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Niger Republic as ‘centrepiece’ of Nigeria’s foreign policy under Buhari

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AFRICA has always been identified as the ‘centrepiece’ of Nigeria’s foreign policy, but recent developments suggest that the President Muhammadu Buhari administration has specifically bestowed that status on Niger Republic.

The concept, ‘Africa as the centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy’ originated in the First Republic as the Tafawa Balewa government gave Africa a pride of place in the newly independent Nigeria’s foreign policy formulation.  

In line with the policy, Nigeria had overwhelmingly given both solicited and unsolicited support to African countries, intervened positively in their internal crises, provided humanitarian services, doled out billions of naira as charity, and sent out Nigerian professionals as technical corps. Nigeria also provided invaluable military support.

Checks by The ICIR show that, since 2015, Niger Republic, a neighbouring West African country, has received more attention from the Nigerian government and enjoyed a more special, closer relationship with Nigeria than other African countries.

The ICIR highlights developments and events which underscore the special relationship between Nigeria and Niger Republic under the Buhari administration.

  • Nigerian government constructing $2 billion rail line from Kano to Maradi in Niger Republic

Currently, the Nigerian government is constructing a $2 billion railway that will run from Kano State to Maradi in Niger Republic. Maradi, the second-largest city in Niger Republic, is regarded as the centre of the country’s developing oil industry. Buhari performed the ground-breaking ceremony of the new rail line on February 9, 2021.

A Portuguese construction company, Mota-Engil, was awarded the contract to build the 284 kilometres standard-gauge line with 12 stations from Kano in northern Nigeria to Maradi in landlocked Niger Republic.

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Speaking at the virtual ground-breaking ceremony, Buhari said the new rail line would generate more revenue for Nigeria while also enabling the people of Niger Republic to enjoy affordable transportation.

About a month after the commencement of the construction of the railway, a member of Buhari’s cabinet, Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi, revealed that he travelled to Niger Republic to beg the government of the West African country to allow Nigeria to build a railway for them.

Minister of Transport Rotimi Amaechi begged the government of Niger Republic to allow Nigeria to build a railway for the country.

“To even get to Maradi, I had to travel to Niger Republic even to beg them. They are not bringing their money. It is our money. But I am begging them to allow me access into Maradi,” Amaechi said.

The minister noted that the railroad would enable Niger Republic to import and export goods through Nigeria. According to him, Niger Republic preferred making imports and exports through Benin Republic, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo.

  • Nigeria sign MoU to import fuel from Niger Republic

Eyebrows were raised when, in November 2020, the Nigerian government, through the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government of Niger Republic for the importation of petroleum products from that country.

Niger Republic only joined the league of oil-producing countries in 2012, after the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) discovered crude oil in the east of the country, close to the border with Chad, near Agadem, an oasis in the Sahara desert. The country’s production capacity of just 20,000 barrels per day is just a fraction of the output of Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer.

A statement released by the Nigerian Ministry of Petroleum Resources justifying the signing of the MOU noted that the Soraz Refinery in Zinder, Niger Republic, has an installed capacity to produce 20,000 barrels per day while the country’s domestic requirement was just 5000 barrels per day, thereby resulting in a surplus of 15,000 barrels per day.

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“This is a major step forward. Niger Republic has excess products which need to be evacuated. Nigeria has the market for these products. Therefore this is going to be a win-win relationship for both countries,” Nigeria’s Minister for Petroleum Resources Timipreye Sylva said at the MOU signing event.

The signing of the MOU was criticised by some Nigerians, particularly oil and gas industry stakeholders, who questioned the sincerity of Buhari’s roadmap on local refining, which involves introducing modular refineries in Nigeria.

Minister of State for Petroleum Resources Timipreye Sylva said Nigerians should be proud of fuel imports from Niger Republic.

Responding to the criticisms, Sylva said Nigerians should be proud that the Nigerian government was about to resume importing fuel from the neighbouring Niger Republic.

Those who criticised the MOU had described plans by Nigeria to import fuel from Niger Republic as an embarrassment. But Sylva argued that, rather than being seen as an embarrassment, the development should be seen as a means of encouraging intra-regional trade.

“Nigerians should be proud that we are doing that to encourage sub-regional trade because we have been talking about sub-regional trade for a long time, and this is how it should be between neighbouring countries. Niger should import from us what we have, and we should import from Niger what they have. Let us encourage intra-regional trade, and this is one good example of trading within West Africa,” the minister said.

