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Opinions of Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Columnist: The Nation

Nigeria-China: Celebrating 50 years of friendship

Friendship as a function of strong relationship between two or more persons or entities has always existed since creation of man. Sometimes it is influenced or goaded by some natural, social or physical phenomenon, but the nature, depth or direction of the friendship is determined by the choices the two entities make in the level of their commitment to each other in the relationship.

If we look at friendship from that perspective we will best appreciate the “how” and “why” of the five decades of fruitful and mutually beneficial relationship between Nigeria and China. Like every other actor on the international arena, the international environment also always determines the direction and strength of friendship.

The relationship is traceable to mid-1950s when, driven by identical tasks and challenges of development, independence, peace and security, representatives of some African and Asian regions met in Bandung (Indonesia) in April 1955. This was the first time African and Asian countries met to discuss their common problems without the presence of the colonial powers. The 10-point declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation, which became known as “the Spirit of the Bandung Conference” played such a strong influencing role.

For instance, Chairman Mao Zedong declared in the presence of some African friends in Beijing in August 1963 that “the Chinese nation is on your side” This statement, which was in the spirit of the Bandung conference, “was very reassuring and inspirational to Africans, and the course of African unity “which had just been articulated at the OAU summit three months earlier on May 22-26, 1963. Encouraged by this spirit, African nations shook off the yoke of colonialism and realised national independence and emancipation. Basking in the euphoria of this consciousness, Nigeria, as other African nations, felt drawn to China and Asian countries.

But they also became active participants in the Non-Align Movement and decolonisation activities in line with the Spirit of the Bandung conference. As an independent country, and barely a few months after its Civil War, Nigeria was still conscious of the importance of a commitment to the friendship. On February 10, 1971, the two most populous developing nations (Nigeria in Africa and China in Asia), established formal diplomatic relations for a better shared future. As an African saying goes, “there is no second chance to make a first impression”, the moment of establishing the relationship became the platform and opportunity for Nigeria and China to make conclusive and positive impressions on each other.

Driven by this impression, about eight months later, in October 1971, Nigeria joined the fight to facilitate the restoration of China’s sovereignty at United Nations (UN). Nigeria was among the leading nations from Africa, Asia and Latin America, which withstood outside pressure, and boldly affirmed and upheld “One China Policy”.

By this support to a worthy friend, China was successfully restored to its legitimate seat in UN instead of Taiwan. From this seemingly lowly base, Nigeria-China friendly disposition and exchanges became a solid foundation for the comprehensive development of deeper relations. The formal establishment of diplomatic relations had paved the way for deep continued friendship.

Friendship to partnership

Since 1971, Nigeria and China have continued to achieve and witness fast growing pragmatic bilateral relations through strategic partnership. By implication, elements of strategic partnership include but not limited to -existence of common values and interest; mutual understanding and respect; specific areas of interests; commitment to promoting the interests of each other on a win-win basis. This strategic partnership has been noticeable in five broad thematic areas of connectivity – Policy; infrastructure; trade; finances; and people-to-people connectivity.

In policy connectivity, for instance, elements of mutual respect, promotion of peace and security, good governance have been at the core of foreign policy relations for Nigeria and China. As a response to Nigeria’s role and bold stance in facilitating restoration of China’s seat in UN, China always supported Nigeria’s bid for a seat at UN’s Security Council. This is in addition to supporting each other at discussions on climate change at Copenhagen and other issues at UN platforms. They always generate support to take a common position in their areas of interests. Soon after adopting the reform and opening-up policies in 1979, China made development central to its international obligations. Since 2000, China has continued to provide support to Nigeria in peace and security, economy, political and governance programmes. These are meant to strengthen relationships between the two countries. The diplomatic significance of the first visit of Nigeria’s ex-Head of State General Yakubu Gowon to China in September 1974, over three years after establishment of relations in February 1971, cannot be under estimated.

A relationship and partnership strengthening strategy, that visit and other developments at the international level drew Nigeria and China closer, paving the way for subsequent high-level contacts and visits by both countries. Forced by international isolation, General Sani Abacha’s government’s focused attention to the East encouraged Chinese state-owned companies to conduct businesses in Nigeria. China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), for example,was first engaged to rehabilitate Nigeria’s railway system in 1995 with $592 million.

Since then, CCECC has become a household name in Nigeria’s infrastructural connectivity, covering more rail lines, housing projects, airport and stadia renovations, water, road linkages and industrial development projects, among others. Succeeding administrations in both countries continued to maintain and sustain this partnership till today – with significant achievements at deepening the friendship and strengthening the partnership. For instance, when Chinese President Hu Jintao, in 2006, reciprocated ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo’s earlier visit, he was given the opportunity and honour to play a key political role by addressing a joint session of the National Assembly.

More agreements and MOUs on strategic partnership revolving around a four-point plan to improve bilateral relations were signed. Bilateral trade started experiencing exponential growth such that the value of trade in 2010 was $17.7 billion. Petroleum, power, agriculture, telecommunications, manufacturing, energy were the focus and target of investment. While President Goodluck Jonathan’s visit to China in 2013 was profitable in terms of signing additional agreements to build on previous ones, President Muhammad Buhari’s visit in April 2016 expanded the scope of these MOUs. It included currency swap, which is a visionary deal that seeks to reduce Nigeria’s exposure to global economic shocks as well as signifying Nigeria’s readiness to begin receiving proceeds from oil export in Yuan, the Chinese currency.

