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Nigeria: Why is President Buhari looking north to Niger?

By Chinedu Asadu
Posted on Tuesday, 22 June 2021 17:15, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 10:52

Niger's President Issoufou and Nigeria's President Buhari take part in a news conference after the presentation of the communique of the Summit of Heads of State and Government of The Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) in Abuja
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou (L) and Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari take part in a news conference after the presentation of the communique of the Summit of Heads of State and Government of The Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) in Abuja, Nigeria, June 11, 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

What is it about President Muhammadu Buhari’s passion for his northern neighbour, the Republic of Niger? Is it economic and commercial logic, altruism or just family and ethnic ties?

Nigeria is committed to at least $4bn of projects in Niger. In July 2018, Nigeria and Niger Republic signed a $2bn deal to build an oil pipeline and a refinery. Now Buhari’s government wants to build a $1.9bn railway line from Kano in the northwest to Maradi in south-central Niger.

Buhari’s government says the projects will boost sub-regional integration and economic growth. A former minister, close to the President, told The Africa Report that the initiatives are part of Buhari’s idea of ‘concentric circles’ of foreign policy: that Abuja must first concentrate on its immediate neighbours, followed by those in region, the continent and finally the global scene, in that order.

Like much of Buhari’s reasoning, this idea dates back to his time in the military (1960s to the early 1980s). In 1983, he led the Nigerian force to retake territory in Borno state and several islands in Lake Chad that had been seized by Chadian troops under the command of their chief of staff Idris Déby Itno, who later become President.

Some worry that Buhari is not protecting Nigeria’s poorly-policed border with Niger.

Against the orders of Nigeria’s civilian President Shehu Shagari, Buhari expelled the Chadian troops and pursued them across the border, 50 kilometres into their national territory. Later that year, Buhari and a cabal of senior officers overthrew Shagari. Today, many of those border zones are lawless territory where insurgents and jihadists roam free.

Buhari may look back with nostalgia to that era, but he also sees the importance in ties of kinship in the region, according to an interview he gave to local broadcaster Arise TV. “Niger has discovered oil, as you know. We hope they will be fine when we take the rail to Maradi and take all their exports through Maradi rather than through the Benin Republic,” he said in response to why he was investing so heavily in ties with Niger.

“I spoke to one Frenchman and I said to him, ‘you people in 1885 sat down with a ruler and pencil, and drew the line (in reference to the Nigeria-Niger border)’. I have first cousins in Niger. There are Kanuris, Hausas, Fulanis in Niger Republic, the same way there are Yorubas in Benin,” said Buhari, who holds Niger Republic’s highest national award.

Locomoting through imaginary borders

In 2019, Nigeria’s exports to Niger – which is entirely landlocked – were estimated to be $84.06m,   according to the UN Comtrade database. However, things could improve rapidly between the two countries with the train service.

More importantly though, officials in Abjuja argue that the railway line will ease the burden on ports in Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos as it is expected to cover 387 kilometres, transporting about three million people and 1m tonnes of goods each year.

Why this matters: A report by research firm SBM Intelligence stated that Nigerians are paying 10 times more in local transport costs at Apapa port than Ghanaians at Tema port or South Africans at Durban port. And the problem is not new.

In 2013, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) found that while transporting a 20ft container from Katsina (Nigeria’s border state with Niger) to Lagos in the southwest took 12.5 days and cost $3,041, transporting the same container back on the same route took 19.5 days and cost $4,737. Over 60% of the time spent on transporting goods via the LAKAJI corridor is as a result of delays associated with lengthy clearance time in Lagos.

According to Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, former central bank governor and Emir of Kano (before his contested dethronement by Kano State governor Abdullahi Ganduje), governments should look more closely at the historic trade routes of the region.

