China is currently being hit in Nigeria by a burst of discontent whose outcome is still uncertain. Triggered in late July 2020 by what has become known as the “sovereignty clause” controversy in loan agreements between Nigeria and China, the discontent has, however, a longer history. The current backlash draws mainly on anger over the timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China dateline; questions about Huawei’s participation in 5G networks; claims of uniquely Chinese racial practices against Nigerians; and the image of “China in Africa” more broadly.
The intensity and magnitude of the discontent means that this cannot be dismissed. Finger-pointing letters to the editor in Nigerian newspapers talking about “Nigeria’s Abusive Marriage With China and Slave Agreements” and opinions asserting that “it is unacceptable that our forefathers fought the White Man to liberate our continent only for our generation to hand over our hard-won liberties to barbarian hordes from Asia” are important signals. But, if it is not typical and cannot be dismissed, then the question of where it might be coming from arises.
The evidence indicates the phenomenon cannot be divorced from overlapping variables playing out in global politics — the public health crisis that COVID-19 has spawned, the ongoing great power succession politics, and the debate on the essence of “China in Africa.” Without doubting the individual and collective capability of Nigerians to discern how the world works, the current burst of discontent against China is best understood as a manifestation of the fragility of China’s image in the Nigerian political community rather than a nationalist assertion. In other words, China’s hegemony or soft power or “charm offensive” is experiencing a reversal in its impact on popular consciousness in Nigeria. What is thus at stake here is the paradox about hegemony: its inherent vulnerability to counter-narratives even as it is the most effective form of power. The paradox is complicated in this case by the great power competition and the associated representational practice of power. The imagining and representation of “China in Africa” as a bogeyman, to an extent the world has not seen since the end of the Cold War, is specifically playing the counter-narrative against China. Led by the United States, this framing of China, especially of “China in Africa,” has sedimented in the public sphere over the years. Now, the idea is producing the reality it invokes – China as a predatory, amoral intruder. The resultant weakening explains China’s current vulnerability to discontent in Nigeria.
A Rising Hegemon and the Beaten Track
China is actually a master at self-promotion, particularly in painting itself as Africa’s hero. Scholars of critical geopolitics such as Marcus Power and Giles Mohan have consistently drawn attention to China’s mastery of the “charm offensive,” invoking powerful narratives such as non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations; making essentialist reference to sovereignty; refraining from practices that could be (mis) understood as imperialism; and perpetually declaring solidarity with ex-colonial polities. According to these scholars, China has so successfully revised her dominant discourse of “peaceful rise” (later “peaceful development”) into the “win-win” framework to legitimate “China in Africa” that Beijing is now a global player in what was hitherto a Western sphere of influence.
However, as much progress as China was making in presenting itself as without colonial stain in Africa, with her message of “win-win” development as well as being the acknowledged force for the boom in commodity trading from which the “Africa Rising” narrative sprouted, a number of negative sentiments were also piling up. And these sentiments echoed the framing of China as a neocolonial intruder through the image of Chinese political leaders as hard headed realists on a mission to plunder the continent; the well circulated notion of Chinese manufacturers, especially pharmaceutical companies, colluding with unscrupulous Nigerian traders to produce cheap but inferior products; the representation of the remarkable Chinese presence in the Nigerian textile, electronics, and footwear markets as evidence of what is to come; and narratives of unique Chinese racial practices.
These anti-China feelings were piling up in spite of the fact that, from 2001-2012, China’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in sub-Saharan Africa grew by 53 percent annually (compared to 16 percent annual growth for the EU, 29 percent for Japan and just 14 percent in the case of the United States). By 2012, Chinese FDI had risen from about $27 billion around 2001 to about $133 billion. As early as 2009, writers such as Deborah Brautigam were already asserting that, as far as large-scale private sector manufacturing was concerned, scant Western involvement in Africa had left China the lone, dominant actor. These must have been the facts behind global media framing of the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit largely as a catch-up game. Not only was the United States low on FDI by then, it was not competitive in infrastructure provisioning at any level comparable to the Chinese across Africa.
What should, therefore, become clear is how the current anti-China uproar is not necessarily located in the facts of the matter but in what those facts have been mobilized to prove or disprove. In other words, the current uproar is coming from the generation and sedimentation of specific ideas, concepts, phrases, and metaphors about China, mostly as a predatory intruder that should be suspected and feared rather than trusted. This is what discourse analysts call the language game – the use of words and the power that comes from that. At issue here is not the ethical or normative propriety of the language game, but how the use of words translates to power through the meaning that words infuse into on a reality, making language and reality one and the same thing. Below is how the language game worked against China’s “charm offensive” in Nigeria.
