China has been in the news in the last few weeks, especially on the issue of loan debate. In this interview, Human Rights Lawyer and Activist, Chief Femi Falana, spoke to Journalists on myths, misinformation, and controversies around China, and the need for Nigeria and the Chinese governments to work more on technology transfer for a win-win situation. GBENGA AKINFENWA was there. Excerpts.

There was a recent report by a non-governmental body, Heritage Foundation, alleging that sensitive government buildings built for Africans by Chinese contractors are used to spy on the continent. Considering the fact that Chinese has built 186 government buildings since 1966, is this not a threat to the country? I think that is nonsensical. First of all, what is espionage? If they have built all the structures for over 50 years, so in what ways has China sabotaged the development of any African country? On the contrary, it is the other way round. I am telling you that members of the ruling classes in Africa are the ones sabotaging the development of the continent, not China. It can never be China; they have gone ahead of us. For instance, can you believe that following the Coronavirus pandemic, China contacted the Cubans and one of the 30 drugs recommended for the treatment of the pandemic in China is the Cuban Interferon Alpha 2B.

Now, Cuba is being encouraged at its own insistence to develop avaccine for combating the coronavirus disease. That is the type of relationship that should be encouraged between Nigeria and the Chinese. But again, like I said, that is predicated on the commitment of the leadership of the Cubans to relate with China and other countries on mutual respect for each other and not on the basis of domination or monopoly, because we must be careful not to substitute Chinese imperialism to Western Imperialism, Imperialism is Imperialism. So, I was very happy when China sat down with the government to talk about dual exchange currency, whereby you can buy goods with the naira and vice versa, the Yuan could also be exchanged here. But again, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is opposed to that. The IMF currently controls the government and the Central Bank and that is why Nigerians have not felt the benefits of such economic relationship. So, our economy is completely dollarised now to the detriment of our country and that is why we are not benefitting from such a relationship.

So, we have to own our country. The government will have to ensure that the political destiny, the political economy of Nigeria is managed in the interest of Nigerians. But, that is not going on and that is why we are not taking advantage of our good relationship with China. China is smiling to the banks, while we are still managing our poverty. What do you think is the motive behind this misinformation on the alleged espionage? This is not hidden. Leading capitalist countries are not happy that China is making a lot of inroads in the continent; hence we are warned repeatedly that those Chinese loans are dangerous. Which loans are not dangerous, especially loans from the West? What they want is that you tie your county perpetually to the arm string of the imperialists; that is what the West is saying. The West is not saying, ‘you don’t need a loan, develop your own country, we will help you to train your people,’ on the contrary, they allow a country like Nigeria to spend huge sum of money to train its own nationals only to have them in the West under a programme called brain drain.

They are not asking Nigeria, ‘can we bring back those nationals of yours that are running our country?’ But what they are saying is that Chinese loans are dangerous. And, to make the claim that the Chinese loans are dangerous strong, a lot of misinformation has to be spread around. Unfortunately, the Chinese government too is doing less to challenge these narratives of the West, to the extent that you have the House of Lords organising a public hearing on the dangers of Chinese loan, due to a clause in a loan; a clause that is common to international agreement was raised. ‘Oh, We have ceded our sovereignty to the Chinese’ and the whole country went agog, until some of us intervened that this is a normal clause in all international agreements. I have personally written to the Director General of Debt Management Office. I have a letter, which I made public that out of the $27b the Chinese component of the loan is only $3.1b. Secondly, we have written to the Federal Government, that for instance, these are the 11 projects being executed by the Chinese, can we know the projects being executed by the West and other multilateral organisations? We haven’t got any reply.

So, we just have to show that we are part of these engagements in a way that we are not deceived.Would you say the Chinese infrastructural development in Africa has been beneficial? Well, as I did say, these are projects that can be verified in a number of African countries; you can see these projects. In the case of Nigeria, you can identify the projects that are being used by the people; some are ongoing, some have been completed, so to that extent, you can say that the projects are beneficial to us. But the question is, at what cost? The conditions of the loans must be made public. Again, I don’t want to support, as I said I am totally opposed to a government taking loans when you have your own resources. But, if you are talking of the projects that are being executed with $3.1b in Nigeria for instance, we can verify them and to that extent, you can say that the loans are beneficial and will be more beneficial to Nigerians. I am not competent to speak for the entire African continent, but in the case of Nigeria, I have investigated and identified the 11 projects being executed with the sum of $3.1b. I can’t say that in respect of the remaining $27b secured largely from Western Countries and Institutions. And, that is why we must be able to compare, which model of development will be better for Nigeria.

