ABUJA, Nigeria — It’s almost a joke in many parts of Nigeria: If you see a crew of people building anything, they are probably being watched over by a man in a pointed Chinese hat.
The joke might not be funny, but it gets the point across: China is one of Nigeria’s main benefactor, for better or worse.
As the country accepted a $1.1 billion loan earlier this month to construct railways and airport terminals, Nigerians are hoping the funds will jump-start the economy, and ease its near-constant security crisis. Others, however, are skeptical. They worry the influx of cash will serve only to buy favors for Chinese businesses from corrupt officials — a process Nigeria is long familiar with.
“These loans keep coming and yet the railways have not been modernized, have not been effective,” Bukhari Bello Jega, the director of research for the Center for Political Research, Education and Development, told GlobalPost. “So where is the money going? There is a total lack of transparency.”
The 20-year loan asks for 2.5 percent interest — less than most US student loans. The Ministry of Finance said it would be used for a new airport terminal in Lagos, the financial capital of Nigeria, and to develop better communication technology throughout the country. Also in the works is a light-rail system in and around Abuja, the purpose-built capital with rents too high for the average Nigerian. The rail would save the working class — including many civil servants — hours of commuting time a day.
Early this week, Nigerian officials said the rail project was 22 percent complete, having been slowed down by villagers demanding compensation for properties lost to the tracks. They said the rail would be done by 2015 and ultimately create a million jobs.
A new $100 million communications infrastructure update is also expected to be completed in 2015, with the government saying it will help security forces as well as regular Nigerians share information.
Incompleted infrastructure projects dot the country and when asked how much money had been spent in recent years on such projects, Kabir Mato, director of the Institute for Anti-Corruption Studies at the University of Abuja, looked forlorn.
"You better keep yourself away from these horrifying statistics: performance vs. real value for money," he warned. "If you do that you reduce the possibility of hypertension... But I know it is certainly a larges sum of money and it is annual."
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For some young Nigerians, the promise of any transportation improvement is exciting.
“People are going to be able to move from one place to another place,” said Opeyemi Agbaje, 29, at a café in Abuja. “People can go to work without stress. So I think it’s a very good thing. If the aim is to achieve a real transportation system.”
Agbaje said if it was easier for people and goods to travel, Nigeria could climb out of poverty and instability. If more people had jobs or access to markets, he said, fewer would join militant groups like Boko Haram, which has been blamed for 1,400 deaths since 2009.
This is all assuming, however, that prominent crooks do not snatch up the county’s considerable natural wealth. Orison Frederick, standing near a trash pile the size of a small building near his village, told GlobalPost he doesn’t really expect any change.
“It all depends how they are going to make use of the loan,” he said, shrugging. “One of the problems is corruption."
Jega said that, corruption aside, he worried that Nigeria’s resources would be sucked dry by the world’s most populated country.
But the alternative might be worse.
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“China is coming in with infrastructure. China is building schools. China is building hospitals. China is building roads,” he said. “While Americans and Western countries have often provided guns, AK-47s and what have you, for Africans to kill themselves.”
Jega’s view is born from the Cold War when both the United States and the Soviet Union armed gangs across the continent that battled for either capitalism or communism, depending on who was paying the bills. Many Africans say that it’s a problem that persists today in other forms.
African leaders are also increasingly frustrated with Western loan “conditions,” like guarantees the aid will not be used to hurt people and promises of government reform. In recent years, many African heads of state have said that Western interference in local social issues is condescending and often backwards.
At a press conference in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, last year, Rwandan President Paul Kagame was asked about criticism from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
“I don’t give a damn what they say or what they do,” he said, adding that they should, “Get lost.”