  • Nigeria and Niger Republic signed deal to build $2 billion refinery and pipeline

Earlier in July 2018, the governments of Nigeria and Niger Republic agreed in principle to cooperate on building an oil pipeline and refinery.

The proposed refinery will be located in Katsina State, northern Nigeria, and will receive crude oil through the pipeline from Niger Republic’s oilfields in the Ténéré desert.

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The MOU for the two projects, which are expected to cost about $2 billion, was signed by the two countries’ energy ministers and witnessed by Buhari and his counterpart from the Republic of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou.


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It is unclear whether construction work on the proposed refinery has commenced, but it was projected that the facility would be able to process between 100,000 and 150,000 barrels a day, which will make it the third-largest in Nigeria, after the giant, $10 billion, 650,000-barrel per day Dangote refinery, under construction near Lagos, and the 210,000-barrel per day Port Harcourt refinery.

“Nigeria sees this cooperation on crude oil export from the Republic of Niger and construction of refinery facilities in Katsina State as a ‘win–win’ for both nations,” Buhari said at the signing ceremony.

  • Buhari names Abuja major road after Niger Republic President 

Further indications that the Nigerian government was giving special considerations to Niger Republic emerged in March when Buhari named a major expressway in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, after the then President of Niger Republic Mahamadou Issoufou.

Minister of the Federal Capital Territory Mohammed Bello, Minister of Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama and the former Niger Republic, President Mahamadou Issoufou, was named the Outer Southern Expressway in Abuja as ‘Mahamadou Issoufou Expressway.’

The first phase of the ongoing Outer Southern Expressway (OSEX) in Abuja was named ‘Mahamadou Issoufou Expressway’ in honour of the outgoing Niger Republic leader when he visited Nigeria days before handing it over to his successor.

Minister of the Federal Capital Territory Mohammed Bello explained that the road was named after Issoufou as a “mark of deep appreciation for the maintenance of a brotherly relationship between Nigeria and the Republic of Niger and in recognition of the Nigerien President’s significant role in the promotion of peace in Africa.”

  • Outgoing Niger Republic President visits Buhari just before bowing out, successor calls on Buhari shortly after taking over 

Nigeria’s special relationship with Niger Republic was further highlighted by the visits of the country’s immediate past President and his successor to Buhari in an interval of just a few days.

 

Buhari and the former Niger Republic President Mahamadou Issoufou at the Presidential Villa Abuja shortly before Issoufou handed over to a successor.

Immediate past President Issoufou visited Buhari in March, just before he handed over to newly elected President Mohammed Bazoum. Bazoum, in turn, called on Buhari at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, in April.

Bazoum took over from Issoufou on April 2 and paid a courtesy call on Buhari, as part of a two-day working visit to Nigeria, on April 19. It was the new Niger Republic President’s first official visit.

 

New Niger Republic President Mohammed Bazoum, sworn in on April 2, was received by Buhari at the Presidential Villa in Abuja on April 19. Bazoum was on a two-day working visit to Nigeria

 

 

Interestingly, Buhari had expressed satisfaction with Bazoum’s election in the February 20 run-off presidential election in Niger Republic.

Speaking after he was briefed on the Niger Republic presidential elections by the ECOWAS Head of Mission on the election former Vice-President Namadi Sambo, Buhari had said, “We are concerned about their (Niger Republic) stability, and I am glad the elections went well. I am happy it was transparent, as attested to by most of the observers. I am glad you (Namadi Sambo) came back with good news.”

The governors of Sokoto, Borno, Yobe, Kebbi and Zamfara states were at the Presidential Villa to join Buhari in welcoming Bazoum when he arrived Abuja on April 19. The new Niger Republic President was hosted to a private breaking of fast by Buhari during the visit.

Speaking during a reception at the Presidential Villa in Abuja, Bazoum said he was happy to make Nigeria his first port of call. He observed that Nigeria and Niger Republic have common interests. Bazoum also emphasised the need for both countries to maintain a good relationship and face their challenges together.

  • Despite Nigeria struggling with daunting security challenges, Buhari vows to defend Niger Republic from Boko Haram

During the reception for Bazoum at the Presidential Villa, Buhari vowed that he would do everything possible to secure Niger Republic from incessant terror attacks by the Boko Haram insurgents. Buhari’s vow to secure the neighbouring country was made despite mounting security challenges in Nigeria. Nigeria is currently experiencing an unprecedented kidnapping level, attacks on security formations, banditry, clashes between herders and farmers, and constant terror campaigns by the Boko Haram insurgents.