“West, Central and North Africa need to understand that while they are political entities based on maps drawn by empires, they are also part of something that is much bigger. Kanu and Kaduna are part of Nigeria, but they are also part of the Sahel,” Sanusi told The Africa Report, adding that these trade routes have to be rethought and adapted. “Every time we think of development, it is how you move goods from Lagos to the north and goods from the north to Lagos.”

That should change, Sanusi said. “We’re not thinking about how do you move goods across northern Nigeria to northern Ghana without coming to Lagos. You’ve got to think of Ecowas both as consisting of coastal states and as a Sahelian region.”

Back to Niger: Finding a common interest in oil and crisis

The mainly private sector refinery deal signed in 2018 aims to build the plant in Buhari’s home state of Katsina, which would be linked to Niger via a pipeline. In November 2020, the two countries signed an MoU on the purchase, transportation, and storage of petroleum products from Niger.

Niger’s Soraz refinery in Zinder is said to produce around 20,000 barrels per day, while domestic demand is only 5,000 bpd, thereby resulting in a surplus of 15,000 bpd which Nigeria seeks to import.

Nigeria’s minister of state for petroleum resources, Timipre Sylva, says he hopes that the agreement will be “the beginning of deepening trade relations” between both countries. However, many disagree, with some industry experts arguing that the plan would make Nigeria more import-dependent when it is rebuilding its local refineries.

“The petrol import deal will benefit Niger more because they are looking to offload their product, but that is not what Nigeria needs in the long term,” says Kunle Adegbenro, a Lagos-based oil and gas expert.

“We have under-performing refineries with the capacity of over 400,000 bpd, so what is our business with Niger where we are looking for just 15,000 bpd? The government should focus on local refining capacity by getting the refineries to work again either through privatisation or repairs.”

Both countries have high levels of poverty, underdevelopment and insecurity. In 2020, the UN Human Development Index ranked Nigeria 161 out of 189 countries while Niger was at the bottom of the list. Today, Nigeria has more desperately poor people than India; Niger is among Africa’s five poorest countries.

Some worry that Buhari is not protecting Nigeria’s poorly-policed border with Niger, which the president once said can only be effectively supervised by God. The area is known to be one of the most popular cross-border trafficking hub and route in West Africa. Insurgents and bandits, who kidnap for ransom in Nigeria’s north-west states, take advantage of the porous border.

Buhari’s root and the route northern Nigerian traders prefer

Apart from Buhari’s relatives living in Niger, many other factors suggest that Nigeriens and Nigerians in the far northern states of Katsina, Zamfara and Sokoto are ‘one’, in every way. As the president pointed out, the 1,500km Nigeria-Niger border is an arbitrary line drawn on the map. Cross-border movement continues unhindered and much of it can be traced back to ancestral roots.

During the Fulani jihad in the 1800s, a revolt launched against the Hausa overlords in Katsina saw the late Fulani leader Umaru Dallaji emerge as the first emir of Katsina after he captured it in 1806. As a result, many Hausa rulers fled the town, seeking refuge in Maradi (in present-day Niger) where they later settled. According to Abdullahi Aliyu, a Katsina government official, “Katsina and Maradi were the same — same area, people, language, culture.”

“Despite the border, social activities and other things are the same. Our traders here find it more suitable to deal with the Nigeriens who have livestock, tiger nuts and other things than with southern parts of the country,” he tells The Africa Report.

Beyond the ancestral ties, Nigeria remains a ‘key trade partner’ for Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum – as was the case with his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou – because of their shared trade interests, according to Tamimoudari Noma, an analyst based in Niamey.

“The cities in southern Niger and northern Nigeria have been linked in the Trans-Saharan trade dating back to medieval times. Cities such as Kano and Katsina have long been the southern terminus of trade networks that support much of the Nigerien economy,” Noma tells The Africa Report.

“Nigeria benefits from agricultural trade and sales, especially Nigerien cattle routed to Nigerian markets, while the most direct routes from Niger to foreign trade are through Nigeria. We have a lot in common.”

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