BY IKENNA EMEWU
In very exciting insights, the Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama and the predecessor as well as Nigeria’s former Ambassador to China, Aminu Wali discussed with us the gains and wonderful moments of Nigeria-China diplomatic relations in the past 50 years.
They agree the years have been quite rewarding and challenge the two sides for better times ahead.
China has given us reasons to challenge ourselves to growth -Onyeama
ACE exclusively spoke with Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama on the journey of the country and China in the past 50 years of diplomatic relations.
The FM shared his thoughts on how good the years have been between the two countries he said have shared common interests and been on the same page at international spheres.
He also opined that given the rapid transformation of China from a low and developing country to one with global economic clout and influence, their growth has been a challenge to Nigeria as the country works towards enhancing infrastructure and other factors that would launch Nigeria into industrial advancement.
Mr. Foreign Minister sir, it has been 50 years of Nigeria-China diplomatic relations. How would you assess the years?
The diplomatic relations has been very good over the 50 years. We and China have generally been on the same page on global and international issues.
When we established our relations, China was a core part of the bipolar world between the East and the West blocs at that time.
But Nigeria was however a strong party in the non-aligned movement which embodied those who refused to be pulled to any of the two divides. And with time, after coming out of the East divide, China also slanted towards the non-aligned movement and then a core part of the developing countries group.
China however was very supportive of Africa’s total decolonization movement like the Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde in West Africa that were still Portuguese colonies; Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe in the southern Africa region and of course the fight against apartheid in South Africa. China became a strong ally of Africa and Nigeria in those battles which we appreciated a lot.
At a point China was also going through strain in her membership of the United Nations, a slot that was occupied by Taiwan. Then Nigeria and Africa gave a strong support to China in the quest for its proper position at the UN and as a member of the Security Council which they greatly appreciate. Achieving that brought China into the centre of global political affairs and relevance.
Over the years, because of that integration into the mainstream of world affairs, China became a core of the world issues and system and started playing a very prominent role in the global system. In that quest for her rightful position at the United Nations, the African countries all voted for China. Ever since, China has never failed to show its appreciation to Nigeria and the rest of Africa for that act of alignment and support. It was at such time that China established diplomatic accord with so many countries in Africa including Nigeria
Shortly after, taking advantage of that global presence and status, China amazingly and rapidly transformed from a struggling developing country to a world super power in economy and other areas of growth till today. She raised her competitiveness in manufacturing, politics, infrastructure, human resources and general development standards.
And for the past 50 years, we have sustained a good relationship. I can say for sure that we and China have always aligned on international issues.
Today, China has also been playing a powerful and great role in providing means of development to countries. In Nigeria they have supported our development agenda as it made herself really competitive in expertise in so many fields. To actualize our dream of growth in infrastructure, China has stood by us to provide expertise, advice and financial enhancement. This includes the provision of capital support for the building of dams, roads, bridges, airports, railways and many others.
We can say that for the huge finances we have needed for our industrialization efforts and infrastructure development, China has been a major partner of Nigeria.
China has also been able to build a huge cache of liquid cash and fund from which we have borrowed to finance some of our infrastructure projects.
The country has also over time established a framework with Africa, the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) through which it has greatly supported African countries including Nigeria. That framework has been of immense benefit to the relationship between China and not only Nigeria but the entire Africa.
At the larger international level, we have worked closely with each other even at the United Nations.
So, the 50 years of relationship between China and Nigeria have been very commendable period which we also hope would get better in the coming years.
We haven’t been able to export as much to China to buy, we export mainly crude oil and agricultural products. But we work towards making ourselves more competitive by producing and upping our processing and manufacturing ability.
How do we work out better relationship with China in manufacturing?
It is all about capacity building in the power sector and other areas and to make sure we move up the value chain in respect of what we export from just primary to finished products and the quality has to be better for it to be competitive for consumer acceptability. We have to be competitive also in pricing of the products at the international market. But challenges militate against our competitive advantage to be able to hold our own in the trade sector especially those finished and value added goods. We have done our best to leverage wherever we can.
