Nigeria-China relations may work this time

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

This past week, Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari was in China. He was given full honours by the Chinese government. Nigerian authorities are hailing the trip as a huge success. They point to the more than US$6 billion worth of investments agreed between Nigerian and Chinese businesses – earlier statements credited to Nigeria’s foreign minister, Mr Geoffrey Onyeama, by Reuters suggested a US$6 billion infrastructure loan was agreed, later debunked by President Buhari’s spokesman. In fairness to Mr Onyeama, he did not say a new agreement was signed. Quoting him in the 12 April 2016 Reuters article: “It won’t need an agreement to be signed; it is just to identify the projects and we access it.” With more clarity on what actually took place, it is now known that what President Buhari did was to re-negotiate loans already agreed with the Chinese by previous Nigerian administrations, especially that of President Goodluck Jonathan. Since that is the case, it seems the loans might actually be more than US$6 billion. As I recall in November 2014 amid much fanfare, China Railway Construction Corporation Limited signed a US$12 billion contract for the 1,402-kilometre Lagos-Calabar coastal railway – the line would be a significant boost for the Niger-Delta and Southeastern regions of Nigeria and is currently a source of divisions in the Nigerian legislature: southern lawmakers accuse their northern colleagues of deliberately removing the project from the 2016 budget, putting President Buhari in a bind somewhat as he reportedly threatened to withhold his assent of the budget until the railway project is put back into the bill – China’s largest single overseas contract at the time, probably still is. If you assume the typical 85 percent Chinese funding format for Sino-Nigerian infrastructure projects, we could say the loans President Buhari successfully re-negotiated might actually be at least US$10 billion for the Lagos-Calabar railway modernization project alone. And there are others. There is the US$8.3 billion Lagos-Kano railway modernization project (contract was initially signed in 2006); Chinese funding commitment using the same ratio would be about US$7 billion. Although some of the funding for these projects were provided by the Chinese government to earlier Nigerian administrations – and diverted to other means by Nigerian authorities to the dismay of their Chinese counterparts – there could be about US$13 billion (taking a median figure) in re-negotiated debt obligations for the Nigerian side. It is probably why Nigerian authorities might not want too much focus on the loans because they are likely more than has been reported. While I worry about Nigeria’s rising debt burden, what worries me more is that most of the borrowings usually end up being spent wastefully on recurrent expenditure. Only recently, Nigeria’s top scribe revealed US$3 billion (600 billion naira) is borrowed monthly by the government to pay wages, based on media reports. Still, if indeed the funds – Chinese or otherwise – are actually used for the designated infrastructure projects and are completed, it would not be overly concerning. Although Nigerian authorities have not revealed whether the local content of the infrastructure projects was re-negotiated as well, it is likely Chinese companies would still supply the labour, equipment and materials for them. Notwithstanding, if Nigeria gets the infrastructure in the end, it would be just as well.

A currency swap agreement with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) – that country’s largest bank – was also signed by Nigeria’s central bank during the trip; and has since been a source of controversy of some sorts. Most initially wondered why the agreement was not with the Chinese central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC). News making the rounds is that both central banks actually agreed in principle on a currency swap – potential size of US$4-5 billion – with modalities still being negotiated. It is being reported in the media that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) actually proposed a US$10 billion currency swap. A demurral by the Chinese is why about half of that is being considered as more likely. Still, it would be a relatively good outcome. As there are potential downsides, its significance should not be exaggerated however. A currency swap is a two-way instrument. Just like Nigerians would be able to buy Chinese goods using the naira – as opposed to first purchasing the US dollar and then converting to Chinese Yuan – the Chinese would also be able to buy Nigerian goods in naira. And what do the Chinese buy from Nigeria? Crude oil mostly. And since the naira is overvalued, Nigeria would lose significant value for that commodity in that case. That is in addition to the valuable US dollars the country would lose if crude oil sales come under the arrangement. Also bear in mind; the Chinese would be in possession of the US dollar equivalent of the Chinese Yuan Nigeria keeps with the PBOC as foreign exchange reserves. There are other concerns. With the swap, Nigeria’s net position would likely more often be negative. How so? China sells at least four times as much goods to Nigeria, mostly manufactures. And if Nigeria is looking to diversify its economy, it is not in its best interest to make it easier to import Chinese goods. Probably to put some modicum of dignity on the fact that Nigeria was actually in China with a begging bowl, the Nigerian president kept harping on the trade imbalance in favour of China – China accounts for more than 80 percent of its total trade with Nigeria. But is that the fault of the Chinese? You correct a trade imbalance by first building your own industries or say only importing as much as you export. Whereas China’s exports to Nigeria are largely manufactures – machinery, equipment, processed goods, etc. – and very diversified, more than 80 percent of China’s imports from Nigeria are crude oil and gas. In 2013 – most recent annual data available from the National Bureau of Statistics of China – China’s exports to Nigeria was US$12 billion (88 percent of total trade) and its imports were US$ 1.6 billion (12 percent of total trade), putting its total trade with Nigeria in that year at US$13.6 billion. Nigerian authorities put total 2015 trade with China at US$14.9 billion. In two columns in February 2016 – “Africa should renegotiate EPAs for manufactures’ trade parity” – I make a case for manufactures’ trade parity as a model for correcting the significant trade imbalances that exists between African countries and their western and eastern trade partners. So is there any advantage to the swap agreement? Oh yes. Nigerian banks are saved some hassle. And Lagos would effectively be the West African hub for Renminbi transactions. But in light of the aforementioned concerns, the CBN has to ensure that Nigerians are protected as it negotiates the terms.

So what does China get in return? China seeks influence primarily. In any case, it is not really giving much away. On 8 April 2016, acting on instructions from Chinese authorities, Kenya forcefully repatriated eight Taiwanese – charged and acquitted by a Kenyan court in a cyber crime case – to China, not Taiwan. It probably had no choice in the matter. Apart from the many Kenyan infrastructure projects being funded by China, Kenya is also currently negotiating a US$600 million Chinese loan. Nonetheless, the relationship with China is an excellent opportunity. China does not see the relationship as competitive. What Nigeria – and indeed Africa at large – could gain from China is what China is giving up. There is an opportunity in labour-intensive manufacturing as China ascends to advanced stuff. Still, power and infrastructure deficits are constraints. Even so, Nigeria could use special economic zones with designated infrastructure assets to get around them. Progress on this front has been slow, however. More importantly, the real potential gain from the China-Nigeria relationship is if it engenders the transfer of skills and technology from China. This is possible. China is helping Ethiopia in diverse ways in this regard – see my column on 22 December 2015: “East African countries seem to have cracked the Chinese code.” This should also be Nigeria’s emphasis. Fundamentally, China would be happy to help if it finds a Nigerian side that espouses some of the values it holds dear. Integrity and honesty are few examples. At this point, it is important to point out that there are aspects of Chinese culture that are not entirely pleasant. Racism is entrenched in Chinese culture and is at the root of its unpleasant labour practices in Nigeria and other African countries. Still, if the Chinese find honest Nigerian partners who fulfill their promises, there is no limit to the potential gains for the Nigerian side. In this Nigerian president at least, they may have found one such partner. That is also the impression one senses from the Chinese side.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column. See link viz. http://businessdayonline.com/2016/04/nigeria-china-relations-may-work-this-time/

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