Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, a former Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), was also the Minister of External Affairs under the regime of President Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. He is, perhaps, Nigeria’s leading voice on foreign policy issues and Africa in the 21st century. In this interview with Gboyega Akinsanmi, he calls for an emergency conference of African leaders devoted solely to discussing Africa-China relations in the light of China’s renewed racist inclinations against Africans and black people in general. Excerpts:
Last week, the federal government accused China of racism and discrimination against the black people, especially, Nigerians living in the Asian country. Is this appropriate in a 21st century?
Let me start this way. I am very aware of the propaganda competition for African minds going on between China and the United States. I am very much aware that the Western world is panicking about the Chinese incursion into Africa. Also, I am very aware that the Chinese themselves are trying to put the best foot forward. Against the background of this propaganda competition, I have been very much upset about the videos that have been coming out of China.
I am very much upset even about the videos that have been coming out of Africa itself. I saw a video this morning (Saturday, April 25, 2020) that showed a Chinese man with his hands around the breasts of two naked African girls. These girls are about the age of 10 or 12. To me, as a black man, I found it very insulting. So, I have come to the conclusion that though there is a propaganda war going on between China and the United States for the minds and souls of Africa, the Chinese behaviour has actually become very appalling.
Let the Chinese deny that they are not discriminating against Nigerians, Africans or black people in their country. Let the Chinese deny that they are not giving loans to African countries, knowing that they cannot repay. Let the Chinese deny that they are not taking over the running of airports and the running of police forces in East Africa. Let the Chinese deny that they have not adopted racist policies in what I have considered the recolonisation of Africa in the 21st century.
This, to me, is appalling. All these things are to me unacceptable. African leaders must unite against it. However, I know African leaders are to be blamed, because nobody is forcing them to put their countries in these situations. Nobody is forcing them to allow the Chinese establish colonies in Africa. Even in Nigeria here, there are Chinese towns allover. There are Chinese, who are even involved in some of our local markets. This is not American propaganda.
With these scenarios, how should African leaders and Nigeria handle the situation?
First of all, I think there should be an emergency conference or summit of the African Union. Fortunately, it can now be done through Internet services or e-conference. With the outbreaks of Covid-19 worldwide, African leaders do not necessarily have to go and gather in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the headquarters of the African Union (AU). The Chinese even built the edifice for the AU. What an insult! That summit should be devoted to discussing one item: discussing Africa-China relations. I believe free and frank discussion should take place.
One of the decisions that should be reached at the conference is that African leaders should stop going to Beijing, China for the Summit of on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). This summit makes African leaders look like slaves lining up to be refilled by the Chinese leaders. That should be the first resolution. Second, African leaders should no longer sign any economic agreement that allows China ship thousand of her own citizens to Africa. Chinese are even doing manual labour in Africa. That violates our local content law.
Third, African leaders should insist that China should sign agreement with the African Union or with individual African countries to cover the treatment of Africans in China. Fourth, African countries should educate, inform or sensitise their own citizens, who purposely go and subject themselves to inhuman treatment in China. The Chinese are not forcing Africans to come to their country. Africans are going there to trade, and there should be limit to things that can be done, that should be endured or that should be tolerated even by the Africans themselves.
If proven that China’s recent racist inclination breached the 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, can African countries, specifically Nigeria, consider legal action against China?
Let us not go as far as that as of now. If Africa is to sue any country, where Africans are ill treated in the world, believe me, they will end up suing even 50 per cent of the countries in the world. So, let us not go that far. The next step is bilateral approach. If it is not going to work, then, we should consider going to the United Nations. We should look at the prospect of tabling this issue at the UN General Assembly, because it will lead to condemnation.
Obviously, China will have to rethink their policies. Nobody wants to be named and shamed. I have listed steps that African countries can take both in their own countries and in their bilateral relations with China. Let us start with this approach. I am sure you have seen the video of the meeting between the Speaker, House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, and Chinese Ambassador in Nigeria, Mr. Zhou Pingiian.
That was a good step taking on bilateral basis. I hope you have listened to some comments of the Honourable Minister, Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama. I think that African decision makers are becoming aware of the need to mount a pushback against what China is doing in Africa.
The Responsibility to Protect is a global political commitment, which all member states of the United Nations endorsed in 2005 to address growing concerns about crimes against humanity. In the light of the videos we have seen and the reports we have read, how should the Chinese authorities take their obligation under the UN Charter henceforth?
First, the Chinese authorities should be aware that this kind of things going on could do irreparable damage to their reputation in Africa. Chinese are showing the kind of arrogance and colonial mentality that Africans have gone through before, especially, at the period of colonisation. But China should be aware that this is the world of the 21st century and not the world of the 19th and 20th centuries. And the things they think they can get away with are no longer possible in the world of the 21st century.
