BY IKENNA EMEWI
Aminu Bashir Wali is a Nigerian diplomat of note. To get the best information about the journey between Nigeria and China in the past years of diplomatic relations, it was compelling to get him to talk.
With vast diplomatic service as former Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2014 to 2015 and an earlier assignment as Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2004, he is just the one to see the various sides and give the right conclusion.
He actually lived up to the bidding as we spoke with him in Abuja.
To affirm his depth in issues relating to Nigeria-China relations, an internet reference of him stated that: “When I assumed office in China, one of the first steps that I took was to ensure a close relationship with the Chinese authorities, to create a forum that would open dialogue and relate to each other to make things a lot easier for Nigerians who might run foul of the law. In fact, I organised a seminar in concert with the Chinese authorities for Nigerians resident there to understand what is expected of them by Chinese laws.”
Therefore, his assessment and conclusions on the 50 years must be a valid account as he said though he was unwilling to serve in China, but on getting to his duty post, he saw the difference and was happy he yielded to the desire of President Umar Yar’Adua to be in China.
How would you assess the past 50 years of Nigeria-China diplomatic relations, especially as someone that has served as Nigerian ambassador to China?
The diplomatic relationship between Nigeria and China has manifested itself in a very positive way in terms of what we tend to achieve in the union of two prominent countries. There have been very positive benefits to the country Nigeria and Nigerians.
I would say without doubt that the leadership of Nigeria which created and started the relations took a wonderful and positive step that has yielded so much dividend for our country and individual citizens.
Are they specifics about the gains you refer to?
Yes, many. For instance, if you are in China, you would be really amazed at the number of Nigerian students studying in that country. They pursue studies in several courses and disciplines. Before the relations, this did not exist. There are thousands of Nigerian scholars in China, all young people and they are imbibing the type of education, culture and positive attitude of the Chinese people.
You know it is discipline, tenacity and patriotism that took China to its height. They are known for commitment to hard work and respect for rules. All these made China achieve all they did. If our students would acquire the Chinese lifestyle and sense of industry coupled with the discipline they learn in their schools, and they come back to Nigeria with such attitudes, we will be quite comfortable to say we have gained much for the future of the country through that relationship. If they pursue their professions with the attitude they imbibed in China, it would be good for the social development of Nigeria.
Beyond human capital development, in what other areas has the relationship been beneficial?
It goes without saying that if you take a research in Nigeria today of projects going on, China and Chinese companies are ahead of other countries in their contribution to the development of our infrastructure. When you look at that institution or framework called Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a lot has happened through it in the creation of infrastructure not only in Nigeria but all Africa. Through FOCAC, no country in the world would compete or compare with China in assisting to provide these basics for our growth. So with these factors there for everyone to see, there is no question of whether the relations has been of benefit to us. It definitely is. And I will say without fear of being contradicted that the relations for known reasons of growth and development imbalances have been of bigger benefits to Nigeria than China. The gains are there very visible for all to see, and by this I say again that the leadership of Nigeria that started the relationship even at a time of the bipolar war when the West was still breathing down the neck of Nigeria, did a great service to the country.
We were one of the few and earliest in Africa to take such bold step to establish diplomatic relations with China. Today we reap the dividends.
You are aware of complaints by some Nigerians that the Chinese invade our country with their investments, create unfair employment conditions and dump their goods here. How is that to you?
Anywhere or any country that has not been able to regulate, sustain and structure its system in business and the general economy, people living in such country or operating within such system must exploit the lapses and take the shortcut to get what they want. Human beings naturally exploit the easier way. What would guide how others from the world to us, not only China, would do business in Nigeria should be the duty of Nigeria to enforce.
If we talk about invasion, Nigeria is a land of opportunities and people gravitate towards opportunities. Here, many of us are not even aware of the opportunities and foreigners see it more and flow into Nigeria. As we argue about being exploited, what have we done about firming up our regulatory systems to stop abuses? Are we fair to complain of China alone? What about the other countries that had been exploiting Nigeria for hundreds of years. Did we do anything to stop them as they still carry on the usual old way?
The major manufacturing companies of the West relied on Nigeria, Africa and India to get to where they are. That was a bigger exploitation. So don’t blame anybody now at this age until our authorities sit down, think and control the businesses, investments and economic activities of the country to the benefits of Nigeria and the people. They should also make the rules to favour the investors also because they won’t come if they would not make profits. But mainly, we are the ones to work to make the system favour us. As long as we are not yet ready to entrench a system that puts in the checks to our gains, why should we blame another person? Every country has regulations and strictly adheres to them. In fairness to our leadership, there are regulation but we also make sure we connive with the foreigners, not only China, to circumvent the system.
The so-called invasion does not only occur in Nigeria. As China is investing here, other people invest in China. So long as I know, there is no strong and big multinational corporation with origin in the West that doesn’t have business investment in China. So as China goes to the world, the world also comes to China. They go to China because it is a big market and potential gold mine.
However, China has entrenched rules and regulation to make sure that as the investors come, the country derives maximum benefits from them too. Their systems are strict about regulations. So what we should do is to learn what the Chinese have done to domicile those investments and businesses to operate under very effective regulations that benefit both sides in the best interest of all. We have a lot to learn from China on what they did to become what they are today as the second world industrial giant that would soon be the number one.
