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Sino-Nigerian Relations: The next 50 years

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By Issa Aremu

THUR 04 FEB, 2021-theGBJournal- As a student of alternative Development paradigm in a unipolar world (following deafening collapse of the old USSR in 1989), China as a stable and fast developing socialist state has been  of profound academic and political relevance for me. Certainly I am still fascinated and ever romantic about China which on December 3rd last year planted its five-star red flag on the moon and returned safely to the earth with precious debris and rock!

Interestingly anytime I am tuned for China’s discourse, the memory of my late mentor and teacher, Professor Claude Ake comes up afresh. Claude was a leading African political economist, former Dean of School of Social Sciences, University of Port Harcourt, member of Mallam Aminu Kano’s PRP, founder of Centre for Advanced Social Studies (CASS) and authors of classics: Social Science as Imperialism, Democracy and Development in Africa and Revolutionary Pressures in Africa. He died in the tragic ADC airline disaster in November 1997. He was a star speaker at the International Conference on “Rethinking Emancipation Concepts” in 1991 organized by the prestigious International Institute of Social Studies, ISS, The Hague, Netherlands.

As a Masters Student at ISS then, I bear witness to how Claude Ake single handily demystified Euro-centric presentations which almost consigned  Africa and  Asia at the global conference to foot-notes of history and at best, recipients of emancipatory ideas and actions. He took an exception to the predominant narrative of Africa as a burden with dubious distinction in senseless war, famine, under-development, poverty and disease. The conference took place against the backdrop of 1989 Tiananmen Square students’ protests in China.

The Western media had expectedly magnified to good ideological effect Tiananmen Square students’ protests as signs of another eventual  failure of socialism in China, after Soviet Union. Claude’s characteristic lady-like soft-spoken words often obscured his ever- entrenched resolve. He insisted at the conference that it was intellectual lip-service of Euro-centric bent to ‘discover’ China through Tienammien- Square. According to him, with a billion population, China was actually “the world” that needed no discovery, certainly not through a storm in a tea cup like a students’ protest.  China was “the world” that must be discovered by all, he said.

Nigeria long appreciated Claude Ake’s wisdom about the significance of China in global solidarity and friendship. On the 10 February 1971, Nigerian government under General Yakubu Gowon established diplomatic relations with China. This year, Sino-Nigerian relations marks 50th anniversary of remarkable and enduring cooperation and solidarity with mutual achievements and of course attendant challenges which would definitely define and reshape future relations in the next 50 years and beyond. I agreed with the former Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, Zhou Pingjian that the “joy” of both Nigeria and China. The point cannot be overstated: Notwithstanding the distance and geography, Nigeria and China share significant traits worthy of acknowledgement. In terms of population, the two are giants in their own rights.

With a population of 1.5 billion  (official 1.3 billion) China is the largest in Asia and largest in the the world. Conversely, Nigeria with estimated population of 200 million people is the largest concentration of African people in the world. In fact, one of every two Asians is a Chinese, while one in every three persons in Africa is a Nigerian. Nigeria’s population is as diverse as China’s in terms of languages, cultures and religions.

The two countries also boast of remarkable resource endowment. Whatever the parameters, the two are regional powers: China as actual power no less than Nigeria still more of a potential power. I agreed with the former Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, Zhou Pingjian that the “joy” of both Nigeria and China “ is shared and happiness doubled on the occasion of October 1st celebration every year.”

The two are nations of the great month of October. Nigeria got independence by lowering the Union Jack flag of imperial Britain on October 1960. Ten years earlier, precisely October 1st 1949 after the Revolution led by Chairman Mao Zedong China the People’s Republic of China. This is however where the similarities end. Until recently the two shared common brand-name of “third world” countries but today, the world witnessed China’s unprecedented race to the top. At $14 trillion GDP, it’s the second largest economy after USA with $21 trillions GDP. 

