China’s curious engagements in Africa

BEIJING, April 12, 2016 (Xinhua) — Chinese PresidentXi Jinping(R) holds talks with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in Beijing, capital of China, April 12, 2016. (Xinhua/Rao Aimin)

The offer by the Peoples Republic of China to build the 3,050 megawatts Mambilla hydro power plant at minimal initial monetary commitment to Nigeria is raising some curious discussion points again about China’s constructive engagements in Africa and indeed Nigeria that led Africa to declare boldly to the West on January 11, 1976 that, “Africa has come of age.”

The terms agreed reflect the positive role that the Peoples Republic of China continues to play in the development of critical infrastructure in the country. According to Minister of Power, Works, and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, China would under an import-export financing arrangement, contribute 85 per cent and Nigeria would pick up the remaining 15 per cent of the $5.72 billion cost. Besides, the interest on the long tenor –up to 20 years- project loan could be as low as 2 per cent. It must be noted though, that this financing model also grants that the lending country supplies companies, equipment, and workers for the project. This may not be quite in line with the local content policy of the Nigerian government. But it would be reasonable to expect that the general and long-term benefits of the deal on Mambilla power plant outweigh the immediate concerns.

Coming from an experience of oppression and balkanization by foreign powers that is similar to the imperialism and colonialism suffered by nations of Africa, China’s role in the development of Nigeria as well as Africa, is a story of collaboration, economic assistance, and even diplomatic support that predates independence. And this relationship has been consistently underpinned by an attitude of mutual respect. As China’s economy grows stronger and bigger, its vast financial and human and natural resources have enabled it to relate more confidently with greater impact upon other nations at political, economic, and cultural levels.

The Nigeria – China relations has, in recent years been substantially- but not limited to- economic activities such that, trade has grown into multi-billion dollars level. In 2014, China exported into Nigeria $10.2 billion worth of goods (about 22 per cent of total imports but took goods worth only $1.67 billion from here (about 1.7 per cent of total exports). Recent figures from the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics indicate that China is the leading exporter of goods into Nigeria. In the fourth quarter of 2016, alone N404 billion worth of Chinese goods (17.5 per cent of total) came into this country. But that country did not even feature in the top five importers of Nigerian goods within the same period. Import was valued at over 1 billion dollars. This figure compares –unfavourably, it must be admitted – with Nigeria’s export of only hundreds of millions of dollars to China in the same period. Even now, while China ranks as the highest exporter to Nigeria, that country is not in the top four importers of Nigerian goods. Trade imbalance against Nigeria dates far back into the 1970s when, in 1972 – 74, Nigerian exports were worth a mere $14 million while its imports were worth $249 million.

A glaring and perennial trade imbalance, especially since a fall in oil export to China, raises the question whether China is a colonising power in another garb or is indeed a genuine partner for development and mutual benefits between both countries. The point to keep in mind is that nations relate with others on the primary basis of self-interest, and secondary basis of mutual interest. This is to say it would be naïve to expect China to do business with this country, or indeed any other country, except that its interest is first and foremost served thereby. This should be the article of faith that drives Nigeria as it interacts with China. On balance, however, Nigeria, like other African countries, has benefitted immensely from relations with China.

Nigeria has much to learn from a People’s Republic of China that came into existence only 68 years ago-just a decade earlier than Nigeria as a self-governing state. Besides its thousands of years of history and sophisticated culture, China has gained from a strong, focused, and uncompromisingly patriotic leadership that, in the face of foreign interference and opposition, forged a collective will to survive, thrive, and hold its own in the community of nations, the harnessing of its immense human and natural resources to feed itself, industrialise, and become lately, the second largest economy in the world. It is important to say too that China has extremely low tolerance for that value-corroding, socially destructive cankerworm called corruption.

Nigeria – China relations is similar in several respects, to China dealings with other African countries for the obvious reason that they face largely similar challenges and have basically similar development needs.

China has, historically, been a friend of Nigeria and Africa generally, and has demonstrated this in material and non-material support especially in the post-war economic needs of Nigeria. But the point must not be lost to anyone that China relates with Nigeria- and Africa in a strategic, long-term view manner. Its national leaders visit African countries often, while its envoys regularly relate with local traditional, political, and business leaders on a wide range of platforms. China makes large and small donations such as the $260 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, and cottage hospitals in Nigerian villages. It invests in land for agricultural and other purposes. It establishes industries through a combination of state funded large projects on the one hand, and small and medium private commercial and other forms of business. And its citizens mix enough with the local populations to reside and do business in nearly every nook and cranny of their host countries.

Besides, China has established the Confucius Institute in selected Nigerian universities and elsewhere, to encourage the learning of its official language and to spread its culture abroad. It will be no exaggeration to say that the country is in Africa for the long haul. This being so, it behoves Nigeria and Africa to similarly engage China through a most rigorous strategic thinking that ensures maximum benefits and respect in both the short and long terms. One example: while China is one powerful country with a unified, focused and coordinated external policy, Africa is a fragmentation of 54 sovereign countries neither quite united nor sufficiently coordinated in foreign policy to advance the best interests of the continent.

Notwithstanding the best of motives, the one is likely to outsmart the other in a thinking-intensive game of negotiation. The obvious good that Africa derives from this partnership does not mean that everything is fine and flawless. Not at all! Complaints against China’s practices in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa range over many issues. These include the violation of local labour laws in Chinese industrial businesses, the dumping in Nigerian markets of sub-standard, or cheap, or even fake products; the use of Chinese hands where local hands can well serve the purpose; discriminatory pay structures between indigenous and Chinese staff and the ill treatment of local employees, are some of the unacceptable features.

What is more, Chinese imports on a large scale have also rendered locally produced goods uncompetitive leading to closure of local industries and job losses. But, according to the former deputy prime minister of Zimbabwe, Prof. Arthur Mutambara, Africa must not blame China but must take responsibility for its own problems – including Chinese misdemeanor – and solve them.

Notwithstanding the reservations about China, there is no doubt that Nigeria – and Africa in general – have much to learn from China, a nation taken in under 70 years from the fourth world level to the first world category, thanks to consistent visionary, fiercely patriotic leadership on the one hand, and a willing, determined, and enduring followership on the other. Besides, China takes the education of its citizens very seriously. The Asian country takes research and development in all areas of knowledge seriously. It also makes sense to remember that China takes the core values that sustain and promote national interest as a fundamental objective of state policy. And it bears repeating: China has extremely low tolerance for corruption in high places. These are the examples African countries must emulate to take a great leap into this very competitive global village.

With China and indeed, any other trading partner, Africa must avoid a repeat of the colonial agenda that maintained it as merely a source of raw materials in one direction and a consumer of finished goods in the other. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) remains a good ‘win-win partnership’ platform upon which Africa – China relations must be continually refined to serve the best interests of the two sides. It is said that one who outthinks you will outsmart you. Africa must first assume full responsibility for its development and prosperity before it relies upon outside help. A thoughtful Africa must define in all ramifications, the nature, purpose and method of its relationship with China. The African Union has a duty to set out and continually review the overarching parameters of Africa-China relations such that the continent would never again suffer foreign domination and plunder. While it may be admitted that relations between nations are perpetual work in progress, the point should ever be in focus that a win- win partnership must remain the guiding principle and the watchword of both parties in Africa-China relations. That is the only way we can walk our vaunting that Africa has indeed come of age!



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