Nigeria

Vulnerable
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
Very High
47 85
Local Resilience & Response
Notable
33 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key findings

Report by: Angeli Datt and Dr. Emeka Umejei

 

  • Increased influence efforts amid deterioration of free expression rights: Building on a strong foundation, Chinese state media expanded their influence efforts during the coverage period of 2019–21, including through new or deeper partnerships between local media and Chinese state media, even as travel to China by Nigerian journalists slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were also several new indications that the Nigerian government viewed the Chinese regime as a model for its suppression of local free expression, and that it was using technology operated by China-based companies for this purpose.
  • Favorable public opinion on China, especially as an economic model: Public opinion is very positive towards China as an economic model that Nigeria should emulate, though such views have been shrinking since 2019. Polls show that people who have engaged directly with Chinese actors hold more favorable opinions on Beijing’s involvement in the country. Nigerian journalists generally have a positive perception of Chinese media sources but are concerned about the authoritarian character of Chinese state media outlets. Nigeria’s vibrant and pluralistic media landscape, as well as the high public trust in and popularity of major international news outlets, also serve to mitigate the impact of Beijing’s media influence (see Impact).
  • Local-language content, partnerships with local media, and frequent ambassador op-eds: Content created by Chinese state actors reaches large numbers of Nigerian news consumers, either directly or via local outlets. China Radio International broadcasts in Hausa, a language spoken by 30 percent of Nigerians, and its Facebook page has one million followers. Chinese state media also reach local audiences through content-sharing agreements and partnerships with Nigerian state-run and private media. Chinese officials regularly engage in public diplomacy in the Nigerian media, with more than 50 op-eds by Chinese diplomats appearing across numerous outlets during the coverage period. Local opinion leaders and politicians also make pro-Beijing comments that are published in local media (see Propaganda).
  • Media trainings that influence reporting and promote Beijing’s model of journalism: Chinese government training programs for journalists are highly sought after in Nigeria because they are well funded and offer capacity-building opportunities. The trainings have been successful in cultivating pro-Beijing voices in Nigerian media houses, with one former participant establishing his own outlet (see Propaganda, Dissemination of norms).
  • Limited, nonspecific disinformation: There is no evidence of Beijing-backed disinformation campaigns aimed specifically at Nigerians on social media (see Disinformation campaigns).
  • Censorship and self-censorship by Beijing-friendly outlets: The Chinese embassy frequently reaches out to editors at major news outlets about news content and appears to be paying journalists not to cover negative stories about China. Outlets whose editors or publishers have a relationship with the Chinese embassy tend to censor reporters when they produce unfavorable articles. There are also instances of pro-Beijing commentators proactively avoiding publishing content that is disfavored by the Chinese government. The popular Chinese-owned news aggregator app, Opera News, has reportedly censored domestic issues on the platform (see Censorship).
  • Prominent Chinese presence in digital television and telecommunications sectors: StarTimes, a privately owned Chinese satellite company that has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party, plays an active role in the digital television infrastructure of Nigeria. StarTimes offers access to inexpensive subscription television packages that favor Chinese state media over other international broadcasters, though it has overall lowered the cost of digital television in the country. The state-run Nigerian Television Authority operates a joint venture with StarTimes. Huawei, a China-based company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and a record of building censorship and surveillance systems in China and abroad, has a dominant position in Nigeria’s digital infrastructure (see Control over content).
  • Chinese diaspora reliance on pro-Beijing media: The estimated 40,000 to 100,000 Chinese people living in Nigeria have two main local sources of Chinese-language media content, both of which have close ties to the Chinese government and publish pro-Beijing material (see Diaspora media).
  • Civil society efforts to strengthen local media resilience: Nigerian media outlets have some capacity to conduct investigative reporting, though expertise on China is limited. Civil society groups are working to promote good governance and strengthen democratic norms in the country through support for objective investigative reporting and development of journalistic skills (see Resilience and response).
  • Investigative journalism on China-linked issues, vulnerabilities over deteriorating press freedom: Despite limitations on their capacity for investigative journalism, politically and geographically diverse outlets have reported critically on China-related topics. During the coverage period, the media addressed increasing questions about Chinese loans and how the debt may affect Nigerian sovereignty. However, the Nigerian government has taken several actions to erode press freedom in the country, and the country’s weak or ineffective media regulations leave it more vulnerable to authoritarian influence from Beijing (see Resilience and response).

header2 Background

Nigeria has a status of Partly Free in Freedom in the World 2022, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties.1 Nigeria also has a status of Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2021, the latest edition of the organization’s annual report on internet freedom.2 In the 2019 presidential and National Assembly elections, President Muhammadu Buhari won a second term, and his All Progressives Congress (APC) regained its legislative majority, though the polls were marred by irregularities. Freedoms of speech, expression, and the press are constitutionally guaranteed. However, Nigeria’s vibrant media landscape is marred by criminal defamation laws, so-called false news laws, and the frequent harassment and arrest of journalists who cover politically sensitive topics. The Nigerian government blocked online content in 2020, including material related to protests about police brutality.3 Media coverage is sometimes split along geographic and communal lines, as members of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups tend to live in the north and predominantly Christian groups in the south.