These are the challenges and reasons why China has competitive advantage over us. We have power and other down sides including machinery that make us non-competitive and therefore we can’t hold our own in adding value to our products now until we overcome the retarding factors.
We also have to try to leverage where we can through China to have a better deal and balance of trade.
The quality has to be there and at affordable prices in order to stand the global competition. That is China’s advantage over us and many countries that their goods are very competitive at the global market, quality and price wise.
Like I said earlier, we have to overcome our challenges to manufacturing like electricity, transportation, local sourcing of industrial machines, the right market and so on. When we do those, our goods will have more value, we sell more to the world and to China and also lift our economy from its present level. I am sure the quest for such heights is what motivates the government to focus more on the provision of the lacking basic infrastructure towards industrialization and as I had mentioned, China has been a wonderful companion of Nigeria towards achieving those in the areas I had stated.
This brings us to the issue of the belief that China has encumbered Nigeria with loans to a point of being debt-trapped. Even sometime last year, some said a loan agreement with China meant ceding our sovereignty. What is your take on that?
I would want to explain that Nigeria as a country has not exposed herself to uncomfortable loan standing. What we have borrowed is still within our allowable threshold. Regarding China, when last we needed the credit facility to help finance our infrastructure projects, we approached many international capital exporting agencies and eventually found that China had the most agreeable and favourable conditions. That is why we settled with the facility from China and the projects have been executed or currently in progress. So whatever allegations against the government getting into unfair deals with China over loans are not just correct. Nobody in the government entered into any deal that breached the sovereignty of Nigeria with China or any other country.
A lot of our borrowings are for very capital intensive projects. When we wanted loans, we would not get it available from other agencies and international market. But China was the only one available at the right or acceptable conditions. I can say we are still capable of repaying what we have borrowed and not yet enslaved ourselves to anybody
The reason we borrow from them is because they have high liquidity. We never took credit facilities recklessly, but for only those ambitious projects that should be the foundation of our infrastructure development.
How would Nigeria convince China to raise her stakes at the AfDB as the controlling power Nigeria is?
China is a sovereign country and we cannot determine for her what unions to join and what interests to amend. We have to take that into account. Again, China being AfDB member follows processes good for her and not possibly at the interest of Nigeria alone. So regarding this, China has to decide for herself what is best for her.
Are there any other areas China and Nigeria relationship have been of benefit apart from the major issue of loans?
Yes of course, there are. But unfortunately such areas hardly make the bold headlines in the media for public discussion. I am sure that Nigeria has a lot of scholars in China and many of them on scholarship. In the past two years, the Huawei company in Nigeria has been quite active in training young Nigerians in the ICT sector in China and Nigeria. Those trainees come back as experts to contribute to our advancement. Some other Chinese owned companies also do the similar things including the construction company that built the Abuja-Kaduna railway, the CCECC. I am sure they have trained a lot of young Nigerians too. They also assisted in setting up the railway engineering department at the University of Abuja and sending Nigerians for training in China. They have started the building of the Transportation University in Katsina.
They are really a lot of other benefits that make even the loan everybody hears little as a benefit. The Chinese owned companies in Nigeria also employ Nigerians and groom them in new skills.
How has the cooperation between Nigeria and China been during the COVID-19 challenge?
I must say it has been great and commendable. This government has worked closely with China and their experts to share ideas and experiences in fighting the pandemic. We all know that China – the government and individuals including their companies in Nigeria assisted so much to provide the materials like nose masks, gloves, ventilators, PPEs, test kits and many more that helped Nigeria when the challenge was so high. Even experts were sent to the country from China in addition to the medical supplies. Those were great signs of true friendship.
Rights now, since the focus on defeating the pandemic is on the vaccine, we have been discussing with China on vaccines for the Covid-19 containment. I am sure that very soon, the country would procure vaccines from China to help us vaccinate the citizens and overcome the pandemic scare the whole world is facing.