Macron banks on Nigeria’s energy to give France new options in Africa

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa, according to Macron

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Thursday, 7 April 2022 10:12, updated on Thursday, 14 April 2022 10:31

Can Nigeria provide a new path for France in Africa, away from the heavy security commitments of the Sahel, and the difficult historic relationships with former colonies? 

This is part 3 of an 8-part series

Tuesday July 3rd, 2018. At The Shrine, Lagos, Nigeria – the mythical nightclub, rebuilt by the Fela Kuti clan – the crowd is swaying. Emmanuel Macron, dressed in white shirt and black trousers, seems relaxed in this temple of Afrobeat. After all, as he tells a roaring crowd, he has been here before. With his security guards looking tense, he takes a long ‘bain de foule’.

Macron’s seduction operation in Lagos is completed by a meeting with young Nigerian entrepreneurs, and a meeting of the Nigeria-France Business Council. One Lagosian remarked that his own president, Muhammadu Buhari, is an old man in a country of young people, while Macron is a young president in a country of old people. “Can we swap?”, he asks.

They have no complex vis-a-vis France, because it doesn’t exist when seen from Lagos.

While Emmanuel Macron has been on multiple trips to Africa since the start of his presidency, Nigeria is personal. As a student with l’ENA in 2022, his internship was at the embassy in Abuja.

READ MORE: Nigeria/France: Le Nouveau Chapitre

The Ambassador at the time thought it would be useful for him spend time outside the official French diplomatic circuits. Macron discovered a  country that has little in common with more FrancAfrique haunts like Abidjan, Dakar or Libreville.

“They have no complex vis-a-vis France, because it doesn’t exist when seen from Lagos”, Macron told Antoine Glaser and Pascal Airault in a recent book. “I was very happy [in Lagos]. There was so much to do, with extremely entrepreneurial people, very creative, with whom I was able to have a relationship of equals in a spontaneous and naïve way”.

Economic ties trumps all

Macron sees the Franco-Nigeria relationship as a way of escaping the weight of other relationships that France has on the continent, precisely by leaning into economic relations.

“40 years ago France occupied a prominent position in Nigeria”, Macron tells The Africa Report. “Major French companies occupied leading positions in construction, manufacturing and logistics. More than 10,000 French nationals used to live in Nigeria at that time.”

But in the early 2000s, French companies lost their way, challenged by newcomers. Michelin and Peugeot, for example, had iconic factories in Port Harcourt and Kaduna respectively – both have since closed. Today there are not even a thousand French citizens registered at the embassy in Abuja.

“In the same period other European companies not only maintained their presence but developed their activities and admit being very successful. The irony is that numbers of successful foreign companies employ French nationals in Nigeria today”, says Macron.

In recent decades French multinationals have heavily rotated their expatriate staff. Their boardrooms increasingly lack a ‘Monsieur Afrique’ to help maintain networks over time. “Business in Nigeria is principally a story about people, and the connections between them – if you don’t have that, it is hard to operate”, says Jean Haas, Managing Director of Relais Internationale, who since the 1980s has been building a network of connections to Nigeria’s private sector. Haas was in charge of introducing Macron to Nigeria’s economic elite in 2002, and is now helping coordinate the Franco-Nigerian Business Council.

The ‘match retour’ of Franco-Nigerian Business Council in early 2019 was a failure – not a single French CEO came, to Macron’s annoyance. Getting involved personally, he brought Abdulsamad Rabiu onto the council, and a year later, Rabiu’s BUA Group signed a multi-billion dollar contract with French petrochemicals company Axens for a new refinery in Nigeria. “The Americans were furious”, Macron tells Glaser and Airault.

And the business relationship continues. In 2021, leading Nigerian bank Access Bank, run by Herbert Wigwe, received a full French banking licence. TotalEnergies most recent oil platform is pumping 10% of Nigeria’s national output. Danone is investing in Nigerian cows. CMA CGM will run operations at the new Lekki deepwater port.

The Elysée Palace, complete with installation danfo from artist Emeka Ogboh
The Elysée Palace, complete with installation danfo from artist Emeka Ogboh (Photo/Nicholas Norbrook)

But while you can take the president out of the Shrine, you can never take the Shrine out of the president. When Macron held the closing ceremony for the Africa2020 cultural season, he commissioned a Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh to do a ‘takeover’ of the Elysée Palace, complete with iconic yellow taxi in the Palace courtyard.

At the October 2021 event, Macron told The Africa Report that Nigeria represents a generation that is both disruptive and resolute.“Either we see these young people as a potential threat, we try to build walls and so on – [which] will be a mistake and a failure – or we see this as a huge opportunity for Nigeria and Africa to succeed, and even for us in France; because they bring energy, they bring a new vision.”

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