What you need to know
Taiwan's diplomatic downgrade was about more than just economics.
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 Jan. 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. An additional demand on March 31 that office director Morgan Chao must leave the country because his safety could not be guaranteed infuriated Taipei. Chao was recalled after a one-week ultimatum to relocate the office on June 14 lapsed and 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, 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 Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) allowing trade missions between the two countries were being reviewed.
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 straightforward: Nigeria is driven by economic considerations as influenced by Beijing’s decades-long quest to unite China and 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 a contender for the continent’s biggest economy with South Africa, needs Beijing’s investment.
Though Nigeria’s export of crude oil to Taiwan surpassed China for some years between 2000 and 2011, Sino-Nigerian economic relations have continued to rise, leaping from around US$2 billion in 1999 to US$16–18 billion in 2014. Beijing’s investment, for instance, increased from about US$4 billion in 2006 to about US$8 billion in 2010. In 2016, the US$800 million Nigeria-Taiwan trade is a fraction of the Sino-Nigeria mid-year figure of US$6.46 billion.
If the numerous infrastructure projects such as airports, railways and roads 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 to be for financing, the 2017 relocation order coincided with the visit of Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi. During this visit, Wang Yi reportedly promised US$40 billion investment to Nigeria. In a joint communique with his Nigerian counterpart Geoffrey Onyeama, the two 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 incentivization?
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. Since the 1971 UN resolution recognizing the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people, successive Nigerian governments 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 ammunition 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, share some similarities. Like China’s civil war experience and the continuing agitation 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 south, the re-emergence of the Biafra question in the southeast and the rampaging Fulani herdsmen.
Policy actions – including appearing to "downgrade" a country considered to be a renegade 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 were 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 center. 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, a 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 cast.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the Taiwan Studies Program.
TNL Editor: Morley J Weston