China’s presence in Africa has sparked a huge debate on whether China is the new neo-colonizer or a new development partner for Africa. This debate has, for the most part, ignored the role African nations play in this relationship.
This relationship is necessary for both parties. The Belt and Road Initiative which is an illustration of China’s investments and aid for the African economies (BRI), with the help of (BRI) China will gain access to all the export markets, vital resources, and international support on sensitive issues, such as the human rights abuses that have been taking place in the area of Xinjiang, the policy of One China and the suppression of democratic institutions that have been taking place in Hong Kong. However, China’s relationship with each and every African nation is mostly in the favour of Beijing because of the deep pockets, “non-interference” policy, and rhetoric of its benign intentions, that’s why China has been and will be the preferred partner for many African countries. This is exemplified by China’s 2021 white paper on Africa, which asserts that Beijing’s goal on the continent is “giving more and taking less, giving before taking and giving without expecting anything in return, so China welcomes African nations aboard the development express train with its open arms.”
Despite the admirable nature of these sentiments, the question remains: how can African nations maximize their gains from such an imbalanced relationship? Accepting Chinese aid, investments, capital, and technology for massive infrastructure projects is insufficient for extracting benefits. What is required is the practice of local agency, which entails exerting influence to extract the greatest possible benefits. This would necessitate that the government emphasizes the localization of BRI projects so that political, social, and economic actors are involved. In this regard, Nigeria can be the case study of what transpires when an African nation fails to exert its own influence to shape its relationship with China to meet the needs of its people. Since 2006, Beijing and Abuja have been strategic partners, and their economic relationship has flourished in a manner that both parties would generally describe as a “win-win.” In terms of trade and investment, China has emerged as a major player in Nigeria, and in terms of development assistance, China has become Nigeria’s preferred partner.
China has been Nigeria’s primary source of funds to re-establish its deteriorating infrastructure, with Abuja joining the BRI formally in 2018 at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit in Beijing. China and its economic actors, particularly the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), has emerged as the driving force behind Abuja’s infrastructure reconstruction goals. Beijing was also instrumental in the construction of the Kaduna-Kano ($1.7 billion), Lagos-Kano costing $6.7 billion, and the Lagos-Ibadan railway lines costing $1.5 billion. Even in the construction of airports and information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, Chinese companies have assumed a leading position.
The advantages are evident. The delivery of essential public goods to Nigeria will stimulate economic activity. Although Nigeria’s political elites have repeatedly thanked China for their assistance. Nonetheless, not everything is perfect. The operationalization of the BRI in Nigeria has been a mystery to local actors, preventing their participation in decision-making and project implementation. According to an Afrobarometer survey, only 28% of Nigerians are aware of Chinese “loans/development assistance” in their country, which is significantly lower than the average of 47% across 33 nations.
Nigeria’s national legislature has deplored the lack of transparency surrounding loan agreements which are existing between the executive and Chinese state banks. This conforms to a pattern identified by AidData: Typically, Chinese loan agreements contain “extensive confidentiality clauses.” Due to Nigeria’s inadequate institutional capacity, BRI projects are beset by secrecy, corruption, and flagrant disregard for domestic laws.
As a result, there are no comprehensive links between the megaprojects China has undertaken in Nigeria and the domestic economy. Chinese development assistance have generally tied Chinese companies, technology, and capital, which tend to threaten thet supplant indigenous economic actors. Already, Nigerian construction firms are complaining that they are excluded from BRI projects. Nigeria’s transport minister, Rotimi Amaechi, responded by urging these companies to increase their capacity to undertake such large-scale projects. In reality, these domestic corporations operate within a system that disadvantages them. As the managing director of the Nigerian engineering and construction firm Dutum Company Limited, Temitope Runsewe remarked, “These Chinese companies appear with cheap funds from China… They will say to our government, “Show us the projects, and we will mobilise and begin construction immediately.” This is extremely enticing, and the majority of our government officials succumb to it at the expense of local capacity building.”
This tendency frequently conflicts with the Nigerian Public Procurement Act of 2007, which stipulates that bids must be competitive, open, and transparent. Recently, Amaechi, Abubakar Malami, Nigeria’s minister of justice and attorney-general of the federation, and the CCECC were taken to court for procurement irregularities relating to the awarding of a contract to the CCECC to construct a 190-kilometer narrow gauge track from Minna in Niger State to Baro for approximately $210 million. In addition, the government has shown reluctance to implement local content requirements in BRI projects. For instance, Nigeria’s House of Representatives Committee on Treaties, Protocols, and Agreements argued that local content requirements were not present in the loan agreements under review.
According to Ian Taylor, this demonstrates that the Nigerian government’s agency can be described as “agency as corruption.” The actions and inactions of those in authority benefit a minority at the expense of the majority. Amaechi’s request that Chinese loan agreements not be scrutinised as “they are sensitive to what you say” exemplified this point. He argued that criticism could discourage Chinese development aid. This attitude represents the government’s lack of political will to exercise the authority necessary to localise the BRI.
The question that arises is whether Nigerians are receiving the best possible deal from the relationship between their government and China. According to the World Bank Report on the BRI, the risks associated with the BRI – debt sustainability, stranded infrastructure, and harm to local communities and the environment – are exacerbated by the presence of weak domestic institutions and the concomitant growth-stifling corruption. To maximise the benefits of the BRI, good governance practises that advocate for openness, transparency, adherence to domestic procurement laws, and an emphasis on local content requirements are required.
As demonstrated by the preceding analysis, this is not the case in Nigeria. The lack of public consultation and the propensity to use backdoor channels to approve projects have resulted in infrastructure projects that are “largely inaccessible to the public while all but inaccessible to the government.”