China Becoming Nigeria’s New BFF
During Nigerian President Mohammadu Buhari’s election address earlier this year, he laid out his agenda and described the challenges facing Nigeria. Buhari singled-out terrorism, specifically, Boko Haram as an immediate priority. Other vital areas his administration intends to focus on include updating physical infrastructure, improving education standards, and lowering unemployment. All of these critical areas are receiving assistance from China which is fostering the foundation for a “win-win” relationship.
In his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in March, 2015, Director of U.S. National Intelligence, James Clapper, described the challenges facing Nigeria. “Abuja’s overtaxed security forces will have a limited ability to anticipate and preempt threats” from Boko Haram. He predicted that the terrorist group would likely continue to expand its control over the northeastern parts of Nigeria and spread into neighboring countries.
This grim assessment explains why Nigeria has turned to nations like China to assist them in its ongoing fight against Boko Haram. Beijing understands the importance of combating terrorism and supports Abuja. Boko Haram has engaged in acts of terrorism against not only the Nigerian people, but has targeted critical national infrastructure projects, raising safety concerns of foreign firms and their workers.
In response to a Boko Haram attack in Nigeria, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei affirmed Beijing’s support for the African country. On May 21, 2014, Hong stated that, “China stands ready to join hands with the international community and play a positive role in fighting against terrorism and upholding peace and stability in Africa.” China Daily reported that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged to assist Nigeria in its search for the 276 schoolgirls abducted by the terrorist group by providing Nigerian authorities with “any useful information acquired by China’s satellites and intelligence services.” Beijing has also trained Nigerian military forces in anti-insurgency operations, said Reuben Abati, Special Adviser to the Nigerian President on Media and Publicity according to state run media.
China does have an interest in closely monitoring the situation; terrorists have kidnapped Chinese citizens working on infrastructure projects and energy-related projects in Nigeria and neighboring countries in recent years.
Given China’s goal to build infrastructure projects in resource rich, yet potentially unstable countries, it must continually adapt to protect its citizens in the changing environment in which they work. Support of Nigeria’s anti-terror campaign by Beijing is one of many areas in which the two countries collaborate and strengthen their relationship.
In the larger picture, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely using this opportunity to strengthen the overall Chinese-Nigerian strategic partnership which reflects the importance that China places on African economic relations, specifically, Chinese-Nigerian relations. For example, China sent Premier Li Keqiang to attend and address leadership at the 2014 World Economic Forum on Africa in Abuja. This was noteworthy because it was Li’s first foreign visit since becoming premier in 2013 and it coincided with his first trip to Nigeria.
Beijing does have reasons for bringing stability to Abuja as it boasts the third largest African economy behind only that of South Africa and Angola, holds significant energy resources and immense market potential that cannot be ignored. Nigeria is currently the seventh most populated country in the world. Its population is projected to surpass the population of the United States by 2050 and experts estimate it will exceed 752 million by 2100, according to a recent United Nations report.
Physical Infrastructure Transformation
Bilateral trade levels between China and Nigeria have exponentially increased since the two countries established strategic relations ten years ago. Liu Kan, Chinese Consul General in Nigeria, discussed the increasing trade levels in a March 2015 interview with Vanguard. Liu articulated that the most populous countries in Africa and Asia reached bilateral trade levels of $18.1 billion last year, with over 88 percent of total trade occurring in non-petroleum sectors. Much of Nigeria’s population has also benefited from heavy infrastructure improvements performed by Chinese companies. Major infrastructure projects built by Chinese firms that have dramatically enhanced Nigeria’s overall infrastructure include the Abuja Light Rail, Abuja-Kaduna railway, and Lagos Rail Mass Transit System.
Late last year, for example, China Railway Construction Corp. Ltd. (CRCC) inked a near $12 billion contract with the Nigerian government, Beijing’s single largest overseas contract. CRCC chairman, Meng Fengchao, told Xinhua news agency that the train system would run 1,402 km (871 mi) connecting Lagos in the west to Calabar in the east. The rail project would lead to $4 billion Chinese exports of construction equipment, trains, and steel products, he added. It would additionally create up to 200,000 local jobs [during construction] directly or indirectly and up to 30,000 positions once the line is operational, Xinhua quoted Meng as saying. Infrastructure deals like this one mutually benefit both countries and provide much needed jobs to the local Nigerian population.