They will not get away with it. It will damage their relationship with Africa. I think Chinese President Xi Jinping, needs to be aware that Africans, at different levels, are very upset about inhuman treatment of Africans in China. China should be aware that Africa has alternative. It is true that our relationship with the West has not been an entirely brilliant one. There are also issues in the African relationship with the West. I admit that, but it is not as bad as what the Chinese are showing.
Similarly, the Chinese should be aware that African countries could exercise their rights of reciprocity or retaliation. Actually, we, Africans, are more educated now than we were two centuries ago. We can no longer tolerate what we tolerated from the West two centuries ago from any foreign country or power – be it China or the United States. I believe this is one of the things that China should be aware of that Africa could retaliate. It is better not to start relating with us that way.
You just mentioned that African countries have other alternatives. What are those alternatives?
Is it a must we trade with China? If there is a need with China, we can trade with the Chinese world. However, we can trade with other parts of the world. That is an alternative. Like I said, our economic relations with the West need to be fine-tuned. But it’s there. It is an alternative.
In an increasingly dynamic global system, how should Nigeria and by extension other African countries handle their relations with the world henceforth – either China or the West?
Honestly, we should regard this coronavirus pandemic as God-given opportunity for us to sit down and develop an economic template that allows us to be less dependent on the rest of the world. As a former Minister of External Affairs and a globalist in attitude, I also recognise that there is probably a level or a red line within which each African country should not allow itself to fall. A situation, in which you import toothpick from China, handkerchief from China or any country for that matter, should be regarded as unacceptable.
I think each African country, especially, those who have industrial base, should develop local industries. African countries should develop economic templates that will help build up national factories or national industries that will produce goods rather than simply export one material. Let them start producing industrial goods, which they themselves can start exporting after they have satisfied their local markets. This can even be done through fiscal or financial policies that allow the government of each country to assist in building up these factories and industries.
In this part of the world, it appears we have leaders that can hardly see beyond today. In addition, the rate at which the global powers are flooding Africa has beclouded most African leaders to see beyond their status as suppliers of raw materials. What can African leaders do to realise the agenda you have set for them?
The leadership we have in Africa is as a result of three interrelated factors. The first factor deals with the behavioural pattern of the people themselves. This factor should not be ignored if we must get out of this cycle. At the election time, we do not go beyond our ethnic nose. We always hear people say it is our turn. He is our brother. He is from our clan. He is from our ethnic nationality.
As a result, we ignore national policy initiative and manifestoes that are out there. Once elections are over, we take back our thinking cap again. We then think rationally. But at the election time, it is a question of “he is my brother.” That is not the way to elect good leaders. Second, perhaps apart from South Africa, there is no African country, where elections are free, fair and transparent. That is the function of the leaders. That is also the fault of the leaders.
So, on the one hand, there is the fault of the people. On the other hand, the leaders are the cause of the challenges on the continent. That explains the kind of leadership we have. Perhaps, I should add a third factor. That is the interference in our electoral process by the foreign countries. Virtually all foreign countries or powers are interested in the evolution of African leaders, who will do their bidding when they assume offices. They often inject funds supporting non-governmental organisations (NGOs), indoctrinating the NGOs and interfering in our electoral process through the NGOs. These factors give us the kind of leaders we have in Africa. It is right when people doubt if anything good can come out of the present leaders of African countries.
Amid all these challenges, how do we manage the aggressive scramble for the minds and souls of African countries?
We need to continue to leverage the power of the media. Through the media, we need to continue to push back. The media must be involved in educating, informing and letting people know that right is right and wrong is wrong. In addition, we must not make attempt to mask the wrongness of personnel or policies through dubious justifications.
African leaders, especially, those from the ECOWAS, have started requesting for debt forgiveness from the Chinese authorities. Is that request necessary or justifiable in the light of the current global economic crisis occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic?
The request is justifiable. It is also possible. But I do not think the ECOWAS leaders should limit their demand to China alone. I think several important people, especially Nigerians, Africans and in the rest of the world, have made debt forgiveness or debt cancellation a global issue. The Coronavirus, a pandemic ravaging the world now, is a justification for the bilateral and multilateral loans whether from the World Bank Group, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or China. It is rightfully justifiable to ask for debt cancellation on global basis.
Is regional or sub-regional approach to debt cancellation the best? Or should sovereign states on the continent adopt their own individual approaches?
In my answer to the last question, that is why I took it all the way from the IMF to the World Bank Group. This is a global response to a global pandemic. A global approach strengthens our hand in the negotiation that will follow.