Nigeria and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) established diplomatic relations on February 10, 1971.4 Nigeria has been a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since 2018 and participates in the Digital Silk Road project.5 The country is also part of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and a prospective member of the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.6 The Buhari government has very friendly ties with Beijing and has joined statements at the United Nations (UN) backing the Chinese government’s crackdowns in Xinjiang, the Uyghur homeland and location of atrocity crimes against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, and Hong Kong.7

China invests heavily in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, and over 200 Chinese companies currently operate there.8 Nigeria is China’s second-largest trading partner and largest export market in Africa,9 while China is Nigeria’s third-largest destination for exports.10 As of 2019, Chinese companies had contracts to build $47 billion in new infrastructure projects, including railways, expressways, power stations, and several airport terminals.11 There is some evidence that these projects are running into trouble, however. After it was announced in December 2019 that China would build and finance the $5.3 billion Ibadan–Kano section of a new standard-gauge railway, the funding appeared to stall, and as of 2021 the Nigerian government had to step in to finance the project.12 In April 2019, Nigeria and China signed an extradition treaty as a part of the FOCAC summit in Beijing.13 While Nigeria does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the latter had a trade office that served as an informal embassy in Abuja until the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered it to close in 2017 during a visit to Nigeria by China’s foreign minister.14

The Chinese expatriate and diaspora population in Nigeria has been estimated at between 40,000 and 100,000 people, most of whom are located in Lagos, Kano, and Abuja.15 Many Chinese expatriates work for large companies that are engaged in investment or construction projects in Nigeria, though many others own and operate smaller businesses.

header3 Beijing’s media influence efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

 

Key narratives

During the coverage period, Chinese state media and diplomatic messaging commonly highlighted Nigeria as a major African power and emphasized its “important position in China’s diplomacy” on the continent.1 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) narratives also underscore similarities between China and Nigeria, noting for example that Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa and China is the “largest developing country in the world,” or that the two countries share the same national day on October 1.2 Beijing’s diplomats and state media regularly touted their country’s support for critical infrastructure projects like the Abuja–Kaduna railway or the Lekki Free Trade Zone, and that “China [is] playing a very important role in Nigeria’s sustainable development.”3 After Nigeria joined the BRI in late 2018, messaging during the coverage period predicted that Nigeria would have new opportunities within the “big family of BRI.”4 CCP narratives also promoted the success of China’s model of development.5

Chinese state media in Nigeria also engage in the CCP’s long-term propaganda strategy to “tell China’s story well” and during the coverage period praised China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its assistance to Nigeria and Africa.6 Chinese diplomats pledged that China’s “full support” to African countries during the pandemic could include health assistance and the cancellation or suspension of debt payments in the name of “solidarity and cooperation.”7 During the 2021 FOCAC conference in Senegal, the Chinese government pledged to donate 600 million more vaccine doses to African countries.8 Such messaging often contrasted China’s generosity with the “early crazed hoarding of vaccines by the US and its partners,” and claimed that due to selfishness in the West, Nigeria was forced to destroy one million donated vaccine doses that had expired.9

In April 2020, reports that Black Africans in China were being denied essential services amid the country’s COVID-19 response, and in some cases evicted from their homes and placed in mandatory quarantine, led to an outcry in a number of African countries, including in Nigeria.10 Many of those affected were Nigerian students, who make up the second-largest population of Africans studying in China.11 The Nigerian government responded forcefully to the reports, taking a series of actions that were described as “unprecedented” for an African state vis-à-vis the Chinese government.12 For example, the Nigerian government summoned China’s ambassador and passed a motion in the House of Representatives to condemn the alleged discrimination.13 The Chinese embassy reposted comments from the Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson in Beijing, who said that the “Guangdong authorities attach great importance to some African countries’ concerns,” but officials notably did not apologize.14 The embassy press secretary later published a statement in local papers that repeated propaganda promoting Guangdong’s response to the pandemic and arguing that some videos depicting discrimination needed to be fact-checked.15

US-China competition has spilled into Beijing’s messaging in Nigeria. Several local newspapers republished or reported on the Chinese embassy’s response to an op-ed in which the US ambassador called for Taiwan to be admitted to the World Health Assembly during the pandemic.16 The CCP’s “one China” narratives were also promoted in local outlets by friendly local opinion leaders, think tank directors, and journalists, who mainly claimed that the US article contained false allegations.17 In one instance, a local outlet republished an editorial from People’s Daily with only a small disclaimer at the bottom that it was from “Zhong Sheng,” the name the newspaper uses for international commentary, but no mention that People’s Daily is owned by the CCP.18

Key avenues of content dissemination

Chinese state media content can be found in print, on television, and on the radio in Nigeria. China Daily has a skeletal presence in Abuja and Lagos, with one correspondent in each city. China Global Television Network (CGTN) is broadcast via satellite, and also has a correspondent based in the country. China Daily’s circulation figures and CGTN’s audience numbers are not publicly known. Xinhua maintains bureaus in Abuja and Lagos and has established several content-sharing agreements (see below).19

The following are the most notable avenues by which Chinese state media content, official communications, and Beijing-preferred narratives reach news consumers in Nigeria:

CRI radio broadcasts and social media presence in local language: The most significant Chinese state media presence in Nigeria is that of China Radio International (CRI), which broadcasts in English and Hausa. English is spoken mainly by urban residents and political and economic elites, while Hausa is spoken by 30 percent of the population, mainly in the north. The CRI Hausa director, Chen Liming, claimed that the service had five million listeners in 2017, though this could not be independently verified.20

CRI Hausa’s social media presence includes a Facebook page with 1.05 million followers.21 It is difficult to ascertain the nationality of these followers, as the Hausa language is spoken in parts of some neighboring states, but there is likely a significant number of Nigerian residents following the page. A Hausa-language CRI correspondent, Zhang Weiwei (also known as Murtala Zhang), is a Facebook influencer with more than 600,000 followers on his own account, which is labeled as state-controlled media.22 He has been featured in Nigerian media outlets as well.