Nigeria’s membership of FOCAC and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has further brightened the chances and increased opportunities for the connectivity step up for infrastructure, finance, trade and investment. For example, at the September 2018 FOCAC meeting in Beijing, President Buhari acknowledged that Nigeria benefited from over five billion dollars worth of projects from China. Through FOCAC and BRI forum, our partnership has resulted in the construction of the first urban rail system in West Africa with $500 million. There is the 180 kilometres rail line connecting Abuja and Kaduna, which is a showcase of Chinese technology.

Using the same understanding, Nigeria has leveraged Chinese funding to execute $3.4 billion worth of projects – upgrade of airport terminals, Lagos-Kano rail line, Zungeru hydro electric power project, and fibre cables for Internet infrastructure. These are in addition to signing a $1 billion loan from China for another rolling stock for new rail lines, road rehabilitation and water supply projects, dispelling insinuations about the debt trap by China on developing countries.

President Buhari assured Nigerians we would be able to repay the loans even as some of them are self-liquidating. He added that “these vital infrastructure projects synchronise perfectly with our Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP). Nigeria has witnessed some early harvests of BRI as global public goods. This, notwithstanding, Nigeria can still leverage more on the opportunities of the BRI cooperation to address critical national economic challenges, infrastructure and industrial deficits. On Africa wide comparative scale, China’s attachment to Nigeria within the partnership arrangement is not only unique but deeper.

Nigeria has the obligation to remain committed to its counterpart responsibilities to drive regional engagement of the BRI process with China. The deliberate pursuit of green development as part of the Belt and Road strategy will reconcile the need of sustainable development with the preservation of our ecosystem. Nigeria is China’s biggest African trading partner; the second largest Chinese export destination in Africa; the sixth largest supplier of crude oil in Africa, and the second after South Africa for Chinese Foreign Direct investment (FDI). Their leaders and people appreciate and acknowledge with respect their friendship, and are committing to sustain it for their better shared future

Partnership to brotherliness

The outbreak of COVID-19 has become an opportunity to further strengthen Nigeria-China strategic partnership and raising it to a new level. Chinese medical science and expertise were deployed to help Nigeria manage and contain the crises as it did for other countries. Chinese support has been critical to Nigeria’s fight of the pandemic. Mobilised to see and value human life first, the Chinese responded to the pandemic in Nigeria with same commitment they had in China.

They had Chinese technical and medical volunteer teams to assist Nigeria in fighting the virus. Support came from government and private sector groups, such as Jack Ma Alibaba foundations.

Manifestation of this brotherliness is also evident in the integration and intermarriage of Nigerians in China, while running their legitimate businesses. It is hoped we will see more Chinese marrying Nigerians in Nigeria. Besides, there are reportedly over 200 Chinese companies in Nigeria, with some into commercial farming. Others are involved with individuals and Nigerian communities on joint ventures, such as importing agricultural machines, or participating in local production or export, sharing business strategies, participating and exchanging cultural activities and programmes.
These developments have not been without challenges. Some scholars have observed that there is dearth of information on the genuine scale and character of China’s educational aid. This continues to fuel misrepresentations and feed misconceptions of Chinese aid in Nigeria.There are, however, prospects for improved academic partnerships and joint endeavours between China and Nigeria though more strategic institutional responses.

Observations have also been made regarding China producing substandard products to Nigerian markets, and Chinese employers maltreating Nigerian workers in their companies, or showing disparity in payment of wages. Besides the fact that these allegations  are addressed at the diplomatic and or institutional levels, they have never constituted a significant force to erode the 50 years of friendship and bonding between Nigeria and China.

Challenges and difficulties that threaten friendship are issues that can be resolved through consultation, and in the spirit of equality and mutual respect. Culture and education are potent instruments to strengthen and keep this friendship longer and deeper. For instance, the partnership programmes at the level of leading universities and think-tanks need to be replicated and sustained for training facilities and promotion of research in all fields of human endeavour.

Only on Wednesday, September 16, President Buhari, in this spirit of friendship and collaboration, unveiled Nigeria @60 logo, tagged: “Together”. Coming on the heels of our national day celebration, which we share with China, it is significant and symbolic. Nigeria’s Jubilee celebration logo @60 is symbolic of our commitment to pursuing our collective national goals; our togetherness in committing to friendships with China and collaborating with other nations.

Togetherness is also a symbolic message for the present time, which is dominating UN General Assembly discussions. It is in togetherness can mankind succeed to fight pandemics and other complex challenges and threats to peace and security to human existence. It is in togetherness we can fight insurgency, corruption, and poverty as China has done, even eradicating it by end of this year. As the former Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr. Zhou Pingjian, said: ‘China and Nigeria are born brothers’. Having co-existed as friends and brothers for as long as a golden age of 50, it is worth celebrating because gold is not easy to come by, but very precious to keep. In that same spirit, Nigeria and China must commit to keep this friendship and partnership. We must keep aglow this light of togetherness so that it shall never dim, for unborn generations to see and follow the right path.

Long live Nigeria at 60, long live China at 71.

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