Nigeria: France looking for reset in relationship with Africa, says minister

By Ruth Olurounbi, in Abuja
Posted on Wednesday, 14 April 2021 18:29, updated on Thursday, 27 May 2021 02:06

French Ambassador to Nigeria, Jerome Pasquier; President/CE, Dangote Industries Limited, Aliko Dangote; French Minister for Foreign Trade and Economic Attractiveness, Franck Riester; and Managing Director, Aliko Dangote Foundation, Zouera Youssoufou during French Minister's busines visit to Dangote Industries Head Office in Lagos
French Ambassador to Nigeria, Jerome Pasquier; President/CE, Dangote Industries Limited, Aliko Dangote; French Minister for Foreign Trade and Economic Attractiveness, Franck Riester; and Managing Director, Aliko Dangote Foundation, Zouera Youssoufou during French Minister's busines visit to Dangote Industries Head Office in Lagos, on Wednesday, 14th April, 2021

Paris is working on a new, and fairer way to engage with Africa, especially as it looks to expand its bilateral relationship with Nigeria - one of the biggest economies on the continent, says Franck Riester, France's minister of foreign trade and attractiveness, in an interview from Abuja

France’s President Emmanuel Macron did an internship in Nigeria at the turn of the century; and he appears determined to stay engaged with the country – an official visit in 2018 was marked with a trip to a famous Lagos nightclub.

But while culture does count, economic diplomacy remains the heart of the affair. There have recently been a flurry of Franco-Nigerian activity:

  • In 2020, French energy company Axens signed a deal to help on the multibillion-dollar refinery being built for Nigeria’s BUA Group in 2020.
  • French oil giant Total’s Egina platform, a 200,000 barrel-per-day facility, began production in December 2018.
  • France is also the second-largest bilateral creditor to Nigeria, after China, through the Agence Française de Développement. It has invested more than €2bn ($2.4bn) in the past 10 years, financing 35 development projects, according to government officials.

Riester, France’s minister of foreign trade and attractiveness, says in an interview with The Africa Report in Abuja that he wants to see “more partnerships between our two countries, more French companies investing here, more Nigerian companies to invest in France and more exports and imports between our two countries.”

Solidifying ties

Riester was in Abuja and Lagos as part of a two-day visit to Nigeria on 13-14 April. He met with his counterpart, Nigeria’s minister of industry, trade and investment Otunba Niyi Adebayo, along with representatives of Fanmilk/Danone, CFAO, Spie, Biogaran and Vinci Energies.

In Lagos, he met the members of the Franco-Nigerian Business Dialogue, including its president, BUA Group chairman Abdul Samad Rabiu, Access Bank managing director Herbert Wigwe and Dangote Group chairman Aliko Dangote. The minister also visited the Bolloré-run Tin Can Island port concession, as well as the Eko Atlantic City project.

The visit was an attempt to build on the priorities set by President Macron during his official visit to Nigeria in July 2018. It was also a sign of Paris’s “willingness to change the narrative of the relations between Africa and France”, says Riester.

Nigeria is France’s top commercial partner in sub-Saharan Africa, with bilateral trade between the two countries nearing $5bn in 2019. With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, that figure fell by $2.3bn in 2020, according to Riester. He says wants a win-win situation where Nigerian companies can set up in France, just as more than 100 French companies have done in Nigeria.

The Nigerian trade deficit stood at N7.37trn ($19.3bn) in 2020, while its total trade stood at N32.42trn, according to National Bureau of Statistics data. Nigeria’s trade deficit has been driven by factors including the coronavirus pandemic, the foreign-exchange crisis, insecurity and ports congestion, among others.

Finance for development

“We are working for a new, more sustainable, more fair way to finance, to fund African economies. President Macron is organising a summit on this specific issue in May, in Paris, which is very important for us,” says Riester. “We want to find ways to facilitate companies in Nigeria to create more jobs to create more growth, with partnerships for instance, around the issues of security, of corruption, of legislation and regulation.”

“And we think that we are in it for the long term because we want win-win collaboration. We want to invest all over Nigeria, not only in Lagos or Abuja. Nigeria is a huge market,” says Riester. He also stressed that France wants to go farther beyond the Francophone parts of Africa, where it is already well represented.

One area where Abuja and Paris have not seen eye to eye has been in the roll out of changes to the CFA franc. While the Francophone countries using the CFA franc –led by Côte d’Ivoire – have pushed for a move towards a new currency – delinked from the euro and called the eco – this was not done in concert with the larger Economic Community of West African States, to Abuja’s irritation.

The details of the French minister’s meetings with the Nigerian finance minister Zainab Ahmed have not been made public at the time of filing this report.

On the state level

When it comes Nigeria’s state governors, the appetite for more engagement with France appears strong, says Riester. Currently, €15m in funding from France is helping the Oyo State government to modernise its health systems, which Riester says is the first concessional loan to the state.

In a meeting with the governors forum on Tuesday, state governors from Borno, Plateau, Kaduna, Enugu, Ondo, Edo, Kogi and Oyo, among others, said they are more than willing to engage with France in the areas of security, agriculture, mining, as well as water, sanitation and hygiene.

“Nigeria is like a big pot, with so many opportunities. It is just left for you to decide where you think you can bring value,” said Rivers State governor Benedict Ayade. He is keen on having processing factories, especially chocolate factories, in his state.

Choosing partners

With ongoing strong global competition for contracts in Nigeria from countries such as the US and China, Riester sees French companies supporting Nigerian companies’ growth and expansion as a key advantage.

Nigeria’s BUA Group inked a contract with France’s Axens for a new refinery project last year. The agreement was sealed in Paris between BUA Group chairman Rabiu, and the CEO of Axens, Jean Sentenac, after Axens won a contract to license key refinery technologies to BUA Group.

“We support companies to come to Nigeria to meet Nigerian companies. Macron launched a French-Nigerian business council to do so, an important way to develop these partnerships,” says Riester. “And we have built a specific programme to invest in African start-ups, and specifically in Nigeria, called Choose Africa,” says Riester.

“And we have another initiative, Choose France, a [yearly] event organised by President Macron and I to welcome many huge companies worldwide from different countries, gathered in Paris, to meet, to see how France is in transformation, so that we could have a better environment for business.” The next Choose France summit will be in Versailles on 28 June and will showcase Nigeria companies, says the minister.

Paris’s long-term view “means that we are here when things go right but also when things go wrong,” says Riester. “I could mention the Covid-19 crisis – our companies stayed here and their teams as well.” France is also a leading member of the COVAX scheme to help boost vaccine distribution in Africa.

He says France wants to invest in training and partnerships between French and Nigeria companies, pointing to the expertise of French companies in energy, renewables, agribusiness, logistics, sanitation and construction.

Riester says the long-term model of French investment in Nigeria gives France an advantage over other countries, which may be more opportunistic: “I prefer not to mention any [specific] country.”

Past, present and future

So how does he deal with criticism of the way France has engaged with Africa in the past, a history known by its shorthand of Françafrique – a byword for corruption and post-colonial control?

Riester’s answer is to take control out of the hands of the politicians. “President Macron in 2017 made an important speech, talking about a new basis for the relationship between France and Africa. We want to work on a sustainable and fair way of funding African economies”, says Riester.

“But we also want our civil society to work directly with African civil society. There will be a summit in Montpellier in July to promote meetings between the private sector but also in science, sports, culture – we think that is the new way to build the partnership, from ground up, from the actors of civil society, with youth at the heart of it. This will be the cement of the new relationship.”

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