However, while assuring Bazoum that his administration will do all it takes to secure the two countries (Nigeria and Niger Republic), Buhari said some Nigerians and Nigeriens are people with similar cultures, languages and ways of life.

“We also share about 1,500 kilometres of land border, so we cannot ignore each other,” Buhari added.

  • Buhari called Niger Republic President on phone to sympathise with Nigeriens after terror attack

Also, earlier in March, Buhari had called then President, Issoufou, to sympathise with the people of Niger Republic after Boko Haram killed 137 Nigeriens in an attack.

The development was disclosed in a statement by Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity Garba Shehu. “Our deepest and heartfelt condolences to the families of victims and people of Niger Republic. Nigeria stands with all her neighbours in the fight against terrorism,” the statement quoted Buhari as saying in the conversation with his Niger Republic counterpart.

According to a separate statement issued by Shehu, Buhari had also personally called Issoufou on the phone to express concerns after an attempted military coup in Niger Republic in March. Buhari condemned the attempted military coup, stressing that Nigeria cannot be indifferent to the dangers posed by the military could in Africa.

Buhari also commiserated with the government and people of Niger Republic after about 20 primary school pupils died in a fire incident in Niamey, the country’s capital, earlier in April.

In a message to President Bazoum, Buhari described the incident as “heart-wrenching and extremely horrific”.

“On behalf of the government and people of Nigeria, we commiserate with our brotherly neighbours on this tragic loss,” parts of the condolence message read.

It has been observed that Buhari hardly comment on similar incidents in Nigeria and other African countries.

  • Buhari awarded Niger Republic’s highest national honour

To further underscore the strength of the currently obtainable relationship between Nigeria and Niger Republic, Buhari was in March honoured with Niger Republic’s highest national award, Grande Croix Des Ordre National Du Niger.

Then outgoing Niger Republic President, Issoufou, presented Buhari with the award at the Presidential Villa in Abuja when he visited Nigeria shortly before handing it over to his successor, Bazoum.

While receiving the award, Buhari commended Issoufou for “consolidating” the good relations between Nigeria and Niger Republic. “There is a spirit of good neighbourliness between us,” Buhari said.

 

Buhari introduces Nigerian officials at a reception for Niger Republic President Mahamadou Issoufou at the Presidential Villa in Abuja.

Issoufou thanked Buhari and Nigerians for his support during his time in office as President of Niger Republic.

He also described Nigeria as a “second home”.

  • Niger Republic was the first country visited by Buhari after he was sworn-in as President in 2015

Remarkably, Buhari, at the occasion, pointed out that Niger Republic was the first country he visited after he was sworn in as Nigeria’s President on May 29, 2015.

Buhari explained that the decision to make Niger Republic the first country he visited was informed by the value and quality of relations between Nigeria and Niger Republic.

  • Foreign affairs experts examine Nigeria’s foreign policy and the Buhari administration’s relationship with Niger Republic

Meanwhile, foreign affairs experts analysed Nigeria’s relationship with Niger Republic in separate interviews with The ICIR.

The experts suggested that although Nigeria have had cordial relations with neighbouring countries, personal motives may have informed Buhari’s emphasis on Niger Republic.

  • Buhari have ‘personal reasons’ but Niger Republic has always been a special country to Nigeria… Former NIIA Director-General

Speaking with The ICIR, a former Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) Bola Akinterinwa noted that Buhari has a ‘personal relationship’ with Niger Republic. But he did not explain the nature of the relationship.

Bola Akinterinwa
Bola Akinterinwa

“Buhari has relationship with them (Niger Republic) but I don’t think that is why he may be giving priority there. If Buhari is trying to give priority to Niger Republic it may be because of his own personal affiliation to them, you can’t rule that one out,” he said.

However, Akinterinwa who is currently President/Director-General of the Bolytag Centre for International Diplomacy and Strategic Studies (BOCIDASS), in the same vein noted that Niger Republic was a “special country to Nigeria” due to the historical relationship between the two countries at the government-to-government and people-to-people levels.

He pointed out that the the Niger Republic/Nigeria Joint Commission, which was set up as far back as 1971, has been driving the relationship between Nigeria and Niger Republic.

