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Interview

Hakeem Olawale Sulaiman – Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to France

His excellency the ambassador of Nigeria to France discusses the nature of economic and political cooperation between both countries.  He welcomes France’s initiative to build closer diplomatic ties with Nigeria and expresses his desire to attract further French investments in his country’ growing energy sector.

How would you define the nature of the link between France and Nigeria?

Nigeria and France have shared bilateral relations since we gained independence in 1960, and have grown spectacularly in recent years. Though there had been two instances of frictions in the bilateral relations but both sides have managed to put it behind. With the restoration of democratic governance in Nigeria in 1999, the relations between both countries are blossoming. Following visits of his predecessors, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, GCFR, has visited France on four occasions. On the eve of my introduction as Nigerian Ambassador to France in December 2013, an Elysee Summit for Peace and Security in Africa was taking place on 7th December 2013. It illustrated France’s commitment to Africa taking cognizance of its theme: Peace and Security, Economic Development and Climate Change. Conversely, on the French side, President Hollande visited Nigeria as a special guest of honour at the Centenary Celebration, the first French President to visit Nigeria in 15 years and the only western leader at the milestone event. These exchanges symbolize a new momentum in relations with a view to forging higher co-operation and friendship between the two countries.

The link between the two countries shows several aspects. How can France help boost even more this already fruitful cooperation?

Both France and Nigeria were stepping up action in this regard. In February 2014, on the margin of the visit of President Hollande to Nigeria’s centenary celebration, a business forum was convened where three memorandums of understanding (MOUs) were signed in the energy and power sectors and the establishment of France-Nigeria Investment Council. Also, President Hollande used the occasion to declare the doubling of French Investment in Nigeria in the coming years, particularly in the fields of industry, services, construction, infrastructure and energy. It is gratifying to know that business with France predated Nigeria’s independence and economic co-operation has significantly deepened that the number of French companies operating in Nigeria was at a time more than 100. Presently, the major French business groups such as Total, Schneider, Alstom, Bollore, Saipem, Bourbon and Peugeot have remained active in Nigeria and it is our expectation that more French entrepreneurs will remain engaged in the years ahead. To consolidate on the business with Africa, the Franco-African Business Forum held on 6th February 2015 was explored by President Hollande to promote and empower SMEs for the mutual benefits of the two sides.

Nigeria has recently seen the emergence of a new business and middle class. How could France support the specific needs of such an elite? Are there new segments to be explored?

It is noteworthy that Nigeria has become the largest economy in Africa, with a GDP of approximately USD 510 billion and annual growth rate of 5.5 to 6 percent as well as the number one and Africa’s preferred investment destination. These are positive indicators that ought to attract sizeable French investments into the country. Of course, there are challenges of insecurity in the northeast of Nigeria posed by Boko Haram, but the commitment of the Nigerian government based on the Transformation Agenda of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and the support of France and other friendly countries will continue to make Nigeria a business friendly environment. Indeed the reform agenda, including fiscal and policy fine-tuning, are facilitating partnership with foreign investors. Our commitment is, to a Nigeria beyond oil and gas, therefore underlining the urgency for diversification of the economy from oil and gas. Agriculture for instance is now a major focus, considering our natural endowments and vast agricultural products namely, cocoa, rubber, timber, palm oil, cassava, rice, wheat, millet, sorghum that will provide massive employment and capital to energize the economy. Also we have 34 solid minerals available in over 450 sites in Nigeria including gold, silver, columbite, manganese, coal, gypsum, tin, bauxite, lead, limestone, clay, sand glass and bitumen. Giving this plethora of resources in favour of Nigeria, it is relevant that the French Government should mobilize appropriate investors and entrepreneurs to take full advantage of the myriad of opportunities available in the business friendly environment in Nigeria for a mutually beneficial and win-win business cooperation.

Are French business actors aware of this huge potential?

Under my watch as Nigeria’s ambassador to France, no effort is being spared to create awareness building and sensitization with the host business community. I recognize that these should be a work in progress and the embassy is highly determined to continue reaching out to the Movement of the Enterprises of France (MEDEF) and the Council of French Investors in Africa (CIAN), as important business/investment platform in France as well as various Chambers of Commerce and Industry (CCI) in the country. To fully appreciate the full potential that Nigeria represent, we are implementing a sustainable local policy to guarantee incentives that will make both our economies grow.

What kind of business model regarding energy are you considering for Nigeria?

