Nigeria: China and our Sovereignty Question -Tony Ademiluyi

From time immemorial, nations have had the quest to be Sovereign with their affairs governed with autochthony rather than externally. The rise and fall of the great world empires like the Greek, Roman, Persian, Babylonian etc have their roots in the desire by mortals to resist foreign domination and oppression.

Coming down to Nigeria, there was a crisis in 1961 barely a year after the Union Jack was lowered after close to a century of British colonial rule. The government of the then Alhaji (Sir) Abubakar Tafawa Balewa decided to enter into a pact with the British known as the ‘Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact’ which surreptitiously ceded some aspects of our defence to the British. The then students of the University of Ibadan took to the streets in protest questioning the wisdom of the government in making a cruel mockery of our Sovereignty. At the end of the day, the government was forced to back off from the agreement in the best interest of the nation. What really sparked off the protests by the then aluta conscious students was the fact that the military was headed by General Welby Everald who didn’t hand over to Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi till 1965. That reality that even though the nation was independent, it didn’t possess a sturdy, home grown military must have made the militant students to call for change.

History repeats itself because man in his usual frailty learns the stories but never the salient lessons.

A dejavu of the 1961 fiasco is set to repeat itself with regards to the $400 million loan that the nation took from China in the name of ‘infrastructural development.’

There was a loan agreement signed between Nigeria and the Export-Import Bank of China with regard to a loan of $400 million for the country’s National Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Infrastructure Backbone Phase II Project. The agreement was signed in September 2018 by the Federal Ministry of Finance on behalf of Nigeria (the borrower).

Rotimi Amaechi, the Minister for Transportation appeared before an investigative committee of the Federal House of Representatives who raised an alarm about some clauses in the loan that would make mincemeat of our Sovereignty in the event of a default.

Amaechi clarified the matter by saying that there were three types of sovereignty – diplomatic, jurisdictional and commercial and that the loan terms covered only the commercial. He said it was necessary to accede to their terms in the event of a default which will be settled in an arbitration tribunal and that there was no big deal about it as it was part of global best practices.

Why is China suddenly the beautiful bride with Amaechi saying that the House should halt the investigations so as not to send the wrong signals to the new ‘overlords’ as they intended to borrow an additional $3 billion?

The reason is crystal clear – Chinese interest rates are as low as two percent and the loan repayment date could be delayed till as long as seven years. When compared with what obtains from the west as well as the Bretton Woods Institutions, this is the best bargain any nation can get. However there is no free lunch in Freetown.

The brutal reality is that the loan default presents gargantuan opportunities for China to aggressively move into the beleaguered African continent.

China has lent funds to many East African nations as they have turned that part of the continent into a huge construction site for roads, rails, dams, stadia etc and in most cases they come with their workers instead of making use of the locals which will greatly stimulate the economy by providing jobs for them – the trickle effect which will be felt by members of their families and other dependants as Africa is still relatively close-knit in extended family relationships.

According to indepthnews.net, In Uganda, a 21-year mining concession to the Guangzhou Dongsong Energy Company produced only 92 job slots so far and the threat of displacement of 12,000 residents from 14 villages.

In Zambia, the government was forced to refute published reports of the possible Chinese takeover of Kenneth Kaunda International Airport and the power utility ZESCO for unpaid debts.

It is increasingly common in countries like Angola, Mozambique or Ghana, which benefit from Chinese loans for infrastructure, to see Chinese trucks and workers who would otherwise be unemployed in China now working in Africa on Chinese projects.

Let us even go beyond Africa. Cambodia, in the Asian continent like China turned to China for loans when their goodwill dried up with the west. One reason why they fell out of favour with the west was because they didn’t want to practice the tenets of true democracy and dissidents were gagged at will. China ‘generously’ gave them loans but turned a blind eye to the human rights abuses being committed there on a daily basis.

Guinea received a $7 billion loan from China because the west wouldn’t give them as a result of the human rights abuses there which led to the deaths of thousands of the supporters of the opposition.

The loans from China tend to be given to countries who suppress voices not critical to the Chinese government. This was seen in Nepal who received a fifty percent boost in loans when she ruthlessly crushed protests by Tibetian dissidents especially the arrests of many of them who were in exile on their home soil.

In Namibia, the authorities were investigating a corruption case involving the purchase of scanners from a company which until recently was headed by the son of former President Hu Jintao. Huge kickbacks was said to have allegedly changed hands. The response from Beijing was to block all forms of the investigation especially with online references to the case making it die a premature death.

These loans are also given on the condition that goods will be purchased from selected Chinese firms and abrogating the open bidding competitive process which makes a caricature of one of the beauties of free enterprise.

Around 20% of Africa’s debt is in the hands of China which makes it a dangerous precedent. It is tragic that Nigeria, the so called ‘Giant of Africa’ wants to increase this percentage by being reckless in its running cap in hand to them by begging for more loans.

The solution is not in obtaining more loans especially from a communist quasi-dictatorship with disdain for human rights. We recall that the one child policy in China which was instituted in 1978 saw to the heartless abortion of about twenty million female babies. If the regime could be so cruel to their own, how much more black foreigners!

Crisis is another word for opportunity goes a Chinese aphorism and our current challenges caused by decades of misrule and corruption should enable us engage in deep introspection on the way forward rather than taking the easy way out.

After Japan was laid prostrate in 1945 with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they looked inwards and developed their technology which they massively exported all over the globe. By 1964, less than two decades after the bombing, they hosted the Olympics where the world was awed at the rate of development that had taken place there at such speed.

The new bride, China didn’t also lift 800 million people out of poverty on the strength of loans. They harnessed their population and tapped into technology and created an enabling environment for foreign companies to set up shop in their country. It is no news that the world’s major information technology firms have a robust presence in their country. The policy of outsourcing has also greatly aided them as their cheap labour and robust infrastructure has attracted many of these firms to berth there thereby creating economic prosperity for her citizens. They also adopted some protectionist policies to protect their citizens. For instance, Facebook and Twitter weren’t allowed to come into their country which paved the way for the likes of Weibo – their home grown version of twitter and other social media networks to blossom.

My heart bleeds that the burden of debt repayment would be inadvertently borne by generations yet unborn. If our human and natural resources were effectively harnessed, there will be no need for any form of such bondage in the name of loans. With oil fast becoming a dwindling resource cum relic, the only solution to this economic quagmire is to convert the country into an export driven one. Why can’t the government create the enabling environment for Innoson to manufacture vehicles that will be driven in other African nations if Europe, America and Asia are too ambitious for now? Why can’t the power challenge be fixed so that our IT savvy youths can work from the comfort of their bedrooms on outsourced IT projects from the west which will translate into job creation and unprecedented prosperity?

Malaysia and Singapore didn’t develop on the basis of loans. The Singaporean miracle for instance was made possible under the visionary leadership of Lee Kuan Yew who took the former British colony from a third world to a first world nation in his lifetime. What is the public policy thrust of the Buhari led government with regards to STEM? It is sad that his Minister for Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu was talking about the manufacturing of pencils in the 21st century.

Nigeria has all what it takes to stand tall in the comity of nations – the only bane being a cursed, visionless leadership with a nauseating, docile followership. This conspiracy has robbed her of her dignity and turned her into a perpetual mendicant.

Who will break the inept leadership jinx? When will the followers rise up as one and demand good governance?

I wish this can be witnessed in my lifetime.

Tony Ademiluyi edits www.africanbard.com and wrote from Lagos.

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