CGTN and CRI are exploring new social media strategies to try and appeal to the more than 90 percent of Nigerians who receive their news online, including nearly 80 percent who look to social media in particular.23 CGTN targeted Nigerian Facebook users in English with 33 paid advertisements between February 2021 and May 2022. Between February and June 2021, the ads mainly promoted CGTN with headlines like “China’s preeminent 24-hour News Channel. A new way to see China” that omitted any reference that the station is state-owned; since mid-2021, the ads have often shared news about China.24 At least two CGTN ads received more than 500,000 impressions.25 CRI Hausa appears to be adopting CGTN’s strategy of running targeted ads to Nigerans and ran three ads between April and May 2022 for the first time.

Chinese diplomats’ op-eds, outreach to editors, and social media activity: CCP narratives can reach a wide swath of local readers through op-eds that Chinese diplomats frequently publish in local media. A total of 52 different articles were published in 20 media outlets during the coverage period. The embassy in Abuja published 32 op-eds during this period, including 24 under the byline of ambassador Zhou Pingjian, who departed to serve as ambassador to Kenya in September 2020.26 Zhou’s replacement, Cui Jianchu, and the embassy press secretary published the remaining eight pieces. Meanwhile, the consul general in Lagos published 20 op-eds between August 2019 and December 2021.27 This public diplomacy content promotes Chinese government policies in Africa, the BRI, or bilateral relations, though some pieces also advanced the Chinese government’s false claims about its human rights violations against Uyghurs and Hong Kongers.28

The most trusted daily newspaper in Nigeria,29 Vanguard, which is independently owned by a journalist, published 23 diplomatic op-eds during the coverage period—more than any other outlet. It was followed by Peoples Daily (no relation to the CCP mouthpiece), which is also owned by media professionals, and the daily Leadership, which is owned by a businessman; these two outlets published 21 diplomatic op-eds each during the coverage period.

In addition to submitting op-eds, the embassy proactively engages with journalists and editors to promote its views. An editor at a daily newspaper in Lagos described how the Chinese embassy would also host events: “Sometimes when they hold events, they use it as an opportunity to address some misgivings about China in the public domain.”30

There is little evidence that Chinese state-linked actors or companies have published paid advertorials in local media as in some other countries, meaning the diplomatic writings carry more of the burden in Nigeria when it comes to conveying CCP perspectives to local readers. Chinese diplomats have made little headway in their attempts to reach Nigerian social media users directly, however. While there are an estimated three million Twitter users and eight million Facebook users in the country,31 the Chinese embassy in Abuja had a Twitter account (@china_emb_ng) with 3,000 followers,32 and a Facebook page with 2,100 followers,33 as of April 2022. By contrast, the US and UK embassies’ Twitter accounts have 430,000 and 182,000 followers, respectively.34 Local journalists reportedly do sometimes use the Chinese accounts as sources for stories though generally the accounts do not get much substantial engagement with local users.35 When the Chinese embassy issued a rebuttal to an op-ed from the US ambassador about Taiwan, its Twitter post garnered only three reposts and seven “likes” despite being widely cited by traditional media outlets.36

Content-sharing agreements with Nigerian media outlets: Xinhua has a content-sharing agreement with the state-owned News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), whose reporting is often picked up by other local outlets. In May 2019, the two entities strengthened their partnership with a renewed memorandum of understanding on sharing economic information through the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Economic Information Partnership (BREIP).37 According to an interview with an official at NAN who wished to remain anonymous, the agreement is similar to those the agency has with other international wire services. However, the partnership agreement was also meant to include funding for one NAN journalist to visit China for training each year, though this occurred only once before the trips were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.38 A news editor at an online publication said in an interview that he has begun to view the Xinhua content offered by NAN more favorably: “They are not wishy-washy stories and they are not stories you will say don’t meet editorial standards. The partnership is somewhat becoming useful.”39

The state-owned media umbrella company China Media Group, which includes CGTN and CRI, announced during the November 2021 China-Africa Media Cooperation Forum that it was launching a new collaboration platform with 36 African media outlets to deepen their “exchange of content, exchange of staff, and co-production.”40 The group stated that the platform would encourage participating outlets to be “responsible disseminators of public information.” Its Nigerian partners include Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), NAN, the newspapers Daybreak and Leadership, Africa China Economy magazine, and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ).41 Also during the forum, the China Media Group’s Hausa services and Nigerian media companies announced an agreement to establish a “common platform for Hausa-speaking media.”

The Belt and Road News Network and ThisDay newspaper: The newspaper ThisDay is a member of the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN), an alliance chaired by the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily that was launched in April 2019 and includes member outlets in more than two dozen countries. The chairman of ThisDay’s editorial board, Olusegun Adeniyi, sits on the BRNN Council, the decision-making arm of the network.42 Even before the paper joined the BRNN, interviews conducted in 2014 and 2015 indicated that its editors were under the influence of the Chinese embassy.43 While ThisDay published the US ambassador’s op-ed about Taiwan and some critical articles on China during the coverage period, a limited content analysis conducted by Freedom House also found frequent publication of articles that parroted the Chinese government’s positions.44 At the same time, the paper apparently lacks basic expertise on China, often carrying headlines that refer to Chinese leader Xi Jinping by his given name, “Jinping,” rather than his surname, “Xi.”45

Subsidized journalism trips and subsequent partnerships: Nigerian journalists, like their colleagues from across Africa, have participated in Beijing’s enhanced efforts to train local reporters, encourage favorable coverage of China, and promote the CCP’s model of journalism. The Chinese government pledged in 2015 to train 1,000 African journalists every year.46 The media exchanges and training programs in which Nigerian journalists take part are broken down into short-term (one to three weeks), medium-term (six to 10 months), and long-term (postgraduate study on a government scholarship) options. The training programs are highly sought after by local journalists, as the medium-term trips come with a 540,000 naira ($1,300) monthly stipend, which over the course of the program is equivalent to approximately two years’ salary.47 Most Nigerian journalists go on short-term or medium-term trips. Interviews with attendees suggest that the programs have influenced the way they report on the BRI in particular.48

