Nigeria and France: Geopolitical Rivals No More

How accurate is the widespread perception that Nigeria and France remain locked in an adversarial rivalry in West Africa?

President Muhammadu Buhari and President Francois Hollande meet on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Schloss Elmau, Germany. Photo Credit: Getty Images/AFP.
Reading Bassey and Dokubo’s monumental tome, Defence Policy of Nigeria: Capability and Context, one gets the impression that for Nigeria’s foreign policy elites France remains a formidable obstacle to the country’s regional ambition and an enduring threat to national security. As the authors observe: 

The pervasive and tenacious involvement of France in West-Central Africa has been widely seen by Nigerian defence planners as constituting a direct affront to its national security and also impeding the growth of the country’s political, economic and cultural interests in the region.
France’s politico-military presence all across West-Central Africa, the authors unequivocally conclude, means the “antagonistic relationship between Nigeria and France [will] arguably … continue in the foreseeable future”. This view is widely shared by most Nigerians and is rooted in the mutual distrust and adversarial rivalry which once marked bilateral relations between Nigeria and France. 

Geopolitical Rivalry

France looms large in Nigeria’s foreign policy thinking and the country has traditionally been seen as a rival for hegemonic influence in West Africa. France for its part has traditionally sought to retain control over the affairs of its former colonies and Nigeria’s size immediately marked it out as a threat to its hegemony in francophone West Africa. 

Diplomatic relations were established on October 1st 1960, following Nigeria’s independence. Relations however got off to a bad start.  In January 1961, in protest at France’s third atomic test in the Sahara desert, Nigeria broke relations with France, sent the French ambassador packing, “placed [an] embargo on French shipping and aircraft, [and] froze French assets in the country”. 

Franco-Nigerian relations reached their lowest ebb during Nigeria’s civil war when France played a leading role in sustaining the rebellion. A January 1969 memo sent by the-then US National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, to President Nixon underscores the decisive impact of France’s material support to the rebel cause:

The Feds [Federal Government] out-number the Biafrans 2:1 ... but French arms and higher morale give the Biafrans parity for the present [time]... The French are behind the arms flights from neighbouring Gabon that save the rebels. They think the Feds will break up first and they will have a dynamic new client amid the wreckage of an Anglo-American dream in Africa.
Michael Anda, in his interesting comparative study on the International Relations in Contemporary Africa, notes that:

De Gaulle’s policy of support for Biafra in 1968-1969 was largely motivated by geopolitical considerations and was intended to dismantle the Nigerian state, which was considered as a pole of attraction (and thus a potential threat) to the preservation of French influence in the neighbouring Francophone states.
As a result of this, reducing France’s politico-military presence in West Africa became one of the cardinal objectives of Nigeria’s foreign policy. France came to be seen as not only a geopolitical rival, but a national security threat. 

Immediately after the civil war Nigerian officials set about building an economic community that would encompass the entire region. They reasoned that through economic interdependence, francophone West Africa will gradually be pulled under the country’s wings. France, fearing loss of influence, tried to scupper the initiative. When that proved futile – ECOWAS was eventually established in May 1975 – France encouraged its West African clients to pre-empt Nigeria’s initiative by forming their own organisation – West African Economic Community (CEAO), established in April 1973 – so they can “coordinate their efforts to counterbalance against the heavyweight of Nigeria” within the soon to be established ECOWAS. 

French policy during the Chadian civil war in the early 1980s frustrated Nigeria’s diplomatic initiatives to end the conflict. France’s and the US’ support for Hissene Habre were primarily aimed at installing an anti-Ghaddafi client in N’Djamena to forestall a feared “gradual political union” between Chad and Libya which the previous Head of State had signed up to. This meddling nevertheless undermined the Nigerian-led AU peacekeeping mission in Chad. It also further reinforced feelings in Lagos that Paris was resolutely determined to thwart Nigeria’s regional ambitions at every turn. 

In the 1980s the view within the foreign ministry was that “in order to be credible, Nigeria’s defence policy must … be determined by the need to deter the most entrenched European power in West Africa, France”. ‘Deter’ in this context meaning to reduce France’s free hand in the region by building a military capable of both challenging its interventionist policies and eventually replacing it as an order provider in francophone West Africa.

