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A Chinese Debt Trap in Nigeria? Hardly!

Back in May, the online Nigerian financial news site Nairametrics ran an article with the frightening headline: “Nigeria is falling into China’s debt trap.” This, of course, is nothing new. Many Nigerians, along with countless others across Africa, now firmly believe that China will soon begin to seize their country’s strategic national assets because they can’t repay their debts.

This is also deeply engrained thinking in many parts of Washington’s national security community where otherwise rational, analytical people seem to take this theory on face-value without a shred of evidence to support the proposition.

But what’s agonizingly aggravating about this entire discussion is that the proponents of this bogus theory tend to be remarkably confident about what they evidently know so little about.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s stay with Nigeria as an example. On Friday, the country’s Debt Management Office (DMO) published a data set that revealed China just owns a tad under 4% of the country’s $79 billion of external debt. That’s about $3 billion that’s all been borrowed on a project-basis to build infrastructure.

So, let me get this straight… the Chinese are somehow going to leverage their 3% share of Nigeria’s debt to ensnare Africa’s largest country into some kind of neo-colonial debt trap. It’s patently absurd.

What I don’t understand is that none of this information is new. So, why is it so difficult for a journalist or copy editor at a publication like Nairametrics to just pick up the phone and call the DMO to find out if Nigeria is actually endangered of “falling into a debt trap” before publishing such a provocative story?

But ultimately, it’s the governments themselves who responsible for the misinformation that’s out there. Why has it taken the DMO so long to publish this kind of information? If this Chinese recoil so much about the U.S.-led debt trap critique, then why aren’t they more transparent about their loans?

When asked a few days as to how much Zimbabwe owes China, Ambassador Guo Shaochun said he didn’t know. That was not the right answer. Instead, he should have been able to point the enquiring journalist to a web site that details the precise amount of the loans, interest rates, terms, and what they’re being used for so as to reassure both local and Chinese taxpayers that their money isn’t being frittered away.

I know that’s probably asking way too much of both Chinese and most African governments who apparently prefer to operate out of view of public scrutiny or meaningful legislative oversight, which is why we really shouldn’t feel too much pity for either one as they needlessly waste valuable political capital swatting back what is effectively a baseless conspiracy theory.

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