Nigeria-Taiwan row: Understanding China’s influence in Africa

Written by Abdul-Gafar Tobi Oshodi.

Little is known of the details of Nigeria-Taiwan relations, but last year will go down as the most turbulent in their complex history. On January 11, 2017 the Nigerian government ordered a relocation of the Taiwan trade office from Abuja, the country’s capital, to Lagos, its commercial hub, generating significant attention. Additional demand on March 31 that the office director, Morgan Chao, must leave the country because his safety, reportedly, could not be guaranteed expectedly infuriated Taipei. Though Chao was recalled, after a one-week ultimatum to relocate the office on June 14 lapsed, military personnel were deployed to forcefully eject its staff and seal off the premises on June 30.

As the trade office was being finally relocated to Lagos in December 2017, perhaps to justify its actions, an official circular was sent to all government ministries, departments and agencies stressing the need “to reaffirm Nigeria’s position on the One China Policy.” Raising further doubt as to the future existence of the newly relocated Lagos trade office, the circular added that the 1990s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) allowing trade missions between the two countries is being reviewed and a decision will be reached soon. While Taiwan promised to reciprocate by ordering Nigeria’s trade office to leave the country’s capital, David Lee, Taiwan’s foreign affairs minister echoed the official view: Abuja’s actions were part of Beijing’s “peremptory political scheme”. Many observers have also drawn the same connection.

Beijing’s strings hypothesis

A Sino-centric explanation of Nigeria’s actions appears at first straightforward: Nigeria is driven by economic considerations as influenced by Beijing’s age-long quest to unify mainland China with a renege island, Taiwan. Beijing’s current quest comes against the background of the 2016 emergence of Tsai Ing-wen’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party government in Taipei. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and contender for the continent’s biggest economy with South Africa, needs Beijing’s investment. Why? Mainly economic.

Though Nigeria’s export of crude oil to Taiwan surpassed those to China in some years between 2000 and 2011, Sino-Nigeria economic relations have continued to rise, leaping from around $2 billion in 1999, to $3 billion in 2006, to $16–18 billion in 2014 (true figures may be higher or lower). Beijing’s investment, for instance, increased from about $4 billion in 2006 to about $8 billion in 2010. In 2016, the $800 million Nigeria-Taiwan trade is a fraction of the Sino-Nigeria mid-year figure of $6.46 billion.

If the numerous intimidating infrastructure projects such as airports, railways and road constructions count, and they do, then Beijing’s “checkbook diplomacy” becomes undebatable. Meanwhile, in addition to a 2016 working visit by Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari to Beijing for what was believed by many for budget financing, the 2017 relocation order coincided with the visit of Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi. During this visit, Wang Yi reportedly promised $40 billion investment to Nigeria, and  afterwards in a joint communique with his Nigeria counterpart, Geoffrey Onyeama, re-echoed Nigeria’s support for the One China policy. Why would Nigeria want to deny Beijing’s wish in the face of such economic incentivisation?

Other considerations

Yet, it is reductionist to view Nigeria’s move strictly from a Sino-centric and economic perspective. Other justifications are not overtly economic; they are historical and contextual. Two are worth highlighting here. First, Nigeria’s actions must be understood within the country’s historical position. Successive Nigerian governments – since the 1971 UN resolution recognising the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people – have adhered to the One China policy. The origin of this foreign policy, which was in vogue when Sino-Nigeria trade was infinitesimal and predates China’s ‘go-global’ policy, was in spite of strong allegations that Chinese small arms and ammunitions were provided to the secessionist Biafra forces via Tanzania during Nigeria’s civil war.

Second, Nigeria’s action must be understood within its nation-building struggles which, though is different from Beijing’s, shares some similarities. Like China’s civil war experience and the continuing centrifugal agitations among the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, Nigeria witnessed a bloody civil war (1967-70) that almost led to the breakup of the country. Nigeria is currently confronted with serious challenges to its unity – the Boko Haram conflict in the northeast, the Niger Delta question in the southernmost part, the re-emergence of the Biafra question in the southeast, and the rampaging Fulani herdsmen.

So, policy actions – including appearing to ‘downgrade’ a country considered to be a renege Chinese island – in a bid to support Beijing’s ‘One China’, fits well into Nigeria’s quest for national unity. And Beijing has not hidden its support for the continued unity of Nigeria. Interestingly, one can imagine how Nigeria would react if Biafra was offered a trade office in Beijing.

No big deal?

The context within which Nigeria made the announcement of the relocation of the Taiwanese trade office was intended to achieve an important goal: delight Nigeria’s most reliable development partner by reaffirming support for the One China policy. This goal was largely achieved. But the relocation row may not be as bad as it was made out to be in the media and in some policy circles.

There is still a Taiwanese trade office in Nigeria, only that it is now in the commercial hub and not in the administrative centre. More so, it should be recalled that when some media outlets misread the order to mean a break in ties with Taiwan, President Buhari was quick to issue a press release the next morning stressing: the “correct position is that the official relationship between Nigeria and Taiwan has been at the level of trade representation and this has not changed from what it used to be.” With this in mind,  celebration in Beijing could be premature. In any case, Beijing, I suspect, now understands that its relationship with Africa’s giant is more of an oscillation, than something which is rigidly casted.

Abdul-Gafar Tobi Oshodi is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Research on Peace and Development (CRPD) at the University of Leuven, Belgium. His research interests include Sino-African political and economic relations, with a particular focus on nation/peace building in Nigeria and Ghana. Image Credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr 

Categories: Diplomacy, NigeriaTags: , , , , , , , , ,

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