General Babangida’s State visit to France in February 1990, the first by a Nigerian leader, seemed to herald a new era in bilateral relations. But relations sharply nosedived in 1994 when the Nigerian government accused France of deploying troops into the Bakassi peninsula to take command of Cameroonian forces during a period of heightened tension between Nigeria and Cameroon. A claim French authorities vehemently denied. 

Geopolitical Rivals No More

Franco-Nigerian relations have however significantly improved in the past decade and a half. Bilateral relations are now marked by pragmatic cooperation. Both countries have slowly accepted that each other’s roles in West Africa are “complementary rather than competitive”. Nigeria and France are geopolitical rivals no more. Bassey’s and Dokubo’s characterisation of an “antagonistic relationship” is therefore simply not reflective of current realities.

France’s military presence that once posed a formidable national security threat, has now become crucial both for Nigeria’s security and for broader regional stability. The 3000 French troops spread across five countries in the Sahel – as part of operation Barkhane – are what stand between Nigeria and the chaos in Libya. They are also what keeps Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb at bay. French intervention in the Central African Republic in December 2013 saved that country from collapsing into genocidal bloodshed. 

The humanitarian and security crisis that would have spawned from uncontrolled chaos in CAR would have undoubtedly strained Cameroonian and Chadian resources to breaking point, and inevitably impacted on their ability to meaningfully take on Boko Haram.

France’s previous penchant for stymieing Nigeria on the regional stage has appreciably reduced, if not disappeared altogether. The past few years has witnessed a remarkable rapprochement and an unprecedented alignment of views on regional security. In many cases France has actively encouraged Nigeria, either bilaterally or through ECOWAS, to take a greater leadership role in crisis management – even in francophone West Africa.

When political crisis and civil war erupted in Cote d’Ivoire following Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down after losing the 2010 Presidential election, Nigeria and France coordinated their response to the crisis – culminating in a jointly sponsored UN resolution calling on Gbagbo to hand over power. 

Similarly in the Mali crisis, from all indications the strong preference in Paris was for the AU and the Nigerian-led ECOWAS to take the lead, with France playing a supporting role. France was eventually thrust into intervention by the rapidly deteriorating situation. Jean-Christophe Belliard, a senior French diplomat, at a Chatham House presentation discussing French policy in Africa described how as the crisis unfolded, France’s Foreign and Defence Ministers consulted with the AU, ECOWAS, and African presidents, including Nigeria’s, “to exchange ideas on the situation in Mali”. This is a far cry from the adversarial relationship of the past. 

More recently, the security summit hosted by France in May 2014 facilitated the rapprochement between Nigeria and its two Central African neighbours, Cameroon and Chad, and laid the foundation for the soon to be established anti-Boko Haram regional coalition. 

The French Development Agency (AFD) recently contributed $130 million to the establishment of the Development Bank of Nigeria. Since the opening of its Nigerian branch in 2008, AFD has so far committed about $694 million to various project in the country. 

President Chirac’s State Visit to Nigeria in July 1999 was the first by a foreign Head of State to the country after its return to democratic rule in May of the same year. And President Sarkozy was the only major world leader to attend Nigeria’s Centenary celebration in 2014.

These are all indications of the more positive and cooperative atmosphere that currently prevails in Franco-Nigerian bilateral relations. French economic interests in Nigeria has also served to reinforce the positive trajectory in bilateral relations. Trade between the two countries and French investment in Nigeria has grown in leaps and bounds. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria is France’s largest trading partner (5.1 billion Euros in 2012) and the second largest export destination for its goods (value of exports was 1.3 billion Euros in 2012). French investments in Nigeria dwarf those in francophone West and Central Africa. Its major multinational corporations – such as Elf, Lafarge, Peugeot, and “over a hundred” other subsidiaries and joint ventures – have significant presence in Nigeria. 

This is not to suggest Nigeria and France have identical regional interests or that geopolitical competition has permanently disappeared as an organising principle of Franco-Nigerian relations. It is merely to point out that the current overlap and convergence of interests between the two countries makes the notion of an ongoing geopolitical rivalry unreflective of contemporary Franco-Nigerian relations.

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