My LSE dissertation is an attempt to understand the sincerity and bargaining skills of Nigerian ruling elites in Beijing, which I referred to as China Shop. This trending claim that Nigeria forfeited its sovereignty in certain loan agreements with China, is a case study, and strikes my interests.
Although the sovereignty claim is simplistic, and overly sensationalised by the media, Nigerians are right to pay attention to the documents their representatives are signing at such negotiating tables on their behalf. Every state actor prioritizes its interests in relating with other states, and cares less about any restraining morality in doing so.
Since the civil war, Nigeria’s foreign relations have been characterised by the search for a non-threatening alternative to the West, especially after the legitimacy crisis instigated by the adoption of the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) in the 1980s. Undermining the sovereignty of needy or less powerful countries, and unfortunately Nigeria’s too, has always been the language of international politics.
When the West cut off its foreign aid to Nigeria during the Abacha regime, such threat was instantly amplified and understood by the ruling elite, and a response was devised. This necessitated the “Look East” policy to counterbalance the threatening powers of the West. So, is China a safe option for Nigeria?
China defies the stereotype around which it’s being wrapped. It’s been portrayed as a colonizing power masquerading as a development partner, but most of these narratives of China are driven by western alarminsts and civil society with no or bare knowledge of statecraft.
Nigeria isn’t a victim in its partnership with China, it’s asserted its agency impressively, but we can’t guarantee that the elite’s interests won’t be a factor in such dealings. China is Nigeria’s top import origin, amounting to $9.6 billion in a 2017 data, ahead of the US with $2.04 billion, and Nigeria is also China’s second highest FDIs destination in Africa.
Even though there are downsides for Nigeria in the partnership, including de-industrialisation, persistent trade imbalance, and escalating over-dependence on imports from China, Nigerian political elites aren’t unaware of the options before then. They knew the documents they signed, and owe Nigerians an explanation for doing so.
China may strike some of us as a Santa Claus, but it has its aims in this anarchic international system. Au contraire, colonisation isn’t one of them. It needs energy-rich countries to safeguard its fast-expanding economy, and all partnering countries to survive the politics of international institutions and the policing West.
This matter of signing off our sovereignty in our dealings with China, is sheer sensationalism. When you take a loan, you provide an assurance to pay, and that clause on the agreement to repossess Nigeria’s assets in the case of defaults on loans, isn’t going to happen. Why?
Beyond the fact that China is the master of optics in projecting its soft power, and know that an aggressive response to defaults on loans may trigger animosity towards it, the Chinese need these countries as allies to gain numerical advantage in matters that involve their interests . Erasing Taiwan in the diplomatic space is one!
The question for Nigerians agitating is, there’s no free lunch anywhere. Nigeria technically lost its sovereignty under the conditions of SAPs in the 80s, when it had to adhere to the dictations of lending institutions and countries. I’m glad we’re having this conversation.
I’m not afraid of China. I’ve studied them well enough to see that they’re not only smart businessmen, but wily strategists. If they are going to outplay their competitor, the United States, they must masquerade as the benign partner, as done when the bullying Donald Trump came for WHO.
Two years ago, there was a viral report that China seized an asset in Zambia, and Sinophobic alarmists cited it furiously to emphasize the danger of China’s expanding loans. The story was false. Because that decision would’ve triggered a ripple effect, and ruin China’s future overtures, and their ambition to dominate the economic world.
Nigerians, and in fact Africans, must sit back and rethink the best way forward. We can’t outsource development to these foreign powers without conditions. We must learn to embrace internal balancing, which is how China too regained its power, but that can’t happen with corruption as the lingua franca of our bureaucracy.