French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday sought improved ties with English-speaking Africa, setting out a plan for closer cooperation with Nigeria to tackle security challenges and promote a new vision of the continent back home.
Macron arrived in the capital, Abuja, from Mauritania, where he met leaders on the sidelines of the final day of the African Union summit that was dominated by security issues in the Sahel.
After talks with President Muhammadu Buhari, Macron said he was “really emotional” to be back in the city where he spent six months as an intern at the French embassy in the early 2000s.
“I’m extremely delighted to be back,” he told a joint news conference at the presidential villa, joking that he had never expected to return as head of state.
Since coming to power the 40-year-old leader has made a point of boosting ties with France’s former colonies but also improving trade with anglophone countries.
He visited Ghana last year and Nigeria — Africa’s economic powerhouse and the continent’s leading oil producer — was the next logical step.
Nigeria, a country home to over 180 million people, produces nearly two million barrels of crude oil per day and is a key economic partner for France.
“France wants to do much more with Nigeria,” he told Buhari, promising France’s “full support”.
In Nouakchott, Macron held talks with the leaders of the French-backed five-nation military force fighting Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in the Sahel.
Niger and Chad, where France has a sizeable military presence, are part of the “G5 Sahel” group, which has faced a rise in attacks in recent days.
They are also members of a five-nation regional force tackling Boko Haram in Nigeria’s remote northeast.
Nine years of violence have killed at least 20,000 people and forced more than 2.6 million others homeless, triggering a humanitarian emergency in the wider Lake Chad area.
Macron noted links between Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the Sahel, and Boko Haram and Islamic State group-backed jihadists operating around Nigeria’s northern borders.
It was important to act together, with African countries in the lead, to stop a conflagration, he added.
“The challenge for us is to manage the conflicts… and stop them joining together,” he added.
But he also said it was important to stop people joining in the first place and sketched out plans to increase economic, cultural and sporting ties to provide better opportunities.
Buhari, who maintains Boko Haram is a spent force despite continuing attacks, said he backed the plan and appreciated France’s help with Nigeria’s francophone neighbours.
“I’m very grateful to France for the support we have been getting,” he added.
Nigeria is currently gripped by a resurgence of violence between nomadic cattle herders and farmers, which has claimed some 1,000 lives since January this year.
Amnesty International last week said some 1,813 people have been killed in all types of violence since the start of 2018.
That has put former military ruler Buhari, 75, under pressure as he looks towards securing a second term at elections in February next year.
– Homage at the Shrine –
From Abuja, Macron headed to Lagos — Nigeria’s teeming megacity of 20 million people in the southwest — to focus more on the thriving artistic and cultural scene.
He was expected to officially launch the African Cultural Season which takes place in France in 2020, at an event showcasing music, fashion, cinema and theatre.
He said the aim was to show “contemporary African culture unknown in France” and elsewhere in Europe.
The choice of location — the Shrine concert venue of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti — is a surprise for many Nigerians given its association with the anti-establishment musician.
No elected president is believed to have officially visited the spiritual home of the so-called “Black President”, which is more synonymous with marijuana smoke and gyrating dancers than diplomatic niceties.
Workers were seen repairing the potholed approaches to the ramshackle venue in preparation for Macron’s arrival, as the Lagos state authorities shut down roads as a security precaution.
Macron revealed he had been to the Shrine before for a concert by Fela Kuti’s son, Femi. “It’s an incredible, vibrant place,” he said.
Fela Kuti was jailed under Buhari’s military government in the 1980s but the civilian president made no mention of the incident, saying only the visit was “a very good idea”.