Author: Steven F. JACKSON
Affiliated Organization: JEMEAA
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: 2019
When Nigeria became independent on 1 October 1960, its prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, was unlikely to be friendly to the communists in China, who were then in the eleventh year in power.
In 1972, officials signed Nigerian–Chinese trade and economic cooperation agreements, and in a sign of improving relations, Nigerian head of state Yakubu Gowon visited Beijing in 1974, meeting with Mao Zedong. This was a time when Nigeria was flush with oil money, had an active foreign policy in Africa, and even had a modest foreign aid program of its own.
Once again, Beijing and Lagos found themselves on opposite sides of key African issues, but though the relationship was tested, it was not broken. There were official visits during this period, though none higher than vice-premier level on the Chinese side until 1996: Geng Biao in October 1978, Huang Hua in November 1981, Tian Jiyun in November 1984, and Wu Xueqian in March 1990.
After Beijing began market-based reforms in 1978, China’s attention to Africa waned, shifting attention to the West and its neighbors in East Asia. Similarly, the Nigerian Second Republic, under its president Shehu Shagari, stepped back from the foreign policy activism of the Mohammed–Obasanjo period. Xinhua News Agency cut its Africa budget and the number of correspondents in the continent declined from 72 in 1979 to 48 in 1984.12 China’s trade with Nigeria did not exceed USD 100 million until 1993 and did not exceed USD 1 billion until 2001. There were a few high-level visits in the late 1970s and some agricultural cooperation, but little else.
Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen visited Nigeria in January 1995 (though there is no mention of the event in his memoirs). State Councilor Luo Gan and Premier Li Peng visited in September 1996 and May 1997, respectively. The Abacha regime did hint that isolation and condemnation by the West for the 1995 execution of Ogani activist Ken SaroWiwa would force Nigeria to turn to other sources of trade and arms, including China, but little came of the threat, and Turkey and Iran were much more active in shielding the government in Abuja (the new seat of the Nigerian government) during this period than China. And Beijing, in the aftermath of its diplomatic isolation following the June 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, had no incentive to align itself with other pariah regimes; the main focus of China’s diplomatic initiative of the early 1990s was directed at East Asia in its “Good Neighbor Policy.”
China’s rapid growth of the 1980s and 1990s soon paled in comparison to its economic expansion in the twenty-first century, and with the increase of China’s economic size came an increase in Beijing’s diplomatic footprint around the world, and quite notably in Africa. The starting point was 2000, with the hosting of the first Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC, 中非合作论坛/ Zhōng Fēi hézuò lùntán), a triennial meeting held alternately in China and an African hosting nation. The third meeting in Beijing in November 2006 was particularly noteworthy, with 35 African heads of state and government in attendance, including Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo.
Although Nigeria has actively participated in the FOCAC meetings, Abuja has increasingly seen high-level visits as a primary mechanism for relations with other major countries, including China. By the twenty-first century, Nigeria and South Africa had become rivals for prestige, influence, and primacy for sub-Saharan Africa, something of which Chinese analysts were acutely aware. For China (and other external powers), this means a delicate balance of honoring both countries and trying to stay neutral when Pretoria and Abuja competed for the prestige of selection for major inter- national bodies, such as the African Union.
Nigeria has actively participated in the FOCAC meetings, Abuja has increasingly seen high-level visits as a primary mechanism for relations with other major countries, including China
South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki was the organization’s first chair, Obasanjo the third, and South Africa will assume the chair again in 2020 under Cyril Ramaphosa. Time and again, Nigeria has lost to South Africa, such as when the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) decided to add an African member in late 2010, inviting South Africa to join in 2011. China is arguably the major advocate for the BRICS and for South Africa’s inclusion.
China did, however, support the proposal for Nigeria to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) in 2015, something Nigerians greatly appreciated and that cost China very little, since it has supported other large developing countries’ inclusion in the UNSC as well.
Another key compliment China paid to the giant African country was designating Nigeria a “strategic partner.” Most of China’s strategic partners (战略伙伴 关系/ Zhànlüè huǒbàn guānxì) are in Asia, where almost all China’s neighbors (with the notable exception of Japan) are designated as partners of some sort. Nigeria was the first African state to be designated as a strategic partner, though earning such distinction took some time.
Nigeria has also been supportive of China’s policies. One of the standard issues that China brings up in its discussions with other countries is the “One China Policy” directed against Taiwanese independence.
The official yearbook of China’s Foreign Ministry, China’s Foreign Relations, stated in 2006 that Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing met with Nigerian Foreign Minister Oluyemi Adeniji and signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the establishment of a strategic part- nership based on talks between Presidents Hu Jintao and Olusegun Obasanjo in the former’s state visit to Nigeria in April.