Akinterinwa further explained that although Niger Republic was territorially larger than Nigeria, its northern part was more of a desert and as a result, most of its citizens live around the border areas with Nigeria.

“The international frontier between Niger Republic and Nigeria divides the same families right from the Sokoto area down to Borno so what normally happens is that the idea that there is any border that divides the two countries does not exist,” he observed.

Akinterinwa further observed that among neighbouring countries that share borders with Nigeria, Niger Republic was the only one that has never had a land dispute with Nigeria.

“We (Nigeria) used to have land dispute with Cameroon over Bakassi; we used to have with Chad over Lake Chad; we used to have with Benin Republic but we don’t have any with Niger Republic,” he said.

Akinterinwa in the same vein noted that the Buhari administration was trying to develop sub-regionalism, with special emphasis on what he described as the ‘Nigerian sub-region’.

He also explained that, apart from economic considerations, the railway being built by Nigeria in Niger Republic was in line with the integration policy of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

  • It is necessary to maintain cordial relations with neighbouring countries but Nigeria should not ‘over-concentrate’ on Niger Republic… Director Centre for China Studies

Also speaking with The ICIR, Director of the Centre for China Studies in Nigeria Charles Onunaiju observed that the concept of ‘neighbourhood diplomacy’ stipulates that the Nigerian government should maintain cordial relations with all neighbouring countries and not just Niger Republic.

Charles Onunaiju
Charles Onunaiju

Onunaiju explained that harmonious relationship with neighbouring countries was critical for trade and security reasons.

“Ordinarily a neighbour should be prioritised – a responsible country should be concerned with what is happening to its neighbour. Neighbourhood diplomacy entails that we should be sensitive to what is happening to them,” he said.

But he noted that a situation whereby Niger Republic was prioritised ahead of other neighbouring countries raises questions.

Onunaiju said it was not proper for the Nigerian government to ‘over-concentrate’ on Niger Republic.

He added, “The entire Sahel region is in turmoil so it is incumbent on Nigeria’s leadership to maintain cordial relations with not just Niger Republic but also Chad and Cameroon but if Niger Republic is becoming too prominent we might question what is the trade coming from Niger Republic? What is the value coming from Niger Republic? Why does it feature more prominently than every other neighbour?

“We can raise that question because it is just a neighbour like others, like Chad, like Cameroon, like Central African Republic. There might be questions if there is anything beyond the ordinary. We might raise issues about that.

“Also it is important not to make Niger Republic a bigger priority among other neighbours because that can arise indignation from the others. We need to keep in touch and watch what is happening in our neighbourhood but that shouldn’t be over-concentrated.”

  • Africa remains centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy but different Presidents tend to emphasise some neighbouring countries above others… Diplomat

A former Nigerian ambassador to the Scandinavian countries – Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway – Godknows Igali, said although Africa remains the centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy, historically, different Nigerian Presidents have tended to emphasise different neighbouring countries above others.

Godknows Igali
Godknows Igali

“There are nuances and any President can come and decide to emphasise the relationship with any of the neighbouring countries. However, Africa remains the centrepiece of Nigeria’s policy but each President looks at our neighbours from different lenses,” Igali said.

Illustrating the point, Igali observed that during the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Benin Republic enjoyed a special relationship with Nigeria to the extent that it was said that Benin Republic has become another state in Nigeria.

“Some other Presidents emphasised Ghana as being the most important country to Nigeria while Chad also occupied the position of a favourite during the regime of some Nigerian military heads of state,” he said.

Igali further observed that, at a point during the regime of former military Head of State General Ibrahim Babangida, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria’s maritime neighbour, assumed the position of the ‘centrepiece’.

According to him, during the period, a military officer, Admiral Festus Porbeni, who was posted to Equatorial Guinea as ambassador, came to be regarded as the ‘alternate President’ of that country.

He also pointed out that Nigeria had a special relationship with Cameroon in the 60s, which resulted in a reciprocal non-visa travel arrangement which allowed Nigerians to travel to Cameroon and spend 90 days without visa, just as Cameroonians were able to visit Nigeria without visa and stay for up to 90 days.

Igali added, “In diplomacy neighbouring countries are usually the first line in foreign policy formulation of any country. Africa remains the centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy. Some people are questioning that fact. They are asking ‘should Africa remain the centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy after 60 years?’.

“But Africa remains the centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy and within Africa our neighbours occupy a special place in our foreign policy but some Presidents tend to emphasise certain neighbours above others.”

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