Senior journalists and well-known columnists have also traveled to China for media exchanges. In 2017, members of the Nigerian Guild of Editors visited Beijing for one week, during which they toured the offices of CRI and People’s Daily as well as cultural and historical sites. There have been other exchanges since that trip, though not on the same level.49 A three-week training in 2018 brought five Nigerian journalists, including the chairman of the NUJ, together with colleagues from eight other African countries.50 An unnamed journalist from Nigeria took part in a September 2019 BRI exchange in Guangzhou, which a Chinese company said was intended to “boost the common prosperity and development of the region.”51 A journalist with Leadership newspaper wrote positively of a trip to China in 2019 to attend a BRNN media workshop run by People’s Daily.52 He has continued to cover China-related topics, often repeating Chinese government talking points.53

A private outlet, the Africa China Press Centre, was founded by Ikenna Emewu, one of the first Nigerian print editors to participate in the medium-term training program in China. Upon his return, he resigned from his position as editor in chief of the Sun newspaper and started the new enterprise.54 The Africa China Press Centre, which publishes the Africa China Economy magazine and a website, signed a memorandum of understanding with Xinhua in September 2019. It frequently carries Xinhua content and other pro-Beijing articles.55 Journalists have also written about their experiences in China in a nuanced manner, such as journalist Solomon Elusoji, who wrote the book Travelling with Big Brother: A Reporter’s Junket in China after spending 10 months in the country between 2018 and 2019.56

Subsidized travel is not the only means by which the Chinese government seeks to curry favor with local journalists. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a local Chinese community group that is friendly with Beijing donated 5,000 kilograms of rice to Nigerian journalists in Abuja through the NUJ.57 There is concern that the CCP or its proxies could engage in “brown envelope” journalism—the long-standing practice in Nigeria of inducing journalists and editors to publish favorable articles by offering cash rewards.58

Prominent local actors repeating CCP narratives: Several opinion leaders in Nigeria share pro-Beijing talking points in local media through their own articles or interviews. President Buhari has repeatedly promoted CCP messages in his public addresses on bilateral relations.59 Following the uproar surrounding the treatment of Africans in Guangzhou during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria’s foreign minister called on Nigerians to “take an objective and rational view” of the situation—a comment that was later publicized by the Chinese embassy.60

Nigerians outside government also play a role. For example, the director of the Centre for China Studies, Charles Onunaiju, has written dozens of articles or been interviewed in the Daily Sun, Guardian, Peoples Daily, and other local outlets, and his commentary has closely mimicked CCP talking points on issues like atrocities against Uyghurs, the Chinese governance system, Xi Jinping’s performance, or the US-hosted Summit for Democracy.61 Ikenna Emewu, the editor in chief of Africa China Economy magazine and founder of the Africa China Press Centre, also frequently publishes articles that promote CCP narratives in media outlets other than his own.62 The Chinese embassy’s WeChat account also shares Chinese translations of Nigerian commentor’s articles in local media promoting Beijing narratives, such as the scholar Olalekan A. Babatunde’s articles defending the Chinese government’s stance in Ukraine following the Russian military invasion in 2022.63

Repackaging of Chinese media content on Nigerian television: Nigerian outlets with lax editorial standards and procedures may uncritically disseminate content from Chinese sources without proper labeling. For instance, local television station TVC News broadcast a clip about a COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai in April 2022 that researchers believed to be concealed Chinese propaganda.64 The China Global South Project found that the script and video were likely produced by a Chinese company with the aim of downplaying negative stories about the government’s handling of the outbreak.

Disinformation campaigns

For the purposes of this report, disinformation is defined as the purposeful dissemination of false or misleading content, especially through inauthentic activity—via fake accounts, for example—on global social media platforms. There were no documented disinformation campaigns linked to the Chinese state that specifically targeted news consumers in Nigeria during the 2019–21 coverage period.

Nigerians, like other Africans, have been exposed to conspiracy theories and false information that are disseminated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing and amplified by local diplomats, mainly on Twitter and Facebook. However, such posts have not gained a great deal of traction among Nigerian users. The Chinese government’s global campaign to deny allegations of forced labor and atrocities against Uyghurs in Xinjiang has also been shared by the Chinese embassy in Abuja but received limited engagement online.65 When the embassy stated on Twitter that reports of human rights violations are “groundless lies fabricated by Western media and politicians,” the post received only four reposts and two “likes.”66 In November 2021, the embassy’s Facebook account published a 6,000-word post claiming that the United States had “so far refused to respond to reasonable concerns” about a conspiracy theory linking a US military base to the origins of COVID-19; the post received no “likes” or reposts.67

Censorship and intimidation

There is censorship affecting local state-owned or pro-Beijing media outlets in Nigeria, particularly at the editor level. The Chinese embassy frequently engages with editors at major news outlets and appears to pay journalists not to cover negative stories about China. The commissions editor at a major online publication said in an interview: “I know they give money to journalists so that they will not do critical stories and then they do breakfast meetings with editors early in the morning. They build relationships with editors across media organizations.”68 Outlets whose editors or publishers have such a relationship with the Chinese embassy tend to censor their own journalists when they produce unfavorable articles.69

