On July 1, 2016, Nigeria commemorated the 95th anniversary of the founding of China’s ruling Communist Party (CPC) by holding a major conference in Abuja. During that conference, Nigeria’s vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Shehu Sani, extolled the CPC as a role model for African political parties to follow.
Sani’s praise for the Chinese political system was rooted in his admiration of the CPCs emphasis on principles and ideology in its development strategy. This contrasts sharply with the paucity of genuinely ideological parties in Nigeria and many other Sub-Saharan African countries
As Nigeria has transitioned toward democracy since the death of its last military dictator Sani Abacha in 1998, such open praise of China’s authoritarian system appears contradictory. Yet it is also not surprising. According to a 2014 BBC World Service poll, Nigeria was the most pro-Chinese country in the world, with 85 percent of Nigerians viewing Beijing’s influence in the world positively.
Unlike the transactional natural resources-for-capital relationships China has forged with many other African countries, China has formed a durable political alliance with Nigeria over the past few decades. China has also developed strong cultural linkages with Nigeria, through student exchange programs and media proliferation. This successful soft power campaign provides an effective model for Chinese policymakers to follow in their attempts to strengthen Beijing’s alliances with other African countries.
China’s Political Alliance with Nigeria: A Special Relationship
China’s political alliance with Nigeria dates back to its initial establishment of diplomatic relations with Lagos in 1971. This normalization of ties overcame hostilities engendered by China’s tacit support for Biafra against the Soviet and U.S.-backed Nigerian government during the 1967-1970 civil war.
As Nigeria was seeking to profit from surging oil prices during the 1970s but was stigmatized in the West due to human rights abuses perpetrated by its military dictatorships, China became a vital political ally and market for Nigerian oil.
From the start of the Beijing-Lagos political alliance, Nigeria asserted its foreign policy autonomy and was determined to avoid becoming a Chinese satellite. Nigeria supported the Soviet-backed MPLA in Angola after civil war erupted in 1975, while China aligned with the FNLA, a leading rival faction. China’s decision to support the U.S.-backed FNLA caused many Nigerians to view Beijing’s rhetorical commitment to “anti-imperialism” as hypocritical.
Despite this disagreement, Lagos maintained close linkages with China in the years that followed. As Nigeria was largely cut off from Western aid during Sani Abacha’s 1993-1998 military dictatorship, Nigeria adopted a “Look East” foreign policy similar to Robert Mugabe’s current strategy in Zimbabwe. This approach greatly strengthened the Beijing-Abuja political alliance and built trust between the two countries.
The strength of these political bonds has been revealed by deeper China-Nigeria cooperation at the United Nations (UN). In 2015, China endorsed Nigeria’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, citing Nigeria’s status as a “leading developing country.”
Nigeria has reciprocated by supporting China’s position in territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region. Even though Nigeria maintains a trade relationship with Taiwan, including a trade office in Taipei, the Nigerian government published a joint communiqué with China in 2005 describing Taiwan as an unalienable part of Chinese territory.
This mutual support contributed greatly to Nigeria’s successful request for Chinese military assistance in its struggle against insurgencies in the oil-rich Niger Delta. As the United States and other Western countries have refrained from overtly supporting Nigeria’s counter-insurgency efforts, China has filled the void by supplying military technology and sending military trainers to assist Nigerian forces. These actions reaffirmed the Nigeria-China alliance and have contributed greatly to Nigerian political elites’ positive perceptions of China.
The Growth in Cultural Linkages Between China and Nigeria
Even though China and Nigeria have vastly different historical experiences and cultural traditions, Beijing has been remarkably successful in its efforts to promote Chinese culture in Nigeria. Student exchanges and the proliferation of Chinese media in Nigeria have been the primary mechanisms underpinning the increasing cultural synergy between the two countries.
In 2007, Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Akwa, Nigeria, established a Confucius Institute to teach the Chinese language to Nigerian students. As business linkages between China and Nigeria have grown rapidly in recent years, the institute was a successful project.
Its success was acknowledged on June 29, when the Chinese embassy in Abuja announced the establishment of Nigeria’s first Chinese Cultural Research Center. The embassy also pledged to create an Igbo language institute in China to encourage Chinese university graduates to work for Chinese companies in Nigeria.
To encourage Nigerian students to study in China, the Chinese government has emphasized China’s cultural diversity. Yet concerns about racism in China remain an obstacle to deeper cultural integration and could deter Nigerian graduates from Chinese universities from making valuable contributions to the Chinese economy. This concern has been especially relevant in Guangzhou, a city that has been the site of a major influx of Nigerian Igbo immigration over the past decade.
Negative attitudes toward Nigerians have been fueled by their alleged involvement in drug-related crime in Guangzhou. The Guangzhou police arrested 168 people in conjunction with a drug smuggling ring in 2013. The majority of people apprehended were citizens of Nigeria and Mali.
The conduct of the Chinese police toward Nigerians has also been controversial. Many Nigerians have expressed frustration at the short length of work visas granted by the Chinese immigration authorities. Perceptions of xenophobia and being targeted by the Chinese authorities have caused many Nigerian Muslims to live together in insular communities.
Even though there is no quick-fix solution to these problems, Beijing’s strategy of expanding student exchanges and educating more Chinese students in the Igbo language could play an instrumental role in reducing ethnic tensions over time. If these efforts prove successful in Nigeria, China could attempt to make similar overtures toward countries with more pervasive anti-Chinese sentiments, like Ethiopia and Zambia, to consolidate stronger strategic partnerships.
The second prong of China’s soft power campaign in Nigeria, media proliferation, has been more unequivocally successful than student exchanges. Through the StarTimes initiative, the Chinese government has been able to establish media linkages with Africa’s largest television network, the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA).
With the NTA’s support, China has been able to attract more visitors to cultural exchange events like the opening of a China Gallery in Nigeria’s national library and showcase Chinese culture to Nigerians residing in 18 major cities. Nigeria’s Ministry of Information has urged China to reciprocate by featuring more Nigerian programs in China. This proposal has captured the interest of Chinese officials seeking to expand the bilateral trade partnership, which has grown six-fold over the past decade.
The Chinese film industry has been highly successful in promoting its showcase productions to a Nigerian audience as well. The December 2015 Chinese film festival in Lagos, featuring Chinese films like Chinese Zodiac, Confucius, and Monkey King, attracted large numbers of students and Nigerian government representatives. As more Nigerians learn Chinese, turnout to these events will almost certainly increase.
China’s special relationship with Nigeria, forged through deep-rooted political bonds and cultural exchanges, is a major victory for its soft power campaign in Africa. As pro-Chinese sentiments in Nigeria are overwhelming at both the elite and popular level, Nigeria is a perfect testing ground for future Chinese alliance-building efforts in other African countries in the years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a recent MPhil graduate in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post, amongst other publications. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.