Nigeria’s Critical Infrastructure Overhaul
As the Nigerian electrical energy sector continues its transition from public to private, the government has sought to develop different methods of generating power for its people, including electric, hydro, and various other forms of renewable energy, Mohammed Wakil, Nigerian Minister of State for Power, told The Nigerian Voice during an April 2014 interview. Chinese firms have since taken advantage of Nigeria’s need and desire to transform its power grid. Han Yang, Vice President of China Hydro International, wants his firm to cooperate with Nigerians on the many renewable energy areas. “We are in Nigeria to explore investment opportunities,” said Han, following a discussion with the Minister of State for Power, according to the Premium Times.
Chinese firms additionally have a strong presence in the hydro-electric field, most notably highlighted by winning the contract for the Mambilla dam, located in the north-east of the country. This is significant because past Nigerian governments have tried and failed for decades to bring the dam online. All of these critical energy infrastructure projects seek to build on the newly established National Policy on Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency which was agreed to last year in Abuja. Part of this national policy includes the Nigerian government creating about 30,000 megawatts from renewable energy sources, said Wakil, according to the Premium Times.
Concern, however, has been raised in recent years over Chinese firms’ operating practices, specifically quality concerns. African countries might receive lesser quality products than those of other countries. Chinese Consul General, Liu Kan, addressed these reports during his interview with Vanguard. Liu said that although Beijing has taken steps to improve product quality by enacting stricter regulations, the Nigerian market is home to some customers who cannot afford the high cost of Chinese goods. Therefore, goods from China are imported into Nigeria for some local businesses to help “meet the needs of ordinary Nigerians.” Although Liu stated that the low price would likely impact the quality of product, he described this situation as “temporary.”
According to Business News, while Wakil has welcomed Chinese firms’ grand investment, he has expressed desire for them to construct efficient and overall high quality projects in Nigeria. “Specifically, after seeing the great wonders of the Seven Gorges Dam, I call on the Chinese firm handling the Mambilla hydro project to deliver a project as standard as the Gorges Dam…For the North-East, Mambilla holds great promise of enhanced power supply and power creation.”
Educational and Employment Opportunities
President Buhari, true to his election speech, has elected to boost education standards in an effort to lower unemployment. To this end, Nigeria, like many countries, has placed an emphasis on its students learning the Chinese language, specifically the Mandarin dialect. Adopting this cross-cultural strategy certainly aids both countries. Beijing has already established a number of educational services in Abuja including a Chinese Culture Center, multiple Confucius Institutes, and Chinese Language Teaching Centers. Learning Mandarin provides Nigerians with tremendous opportunities for gainful employment among Chinese companies conducting local, regional, or international ventures. Opportunities for Nigerians to conduct deals with Chinese firms in China or for students to study overseas have exponentially increased. The Chinese Consulate in Nigeria issued more than 20,000 visas in 2014, an increase of nearly three times those issued in 2013. Beijing continues to award about 100 annual scholarships to Nigerian students while more than 400 self-sufficient Nigerian students annually study in China.
Innovative thinking has led more Chinese companies to envision Nigeria as a base for their African operations and ultimately create significantly more employment opportunities. Chinese telecommunication giant, Huawei, for example, is an ideal model for how Chinese companies should contribute to positively impact Nigerian lives. The Chinese Council General in Nigeria, told Vanguard that the firm has trained more than 5,000 local engineers at its West Africa telecom technology training center in the capitol. Moreover, he noted that Huawei has established a regional communication operation center in Lagos that is capable of operating all Huawei networks on the continent. Huawei has additionally teamed up with the Nigerian federal government to increase the grid’s participation in information communication and technology sectors.
The agricultural industry also holds tremendous potential for Chinese-Nigerian cooperation. The Nigerian National Special Program for Food Security, funded by the United Nations in 2003, brought hundreds of Chinese agriculturalists to Nigeria to share their expertise with local communities to develop agricultural strategies and promote self-sustained living, according to Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, Gu Xiaojie. Chinese agricultural firms, perhaps incentivized by favorable tax conditions, have moved to capitalize on Nigeria’s untapped market potential.
2016 marks the 45th anniversary of Nigerian-Chinese diplomatic relations and all indications point to a strong diplomatic and ever-growing economic partnership. When Premier Li announced that Beijing expects to achieve $400 billion in total trade with Africa and quadruple its direct investment in the continent to $100 billion by 2020, T Abuja immediately understood the significance of the partnership, so much so, that Nigeria became the first African country to include Chinese currency (RMB) in its foreign exchange reserves. This decision alone should demonstrate how committed the two countries are. Each country views this “win-win” partnership as an almost certain way to solidify long-term diplomatic and economic relations.