A Marriage of Convenience: Its Foundation and Future


Bola A. Akinterinwa
President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) paid a 4-day State Visit to China to seek support for the development of infrastructure in Nigeria, especially in the area of power, aviation, water supply, and housing sectors. During the visit, Buhari pledged to honour all agreements already signed by his predecessors in the power sector. He sought reduction in the trade imbalance in their relationship, which has generally been in China’s favour, with the ultimate objective of a mutually benefiting win-win relationship, based on reciprocated respect and trust. The President showed interest in honest Chinese investors who are ready to establish manufacturing and processing industries in Nigeria.

And true, the visit provided a convenient platform for both countries to agree on how to strengthen industrial capacity cooperation in the areas of manufacture of cars, household appliances, construction materials, textiles, and food processing. Buhari also promised to speedily complete the 4000 megawatts Mambilla Power Project in Nigeria and directed that technical committees on joint projects be quickly established. Nigeria agreed to a Chinese loan of $6 billion, accessibility to which no future agreement or approval will be required but which will simply require identification of projects. Nigeria also agreed to the use of the Chinese currency as part of Nigeria’s foreign currency reserves.

It is within this context that the agreement done by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Limited and the Central of Bank of Nigeria on the Renminbi (Yuan) should be understood. As explained by Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, Nigeria wanted to borrow the cheapest possible money and therefore had considered the possibility of issuing Chinese Panda Bond in order to make up for the deficit in the 2016 budget. This is nothing more than an expression of a new marriage of convenience that further consolidates the existing entente between the two countries. Also a British Broadcasting Corporation Service (BBC) carried out a survey in 2014 in which 85% of Nigerians reportedly consider China’s influence in Nigeria and Africa positively. Only 10% saw it negatively. This led the BBC to conclude that Nigeria is the most pro-China nation in the world.

Besides, both countries had earlier on signed a USD 311 million agreement to develop cooperation in communications and space programs. In this regard, China had helped to develop and launch the NICOMSAT-1 in 2007 in order to expand cellular and internet networks. Both countries have signed agreements on protection of investments and have also set up a joint Economic and Trade Commission. In 2002, an agreement was done on double taxation. More than 30 fully-funded Chinese companies operate in Nigeria. The Chinese have been involved in the rehabilitation of the Nigerian Railway, the Games Village of Abuja Sports Complex, etc. While China exports to Nigeria light industrial mechanical and electrical products, Nigeria exports crude oil, timber and cotton to China.

What is particularly noteworthy about Buhari’s visit to China is the new life given to the relationship. What former President Olusegun Obasanjo tried to build but which his immediate successor did not sustain, Buhari appears to have now seen more wisdom in it and is therefore deepening it. In doing so, to what extent could the new marriage of convenience last? Will the Chinese live up to expectations of the Nigerian people? What are the likely implications of the new rapprochement for the traditional allies of Nigeria? Will the government of Nigeria be able to take advantage of the relationship by translating the potentialities to manifest destiny? And perhaps most questionably, many have suggested that wherever the Chinese go to settle, all the local industries necessarily fold up. Is this true?

Foundational Dynamics
Professor Alaba Ogunsanwo, former High Commissioner and Ambassador and a lead scholar on Sino-Nigerian relations, has noted that ‘China is clearly interested in the peace and stability of African States as it is in only such an environment that growth, development and prosperity can occur…’ He argued that ‘the Chinese do not come in as redeemers or as the so-called experts, unlike their western counterparts. Instead, China sees Africa as a partner since the country itself experienced poverty and underdevelopment in the past.’

Secondly, the mere fact that Chinese companies currently account for about 50% of construction work in the whole of Africa and particularly that, as at March 2014, China has replaced France as the 4th largest exporter of arms in the world, according to an official report released in Stockholm necessarily endears the Chinese to Nigerians as a people to look out for. In August 2015, China surpassed the US to become Nigeria’s biggest trading partner. Put differently, how did China make it? In 2010, when Nigeria’s traditional arms suppliers, for reasons not clearly explained, were not forthcoming in assisting Nigeria in stabilizing the Niger Delta, the Chinese did not waste time in making available for Nigerian procurement military hardware and ammunition from China, as well as giving the needed training.

Again, when the European countries took sanctions against Nigeria under General Sani Abacha, China did not join the sanctioning countries. In fact, it was Sani Abacha that actually first took the steps in 1995 to draw China closer to Nigeria, following the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa. The adversity of the sanctions imposed by the West compelled Nigeria to look towards China for survival as an alternative to the West.

Thirdly, Africa, Nigeria, in particular, is a terra cognita of raw materials not only taken advantage of by the former colonialists but in which the Chinese are also now interested but with a different approach. As far back as 1960, China did recognize that Africa accounted for 99% of columbite in the world, 98% of diamond, 80.1% of cobalt, 47.7% of antinomy, 24.4%m of copper and 29.4%. And true enough, the nuclear powers largely depend on Africa for the raw materials required for the manufacture of Weapons of Mass Destruction, especially that the output of uranium in Africa is more than the combined production in the US and Canada.

Fourthly, there is the commonality of policy attitude, such as the ‘One-China, two systems.’ The Chinese government vehemently opposed the existence of two Chinas, and therefore does not accept any national sovereignty for Taiwan. It accepts that capitalism in Taiwan and socialism in China can co-exist. Nigeria not only shared this position but also gave active support to China in several international fora.

Additionally, both countries are opposed to imperialism. China does not want to behave like a typical superpower. As former Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping noted in his address to the UN General Assembly on April 10, 1974 ‘a superpower is an imperialist country which everywhere subjects other countries to its aggression, interference, control, subversion or plunder and strives for world hegemony… Socialist China will never (emphasis mine) change her colour and will always stand by the oppressed peoples and oppressed nations.’ Chairman Mao also made it clear that China would not sell arms and ammunition to other countries but would provide them free of charge whenever needed for anti-imperialism purposes. As pointed out by Professor Ogunsanwo, China had fully built up, trained and equipped the Tanzanian People’s Defence Force without collecting one dollar in return.

Issues and Future
A new issue arising from the recent trip of Buhari to China is the extent to which Nigeria’s foreign reserve will continue to be fully dollarized. Nigeria reached an understanding with the Beijing authorities to have a part of Nigeria’s foreign reserves in Chinese currency, Yuan. This means that the Yuan will henceforth be part of the international currencies with which Nigeria can do business. By implication, the value of what Nigeria will have in dollars cannot but be reduced. Will this development affect negatively Nigeria’s relations with the United States, particularly in terms of reduction in development assistance?

True, US cannot be happy. It will be compelled to re-define its policy attitude towards Nigeria. However, no matter how discontented the US may be, the extent to which the US may want to frustrate Nigeria internationally cannot but be limited. Nigeria, for the US, remains a necessary ‘devil’ to relate with in the furtherance of democratic values in Africa.

Even though the US suspended for ten years in 2007 the transfer of the headquarters of its Africa Command, currently based in Stuttgart, Germany, in the hope that, sooner than later, the Nigerian environment would be propitious to host the military base, a closer and better understanding with China may inhibit the American agenda. Consequently, Sino-Nigerian rapprochement cannot but, day after day, raise new questions but Nigeria will continue to be a friend to all and enemy to none.

Buhari’s visit to China is good and perfectly in Nigeria’s long term national interest.
As noted by Margaret Egbula and QI Zheng, in their new book, China and Nigeria: A South-South alliance, no bilateral China-Africa relationship is evolving faster or impact more people, than the one between China and Nigeria.’

–– Prof Akintenrinwa is former DG of NIIA
pix: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang meets with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the Great Hall of the People in