
But I developed a sense of fascination for the country, and what helped was a book that I bought. It was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. And halfway through the book, at the point when Okonkwo, a real hero, fled from his village for committing a female offence of killing a child by accident, I vividly recall, in snowbound Oslo (capital of Norway) in February 2008, and very cleverly the author concludes the chapter after the sentencing; and it was my intention to finish the chapter and go to sleep.
I thought the next chapter would begin with Okonkwo saying, “Who are you? I am powerful and rich. I didn’t commit any crime. It was an accident. I have my land and will stay on it.’’
I woke up and went to the next chapter to confirm and go back to sleep. But the next chapter began with Okonkwo and his four wives packing up the next morning and leaving for his wife’s village (actually it’s for his maternal village, Mbaino), to begin a seven-year exile, a sentence that was passed by the elders.
I could not sleep after that. I said, ‘My God, 200 years ago, these people had the concept of law and this concept had moral authority that could be implemented. Why would they be called the Dark Continent?’
This was before the oyinbos came here; these people had the concept of a developed and organised society. However, whatever I learnt about Nigeria from Chimamanda Adichie’s Half A Yellow Moon and other books did not prepare me in one specific way for Nigeria.
What is the thrust of India-Nigeria relationship?
Nigeria and India are intertwined as they have the same colonial heritage. The engagements we have officially began in November 1958, two years before Nigeria’s independence, when India opened an office in Lagos. This was a gesture of support to our Nigerian friends. We have never looked back on supporting Nigeria’s aspirations.
For example, half of Nigeria’s heads of state, about seven of them, were trained in India as military officers. India is Nigeria’s second largest trading partner (after the United States) with a total trading value of $13billion last year. In 2010, India was the largest investor in Nigeria when Airtel invested over $4billion in taking over Zain. Nearly 33, 000 Nigerians visited India last year. Many of them came for medical reasons.
There are around 35,000 Indians in Nigeria and about 20,000 Nigerians are in India. These engagements did not begin recently. We have Indian presence in Nigeria dating back to 1890, good 25 years before Nigeria became Nigeria. Then, there was an Indian company in Nigeria, Chanrai Group that just celebrated its 100 years in Nigeria last year.
What are you contributing to strengthen this relationship?
I think the relationship is doing well, but there are challenges. There is the challenge to accelerate the growth in bilateral ties. Secondly, to deepen the ties in certain new areas. Sometimes it happens in the traditional areas of our ties, but outside the traditional areas, there are no relations.
For example, we are buying about $10billion of Nigeria’s oil and gas but we don’t have any activity in the exploration and prospecting of oil in Nigeria. I think we should have it so that we can contribute to the production as well.
So these are the kind of things that we would like to deepen, and that is what the BNC is doing, expanding the scope of our bilateralism into new areas. For example, we are doing well in ICT training but non ICT training; almost nothing is happening.
Also, both sides need to address stereotypes.
In Nigeria, certain stereotypes exist about India. And in India, certain stereotypes exist about Nigerians. Some of them serve as impediments. For example, security issue is often a major concern to Indian businessmen. Some of them believe that as soon as they step into Nigeria, they will be kidnapped. We have to tell them that that is not the case.
Similarly, many Nigerians think that Indians are very different from them. No. The societies are very similar. So all these things need to be overcome and explained. Very often, on the cultural side, there is information, but information of more dramatic kind. You have to explain to Indians that Nigeria is not Nollywood and you have to tell Nigerians that not every Indian is singing every 15 minutes as Bollywood films show.
Many Nigerians complain that Indians do not make good employers as they short-change Nigerians. They point to the labour problems Airtel had when it took over Zain mobile. How do you respond to this?
I would like to address this problem frontally. But before I do that, I would like to say that the High Commissioner of India represents India and not Airtel. Airtel is a private company and Airtel Nigeria is a Nigerian company. Of course, its management has ties with India. The chairman is an eminent Nigerian businessman, Dr. Oba Otudeko. I am aware of what you’ve mentioned of Airtel having problems in the first week of October last year.
What I know is that Airtel has a different model of employment. Airtel calls its model ‘minute factory’. According to this model, the car factory does not produce tyres or lights or steering wheels. These are all sourced from outside and they are assembled and the car finally rolls of the factory.
So car factories do not produce anything within the factory, they just assemble the items. So Airtel founder, Sunil Bharti Mittal, revolutionised the mobile [telecom] industry by saying ‘I am a minute factory. I produce billions of minutes of communication, why do I have to produce everything inside? I should also be able to get everything from the outside and put together the minutes, billions of minutes’.
He has devised a spectrum under which telecom towers are controlled by some other companies, computers are owned by him but controlled by another company and outsourced for maintenance, the telecom equipment are for another company on the basis that they are managed optimally.
And this has enabled them to offer the consumers very attractive packages of low cost, high volume products in terms of low call rates and good services. Now, under this system, the services of that company are outsourced. When Airtel took over Zain, the system was all in-house and Airtel has tried to adjust the system to its Indian model of minute factory.
And in doing so, it has heaved off the back office to corporate companies; that is where the problem arose because the back office company wanted to have higher productivity, high numbers of hours and wanted salaries in accordance to the down going cost of call rates.
Before Airtel came in, the cost of one minute of communication in Nigeria was up to N45 per minute. Today, it is about N12 per minute. Now if those things are coming down that is what consumers will like. But on the other side it has to tell on the wages. That is one fact.
Secondly, Airtel wants to set up the largest call centre in Africa in Nigeria. This call centre will address the requirements of 11 or so English-speaking countries in Africa. So if a Kenyan in Nairobi (capital of Kenya) has a problem, he would call a number and his problem will be addressed by a Nigerian in a call centre in Nigeria or in Ghana by a Ghanaian.
In that way, jobs would have been created in huge numbers in Nigeria. As at today, in the services sector, productivity versus cost matrix is very important because jobs can easily go from one country to another. This is how India has gained.
Unless productivity and cost matrix is attractive, there is no guarantee that jobs will stay in a particular country because all that you need is to have an internet connection with a satellite dish and people put on their headphones and microphones to handle the calls.
This can be done anywhere in Africa. If productivity and cost matrix is better in X country then there is no reason apart from politics for that company to be in Y country. This is globalisation of the services sector and I think while Airtel has to learn its lessons of not jumping the system but doing it incrementally, the other side has some lessons to learn, that gone are the days when you put a steel factory and you cannot take it out.
What about other Indian employers of labour?
I think we have to be careful here. According to one estimate, Indian companies put together are the second largest employer of labour in Nigeria after the federal government.
Frankly speaking, in the three and half years that I have been here, I cannot recall any general complaint of this kind; specific individuals, yes. It is always possible for employees to fall out with employers. It is this kind of stereotypes that we are addressing.