By Sam Omatseye
The problem with the hoopla over the Chinese loans is that lawyers think it is about law. But as they are thinking it is about law, it becomes about sovereignty. While mulling it as sovereignty, they mistake it as law again when it has swiveled into national pride. But it is about pride because it is about law. You cannot lose your pride if the law does not crumble. But they still see it as about law. While the lawyers muse, the Chinese are making the chain-links for the Nigerian chattels.
Lawyers have looked at international law. They have looked at the question of sovereignty as well as immunity. They say it is okay to take the Chinese loans because, according to international law, you cannot take over a country. Banish the thought of an Aso Rock overthrow. Banish the thought of knocking off Lawal as senate president or appointing a Chief justice in Mandarin. We still own all that. Our nation is intact. Our nation, our destiny. Open the tap, please. The Chinese can roll in the billions in loans.
But then they concede. They have a right to take over our assets. Take, for instance, the rail line from Lagos to Abuja. If we default they could take it over. Same the rail line from Lagos to Calabar, or from Lagos to Kano. Take again, for instance, a huge loan on Mambilla Plateau, the picturesque highland that will light up millions of citizens and hold the economy in thrall. Then the Chinese fund it, and then we default. They take it over, and decide to switch off the light for months or whatever duration and for whatever reason.
We can boast that we have sovereignty. But we can move at their mercy only, or power our businesses and see our spouses across the dinner table at the happy flick of their switches. Where is the law that prescribes freedom of movement? Or the law, even biological law, that assures freedom of sight?
They explain why the Chinese do not speak. They act. In his book, On China, former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger, saw the Chinese strategy historically as the will to encircle others. They watch you with the malice a boa constrictor until they have encircled and the story is over.
The argument about sovereignty is often traced to the Westphalia treaty of 1648, after the Thirty years war in Europe that slaughtered millions, a war that pitted France against the Hapsburgs and later became a bottomless, borderless conflagration and carnage. Also called the Westphalian sovereignty, it is believed as the first time nations agreed to respect borders. That is one of the great hypocrisies of history. Did the agreement not exist when they conquered our kingdoms in Africa, and took away slaves? Did it not exist before the age of imperialism, and the imposition of colonial rule on us? Did it not exist before the Berlin conference when they decided, without our input, to allot territories and sovereignties to European powers? Kissinger, in his latest book of that title, saw it as the beginning of what is called world order. World order is never sacrosanct. It has grown into a Hobbesian or Machiavellian term. The question has always been: whose world order? Or who orders it?
It was because it was meaningless that nations in the west went into alliances, like the Triple Entente versus the Triple Alliance before the First World War. Hitler destroyed Europe from contempt for any Westphalian sanctity. Even after the Second World War, when Roosevelt asked Churchill to cede colonial governments under international trusteeship, the so-called Lion roared, “Never. Never. Never. I did not become the queen’s first minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire.” Napoleon ran rampant. Bismarck overran France.
The concept of empire is alive and well today. In spite of Kissinger’s claims, he backed Nixon’s replacement of the Chile’s leader. He said the U.S. would not sit back and watch a “country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its citizens.” During the Second World War, De Gaulle carried, in Churchill’s words, the French pride in his soul when England flew him out of Paris after Hitler’s blitzkrieg rumbled into the pretty city. The same de Gaulle formed the Free French and conscripted Africans to fight for French freedom while they were French slaves. A slave fighting to free his slaver. De Gaulle was not their hero, but the blacks were happy to slave away. Where was Westphalia? Some have even argued that the world wars had nothing to do with us. It was a European grudge match elaborated into a global maelstrom.
So we should not forget that the clause about not affecting our military assets means nothing. If they take over our major railways, of what use is the army? The internet was born when the United States saw that only the railway network connected the military from one part of the country to the other. In case of a military attack, the army would be cut off from itself. Hence it developed what it then called The Net. It was the necessity of security. So, if trains are cut off, of what use will our military be to take care of an interconnected nation.
What is clear is that national pride came before sovereignty. What is a nation without its pride? If the law allows you to take over major assets, it is awry. So, you can begin as a staff of the Nigerian railway, and later, the Chinese own it, pay your salaries, decided when to promote or fire you, decide when to replace a wheel and where to buy it. From staff to chaff. As Olisa Agbakoba says in my TVC show, a man who owns a car is removed from the car with his family, and goes away with the car. You are still a man but what sort of man, with your pride crushed in presence of your family?
The Chinese have taken over Zambian assets and whole downtowns in an Asian country. The west gives loans and looks for ways to rearrange the loans. But the Chinese want their pound of flesh. And like Shylock, they don’t care if you bleed, especially if your pride bleeds. The new CAMA law exempts Chinese firms from registering while Nigerian firms must. Are they encircling us as Kissinger characterised them? In considering the matter, let us not forget what Saint Augustine quipped, “In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery?” Sovereignty is the peoplecin whom the law consist.