By Ikenna Emewu
February 10, 2021, would be 50 years since Nigeria and China acceded to diplomatic alliance.
The bilateral treaty has made much progress in the past half-century that needs to be celebrated as that grand alliance has yielded local and international benefits to the two worlds.
Before occupying the global stage, China had played a central role in keeping together and in progress the Asian countries. That is akin to the role Nigeria played for years and still plays in Africa.
In Asia, China is the largest country, just like Nigeria in Africa and with the largest markets due to their largest populations. It is no surprise that the two countries have maintained a virile relationship in the five decades in so many ways.
The relationship, though with major landmarks over the years, peaked since the early 2000 when the Chinese President Jiang Zemin made history as the first Chinese leader to visit Nigeria in April 2002. But his successor, President Hu Jintao did a double in 2004 and 2006. During his 2006 visit, on April 27, Hu also became the first Chinese president to address the Nigerian National Assembly.
These visits were, however, in reciprocation of the tradition of Nigerian leaders’ visits to China, starting on September 10, 1974, when General Yakubu Gowon was the first Nigerian leader to visit China.
Ten years after, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida was in China as Nigeria’s representative to attend the 35th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, all Nigerian Presidents have visited China due to the rising importance of the friendship of the two countries in both global affairs and in the continent-wide Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
The visits by the leaders have, however, been the spicing of the larger and deeper relationship over the years beyond politics and diplomacy to culture, technology, manpower development, military cooperation and many more.
In 2020, in an interview with the Africa China Economy Magazine, the Chinese consul-general in Lagos, Mr. Chu Maoming, said there were over 120 top grade Chinese companies doing business in Nigeria, from engineering, construction to manufacturing and partnerships with Nigerian private sector business players. Aside from these, there are thousands of Chinese citizens in some other businesses.
In the same vein, trade between Nigeria and China has expanded over the years such that China has been Nigeria’s largest trading partner in machinery and consumer goods in the past 11 years.
At the Chinese New Year celebration in Abuja in January 2019, Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr. Zhou Pingjian, told Nigerian media that, beyond just the expansion of trade volume, the nature had started to change with Nigerian goods to China increased by 70 per cent with higher percentage of finished products. Although the bulk of the goods China buys in Nigeria are raw materials as confirmed to me at the Nansha Port in Guangzhou in 2016 that 30 per cent of goods China imports from Africa come from the Lagos ports and mainly timber, many Chinese investors have also made inroads in manufacturing in Nigeria.
In the past three years, there have been over 10 proposed industrial parks in states of Nigeria and all in alliance with Chinese investors. These are in addition to already existing ones like the Ogun-Guangdong Free Trade Zone in Ogun State, the Lekki Free Trade Zone, Lagos, that houses the world’s largest refinery in the making, owned by Aliko Dangote with Chinese partners. The facility has a Sinotruk assembly plant, a seaport and fertilizer factory, all valued in billions of dollars.
At the eastern flank, Chinese investors have partnerships with Innoson Motors in Anambra and the ANAMMCO in Enugu to manufacture automobiles. In early 2019, the Lagos State government signed a deal with the Guangzhou Automobile Company (GAC) to assemble cars in Lagos.
Chinese investors’ partnerships are also very prominent in Cross River State, Akwa Ibom, Enugu, Edo, Delta, Ebonyi, Kaduna, Kano and some others in alliances with the state governments.
I recall at a private meeting with the former Chinese Ambassador, Zhou, where he challenged Nigeria to work towards more industrialisation as that was the only way its trade with China would be more favourable. He advocated what he called made-in-Nigeria-with-China industrial plan, stating the willingness of China for larger partnership with Nigeria towards that.
The expanding trade in Chinese goods by Nigerian businesspeople prompted a currency swap deal between the Central Bank of Nigeria and the People’s Bank of China in 2018. The arrangement became important and necessary as the CBN revealed that about 40 per cent of foreign exchange requests by Nigerians for international business were by those that did business in China. CBN reasoned that it would make business easier if such swap is in place to save Nigerians the trouble of circuitous transactions of exchanging the naira for the US dollars and later the Chinese Yuan. The swap made it possible for Nigerians to apply to the CBN directly for the Chinese Yuan.
That was, however, a follow-up to an earlier deal where the government of Nigeria in 2014 ordered that 4 per cent of Nigeria’s foreign reserve be domiciled in the Chinese Yuan.
Outside business, on October 1, 2020, a day that that was, coincidentally, Nigerian and Chinese National Day, the Chinese charge d’affairs and head of the Embassy held a celebration that honoured 49 Nigerian workers in Chinese-owned companies who he said had made huge contributions to the sustenance of the economic friendship between the two countries over the years.
In the construction industry, the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) has been dominant in the provision of transport infrastructure, including railways, airports, seaports, roads and bridges since 1981. The company successfully completed the Abuja Integrated Transport System projects that included the Abuja metro light rail, expansion of the Abuja International Airport and the Abuja-Kaduna railway. Later, the Ajaokuta-Itakpe-Warri railway link was inaugurated and the Lagos-Ibadan railway that has started operation to be launched early in 2021.
Other companies like the CGC and CHEC have been prominent too.
In the telecommunication sector, since Huawei signed a deal to operate in Nigeria in November 2004, it has also played a major role in the provision of telecom infrastructure in Nigeria.
In 1996, when Nigeria faced diplomatic headwinds during the military era, as the US rallied the world for full sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Nigeria, it was China that aligned with some European countries to the aid of Nigeria and staved off a global freeze of Nigerian assets.
When again the US and European countries were hesitant to support Nigeria for a decisive action in combating violence in the Niger Delta region preferring to safeguard their investments there that explored oil with no regard for human and environmental rights, Nigeria turned to China for military assistance that helped procure arms and equipment.
Similar development repeated in the north-east of Nigeria against Boko Haram terrorists when China again agreed to supply military hardware to prosecute the war against the terrorists.
The two countries also signed a US$311 million agreement for cooperation in communications and space programmes that helped develop and launch the Nigerian communications satellite (NigComSat-1) by 2007 to expand cellular and Internet networks in Nigeria.
These efforts were reciprocated by Nigeria in 2017 when it ordered the closure of a Taiwanese diplomatic office in Abuja and formally recognized the One China policy.
Aside from government and investment circles, the people-to-people relationship of the two countries has been wonderful. A BBC survey in 2014 reported that Nigeria was number one pro-China country in the world with 80 per cent positive approval rating, 10 per cent negative and 10 per cent neutral rating.
Recently, the CCECC assisted in setting up a railway engineering department at the University of Abuja to encourage human capital development in the country and reduce dependence.
Among about 60,000 Africans studying in China and mostly on scholarship, Nigeria has the largest of about 6,000 scholars, a positive sign of helping the country develop human resource base.
Although the two countries have good landmarks to celebrate for the past 50 years, in the years ahead, more needs to be done. For instance, after Nigeria signed to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) memberships, Nigeria needs to leverage more on China’s growing global economic influence. Here is the largest market on the continent and needs to take a central position in Chinese investments in Africa. This is a challenge to Nigeria to show more interest in China’s diplomacy such as the hosting of the secretariat of the FOCAC.
On China’s side, the key position of Nigeria should also be reciprocated. All Chinese media African head offices are located outside Nigeria and even the West African office of the China Africa Development Fund (CADFund) is in Ghana. China also has to do more for Nigeria by elevating its membership of the African Development Bank, where Nigeria has controlling 16 per cent voting right to voting right status.
That would be a spark to the good friendship of the two sides for a better tomorrow.
•Emewu, journalist and executive director of the
Afri-China Media Centre, wrote from Lagos ([email protected])