The state-run NTA will not broadcast television programs that are critical of the Nigerian government and is unlikely to publish critical stories about China. Critical content is also uncommon in the Daily Sun newspaper because of its chairman’s friendly ties with Beijing. The chairman, businessman and politician Orji Uzor Kalu, facilitated the trip to China for members of the Nigerian Guild of Editors in 2017 and recommended some of his reporters for Chinese training programs like the 10-month fellowship and a master’s degree scholarship.70 There is considerable self-censorship in Nigerian media regarding Taiwan, despite the publication of the US ambassador’s op-ed on the topic. The subject of Taiwan has been more sensitive since 2017, when the Nigerian government ordered the closure of Taipei’s representative office in Abuja under pressure from Beijing.71

Control over content-distribution infrastructure

In Nigeria, there are indications that the presence and activity of China-based companies in the field of content-distribution infrastructure are being used, or could be used in the future, to implement censorship or other forms of content manipulation. This influence is evident in both the media and telecommunications sectors:

StarTimes joint venture with Nigerian Television Authority: The NTA has a joint venture with StarTimes, a China-based company that has received subsidies from the Chinese government. The venture is called NTA-Star TV Network and boasts that it is a strategic partnership between the “largest television network in Africa” and “China’s most influential radio television enterprise.”72 The ownership structure gives a 70 percent stake to the Chinese company, and the NTA has seen little financial benefit from the partnership, prompting a Senate probe in 2020 (see Resilience and response). StarTimes had four million satellite television subscribers in Nigeria as of 2019, and it provides programing in English, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, and other languages.73

StarTimes plays an active role in the digital television infrastructure of Nigeria through Beijing’s pan-African “10,000 villages” project. In 2019, the Chinese government selected StarTimes as the implementor of the project, which Xi Jinping had initially launched in 2015 with the stated goal of bringing digital television access to 10,000 villages in 25 African countries.74 The Nigerian component reportedly included installing satellite connections for 20,000 households across 1,000 villages.75 According to the StarTimes chief executive, by May 2019 the company had invested $220 million in Nigeria to support 80 transmitting stations and other infrastructure, though it is not clear how much of the investment came from the parent company in Beijing as opposed to its partner, the NTA. The cheapest subscription television package offered by StarTimes costs 900 naira ($2.30) a month and includes mainly local stations as well as CGTN.76 Overall, StarTimes has lowered the cost of digital television in the country.

Huawei’s dominant position in Nigerian telecommunications: Huawei was involved in $650 million worth of projects in Nigeria as of October 2020, all funded by Chinese banks.77 In April 2022, the Nigerian government and Huawei signed a memorandum of understanding for the company to develop a “Huawei ICT Academy Project” and “Huawei ICT Talent Cultivation Project.”78 The plan would reportedly create 300 academies within universities in order to train 10,000 students per year, for a total of 30,000 students over three years. Huawei’s work in Nigeria has raised human rights concerns since researchers discovered in 2021 that its internet middleboxes were being used by Nigerian authorities to block access to a website calling for the release of a Nigerian political activist.79

Huawei has also been involved in building fiber-optic cables in Nigeria and submarine cables to connect the country to global networks.80 In 2016 Huawei built the country’s fourth-generation (4G) mobile network, and it controlled 60 percent of the network as of 2018.81 In December 2021, the Nigerian Communications Commission began auctioning fifth-generation (5G) frequency spectrum as part of the country’s plans to roll out the widest 5G coverage in Africa.82 Other China-based companies have dominant positions in the Nigerian mobile device sector, with Tecno, Infinix, and Itel brands, all owned by Transsion, accounting for 76.9 percent of the smartphone market in 2021.83 PRC-based Transsion is the largest mobile-phone supplier in Africa and some Tecno phones sold in Africa and Southeast Asia have been found to come preinstalled with malware.84

Mobile phone applications with censorship concerns: The news aggregator application Opera News was the third most popular news app among smartphone users with the Android operating system in Nigeria.85 Opera News, initially a Norwegian company, was acquired by the Chinese firm Beijing Kunlun in 2016. The US Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) forced Beijing Kunlun to divest its ownership in the LGBT+ social networking app Grindr in 2020 and did not disclose the reasons why, but it is believed to be over national security concerns related to data privacy, as companies headquartered in China can be forced to hand over data to the Chinese government.86 In January 2020, Nigerian journalists began reporting on social media that stories they had written were being censored on Opera News. The pieces did not deal with China but touched on domestic issues in Nigeria, like job layoffs or corruption. A former content moderator at Opera News claimed that he had been terminated by the company shortly after he “submitted a string of op-eds highlighting the problems with authoritarianism vis-à-vis democracy.”87

The short-video service TikTok, a global subsidiary of the Beijing-based social media company ByteDance, was the third most downloaded app in Nigeria as of early 2022.88 There have been some documented cases around the world in recent years of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, although the company has subsequently reported correcting errors.89 A media report from June 2022 based on leaked TikTok meetings raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding data privacy of US users were false, and more broadly called into question other statements the company has made regarding its policies.90 There was no evidence of censorship on TikTok in Nigeria.

