By OLUSEGUN OBASANJO
At the beginning of each year, Chinese diplomats visit Africa as a symbol of the special relationship that exists between our peoples. In February 2021, China and my country, Nigeria, celebrated our 50th anniversary of bilateral cooperation. Fifty years ago, Africa also played an important role in helping The People's Republic of China attain its rightful place at the United Nations. Nigeria and China are two of the world’s most populous nations, with Nigeria projected to become the third most populous country by 2050. With our shared desire for collaboration in development and maintaining peace and security in the world, we have much in common for mutual interest and global interest.
An important difference is that in Africa, we have the youngest population of any region. According to the United Nations, three quarters of Africa’s population is under the age of 35. Given access to education and opportunity, these young people will transform their countries, Africa and the world. As many nations face the challenges of an aging demography, we have the potential for tremendous innovation and economic growth, some of which is already being realized. For example, The Africa Progress Group, which I chair, recently released a report on health, education and agriculture, “Making Africa's Population An Asset.”
During my time as President of Nigeria, we recognized that effective transportation was a key driver of economic growth, and we made the modernisation of our railway one area of focus of our twenty-five-year strategic vision. This vision is also central to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through which countries around the world have been supported in efforts to connect communities and facilitate growth. The flagship BRI project in East Africa, the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge railway in Kenya, completed in 2017, reduces passenger travel time between the two cities from 10 hours to four hours. Nigeria formally joined the BRI in 2018 but worked with China on infrastructure projects in the years prior. The completion of the Abuja-Kaduna rail line in 2014 is an example of one such success: the 186km line transports both goods and people quickly and safely, having employed thousands of Nigerians to build and operate.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed African leaders at the 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, he committed to helping Africa reach its infrastructure and development goals, stating: “Poverty is the root cause of chaos while peace is the guarantee for development.” A recent World Bank report has forecast that the Belt and Road initiative has the potential of increasing world trade by over 6% and increasing global income by 2.9%.
Trade and jobs are central to our vision of making Africa's Population An Asset. In Nigeria, we have witnessed what can happen when young people are uneducated and consequently unemployed: many are forced to leave their home in pursuit of opportunities elsewhere, and some are preyed on by radical forces. This was the theme of a Youth Migration Summit hosted at my presidential library in Abuja in which we emphasized the importance of building bridges of opportunity within and between countries; not walls. One positive example is Africa’s Great Green Wall, which combats climate change through large scale planting and restoring degraded land, while creating jobs and preventing the need for migration. I proposed this idea in Burkina Faso during a Climate Change Summit when I was still President of Nigeria. The success of this project will have great impact on flora and fauna in Africa.
In my keynote speech to the InterAction Council in 2016, I spoke about the importance of China as an economic trading partner with Africa and how that relationship helped to insulate Africa from the 2008 financial crisis. That same spirit of partnership is needed to solve Africa’s infrastructure deficit on the basis of mutual and balanced relationship.
A large infrastructure gap continues to hold Africa back from reaching its full potential. Without leapfrogging development of infrastructure in Africa, the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement, AfCFTA, which began trade on January 1, 2021 will not advance fast. McKinsey projects that there needs to be a doubling of annual investment in infrastructure in Africa by 2025, to US$150 billion. According to McKinsey, “nearly 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to grid electricity—accounting for over two-thirds of the global population without power.” The way to move forward, of course, is to promote sustainable energy, and here China is a leader with the pledge made by President Xi at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last September that China would be carbon neutral by 2060.
In that same UNGA address, President Xi called for a “green recovery of the world economy in the post-COVID era” and efforts to achieve sustainable development in all countries. Given the tremendous energy needs in Africa, there is a real opportunity to achieve a “green revolution” through investment in renewable energy.
China benefits from its investments in Africa in a number of ways, one of which is through the export of excess goods such as cement, steel, and aluminum to be used in construction projects. There are obvious strategic advantages to investing in trade routes, ports, pipelines and powerplants, and Chinese leaders pledged in the China-Africa Action Plan to “…act in the principles of sincerity, real results, affinity and good faith, uphold justice while pursuing shared interests, and focus on supporting Africa's capacity-building for internally-driven development in view of Africa's aspiration to reduce poverty, improve people's livelihood, attract more investment and boost export, and will continue to increase input and scale up cooperation with Africa.”
China is the largest single investor in the green finance market, while Africa needs green bonds to finance infrastructure: this is another good example of a “win-win.” I believe that China and Africa can also learn from one another. Indeed, I recently co-authored a book on The Asian Aspiration that examines development lessons from East Asia for Africa. An African-Chinese partnership can help the world implement the UN development mission of “a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” Africa and China should continue to work together for this desirable objective.
Olusegun Obasanjo was President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007. He is Co-Chair of the InterAction Council and Chair of the African Progress Group.