/ 16 October 2023

October lessons from China for Nigeria and the rest of Africa

The late Mao Zedong
The late Mao Zedong

The rise of China on the global stage, soon after World War II, throughout the 1950s and up until now, has been astonishing. 

The sacrifices the Chinese people have made in nation building, and their resilience, are unique and such as the world has not seen before. 

The birth of the republic sprang out of a bloody civil war which claimed thousands, if not millions, of lives. After the protracted war between the army of the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, and the incumbent Kuomintang nationalist government, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed on 1 October 1949. 

On that day, Mao waved the new Chinese flag on Tiananmen Square as he founded the republic before a crowd of almost half a million people. For the past seven decades, this day has been one of the most significant in the history of China. From that beginning, the country formed a strong foundation upon which future generations have successfully built. 

The celebration of China’s National Day lasts for a whole week, known as Golden Week, during which the country literally comes to a standstill as business and factories close, and people join celebrations countrywide, with festivities, concerts and mass pageants organised by state councils. 

Some years, the government co-ordinates a grand military parade, showcasing China’s military might, for example in 2019, when the country celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding. 

Perhaps, more than anything, what is significant is China’s realisation from the beginning that the fight for self-determination alone was not sufficient. Rather, the exchange of technological knowledge and economic inclusion was key to its development and has made the difference we see today. 

No nation has ever reached its pinnacle of development in a vacuum. People and nations need information and hence China was strategic in aligning itself with the communist Soviet Union, which was already a superpower post World War II. 

During the reign of Mao, the country experienced immense difficulties but also made significant strides in shaping the China of today. The foundation of nation states largely determines the progress, the development, and even the respect that such a nation earns from others, going forward. 

However, in contrast to the experience of the People’s Republic of China, there is another country with great potential, but which has not realised it. 

Let us consider one of the giants of Africa — a country sometimes referred to as “the Super-Eagles” — which gained its independence almost 10 years after China was founded. On 1 October 1960, the Federal Republic of Nigeria was proclaimed independent from British colonial rule. 

The progress — or rather lack of progress — in terms of technological advancement, and development, in Nigeria can be attributed to many things, including events in the early years of its existence. The independent Nigeria did not flourish as China had 10 years earlier. 

Patriotism, firm leadership and an understanding of the real meaning of self-determination are prerequisites for a strong foundation on which to build a nation. China had a firm and focused leadership from the get-go and this is largely responsible for the gains that country has made over the years. 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Nigeria and partly because of its poor beginning. In the early 1960s and 1970s it was rocked by military coups. Few of the instigators of those coups acted in the interests of the country. Rather, they acted for self-gain and for the accumulation of personal wealth. 

The poverty, high unemployment levels, corruption and other problems that plague Nigeria, despite its mineral and oil wealth, are due to lack of firm and focused leadership. 

To make matters worse, Nigeria adopted a Western system of education, governance and, arguably, way of life, with the exception of a few cultural, tribal and ethics elements of identity.  

The educational system and curriculum in Nigeria serve the purpose of making the masses consumers and managers of Western multinational corporate interests. 

Furthermore, despite the oil and resources in Nigeria, there is nothing in the curriculum that teaches local people about mining, extraction or about setting up a refinery or a production or mining company etc. 

The opposite was true in China after the revolution in 1949. The leadership under Mao, although it had its faults and was nowhere near perfect, did a complete overhaul of any systems that did not align with the vision of the Communist Party — it was more or less a process of total cleansing, in the quest to achieve real self-determination. 

As an example, in China today, corruption in public office is not only taboo but is a serious offence that could lead to the death penalty. 

As painful as it is to admit, many African nations, specifically Nigeria, were created as resource-extraction states and this is still the reality to this day. 

Western countries extract oil and sell it back to the Nigerian government in 2023. Where is the self-determination and autonomy in that kind of arrangement? If the tables were turned, would the West, or China, agree to such unfair and unequal treatment?

Today, Nigeria and the entire African continent cannot even put into effect a continental free trade agreement, without getting “permission” from the US. This is absurd and completely unacceptable in 2023. 

There is a need for Africa to rise up and, particularly, there is a need for Nigeria to stand tall and actualise the true meaning of its independence. In fact, the population of Nigeria, and the continent at large, is not getting any smaller, which means that the issues of proper utilisation of resources for the benefit of all will continue to be crucial. 

Therefore, this month of October should serve as an opportunity for Nigeria and Africa to fully study the history and economic gains of China. They need to establish what the founding fathers of the People’s Republic of China did differently, how their strategies and the choices they made then still affect that country. 

All the lessons drawn from such a study should be properly understood and those that can work in the African context should be applied. Today, China is a country that has taken full ownership of its resources and is in total control of its future. 

Unfortunately, no African country can claim this status of complete self-determination. This is the crucial piece of the African puzzle. 

Aaron Ng’ambi is a geopolitical analyst and newspaper columnist, leadership instructor, and a social entrepreneur.