Is China's silk road leading Nigeria to sufficiency or imperialism?
In December 2020, the latest of China’s many industrial investments in Nigeria, the railway between Lagos and Ibadan, became operational
. Running 156 kilometers long and costing some $1.5 billion US dollars (USD)
, its opening was accompanied by public fanfare and Chinese government tweets, celebrating it as another victory for both Chinese-led developments, and for China’s public image in sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the past two decades, China’s investment in Nigerian industries, and especially transport, has offered Nigeria access to capital and expertise for badly needed development, at levels unseen since colonial Britain built African railways. This investment has been accompanied by a broad acceptance among Nigerians of China’s narrative of goodwill, even as a perception of China as a neo-colonial power in Africa has sprung up in other quarters.
Nigeria became a signatory to China's international infrastructure development plan known as the Belt & Road Initiative in 2018. Since then, Chinese diplomats have framed
the BRI investments as part of a larger mission of Beijing's support for Nigeria as a nation.
Yet, questions linger about the debt burden Nigeria must take on in return for Chinese financing. For example, China’s Export-Import Bank issued a 1.5 billion USD loan
to support the Lagos-Ibadan line in 2017. The Nigerian government aims to repay this loan through profit from passenger and cargo services.
Chinese investments in Nigeria are very substantial. According to a 2019 report
issued by the Chinese embassy, Nigeria hosts 70 construction, 40 investment, and 30 trading Chinese companies. In 2018 alone, Chinese companies were awarded 175 construction contracts in Nigeria, worth $17 billion USD, with 11,088 Chinese workers working in these projects.
Similar projects in Nigeria built over the past decade have set the tone for Nigerian attitudes toward China. For example, the construction of the Abuja-Kaduna railway, completed in 2016, spiked a positive perception of China by Nigerians who lived nearest to the project. An analysis by Pew Research Center published in April 2021 discovered that
“an average of 62% of Nigerians living within 150 kilometers (93 miles) of the project expressed a positive view toward China.”
Nigeria has benefited from a number of BRI projects. The popular ones
include the Abuja/Kaduna Standard Gauge Rail Line linking the nation's capital Abuja to Kaduna, a trade center and transportation hub in north-western Nigeria, the Lagos/Ibadan Standard Gauge Rail Line linking Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital to Ibadan, the former administrative capital of southwestern Nigeria, and the Lagos/Kano railway
, which is an ambitious project connecting the two most populous cities in southern and northern Nigeria. Others include new international airport terminals in Abuja, Port Harcourt in the crude oil-rich Niger Delta region, and the ancient city of Kano.
Most BRI projects are tilted towards rail transportation. A brief look into Nigeria’s train industry will offer an explanation.