Lessons in Mutualism 50 Years of Sino-Nigerian Relations

After 50 years of formal diplomatic relations, what should Nigerians look out for in Sino-Nigerian relations going forward?

Formal diplomatic relations between Nigeria and China turn 50 today (February 10, 2021). Ahead of the 50th anniversary, in January, state councillor and Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, was in Nigeria, his first stop on a tour of five African countries. In a joint meeting with Nigerian foreign affairs minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, and the media on January 5, Yi highlighted Nigeria’s major strategic partnership with China and called for a fresh start in Sino-Nigerian relations following the 50th anniversary. Finally, he reiterated that mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual support will continue to frame Sino-Nigerian relations on the path to prosperity.


Numerous scholars have discussed the dynamics of Sino-Nigerian relations. For example, political science professor, Steven Jackson, measures the temperature of Sino-Nigerian relations from the 1970s from the Nigerian civil war,  China’s economic expansion, to Nigeria’s democratic venture and the contemporary politics of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In Jackson’s analysis, Sino-Nigerian relations began and maintained a tepidness from 1971 and for a long time after that, the Nigerian and Chinese governments found themselves on the opposite sides of the political tussles between the global powers. For example, at the beginning of the relationship, while Russia supported the Nigerian government’s war efforts against Biafra, China leaned towards supporting anti-colonial struggles in opposition of Russia and the United States and engaging in the Non-Aligned Movement. Senior research fellow at the Centre for China Studies in Abuja, Joseph Golwa, on the other hand, traces Sino-Nigerian relations through the Bandung conference of 1955, the strategic partnership that developed from 1971 onwards, and Nigeria’s membership in the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the BRI. According to this perspective, Sino-Nigerian relations have been warm, centred on four characteristics, which Golwa identifies in the historical and contemporary development of the relationship as friendship, partnership, brotherliness and togetherness.


Notwithstanding the temperature of the diplomatic relationship, Sino-Nigerian relations have had great implications for Nigerians over the past 50 years. The following, however, are some lessons Nigeria needs to urgently consider as it moves into the next stage of Sino-Nigerian relations:

First, person-to-person relations between Nigeria and China have not been harnessed. For many decades, China has pushed a message of mutualism and friendship in its relationship with Nigeria and other African countries. While this move sounds great on paper and among high-level diplomatic exchanges, the reality on the ground is different. Large-scale historical and contemporary anti-Blackness,  racial profiling by the Public Security Bureau, and most recently, heavy-handed pandemic control measures that target Africans, among other numerous problems indicate a deep-rooted problem that hinders China’s narrative of ‘friendship’ and shows that Nigerians and Africans, in general, are still not welcome in China.

Sino-Africa scholar, Kun Huang attributes the persistent anti-Blackness in China to racial-nationalism, Chinese ideologies of sex and gender, and the biopolitics of disease prevention. Anti-Blackness is the ultimate barrier to cultural and person-to-person exchanges in Sino-Nigerian relations. It is also a factor that destabilizes the mutual trust and respect that China pushes in its high-level Sino-African diplomacy. Nevertheless, for Sino-Nigerian relations to grow to the next level, person-to-person relations and cultural exchanges must be harnessed.

Nigeria did not take a tough stance on the racism Nigerians face in China in the past; however, the outcry during the pandemic forced the government to take some steps. Political scientist,  Abdul- Gafar Oshodi, has explained as such, in addition to calling on the Chinese government to address its discriminatory pandemic control measures, we need calls for more concrete measures—including educating Chinese citizens about how racism impedes Sino-Nigerian relations and South-South solidarity—to ensure that anti-Black racism against Nigerians and other African migrants in China is curtailed.

Beyond high-level diplomacy, initiatives that trickle down to the person-to-person level, including greater cultural and education exchanges between China and Nigeria should be ramped up. Nigeria must open a path for cultural and educational exchanges to happen in Nigeria as well. Additionally, instead of blaming only counter-narratives from the West, it would be more useful and impactful for the Chinese government to take a clear stance against racism and reform the policies that feed discrimination and racism against Africans in China. Denying anti-Black racism will do more harm than good in the long run because it maintains a superficial camaraderie in high-level diplomatic interactions and emboldens racism at the local level.

In his January meeting with Onyeama, Yi admitted that people-to-people and cultural exchanges between Nigeria and China are still areas with huge and untapped potential. As of 2019, Nigeria had the highest number of African students studying in China; there were 6,800 Nigerian students in various fields many of whom receive scholarships from the Chinese government. Abuja also hosted the Spring Festival Temple Fair. However, these exchanges have not been enough to impact the widespread afro-phobic rhetoric on Chinese social media and at the height of the pandemic. This indicates that the problem is deeper than it appears but also that there is still a lot of potential that cultural and people-to-people exchanges can achieve.