But, again like I said, we must develop our own country, we must empower our people, we must train our people to manage our country, so that we don’t have to depend on loans, either from China, from the United States or any country or whatsoever. But I also want to appeal to the Chinese to engage in sharing knowledge, transfer of technology with the people of Africa as opposed to encouraging them to take loans. For over two decades, China has invested heavily in Africa, in your opinion, what development has the investments brought to African countries? Well, it is important to situate China in the global arena. China like Nigeria was a very backward country, until about 40 years ago, when based on a leadership guided by ideology that promoted the interest of the people, China decided to frog-jump as it were and move from third world to the first world. And that has been the experience of some of the Asian countries, where with dedicated leadership, selfless leadership, with the support of the people, guided by ideology, China has completely left a country like Nigeria behind. While African countries were doing away with the loans from Western countries and financial institutions, China has come in to be of tremendous assistance. Whereas conditionalities attached to the loans from the West are economically excruciating, those conditionalities include, selling of public owned assets, they call it privatisation, devaluation of your currency, which has been the case with Nigeria, since the 1980’s, downsising or retrenchment of workers and of course substantial withdrawal from social services. As far as China is concerned, we can have our loans without destroying the basis of governance; without destroying the welfare and security package meant for challenging unemployment and poverty in our country.

However, China also insist and attaches conditions that will make it possible for any lender to have their loans repaid, like any international or any responsible organisation would do. Any responsible organisation will insist on repayment of loans; that is why I frowned at what some people aresaying. Because a common clause in international agreements has been inserted in all the agreements to the effect that if you breach the contract, we can take you to an international arbitrator; that was what, out of ignorance, some legislators in Nigeria tried to distort and mislead our people into believing that the sovereignty of Nigeria has been traded off. But what China does, and I don’t blame them, our government has to be blamed, is to insist that the entire machinery to execute the job, has to be imported from China; the workforce to execute the contract, essentially has to come from China. For me, this is where a country has to be fully armed in negotiating with China or any other countries. For me, this is the role that China has played in Africa, instead of loans that will further pauperise our people, the Chinese loans are tied to projects, which can be verified, unlike other loans that are cornered and diverted by the corrupt members of the ruling class in African countries.

How do you think the relationship between Africa and China has benefited the continent? Like I said, China has learnt never to just throw money around. So, loans from China are tied to projects and China also monitors the execution of the contract as I did say, China wants to send its own experts and workforce to execute the contract. So, you can see what is going on, I mean. If you talk of Lagos–Kaduna railway services, if you talk of Ajaokuta –Itakpe railway lines and the Lagos –Ibadan railway line, which would soon be completed, the work at the airport, the renovations of airports, particularly Lagos and Abuja, all can be monitored. The African Union Secretariat in Abuja was built by the Chinese and so, you can monitor and verify the projects being executed with loans from China. Of course, like I said, there are some of the conditionalities that will have to be re-examined, but these loans are tied to verifiable projects unlike loans from the Western countries which have never benefited the people of Africa. You hardly can verify the projects executed with loans from the West and so, you have loans that have underdeveloped the continent, instead of promoting development. That is not so with Chinese loan-financed projects, if the governments in Africa are prepared to negotiate and get the best for their countries. Talking about conditionalities and negotiations, do you think we are best represented? No, far from it. In fact, I can tell you, many of our officials do not read the contract documents at all, whereas, what the law requires is that the Ministry of Justice reviews contracts. In fact, drafted with the Lawyers; you must have your lawyers to sit down with their lawyers or any other country to agree on the terms of the contract. The terms of the contract must be laid before the National Assembly because, for every loan, the President or Governor must seek the consent of the legislature to take loans from abroad and so, the National Assembly is required for instance, by the provisions of the Debt Management Office, based on the Debt Management establishment Act, and a whole of other laws, require the National Assembly to ensure that the loans obtained are for the execution of Capital projects and not for servicing unproductive bureaucracy.

In other words, no loan contract shall be approved by the National Assembly if it is not meant for building roads, airports, hospitals and so on. So, that is the law, therefore, where you abandoned your constitutional responsibility or statutory obligations, you can’t turn round and blame the Chinese or any other countries for that matter. What this requires is that the government has to engage the services of competent negotiators, lawyers, economists and so on, to ensure that the project or the loan agreements are structured in favor of Nigeria but that has not been our experience.

And that is what led to the very diversionary debate in the National Assembly. In fact, as I did say, the House of Representatives has no moral right to challenge any of the clause in the agreement, because it was assumed that these terms were read before they were approved. So, to now turn around and blame China for what you have scrutinised, read and approved is senseless. It still boils down to the commitment of the leadership of Nigeria to ensure that the best and only the best is obtained from external affairs in the interest of Nigeria. You mentioned competency and professionalism as the panacea for that. And because there will be other opportunities, what should we be doing when we go for this kind of negotiation? Again, I think this point is very important; it is generally lost in our country because of the spurious argument of the government that you can’t do without loans and that we need loans to run our affairs. No, I don’t agree with that, what we need and frankly speaking, what is required of our relationship with China is how you can genuinely transfer technology.