Do you think Nigeria has engaged China adequately for the gains, compared to some other countries in Africa?
I sincerely don’t think so. I was there for four years representing my country. Within those years, we sat down articulated our objectives and made sure that then so much investments flowed into Nigeria from China. Today, I can proudly say that we still have the results and gains. Some were initiated in my tenure while some were there before me.
But of course, I am not in a position to say what China has derived from Nigeria.
You hear of China debt-trapping Nigeria and other African countries. Is that factual?
I have my doubts about that. Debt is a universal phenomenon. No matter how you call or describe it, no country in the world is debt free. For instance, China bought US bonds worth trillions of dollars. That is a form of debt because bonds are loans. You can call it any name, but it is Chinese money that went into that investment in America.
It would be debt trap depending only on how we manage the fund and to what use it was put. If we put it into what is not beneficial, it becomes a trap and the trap is not the fault of the creditor. A good example is the loan from China to fund the railway projects between Abuja and Kaduna and later Lagos and Ibadan. If those infrastructure projects are properly managed, they will generate the money to repay the loan in four or five years, while they remain as economic assets to the country over the years.
As for the clamour of China taking over, yes, they can do that if you allow them because they come for profit just like every investor. It would be my pride and happiness if Nigerians travel abroad to countries with opportunities and come back to the country with the gains they made. That also applies to China and other countries. You really have to look at it from their context too, and ours. We have billions repatriated home by Nigerian experts living in other countries and we are pleased to have such benefits. That is what China does or the way they also feel about their people returning their profits and earnings.
Globally, China has arrived and they invest everywhere, not only in Nigeria and it depends on us to make the best of it by enforcing our rules and investing loans wisely. If you look only at China, why not also look at Europe and America. They have been here for centuries exploiting the benefits. Why single out China and I say it that it is left to us to wake up and find ways of deriving the gains and unbalance the imbalances. We may not be equals, but we can still close the gap of the imbalances. It is very possible to attain. I am a Nigerian and my loyalty is to my country. Therefore I would love to see Nigeria getting the best of the relations especially to help our economy grow.
In terms of the debts, it is a question of how we are able to negotiate the terms, and after we get it, how best do we apply them rather than bickering over debt trap.
Today we have the free trade zones in especially Lekki and Ogun State. Are they not of immense benefits to the economy of Nigeria? They are many other investments and partnerships between Nigerians and Chinese businesspeople. These are fantastic avenues providing for both sides. I bet that we derive more benefits than China does.
So, before we get committed into a deal, we have to get the best experts in international transactions negotiation. I am sure Nigeria has them and they must be the ones we use. Don’t forget the Chinese are astute bargainers and we should also train our people to gain expertise in such areas and use them to handle such deals rather than complaining when other countries get the best from the enormous wealth of China in their foreign investment drives.
Every advantage we are looking for come from the type of negotiation we engage in. Again, on balance, we gain more from China than they do from us, even though it is a two-way traffic because I have been there and seen what gains Nigerians make in China in so many ways.
How then do we better our balance of trade with China?
The issue of trade imbalance with China is a serious one. It doesn’t apply only to Nigeria or only between Nigeria and China but with so many other developed and industrialized economies. I had argued this with the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) when I was ambassador in China. I raised issues on tariffs and other factors that would improve on balance of trade. For example, I took the issue of cassava and argued that China should not put equal tariffs on our cassava as those coming from Thailand because the distances and cost of handling are not the same. The transport cost is like three or four times higher. So on agricultural goods, we have to fashion out ways of closing the balance gap since our manufacturing capacity doesn’t in any way compare with China. Since I left, I don’t know how Nigeria continued with that discussion because my argument and position is that considering the imbalance gap, China should be considerate about the rules. They could be renegotiated apart from the standard rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) due to the peculiar nature. I just hope our ministry of trade and industry is continuing on that to arrive at what is fair to all sides.
Can you assess the role of China in Nigeria in the coronavirus pandemic challenges the world is facing?
I would have thought from day one that we should reach out to China to start a discussion as Africa’s most populous country concerning the pandemic. But I am not in government to know what exactly goes on. The only thing I know is what the media tells us, but I have not seen much from the country.
It is my thinking that we should consider China first in our quest to defeat the pandemic especially since they have also got vaccines which are effective and are used by many countries. I am sure China will give Nigeria better considerations than most others that have made vaccines. This is purely humanitarian and and definitely China would bend over backwards to accommodate us. We should also not forget that the same China came to our rescue with free medical supplies, experts and even fund to help us fight the outbreak in 2020.
Going forward, since the relationship doesn’t end after 50 years, how do we engage China better?
We can engage the Chinese better than we have done depending on the focus of the sitting government. If their focus is on China and they work towards that, we stand to gain a lot more from China.
From my understanding and I am sure I am not naïve about it, the Chinese are in a hurry and quite eager to have a strong relationship with the less developed or developing countries. These countries have seen the signs too. Even China willingly accommodates with the lesser countries what they can never accept while relating with Europe and America because they know that industrially, we are no threat to them. They also appreciate our Nigeria market, the largest on the continent. That has been of benefit to them.
If the government comes up with purposeful policies in gainfully engaging China in the future, I am sure that will bear fruits for us and for China too.