There needs to be an assessment of the current impact of person-to-person exchanges to see what has worked and what should be improved. What happened to the Nigerian students that have studied and graduated from Chinese universities prior to 2019? What are they doing now? What were their experiences in China and what can those experiences tell us about how to improve person-to-person relations in Sino-African exchanges? How has access to a Chinese education impacted networks between young Chinese and African people? Will there be Chinese exchanges to Nigeria as well? What are the commonalities that Chinese and Nigerian people share? These questions need to be considered and explored going forward. Both Nigeria and China need to tap into the knowledge of the Nigerian diaspora in China and Chinese diaspora in Nigeria to understand how to utilize person-to-person and cultural exchanges for a more equal and mutually beneficial relationship. 


Nigeria needs skill transfer, new technologies and industries. One of the objectives of China’s South–South-focused cooperation with Africa through FOCAC is to balance out the inequalities in Sino-African relations through skill transfers and knowledge sharing. China’s bilateral trade with Nigeria has increased since 2002, as has the number of Chinese corporations in Nigeria. China also agreed to offer thousands of Nigerian engineers scholarships to study in China in order to improve their knowledge, among other initiatives.

However, the level of skill and technology transfer is negligible and there is a growing scepticism about whether China intends to really transfer high technological know-how to Nigerians. According to professor of international studies,  Ebere Adigbuo, ‘China is only prepared to launch Nigeria’s satellite to the orbit after paying some fees. The scientists remain Chinese working in China. The scientific template is Chinese…’

Frank Iroegbu, Rong Du, Batool Hira, Paul Iroegbu, and Tungom Chia identified corruption, failure to use local materials, and poor commitment of Chinese firms in employing and upgrading the skills of Nigerians cheaply as the barriers to effective skill and technological transfer between China and Nigeria. On the other hand, Yunnan Chen’s research holds that though Nigeria attracts many small and medium-sized Chinese investments in manufacturing, the potential for technology that will lead to industrialization and development of industrial clusters and local supply chains is still low. Chen identifies the main obstacles as poor infrastructure, weak local supply chains, low linkages of Chinese firms to local Nigerian firms, lack of accurate data tracking Chinese investments, as well as political and exchange rate unpredictability. Chen notes a few cases of skill transfer, particularly in the furniture sector and found instances of informal local staff within some Chinese firms, as well as high levels of local employment ratios. Nevertheless, aside from machinery operation, there was low knowledge transfer and the number of Nigerian workers in managerial positions were low.

Nigeria must be more strategic about making the most out of Chinese technological know-how; there is room for more Chinese companies to have their manufacturing in Nigeria. Nigeria has a role to play in encouraging these companies to make products locally because it will increase employment and potentially reduce the cost of finished goods. Adigbuo suggests that locating special economic zones closer to industrial and knowledge centres is a way to promote technology transfer between Nigeria and China. In 2018, China imported goods worth $1.79 billion from Nigeria, representing only 0.11 per cent of its imports. This means China must increase its level of manufactured imports from Nigeria to truly reflect the promises made to Africans through FOCAC. In Yi’s January meeting with Onyeama, the Chinese foreign minister stated that China plans on increasing its importation of Nigerian products and invited Nigeria to actively participate in the China International Import Expo.


Nigeria needs to see the bigger picture. Historically, Nigeria has played one of the most significant regional and continent-wide roles in diplomacy in Africa. How does this role fit within Nigeria’s engagement with China? What is Nigeria’s end goal in its relationship with China and how can that goal espouse wider pan-African and South-South interests? Beyond bilateral relations with China, Nigeria should engage with China from a regional and continental scope to protect Nigerian and African interests and to check China’s influence on the continent. China has a strategy for Africa that is applied differently to different African countries to achieve China’s goals and protect China’s interests. On the other hand, instead of working in silos to achieve national goals alone, regional and continent-wide approaches to China need to be developed. Africa has a problem of not seeing the bigger picture and not working strategically as a bloc and this is why the strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ and colonization has worked here.

China’s diplomacy hypes ideals of mutualism, equality and respect; however, China’s influence and investments continue to overshadow Sino-Nigerian and Sino-African relations. Nigeria remains indebted to China, while cheap Chinese products continue to overwhelm Nigeria’s local industries. Nigeria’s high dependence on China means that Nigeria will remain limited in how much initiative it can take in Sino-Nigerian relations. As a new stage of Sino-Nigerian relations begins this month, more than a celebration of 50 years of relations, Nigeria needs to deeply reflect on how to balance out the asymmetries in the relationship

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