The Chinese social media platform WeChat had an office in Nigeria until 2016, when it relocated to South Africa.91 WeChat is owned by PRC-based technology company Tencent, which has close ties to the CCP. The current popularity of WeChat in Nigeria is unknown; in 2015 it had an estimated 3.4 million Nigerian users, or one out of 10 mobile phone users, according to the company. However, the platform does not currently rank in the top 50 downloaded apps across operating systems, and it no longer has an active in-country presence.92

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models

  • Government-to-government partnership on media exchanges: The Nigerian government has promoted increased Chinese investment in the Nigerian media space. In 2017, the State Council Information Office of China signed a memorandum of understanding with Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Information and Culture to “enhance friendly cooperation in media and information exchange.”93 Nigeria’s Information Minster Lai Mohammed, said the agreement would go a “long way in addressing the problem of fake news” and asked the Chinese government to provide trainings for “Nigerian journalists, broadcasters, media practitioners, and social media practitioners.”
  • Trainings to promote CCP model of journalism: As described earlier, the Chinese government has subsidized trainings and exchanges of varying durations for Nigerian journalists in China. Such experiences may influence journalists’ coverage of China-related news, but participants have also reported that the programs appear to be designed to inculcate a “Chinese way” of understanding the role of news media in society.94 Interviews with attendees indicate that at such trainings have influenced the way media professionals report on the Belt and Road Initiative upon their return from China.95
  • Politicians pursuing CCP-style information controls: Political elites in Nigeria have developed close ties to the CCP or otherwise demonstrated interest in adopting more authoritarian practices, particularly with regard to freedom of expression. The Nigerian government has pushed forward amendments or new legislation that would restrict media freedom (see Vulnerabilities), though Nigerian media and civil society representatives have spoken out against such moves. In December 2019, Aisha Buhari, the first lady of Nigeria, suggested that the country should embrace internet censorship like that in China.96 She made these comments during parliamentary readings of the draft Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill. The bill has been denounced as a threat to freedom of expression, and the first lady’s remarks caused an outcry on social media platforms, leading the government to slow its advancement of the measure. Nevertheless, in 2020, the information minister told lawmakers that the government needed the resources and technology to “dominate our social media space” as the authorities did in China.97

The Nigerian authorities ordered the blocking of Twitter in June 2021, after the platform penalized President Buhari’s account for a post that seemed to threaten violence against secessionists. To secure an end to the blocking in January 2022, Twitter agreed to a series of government demands.98 The day the Twitter ban was announced, Buhari had reportedly reached out to officials from China’s censorship agency, the Cyberspace Administration of China, on how to build a Nigerian “Great Firewall.”99

Nigeria’s ruling party, the APC, has called for more direct collaboration between itself and the CCP to “bring a better future for our people.”100 The CCP also engages with other major parties. In February 2022, the chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition group, met with a delegation of CCP members and released a statement asserting that Nigeria had a lot to learn from the CCP.101

Chinese diaspora media

The Chinese ambassador estimated in 2017 that the Chinese expatriate and diaspora population in Nigeria numbered about 40,000, though an academic source in 2009 had offered an estimate of 100,000.102 There are two Chinese-language newspapers serving the diaspora community, and both are members of the Global Chinese Media Cooperation Union, an initiative established by Beijing’s state-run China News Service.103 The outlets are based in Lagos and have ties to the Chinese consulate general in the city.

The Lagos-based West Africa Business Weekly (西非统一商报) is the first and largest Chinese-language newspaper in West Africa, having launched in 2005.104 It is published weekly and distributed in 8 West African countries: Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. It launched an official WeChat account in 2017 under the name West Africa Golden Gate Bridge (西非金门金桥), which includes short daily updates on local news, a serialization of the print edition, and advertisements from Chinese businesses in Nigeria.105 It was founded by Hu Jieguo (胡介国), who attended the Beijing-organized World Chinese Media Forum in 2019.106 The paper has close links to the Chinese consulate, and it occasionally conducts interviews with Chinese diplomats stationed in Nigeria.107 In a 2019 New Year’s message to readers, Hu made clear that the paper’s purpose was to promote CCP interests. He said the outlet “served as an important propaganda platform for the West Africa and Nigeria China Peaceful Reunification Promotion Association to oppose Taiwan independence, Hong Kong independence, Xinjiang independence, and other forces that split the motherland.”108

The Voice of China (West Africa) (西非华声报) was launched in January 2015 at a ceremony in Lagos attended by the consul general.109 It is published weekly and distributed in Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, and Togo, though its circulation figures are not publicly known.110 It operates an official WeChat account (wavoc_net), which republishes translations and headlines of local news, announcements from the Chinese embassy about work or industry issues, job postings, and advertisements from Chinese companies based in Nigeria. The account also republishes Xinhua articles and statements from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During the launch ceremony, the Chinese consul general said he hoped that the paper would “grasp the correct orientation of public opinion,” and the outlet states that one of its purposes is to “actively promote a good image of China to West Africa.”111 The paper’s chairman, Ni Mengxiao (倪孟晓), attended the World Chinese Media Forum in 2019.112

There are also several WeChat accounts disseminating news to the diaspora in Nigeria, such as the Nigeria Chinese Network (尼日利亚华人网) and Nigeria Watch (尼日利亚观察) which both cover local news but align with Beijing’s narratives when covering BRI and international news, such as the Ukraine war. Other channels like the Nigerian Chinese Forum (尼日利亚华人论坛), the account of The Association of Guangdong, Hong Kong & Macau Citizens Friendship of Nigeria (尼日利亚粤港澳同乡总会), disseminate pro-Beijing content, according to a Freedom House review of the accounts. The Nigeria Chinese Cultural Center (尼日利亚中国文化中心) cover cultural issues in China, including pushing out videos and stories about Xinjiang culture while ignoring the rights abuses against Uyghurs.

header4 Resilience + response

Underlying media resilience

 

