Buhari’s visit to China: A tale of opportunities and threats

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 01: Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) greets President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari (L) during a plenary session of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit April 1, 2016 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Barack Obama is hosting the fourth and final in a series of summits to highlight accomplishments and make new commitments towards reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism. Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 01: Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) greets President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari (L) during a plenary session of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit April 1, 2016 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Barack Obama is hosting the fourth and final in a series of summits to highlight accomplishments and make new commitments towards reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism. Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP

The pragmatism that underlies the relationship between States in the global arena is defined by the fluid nature of bilateral ties. Scholars of diplomacy and foreign policy have flagged the inherent dynamism in the aspirations of States by formulating a dictum, which holds that in the international space, there are neither permanent friends nor everlasting foes.

By its anarchic nature, international relations, especially in an era of globalisation, is defined by the permanence of interests. Those interests are, from time to time, calibrated by peculiar circumstances in which the relating nations find themselves.

Economic, cultural, security and even geo-political calculations define how nations engage the space. Since President Muhammadu Buhari took over the reins on May 29, 2015, he has sought to provide hands on leadership in the foreign policy formulation and implementation process. His first round of shuttle diplomacy during which he visited fellow Boko Haram-ravaged neighbours in the Lake Chad Basin, was meant to galvanize support in the onslaught against the damaging insurgency in Nigeria’s Northeast.

The raft of measures, including efforts to shore up the operational capacity of the Multi-National Joint Task Force, have yielded some gains as would be gleaned in the substantial reversals suffered by the terrorists in the region.

It was a similar experience when the President visited the United States to confer with President Barrack Obama. Talks on boosting the efficacy of the US-Nigeria Bi-National Commission and revamping ties, which became icy during the twilight of the Jonathan administration featured prominently. That notwithstanding, the cost of corruption, and possible interim measures to recover Nigerian looted monies stashed away in the US, formed the core of President Buhari’s priorities.

The dividends of those discussions are being reaped already with the reported readiness of US authorities to repatriate $480m Abacha family loot back to Nigeria. The trend was not too different when the President jetted out to the United Arab Emirates.

President Buhari was able to push through a series of far-reaching agreements, including one on Mutual Legal Assistance. Valuable information on politically exposed Nigerians, who stashed away unexplainable amounts of cash and assets in the Arab Emirate, came to the fore.

So, when the President boarded the plane for Beijing, there were no doubt that Nigeria’s current precarious economic realities weighed heavily in the calculations.

The recent spate of miserable performances of the Naira against the Dollar, as well as other major currencies, necessitated a pragmatic approach, which could in the short to medium term, bail out the economy.

The serious haemorrhage that has seen the economy tanking off at a point bordering on emergency, required some balm to at least, stop the bleeding. The reasoning is apparently that when the bleeding subsides, then the process of proper repositioning would then get underway. However, the choice of Chinese elixir for the nation’S severe economic ailments has taken the heat from many Nigerians concerned about the unconventional tactics usually adopted by the world’s second most influential economy.

Legitimate concerns abound about how aggressive Chinese economic expansion manifests in the flooding of Nigerian markets with finished goods that are less than the desired standard. On the other hand, one of the overarching determinants of the specifics of the latest currency cooperation with Beijing is the fact that a substantial chunk of Nigeria’s imports, come from China.

The dependence on the US Dollar for defraying the cost of such imports has not only precipitated additional costs, it has been putting enormous pressure on the Nigerian currency, resulting in substantial losses.

With this diagnosis in mind, the Buhari team is attempting to key into the incipient process of internationalising the Chinese Yuan as a way of dealing with the debacle. For analysts who want to see the cup as half empty, the currency cooperation is nothing more than Nigeria opening up the floodgates for an irreversible domination of the Nigerian market by China.

In the other camp, those who want to see the cup as half full will think of it in terms of a masterstroke in the short term to address the serious beating that the Naira has received in the last one year.

The more optimistic view of the outcomes of the President’s shuttle to China will apparently contextualise the agreements that have been signed in a nuanced way, which presents practical options for Nigeria to milk the very good potentials, and mitigate the impacts of the unsavoury sides of the deal.

On the very rife fears about the Nigerian market being flooded for instance, it is clear that the Nigerian manufacturing sector has been hobbled by extant realities revolving around the deficit infrastructure and access to finance, which have now been compounded by the forex crisis.

It is, therefore, sensible to creatively and strategically engage the Chinese who have demonstrated serious acumen in being able to build infrastructure, which Nigeria so direly needs. In spite of the very many headaches that afflict Chinese infrastructure projects across Africa, there is no doubt that these infrastructures constitute a fundamental aspect of the architecture that must be put in place to give Nigeria the competitive capacity to put a foot in the door towards economic recovery.

In other words, being fixated on the tendency of the Chinese to dominate in a rapacious manner, without keeping the big picture of revamping fundamentals like electricity, rail system and other critical assets would amount to adopting a defeatist approach.

Since President Buhari has taken the step of reaching out to China as a way of proffering respite for Nigeria’s economy in the short term at least, the harder work is to drill down to the details.

The goal should be to ensure Nigeria has its say, where practicable, its way in determining how the pendulum swings on some of the issues. For instance, instead of having the Chinese flood projects with thousands of workers to take jobs that should have been ordinarily handled by Nigerians, negotiations could centre around quotas, and on the basis of skills. Local content in the sourcing of some project inputs could equally be stressed to ensure a trickle-down effect from the projects for the Nigerian economy.

Unfortunately, there has been an attempt to narrate Sino-Nigerian relations in the light that Nigeria is perpetually the party going bowl in hand to look for Chinese aid. That portrait does not take into consideration the fact that the Chinese are also coming barrel in hand for Nigeria’s sweet crude. In the solid minerals sector too, the Chinese are all over the place, taking valuables, which could feature as bargaining chips on the broad canvass of bilateral ties.

One very significant dimension of the engagement, which President Buhari and his team would have to keep in mind is about the commitment on the Nigerian side to follow up and follow through with the outcomes that are in Nigeria’s best interest.

Since Nigeria and China established formal diplomatic relations in 1971, there have been several similar agreements, which have been inked, but remained dead words on the papers on which they were signed.

In Nigerian policy circles, lethargy has tended to affect the capacity to follow up on things, in order to promote the best interest of the country. For instance, in cases where projects require counterpart funding, it is not tenable that Nigeria would fail to meet obligations, thereby scuttling projects that are so vital to its economic rise.

In the area of skills transfer, beyond blaming the Chinese, it is also instructive to understand what concrete efforts have been made on the Nigerian side to aggressively acquire skills, when Sino-Nigerian projects come on stream. It is therefore, critical to realise that in relationships between nations, the act of spoon-feeding is non-existent.

What a nation gets is what it is prepared to exert its energies for. After all, the Chinese themselves are an eloquent story of a people who have dared the odds in their rise to global prominence. So whatever Nigeria gets from President Buhari’s China visit, would be what Africa’s largest economy, is prepared to work for.

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