China hosted Olympic Games in 2008. With an estimated $442.976 billion GDP, Nigeria is the biggest economy in Africa followed by South Africa’s $ 361.875 billion GDP. But Nigeria has been on a free fall to the bottom of development index. China sustained unprecedented 10 per cent growth rate in the 90s while Nigeria recorded double digit negative growth rate during the period corrupt non-developmentalist military regimes of varying hues. Between 1990 and 2000, China uplifted 700 million people out of poverty, parades “over the past 70 years, GDP averaged an annual growth rate of about 4.4% for the first three decades and 9.5% for the last four decades. Nigeria must learn and copy China, which at 70, (just a decade older) as a liberated country, has almost banished illiteracy and gone to space.

And Covid-19 pandemic has not stopped China’s amazing growth and development! China’s GDP is expected to expand by 7.9% in 2021 despite the fact that China was the epicenter of the pandemic, with more devastations to lives and livelihoods than Nigeria’s. I agree with Mr Asue Ighodalo, the Chairman of Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG) in his address to last year’s 26th edition that: “The Chinese economy, in fact, has not contracted since 1976. Its growth streak has lasted for over four decades, through the global financial crisis, trade wars with the United States, and now a pandemic that tore through their country first, before splintering out to others. China has shown us what a serious nation can do when it looks back on its history, resolves “never again” to fail its citizens, and forges forward with a sense of urgency, discipline and purpose”.

In the next 50 years, my take here is that Sino-Nigeria bilateral relations must bridge this widening economic gap between the two friendly nations. Certainly Nigeria has benefited from China’s development relations compared to Europe’s underdevelopment disengagement.

Chinese companies in Nigeria are definitely building much needed roads, railways, airports and telecommunications infrastructure. China has also commendably supported the efforts of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, management within the framework of their respective Chinese companies’ Corporate Social Responsibilities. However the challenge for Nigeria is to get development tasks accomplished on its own just as China audaciously does.

Numbers also show that so far China has benefited more from the relations just as Nigeria has recorded losses in quantitative and qualitative terms. Put in development language, Nigeria keeps paying the “China price”, while China remains “a smart price taker”. The choice is ours: a dependent partner or true independent friend of China?  In the next fifty years we should be less “romantic” of China but be “strategic” with China just as China has been strategic in its dealings with Africa. It’s about mutual interest for development of the two peoples. And let’s learn from China few things.

By 2020, China announces that “all people living below the current poverty line will be taken out of poverty”. At 60 next year Nigeria should be up-beat to say like China: independence has “brought enormous changes to the country, creating an unprecedented miracle of development in the world history”.

Same Chinese Ambassador aptly put it better:  “path you take determines your future”. China we are again reminded was once “labeled as the “Sick Man of East Asia”, life expectancy at the beginning of the new republic was around 35 years. It rose to 77 years in 2018. The illiteracy rate in China stood at 80% in 1949, today the newly-added labour force has received over 13.3 years of education on average.

The average years of schooling for the Chinese rose to 10.6 years in 2018 from 1.6 years in 1949. In 2019, the gross enrollment ratio in higher education rose to 48.1% from 0.26% in 1949”. China is one huge working and productive house.

Nigeria should stop being a container dumping economy, exporting jobs, growing unemployment and breeding insurgents. Nigeria should learn to reform like China. China employs “gradualist approach” to reforms compared to “shock therapy approach” of Nigeria which uncritically sold out public enterprises without addressing fundamental issues of goods and service delivery and national capacity. Nigeria should promote labour-intensive industries like China. Thanks to President Buhari for turning the past railway refurbishing scam under Abacha dictatorship to commendable Railway revival of recent times. Nigeria like China must be development conscious in future relations. Nigeria must ensure technology transfer and ownership of mutual projects. China commendably keeps to development dogma currently implementing  China’s 14th five-year  Development Plan, Nigeria unacceptably stopped  at the  Fourth (1981-85) National Development Plan, instead of  planning Nigeria opted for IMF/World Bank’s inspired Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP).

The goal was to service debt rather than grow food, build roads  and schools. SAP legitimized smuggling,   industrial policy summersaults which led to factory closures, mass unemployment and poverty. At 60  Nigerians should stop agonizing but organize like China at 70, (or like Nigeria at 20 in 1980 with double digit growth rate which once dwarfed China’s growth!). In the next 50 years, the hope is that Nigeria would reap the qualitative benefits of Sino- Nigerian relations!

Issa Aremu mni

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