Two days after a brutal Boko Haram attack on a northern Nigerian school, French President François Hollande arrived in the Nigerian capital of Abuja Thursday for a visit dominated by security and economic issues.
Hollande’s visit comes as Nigeria marks the centenary of the country’s unification, when the British colonial authorities amalgamated what were the separate protectorates of Southern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria.
The French president is the only Western head of state to be invited to the launch of the centennial celebrations and is the guest of honour at Thursday’s ceremony.
On the sidelines of the centennial celebrations, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is also hosting an international conference on peace, security and development in Africa on Thursday.
Speaking at the conference on Thursday, Hollande promised Nigeria support in the battle against Boko Haram, "Your struggle is also our struggle” said Hollande. "We will always stand ready not only to provide our political support but our help every time you need it because the struggle against terrorism is also the struggle for democracy."
The meeting comes as local officials and residents of the north-eastern Nigerian town of Buni Yadi criticised Nigerian security forces for their slow response to Tuesday’s gruesome attack on a local school dormitory, which killed 43 people, mostly students.
Mali and CAR to dominate security talks
Shortly after the attack, Nigeria appealed to France and to the governments of neighbouring Francophone countries – notably Cameroon, Niger and Chad – to assist in the battle against Islamist militants who have set up bases in the porous, sparsely populated border regions.
“We need international cooperation with France and with French-speaking West Africa to work together to address this problem before it becomes a major problem for France and for Western interests in West Africa,” said Nigerian Information Minister Labaran Maku.
French troops are currently stationed in Mali and Central African Republic (CAR), assisting African forces in the two former French colonies and sparking questions over whether France is slipping back to an interventionist past when Paris played gendarme in its African “pré carré” (backyard).
But Hollande, who hosted more than 40 African leaders for a summit on the continent's security in December, also faces calls for France to do more to help Nigeria and other countries in the region address the threat posed by the growing strength and influence of Islamist groups.
The French interventions – following UN Security Council resolutions – in Mali and CAR has underscored the continent’s failure to set up a permanent pan-African military force, despite decades of diplomatic discourse, commitments and false starts.
Reporting from Abuja on Thursday, FRANCE 24’s Nicolas Germain said Hollande and Jonathan would “mainly talk about security issues in Central African Republic and West Africa – that’s including Mali, where Nigeria is supporting the French operation there,” said Germain, referring to the UN stabilisation mission, MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali).
Following his visit to Nigeria, Hollande will travel to CAR, where he will address French troops in the crisis-hit nation. The French president will also meet with interim CAR President Catherine Samba Panza and religious leaders in a country that witnessed cycles of sectarian bloodletting between the majority Christian and minority Muslim communities since the March 2013 ouster of former CAR president, François Bozizé.
Boosting trade with Anglophone economic drivers
While security has dominated France’s agenda in the former French colonies of Mali and CAR over the past few months, Paris is also keen to boost economic ties with a continent where the largest economic drivers are English-speaking – or Anglophone – countries.
Hollande is traveling to Nigeria with 25 French CEOs, according to Germain, in a bid to boost bilateral trade with Africa’s most populous and economically fast-growing nation.
“François Hollande is not only here to talk about security, but also about economics because soon Nigeria will overtake South Africa as the African country with the biggest GDP,” said Germain.
At an Africa-France mini-economic summit in December, Hollande called on French businesses to “double” their trade with Africa following a steady decline in France’s market share from 7.73% of exports and 9.08% of imports in 1960, to 2.8% and 2.05% respectively in 2011.
“François Hollande traveling to Abuja means that there is an acknowledgment from the French government that Africa is not only the French-speaking parts of the continent,” said Roland Marchal, from the Paris-based Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), in an interview with FRANCE 24’s sister radio station, RFI.
Hollande is the second French president to make an official visit to the oil-rich, former British colony following a 1999 trip by Jacques Chirac.
French interests in Nigeria are largely confined to the oil sector and both countries are keen to increase their economic cooperation in the transportation and other infrastructure sectors.
Date created : 2014-02-27