Nigeria has also been supportive of China’s policies. One of the standard issues that China brings up in its discussions with other countries is the “One China Policy” directed against Taiwanese independence. Nigeria has consistently sup- ported Beijing’s position on this matter, and given the history of the Biafran ef- forts to secede from Nigeria in the late 1960s, the sentiment against separatism is probably sincere. Very recently, Nigeria joined 36 other countries in praising China’s “remarkable achievements in human rights” at a time when Western condemnation of Chinese policies toward Uighurs in Xinjiang has been mounting.
If Nigeria has been well-placed at China’s side on these international issues, the country’s geographic placement initially left Nigeria out of one of China’s biggest initiatives of the twenty-first century, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was grandly announced by Chinese president Xi Jinping in September 2013 in Astana, Kazakhstan. However, the initial idea laid out in the vaguely sweeping announcement saw the initiative connecting to Europe through the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and the Mediterranean port of Venice, Marco Polo’s starting point and a romantic historical terminus.
Nigeria’s security threats are purely internal but very substantial. Despite having a large army in terms of personnel (around 200,000), Nigeria has endured two very significant rebellions: a rebellion in the Niger River delta region and now, more ominously, the Boko Haram rebellion, most active in the northeast part of the country. Chinese analysts are well aware of Boko Haram (博科圣地/Bókē shèngdì), which began in 2002 in the northeastern state of Borno but has staged attacks throughout Nigeria, including the capital, Abuja.
Thus, Nigeria has been shopping for modern arms with which to fight these threats, and China has supplied some of them. In 2010, China sold 15 F-7NI fighter aircraft and trainers, along with air-to-air missiles, to Nigeria a deal es- timated to have been worth USD 251 million.32 Beijing also sold Abuja armored personnel carriers and five CH-3 unmanned combat aerial vehicles to Nigeria.
These sales are estimated in the range of USD 271 million from 2010 to 2016, representing about one-quarter of Nigerian foreign arms purchases, the largest of any single country, although sales from the United States, Italy, and Russia are also notable. The latter has supplied combat helicopters, one of the Nigerian gov- ernment’s primary needs for counterinsurgency operations. China also donated two P-18 1,800-ton patrol corvettes (PLAN Type 056; NATO designation Ji- angdao) to the Nigerian Navy: the NNS Centenary (F91) and NNS Unity (F92).
China’s rapid growth of the 1980s and 1990s soon paled in comparison to its economic expansion in the twenty-first century, and with the increase of China’s economic size came an increase in Beijing’s diplomatic footprint around the world, and quite notably in Africa
China’s concerns for Nigeria’s security are partially self-motivated. In 2007, 16 Chinese oil workers were kidnapped in the southern Niger Delta region, and the captain of a Chinese-owned (Panamanian-flagged) ship was killed in 2012, as were Chinese construction workers in Borno state, the center of the Boko Haram insurgency. China is also active in the broader region, contributing peacekeeping troops to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
Nigerian trade with China has grown substantially in the twenty-first century, but such growth has not been even, equal, or as expected. Given Beijing’s need for energy supplies to fuel China’s economic growth, one would expect that petro- leum exports from Nigeria to China would constitute the bulk of exchange be- tween the two countries.
Western reporters and scholars often reference Chinese petroleum purchases from Nigeria. Consider, for example, Chris Buckley’s 2013 article, “China’s New Leader Tries to Calm African Fears of His Country’s Eco- nomic Power,” which mentions trade with Africa in 2011, saying “Oil, ore and other commodities from Angola, Nigeria and other resource-rich countries make up much of that trade.”
One recent development may have a significant effect on Nigeria’s foreign trade, namely the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which was negotiated beginning in 2015 and concluded in March 2018. Once 44 countries ratified the pact, it came into effect, but there were several holdouts most notably South Africa and Nigeria.
China has become a major investor in Nigeria, but primary sector for such investment is transportation rather than petroleum. A variety of investment agreements were signed during Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit to Nigeria, and during later visits, covering oil and gas, power generation, telecommunications, railways, agriculture, manufacturing, and finance. At the same time, there are challenges for Chinese engineering firms, as Li Wentao and Sun Hong point out.
The international contracting market in Africa is becoming saturated as well. African countries under mounting pressure, like Nigeria, Ethiopia and Angola, have imposed more rigorous market access conditions for foreign investors. Chinese companies felt a certain degree of discomfort in the face of these new circumstances. Take the engineering contract sector for example. Chinese companies have to shift from the conventional EPC (Engineering Procurement and Construction) model to BOT (Build, Operate, Transfer) or PPP (Public-Private Partnership) models. However, this transformation requires higher capabilities to deal with market risks, localization, etc. which so happen to be the weaker points of Chinese companies.