  • Diverse media ecosystem and skepticism of state-controlled news sources: Nigeria’s media space is vibrant and pluralistic, with more than 100 outlets and rapid growth of digital media. If a local news outlet is seen by the public as a mouthpiece for Chinese propaganda, it would likely be criticized on social media. Nigerians also show a high level of skepticism toward the local state-controlled outlets, such as NAN and the NTA, both of which have partnerships with Chinese state media.1 By contrast, there is a long tradition of trust in international English-language news services; the US-based Cable News Network (CNN) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) operate the two most popular online news sites.2 Many Nigerian journalists have expressed concerns about the authoritarian nature of Chinese state media, and some may question the utility of the content produced by such outlets.3
  • Growing investigative journalism and press freedom advocacy: Nigerian outlets including Punch, Daily Trust, Premium Times, The Cable, and Peoples Gazette have the resources to conduct investigative journalism. The Pandora Papers, a global media investigation into political corruption led by the International Consortium for Journalists, featured partnerships with the Nigerian outlets Daily Trust, Premium Times, TheNews magazine, and the Nation.4  While the Nigerian media industry struggles with “brown envelope” journalism and political corruption, the sector remains vibrant and pluralistic, and many outlets remain committed to journalistic ethics. The NUJ’s code of ethics stipulates that journalists should not solicit or accept bribes and that “a journalist should strive at all times to enhance press freedom and responsibility.”5 Leading media outlets have demonstrated solidarity in the face of government pressure. In July 2021, in response to moves by the Nigerian government to tighten media regulations through amendments to the National Press Council Act and the National Broadcasting Commission Act, leading media houses published coordinated front-page advertisements headlined “Information Blackout” to protest the legislation.6
  • Civil society efforts to strengthen media objectivity: Civil society groups in Nigeria are trying to strengthen democracy and accountability by supporting objective investigative reporting and developing local media skills. The Abuja-based International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) operates as a nonprofit with a mission to “promote good governance and entrench democratic values by reporting, exposing, and combating corruption.”7 ICIR runs FactCheckHub, a website dedicated to combating misinformation.8 It has received grants from international funders like the US National Endowment for Democracy and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as support from Nigerian nonprofits like the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD). CDD is an Abuja-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works to improve democratic development in West Africa through “research, training, advocacy, and capacity building.”9 It has conducted two-day trainings for Nigerian journalists to help develop skills, promote ethical journalism, and share best practices when responding to Chinese or other government pressure. Another organization, the Centre for Information Technology and Development, which is headquartered in the northern city of Kano and has offices in several states, monitors hate speech and uses technology to promote good governance and accountability and to counter corruption.10

China-specific resilience

  • Investigative journalism focused on China-related issues: Despite some limitations on the capacity for investigative journalism in Nigeria, politically and geographically diverse outlets have reported critically on China-related topics. During the coverage period, but especially since 2020, there have been growing questions in the media about Chinese loans and how they may affect Nigeria’s sovereignty.11 Premium Times used freedom of information requests to Nigerian government departments to reveal that the country had received $6.5 billion in loans between 2002 and 2019 from the state-owned Export-Import Bank of China.12 There have been several reports on other aspects of China’s economic role in Nigeria, including its effects on labor conditions and cases of illegal mining by Chinese nationals.13 Journalists from a range of publications have tried to investigate the terms of Chinese loans and investment in infrastructure projects.14 There are also calls for NGOs and the media to “demand” copies of the agreements signed by the Nigerian government with the governments of China and other countries “for a comprehensive review.”15 Some civil society groups have turned to the courts to secure access: the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERA) sued the Nigerian government for details on a $460 million loan from China to fund local surveillance projects.16 Several outlets that have published Chinese diplomatic op-eds nevertheless continue to provide critical coverage on issues that the CCP would prohibit, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the crackdown in Hong Kong, and labor rights problems tied to BRI projects around the world. Despite the Nigerian government’s support for the CCP’s persecution of the Uyghurs, local mainstream media has covered the issue, albeit using international wire stories.17 Daily Trust, one of the main Muslim newspapers, often covers Uyghur stories on its international pages.
  • Media literacy programs that address authoritarian influence: In early January 2022, a small media workshop was held in Abuja to teach journalists how to identify and counter authoritarian influence in Nigerian media, with a special focus on Chinese state media.18 The workshop, organized by the Abuja-based investigative outlet Sahel Standard,19 also launched a guidebook on countering authoritarian influence in the media. It was described by organizers as the first effort of its kind in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa to “identify how China deploys sharp practices in Nigerian Media Space.” There are also general media literacy programs designed to teach the public, teachers, students, and media professionals about best practices for resisting misinformation and disinformation. Such programs are operated by the Abuja-based African Centre for Media and Information Literacy and the Lagos-based Rewired Africa Network.20
  • Limited political pushback on CCP influence: While the Nigerian government enjoys very friendly relations with the Chinese government, there has been a small but growing effort to defend Nigerian interests in interactions with Chinese officials. In April 2020, the Nigerian foreign minister and the speaker of the House of Representatives summoned the Chinese ambassador over discrimination against Africans in Guangzhou during the COVID-19 pandemic. The foreign minister described the mistreatment as “unacceptable” and demanded “immediate action” from the Chinese government.21 In August 2020, the Senate Joint Committee on Finance and National Planning found during a hearing that the joint venture between StarTimes and the NTA had resulted in huge business losses for the NTA over 11 years.22 The chairman of the committee described the arrangement as “unfair to Nigeria as a nation.”

