China-Africa economic relations have seen a remarkable deepening over the last two decades, as part of a trend of African countries turning eastward to find counterpoints to their traditional western relationships, and Asian countries looking to Africa for natural resources to cope with growing domestic demand.

But it’s up to Nigeria, like other African countries, to drive harder bargains with China. Engagement must go beyond the symbolism of signing strategic agreements and memorandums of understanding; the nation’s leaders must always find answers to the bottom-line question: how does this benefit Nigeria?

That is the question that should be at the top of President Muhammadu Buhari’s mind as he meets President Ji Xinping to discuss reviving a raft of stalled, China-financed railway and power projects in Nigeria at this week’s China-Africa co-operation summit of heads of state and government in Johannesburg.

According to McKinsey, in 1990, half of all African trade was with western Europe, while Asia accounted for only a seventh. By 2008, Asia had doubled, while western Europe had shrunk to equal it, with 28 per cent. In 2009, China overtook the US as Africa’s biggest trading partner; China-Africa trade surpassed $220bn dollars in 2014, up from about $10bn at the turn of the century.

In 2014 China was Nigeria’s biggest national trading partner, accounting for 12 per cent of Nigeria’s total trade, second only to the EU, and ahead of India, Brazil and the US. (A quarter of Nigeria’s imports came from China.)

It’s now 44 years since Nigeria and China established diplomatic relations, and 10 years since they established a “strategic partnership”, comprising five economic agreements signed during former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s April 2005 state visit. About that time, Chinese companies began to acquire oil blocks in Nigeria, offered by the Nigerian government in exchange for commitments of as much as $20bn in infrastructure investment. Most of those oil-for-infrastructure deals fell apart shortly afterwards, suspended or cancelled by the succeeding government of Umaru Yar’Adua. .

Under the Goodluck Jonathan administration (2010—2015), the Chinese renovated the century-old railway line linking Lagos and Kano, and bagged contracts to build new airport terminals in Lagos and Abuja, as well as establishing a new free trade zone in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. And in 2011 Lamido Sanusi, then the central bank governor, announced a “strategic” decision to diversify 10 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange holdings into Chinese currency.

But it was the same Mr Sanusi who, barely two years later in an article for the Financial Times, called for a clear-eyed approach to dealing with China, arguing that the country’s adventures in Africa were turning out to be essentially a reprise of western colonial intervention. “Africa is now willingly opening itself up to a new form of imperialism,” he warned, adding that Nigeria must learn to see China, not as a player seeking to promote African interests, but instead a “competitor”, driven purely by self-interest. (Mr Sanusi’s father was Nigeria’s ambassador to China in the early 1970s.)

It is now very clear that China has got ambitious plans for Africa — thousands of scholarships and training opportunities for students and professionals in the “African Talents Programme”, tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure financing and development assistance. It’s time for Nigeria, as the leading economy on the continent, to be as ambitious, by way of enlightened self-interest. Chinese factories are reportedly setting up in Nigeria and other African countries to take advantage of preferential trade regimes such as the African Growth and Opportunities Act, which allow African countries to export to the US at reduced tariffs. Governments need to shine the light on arrangements like these, and ensure that at the very least they provide jobs and training and technology transfer to locals.

There’s a popular perception in the country that Chinese companies are exploitative of local labour, in terms of wages and working conditions. Last year, a labour union for construction workers gave the government a 14-day ultimatum to address complaints of maltreatment of Nigerian workers by Chinese-run companies. The federal and state governments ought to do a lot more to ensure that workers’ rights are protected, and that offending companies face sanctions.

Then there are the crucial lessons for the country to learn from China: encouraging diaspora scientists to return home; investing heavily in research and development; and investing in infrastructure projects, to create jobs and develop local engineering capacity.

In 2011, Nigeria’s University of Lagos opened, with Chinese government assistance, a Confucius Center, and now offers a bachelors degree in Chinese studies. At the moment the thousands of Nigerian merchants and businesspersons who regularly travel to China mostly depend on native Chinese translators. If the Chinese are eagerly learning English to thrive around the world, then Nigerians ought to be equally keen to learn Mandarin, to improve their chances of taking advantage of economic opportunities in the world’s second-biggest economy, and largest consumer market.

The writer is West Africa editor at The Africa Report

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