Table 3 shows China’s imports of Nigerian petroleum, with Angola as a com- parison. The table illustrates the inconsistent flow of petroleum from Nigeria to China and the remarkable growth of Angolan exports to China. Overall, West Africa provided China with about 15 percent of its total oil imports in 2014 mostly from Angola.
Nigeria has the largest reserves of petroleum in Africa, and most of the quality of that petroleum is exceptionally high, low-sulfur light crude ideal for gasoline refining. Given that China is now the largest automobile market in the world, why is Beijing not importing from and investing in Nigeria’s petroleum sector?
Nigeria has hopes that free trade zones (FTZ) and special economic zones similar to those in Shenzhen, China, might jump start the manufacturing sector, as a Nigerian official involved in one of the zones announced hopefully “China owes its massive industrialisation to free trade zones scattered all over the country . . . more than a hundred zones of various kinds were established through China, which . . . are largely responsible for the remarkable growth of China over the years . . . there have been strong interests by many countries to emulate the model by adopting the Free Trade Zone as an economic policy.”65 China is involved in two such zones, the Lekki FTZ and the Ogun-Guangdong FTZ, both situated near Lagos. The former was announced in 2006 and the latter in 2011.
Given the trade and investment relationship between China and Nigeria, it is no surprise that there are a number of issues that have arisen. Thanks to the open media in Nigeria, such matters are often discussed. Industrial displacement, poor labor conditions, the shoddy quality of Chinese consumer goods, and intellectual property rights are the top four concerns.
Nigeria has long practiced a high degree of protectionism, employing an assortment of mechanisms, such as tariffs, import licensing, customs procedures, and prohibitions. The World Trade Organization replaced the Multi-Fibre Arrangement of 1994, governing the world trade in textiles and garments, with the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing in 2004. This change led to a surge of foreign textile imports beginning in 2005 in particular and has contributed to the virtual disappearance of Nigeria’s domestic textile industry.
Labor practices are another source of complaint, especially the perception that Chinese construction firms use Chinese workers and not locally hired labor. Nigerian complaints of shoddy Chinese goods are one of the most common criticisms seen in Nigerian news media.
Finally, the issue of intellectual property rights comes up frequently. Nigerian textile traders often send their designs via smartphone camera to prospective manufacturing partners in China to solicit bids, only to find these unique designs show up elsewhere without approval.
Since the state and Communist Party tightly control Chinese media, the amount of complaints about business in Nigeria are carefully phrased and few. Most of the published complaints are the same that Nigerian businesses and government leaders discuss as the challenges of Nigeria: poor infrastructure, unreliable electricity, poor transportation, and an unstable security situation.
The presence of a large community of Nigerians in China, particularly in Guangzhou, is an unusual aspect of Sino–Nigerian relations. One fundamental factor that is unalterable is the geography.
The presence of a large community of Nigerians in China, particularly in Guangzhou, is an unusual aspect of Sino–Nigerian relations. One fundamental factor that is unalterable is the geography. Though both are in the northern hemisphere, these two countries are nearly antipodes, and that truth eliminates the normal bases for long-term relations, namely neighboring and proximity. Neighboring countries have deep and complex relationships, long histories of amity and enmity, and traditional border trade going back centuries. There are traditional rivalries between states that make for alliances and partnerships, such as between China and Pakistan a case prompted by their common rival, India.
China and Nigeria have none of that geographic advantage, so it is not surprising that their relationship started at a disadvantage. However, unlike Tanzania and Zambia, which established a solid and enduring relationship with China beginning in the 1960s, Nigeria’s and China’s stances on the Nigerian and Angolan civil wars soured their relations and left them formalistic until the 1980s.
Furthermore, neither country particularly needed the other for much of the 1960s-1990s; China was self-sufficient in petroleum, and Nigeria hoped to develop its own light industrial products which China could export during the period. To be sure, both voted in line with the G-77 at the United Nations and had diplomatic relations, but not much of a relationship beyond that.
It was in the 2010s that Sino–Nigerian relations began to blossom, especially in trade and construction. However, the relationship continues to experience starts and stops. Some of this is the result of frequent changes in administrations in Nigeria, with the Obasanjo, Jonathan, and Buhari administrations having demonstrated much more interest in cooperation than the Yar’Adua administration.
The intense recession in Nigeria in 2016 also slowed down progress in large-scale deals between Abuja and Beijing. By 2018, however, the Buhari administration seemed committed to working with Beijing on China’s grandiose BRI. Alternatives from the West have been lacking. In early 2018, the Trump administration made it clear that sub-Saharan African countries do not factor highly in America’s current foreign policy calculus. As a result, China may be the only partner left for Nigeria.
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