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Limited expertise on China in media and civil society: There are only a few independent experts on China at civil society or academic institutions who are quoted as commentators in the media, and most media houses lack China experts who gained their expertise outside of Beijing-backed training programs. The Nigeria Institute of International Affairs and universities across Nigeria have some experts, but they are often closely affiliated with the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and thus unlikely to be free in their criticism of the Chinese government.1 A wider array of independent experts and initiatives would help the public develop a deeper understanding of Chinese state-linked investment and other activities in the country.
  • Worsening press freedom conditions: The Nigerian government has taken several actions to erode press freedom in the country, and local laws and regulations are not robust enough to withstand such pressure. After the authorities blocked Twitter over its treatment of President Buhari’s posts in June 2021, the government ordered all social media platforms and online media outlets to apply for broadcasting licenses with the state-run National Broadcasting Commission.2 The commission has shown a lack of respect to the right of freedom of expression. In 2020, it fined media outlets 3 million naira ($7,700) over their coverage of protests against police violence.3 The Nigerian Press Council was established through legislation, and the Nigerian president appoints the council’s chairperson, casting doubt on its independence; the amendments to the National Press Council Act that were proposed in July 2021 would bring it further under government control.4 Nigerian media must also contend with a worsening economic situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors, which could leave them more vulnerable to inducements, bribes, or even investment from Chinese state media.
  • Weak enforcement of regulations on foreign ownership and content: The National Broadcasting Commission Act limits foreign ownership of media to stakes of less than 50 percent, and religious organizations and political parties are prohibited from holding a broadcasting license.5 Individuals are prohibited from owning two or more television stations.6 Regulations also mandate that 60 percent of content on television and 80 percent on radio must be Nigerian in origin, and from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. only Nigerian content can be aired on terrestrial-broadcast television.7 These laws are generally considered ineffective and enforcement is limited.

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

Public opinion is very positive toward China as an economic model that Nigeria should emulate, though that view has lost support since 2019. Overall, Nigerians are not concerned by the Chinese government’s poor human rights record and have confidence in Xi Jinping. A survey conducted by Afrobarometer found that 62 percent of Nigerians had a positive perception of Chinese political and economic influence in the country in 2019–20, a drop from 67 percent in the 2014–15 survey.1 The study also showed a drop in perceived influence, with 54 percent of respondents replying “a lot or some” when asked “how much” economic influence the Chinese government had, a drop from the 67 percent reported in 2014–15. A separate survey from Pew Research Center in 2019 found that 70 percent of Nigerians had a favorable view of China, an increase from 61 percent in 2018.2 In the same study, 61 percent of respondents said they had confidence in Xi Jinping, and the same share said the Chinese government respected the personal freedoms of Chinese people, though that figure had dropped from 71 percent in 2018.3

Major Chinese investment in Nigerian infrastructure through the BRI is also supported by Nigerians. A 2020 Pew survey found that Nigerians living within 150 kilometers of a BRI railway project had more positive views of China than Nigerians living farther away.4 Scholars such as Emeka Umeji argue that over the long term, Chinese government investment in media trainings and donations of broadcasting equipment could generate a more positive perception of Chinese media in Africa, as those who engage more directly with Chinese actors have a more favorable view of their projects.5

However, Nigerian debt to China remains a cause for concern among Nigerians, many of whom are convinced that their own political elites have compromised the country’s sovereignty. As one media outlet put it in a 2020 editorial, “One also has to consider whether it is China’s fault that governments broker shoddy deals that do not benefit their people.”6 There is a perception that the Chinese government has been addressing and trying to tackle corruption within China through harsh tactics, such as heavy criminal penalties, but that Beijing plays a different game in Africa, where it is seen as supporting corrupt politicians in exchange for government contracts and concessions.

Chinese economic activity in Nigeria has benefited Nigerian journalists with respect to the increased availability of affordable mobile devices produced by Chinese companies like Transsion. These cheap smartphones have expanded internet access to the general population and enabled journalists to write stories, take photos, and produce audio or video reports. StarTimes has also lowered the overall cost of digital television in the country.

header7 Future trajectory

The following are potential developments related to Beijing’s media influence in Nigeria that should be closely monitored in the coming years.

  • Content-sharing agreements and Belt and Road News Network: There are still many important news outlets in Nigeria that do not have content-sharing agreements with Chinese state media. More local media organizations are likely to establish or deepen agreements to share Chinese state media content, and this may lead to greater censorship practices that currently rely on informal relationships between editors and embassy officials. More Nigerian outlets may also join the BRNN, particularly if membership offers clear-cut incentives.
  • Expanded efforts to influence social media discourse: Chinese state media outlets like CRI have already gained a foothold on social media platforms, including in the Hausa language, even though Chinese embassy accounts have very few followers compared with their British and American counterparts.1 Given Nigeria’s large population of young social media users, the Chinese government has an opportunity to reach many more Nigerians online, and CGTN has already been attempting to do so via Facebook ads. Chinese diplomats in Nigeria could also adopt strategies used by their colleagues in countries like Kenya or South Africa, engaging more proactively with local users or paying influencers to boost CCP narratives. A report in April 2021 found that Nigerian social media influencers had been paid to take part in a campaign on behalf of a Colombian businessman who was accused of money laundering and facing extradition to the United States, indicating that a market for such services already exists in Nigeria.2
  • Greater use of digital infrastructure for content manipulation: China-based companies with ties to the CCP and the Chinese government have established a strong presence in Nigeria’s content-distribution infrastructure, and there have already been some cases in which this presence was used to enhance the reach of Chinese state media content on satellite television or suppress material that was disfavored by the Nigerian government. Further research and monitoring is needed to investigate reports of censorship on Opera News and the use of Huawei middleboxes to block political and social websites, among other potential abuses.
  • Growing authoritarianism in Nigeria: The deteriorating conditions for press and internet freedom in the country, largely stemming from poor political leadership, may paradoxically raise public awareness of the threat posed by CCP influence efforts. While Nigerians do support Chinese funding for critical infrastructural projects, they do not want a Chinese-style authoritarian system in which they cannot choose or criticize their own leaders. Media investigations into Chinese lending and labor practices are also raising awareness of the negative aspects of the relationship and may make it difficult for other news organizations to continuously promote Chinese propaganda.

On Nigeria

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  • Global Freedom Score

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