By Muhammadu Buhari
In 1601 it is possible first contact was made between the French and the peoples of “Guinee” – the name for the lands we know today as Nigeria. Only a few years before, the then Protestant King of France Henry had devised a plan for adventurer Francois Pyrard de Laval to navigate the “Ethiopian Sea”, then onwards around the Cape of Good Hope in search of new markets and trade.
Four hundred years later, much has changed.
Today there are more Protestants amongst Nigeria’s 200 million population than there are people in France. Maps, and geography, have improved: east Africa’s landlocked Ethiopia no longer has named for it a west African sea. Yet in other ways, much remains the same. Certainly, the exploration of possibilities between our two nations of Nigeria and France has only just begun.
As well-known as France’s historic ties with West Africa is the long-held belief some parts of it were off-limits. Until even the most recent decades, there were French spheres of west Africa, and their Anglophone equivalents – jealously guarded from each other and effectively closed to each other for investment, trade, and influence.
What it has taken to bring down these barriers both real and imagined is, in part, the passage of time: today’s generation of Africans have no personal experience of anything but independence – including most in government – so there is less automatic favouritism towards one European partner or another.
But it has also required a change in France. President Macron has been a prime mover in that task. As a far younger man than I, he is right not to allow respect for the France’s African past to confine relations of the future.
We can see how this position developed from the fact he chose, in his 20s, to define his African experience through working in Nigeria, rather than in a traditional francophone nation. His experiences and determination have been vital in moving France and Nigeria closer together to where they are today.
Both our countries now start to taste the fruit from this tree as we gather this week in Paris for what is only the second France-Nigeria investment Summit. Only three years ago President Macron was the first president of the French republic to visit Nigeria.
Since then, French businesses have signed multi-billion euros contracts in construction, chemicals, and mobile technology; In France, long-established Nigerian financial institutions and disruptive fintechs seek transition from Parisian representative offices to French licences to operate and compete across Europe. The President’s high-level France-Nigeria Business Council, first convened at the Elysee, has helped trade double in between our nations in the last three years.
This expansion only augurs more, given Nigeria’s population is projected to grow by 2050 to the same size as the European Union, and further to become the second largest in the world by the close of the century.
This great market is France’s opportunity. But, of course, some in Europe and in France see it purely as a threat. They fear a coming tide of immigrants from Africa. They view engagement as a partially open door that will only become wider – unless borders become walls, and Europe a fortress.
That is a mistake. Those who rail against “economic migrants” must realise few people anywhere wish to leave their communities to live in foreign lands. Most would rather stay at home, with the familiar. But the way to help them stay there is not force, or walls, or racism: it is investment and jobs where they live.
Those who come from France seeking opportunities in Nigeria are today welcomed with open arms. A growing and worldly-wise middle class wish to experience the best of European culture and products, with so much of that the produce of France; a young, restless, and educated population wish to work, but often what they do not have, through lack of investment, is the opportunity.
And just as we partner in prosperity, so our nations also have a duty to work together to make West Africa more secure. For decades, France – the European power in the Sahel, and Nigeria – the African power to its south have not been coordinated. Opportunity to crush the terrorists have between us too often been missed.
As France draws down its troops, Nigeria’s can – in partnership with our Francophone African allies – step into the breach. From our increasing trade together comes another beneficial and deepening partnership and cooperation including: especially a more advanced sharing of ordnance, equipment and intelligence.
It is fair to say that French-Nigerian relations have advanced farther and faster in the last few years than, they have in hundreds. Much of that energy, and speed, comes from my determination and that of President Macron in the knowledge that – to borrow a phrase of King Henry’s: “Le Nigeria vaut bien essayé”.
Muhammadu Buhari, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, wrote the above in French medium L’Opinion.