Framing “China in Africa”
Central to the story of Africa in the post-Cold War is the convergence of global powers on the continent, what University of North Carolina’s Margaret Lee has framed as 21st century scramble for Africa. The United States, China, the EU, Russia, Japan, India, Iran, Brazil, Turkey, South Korea, and France are all involved in this. But it is China’s involvement that has been variously problematized and even securitized. Although Johnnie Carson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs under the Obama administration, did not inaugurate the bogeyman narrative, he took it far when he told oil executives in Nigeria in early 2010, for example, how aggressive and pernicious a competitor China is. His message — that China is not in Africa for anything altruistic but primarily for China — was well targeted because oil executives constitute a small but powerful belt through which to spread such a message. Obviously, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton built on this during a 2012 visit to Zambia where she framed “China in Africa” as “new colonialism” and a threat to good governance in relation to liberal democracy, labor standards, the environment, and human rights regime.
It did not take long before Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the then governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, wrote an op-ed articulating a position that shared a lot with Carson and Clinton’s. In arguing that “China in Africa” had a whiff of colonialism, Lamido was, consciously or otherwise, popularizing the American position beyond the oil and elite banking circle, positioning China as a threat. Given Lamido’s popularity across social, ideological, and regional tendencies in Nigeria, now and then, his intervention could not have been without advantages to China critics.
The U.S. framing of China reached its climax by 2014 when President Barack Obama staged the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. That was where he differentiated the United States from China, portraying the U.S. as “a good partner, an equal partner, and a partner for the long term in Africa,” one interested in Africa not “simply for its natural resources; we recognize Africa for its greatest resource, which is its people and its talents and their potential.” Although he did not name China in this address to the Business Forum, his references to the United States in the same message as the responsible and genuine partner on the one hand and to some others as partners that took away Africa’s natural resources achieved that comparison. In any case, Senator Chris Coons completed the job of naming names by directly contrasting the two. In doing so, he privileged what he called the United States’ “values-driven policy and investments in people, especially in public health” to what he considered to be China’s “reputation for paying for the friendship of African governments with low-interest financing of construction projects.”
So, while China is generally regarded as a success story in the language game, probably in accordance with the challenge of “laying the basis for an alternative international system in the 21st century,” the United States plays the game from the position of an established or status quo power. Even as many variables are changing in global power politics, the United States and the Western world still hold the ace in terms of the language game in any audience.
U.S. influence is intact in many spheres in Nigeria. The universities are filled with scholars who trained in Western spaces of scholarship — more than in China, at the moment. The English language is an independent force, with particular reference to the influence of popular culture in general and the mass media in particular. As influential as the Hausa Language Service of China Radio International (CRI) is in northern Nigeria, for instance, it has not supplanted the VOA, the BBC, or Radio Deutschevelle. A similar claim can be made about the China Global Television Network (CGTV) in relation to CNN or BBC World, whose real competitor in Nigeria must be just Al Jazeera. The longer cultural interaction between Nigeria and the West/United States has meant a level of fusion that enhances American discursive power in the country relative to China. The business arena in Nigeria is diversifying as quite a number of Nigerians are “looking towards the East,” but it is debatable if that has amounted to a game changer. The United States has a history of king making in Nigeria, from the political to the business and cultural. It is also still the established intelligence power in Nigeria.
Things have, indeed, been changing but not fast enough to wash away these age-old advantages in favor of the West or make a large chunk of Nigerian not echo U.S. feelings on most issues of the day, notwithstanding pervasive and authentic radical nationalist consciousness. China is paying for that in the current burst of anti-China feelings.
The above sets the ground for understanding the current discontent with China in Nigeria as the paradox of hegemony. The paradox is how much of a power resource hegemony can be, even as it cannot be secured from counter-narratives that could overwhelm it. The challenge for China is not rushing to work harder on hegemony in Nigeria but taking note of the very nature of hegemony, especially in the context of great power politics.
But the fragility of hegemony means that there is a challenge for Nigeria and Nigerians to position themselves against their country being turned into a battleground for great power discursive warfare. That would be no less than a repeat of the unproductive U.S.-USSR scenario in the Cold War, or of how the sharing of the African pie underlined 20th century global conflicts. It would be the ultimate tragedy. To avoid that, Nigerians must master contingent interpretation of politics, away from entrenched, doctrinaire positions which would neither change the United States’ or China’s strategic orientations nor make them countries Nigeria can afford to ignore.
Adagbo Onoja, a former Nigerian Foreign Affairs Ministerial Aide, (1999- 2003), teaches Political Science at The Catholic University of Nigeria, Abuja. As an academic, he focuses on critical geopolitics, great power competition in Africa and Interpretivism.