Regarding oil and gas, the government has put in place sustainable local policy programs to guarantee equity and better opportunities for local entrepreneurs and investors. Also, the petroleum industry bill currently in the National Assembly has a complementary role in addressing the sector and to encourage the development of Nigerian local content policy and community relations in order to achieve sustainability and integration in the country. Therefore, the level of indigenous ownership has greatly increased and utilization of Nigerian-owned and built assets, such as marine vessels and rigs is being progressively enforced to boost our people’s participation in the critical industry.

How can Nigeria cooperate with France on issues of environment?

Unless we protect our environment, all of us will be at risk. Only a clean environment will secure a sustainable development, for Nigeria therefore, institutions like the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) have been created to address the environmental challenges in the oil producing areas, given the degradation and pollution of their communities. Additionally, the government is actively promoting capacity building of its human resources and training of professionals to acquire the requisite skills and knowledge that are applicable in confronting the menace of environmental degradation. Not long ago, we had training of technicians and engineers in Schneider Grenoble, France. We are also collaborating with the French Institute of Petroleum (IPF) to look at environmental sustainability and renewable energy as part of the means to respond to environmentally related issues. It is gratifying that Nigeria and France have the potential to build on collaboration in this sector. Indeed the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP 21) will be hosted in France in November/ December 2015, and Nigeria is committed to ensure that the Paris summit will further contribute meaningfully to the reduction in global emission of carbon dioxide.

France is very proud of its original cultural policy. To what extent can France contribute to Nigerian cultural development and education?

I pay tribute to the two countries in their deep attachments to civilization, culture and education. France is a great country of civilization and Nigeria cherishes its historical heritage. It is indeed an important area that deserved to be further explored by both sides for the mutual benefit of their people and country. We must serve as the gatekeepers of our heritage and civilization, and in this context, acknowledge the recent repatriation of the NOK head cultural artifacts which were illegally imported to France from Nigeria. I am confident that under the auspices of the Nigeria – France Cooperation Platform, other similar artifacts will be returned to Nigeria. One must pay attention to language as a veritable tool which history and civilization are projected and in this context; I strongly embrace French language in Nigeria as important. As our neighbors are largely French speaking coupled with the fact that French is also a language of diplomacy, the benefit involved in the use of French language cannot be over-emphasized. I am personally of the view that primary school students be exposed to French language in Nigeria for all the benefits it offers, including for integration in West Africa sub-region, given the existence of international institutions in Nigeria like ECOWAS.

Nigeria is a triple regional power and in competition with South African, at the same time undermined by corruption. How can the general elections change the perception about Nigeria?

Let me state concerning the global visibility of Nigeria that it has become a regional power demographically, economically and politically. One cannot be in Africa without being in Nigeria, as Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa, and the number one and preferred investment destination in the continent. This is how strategic Nigeria has become!

Concerning your reference to the competition between Nigeria and South Africa, it should be recalled that Nigeria’s active foreign policy since independence has underscored the pre-eminence of Africa, and Africa as the centerpiece of its foreign policy. Nigeria actively contributed to the liberation of South Africa from colonial rule and Apartheid and the people of Nigeria contributed morally and financially to the freedom of their brothers and sisters. Nigeria’s credentials from independence, on the liberation and decolonization as well as on peace and security cannot be denied, and evidence abound in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe as well as later in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, to mention a few. I paid tribute to France for its African policy on peace and security especially with the example of Mali and the combat against terrorism and insurgency.

With reference to the comments on corruption, the present administration is committed to the rule of law, and is promoting institutions and policy framework to address corruption in the various sectors of the economy. For instance, its effort in the agricultural sector as focused on the fertilizer and seedlings procurement through the e-wallet system which had dealt with hitherto illegal enrichment in the sector. The cumulative effect is a revolution that has reduced food import bill from 1.1 trillion Naira in 2009 (USD 6.9 billion) to 684.7 billion Naira (USD 4.35 billion) in 2013. This effort, and particularly with the strengthening of judicial institutions and enforcement capacities will further contribute in containing corrupt practices and enhance national development agenda.

On democracy, since the return to democracy in 1999, Nigeria has maintained a stable political order that is based on respect for human rights, rule of law and accountability. At the threshold of the 2015 general elections, there is total commitment for a free, fair, peaceful and credible election that will consolidate the gains of a peaceful and indivisible country as well as to promote the confidence of its numerous investors. We are confidence in the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the determined Nigerian electorates, the political parties and political actors to offer Nigeria the opportunity of great pride in its leadership of the African continent. Our getting it right is crucial as it will send the right signals to more than eleven other African countries conducting elections in 2015.

 

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