From: Iheanacho Nwosu and Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja
French Ambassador, Denys Gauer, spoke on key issues dominating discourse in Nigeria, his country and the world. He explained how the FOREX challenge is affecting repatriation of money by foreign companies. The envoy also spoke on terrorism fight, unfolding development in Europe and America as well as his preferred Nigerian delicacy.
What is your experience of Africa? How would you describe the African people?
I will not speak about Africa, but Nigeria. I think the Nigerian people are quite specific. What I really like and appreciate in Nigeria is this fantastic dynamic and creativity of the Nigerian people. In spite of all the problems, there is the fantastic self confidence of the Nigerian people. I mean Nigerians are, in spite of the problems, always optimistic and I am always convinced that Nigeria would have a bright future. And I think this is a very positive mood.
Are you happy being in Nigeria?
Yes! I am very happy to be here.
Do you feel very safe?
Yes! It is much safer than where I was previously (laughter). I try also to travel as much as possible within Nigeria.
How many states have you visited?
Many, many! I went to Maiduguri, twice to Kano, and seven times to Kaduna. I went even by road to Sokoto, I went to Minna, seven times to Jos, of course I went to Lagos many, many times, to Abeokuta, to Osogbo, and I also went to Port Harcourt. I went also to Kogi state for a yam festival. That was in September, last year.
Do you enjoy Nigerian delicacies?
Which of the Nigerian food do you like? Is it pounded yam and egusi soup?
I like quite much pepper soup.
So, you have never visited the Eastern part of the country?
I have to go. This is what I plan. Next is really to go more to the East and to the South South.
You have been here in the last two years and this government is almost two years and you came at a time the country went into recession. How has that affected the trade between Nigeria and France?
It is true that I arrived in Nigeria at the beginning of March 2015, just before the election of President Muhammadu Buhari. It was a very positive period. There was great enthusiasm because the election was fine and a new president was coming in with lots of objectives, fighting Boko Haram, fighting corruption, and diversifying of the economy. I may say since then, on Boko Haram for example, a lot of progress is being made. I may say also that as you know, France is working very closely with the Nigerian Armed Forces in the fight against Boko Haram. So, we are providing a lot of intelligence, training activities and we are also encouraging very strongly, Nigerian neighbours; neighbouring countries to work closely with Nigeria. We are supporting this whole regional effort in the fight against Boko Haram.
President Hollande came twice to Nigeria in almost two years. In May last year, he came for the regional summit for the fight against Boko Haram. And obviously, I mean, enormous progress had been made. Boko Haram is still not completely eliminated, but they have been pushed back to their forest. This is a very positive evolution I will say in the country.
Concerning the fight against corruption, we see also that efforts are being made. We are supporting them strongly and we hope that it will really lead to results.
On the economic situation, it is true that unfortunately, there was this enormous bump down in the prices of oil and Nigeria lost a great part of its resources and this has led to the present recession. So, it is difficult. There are challenging times for Nigeria in the economic field. We all hope that this will be overcome rapidly.
Concerning French companies, well, as you know, we have quite good economic presence in Nigeria and for a long time, we have Total in the oil sector; we have Lafarge in the cement sector; we have many companies in the electricity sector: Schneider Electric, Alstom and many others. And we have Wig in the construction sector. So, we have quite important presence in Nigeria. We are encouraging very strongly, new French companies to come to invest in Nigeria, to get engaged in long-term partnerships with Nigerian partners. And I may say that in spite of the difficulties, this continues. I mean, French companies continue to come to Nigeria and willing to invest in Nigeria. So, we have not been that much affected.
Is the Forex responsible?
Of course, there are some difficulties. I cannot doubt that. For example, the main difficulty is still with the Forex. That means foreign companies have been really affected by that by not being able to repatriate money, not being able sometimes to import spare parts and what they need. So, this problem of Forex has been with us in the last year and remains a real difficulty.
In the last two years or so, the terrorism that has been going round the world in Iran, Iraq and other places before coming to Nigeria, has also visited France, attacking the capital. What do you think is responsible? Is it because you have been trying to help countries like Nigeria fight terrorism?
As you know, for us, we are engaged in the fight against terrorism and religious fanaticism everywhere in the world. We have been engaged in Iraq to fight Daesh, the Islamic State; we are engaged in Syria, and you know what happened with Mali. When Mali was threatened and almost overran by a terrorist movement, with the sole aim of transforming into a terrorist state, you can imagine what would have happened, I mean the consequences for the whole West African region, if that had happened. We intervened at the appeal of the Malian authorities and we were the only ones ready to intervene. We had to do it all alone before the UN came in and so on. In the first, we had to do it all alone. And then, we engaged also, Nigeria, in the fight against Boko Haram. So, we are fighting terrorists everywhere because we consider that this is absolutely fundamentalism and this is something we have to do. And of course, we have become a target for them and that is why they tried also to attack us on French soil. We were able to avoid a lot of attacks, but not all of them because it is not always possible, not always easy. But we consider that we have to continue to make that effort. We are in solidarity with Nigeria in the fight against terrorism.
What is the volume of trade between Nigeria and France?
The volume of trade between France and Nigeria is about Four Million Euros (€4million) but Nigeria is still at an advantage because you are exporting more to France than we are exporting to Nigeria. This is mainly because we buy a lot of oil from Nigeria but our exports have been maintained in spite of the present recession. In fact, if you don’t know, Nigeria is our first trading partner in Africa.
Several agreements were signed last year between Nigeria and France during the visit of Hollande, the French President. What is the update on those agreements?
First of all, we signed an agreement for economic cooperation. You know we have the French Development Agency which opened an office in Nigeria only eight years ago, which is not long. But over those years they have increased their activities. We are now providing soft loans to Nigerians for projects in Nigeria up to the tune of over One Billion Euros (€1billion) in only eight years. We are financing mainly the electricity sector, public transportation in Lagos specifically. We are also financing the development of small and Medium scale Enterprises (SMEs). We are also engaging in the agricultural and water sectors now. We are financing the rehabilitation of the water distribution system in several states. So, you see we are have quite diversified our engagement with Nigeria.
There is an emerging new world order that appears to emphasis protectionism. After Brexit, the US has come up with visa bans and threats to build border walls. What are we expecting from France?
Well, one thing is sure and that is, all developed countries are faced with the problem of many people, particularly the middle class, they are really dissatisfied with globalization and its effects on financial capitalism. This of course creates problems because people reject the elite and the political parties and are tempted to vote for extreme solutions, such as building walls, closing the borders, refusal of immigrant visas, and as you said, protectionism. So this is the reality, we are confronted with, but we have to find the proper solutions. An extreme solution, precisely building walls is probably not the most adapted so we have to find other kinds of solutions through proper regulations. But this is the main debate now in all these countries as you have seen with Brexit and the election of Mr. Donald Trump in the United States.
In Europe, I think we will have to probably reform the European Union in the coming period. We will have to probably reinvent the European Union to take care of new developments in Europe. Well, we will have new elections in France in the coming weeks; there will also be elections in Germany in September and there will also be elections in some other European countries. I think that after that, with those new leaders, we will have to discuss about what is happening and find new ways of developing the European Union. That will be the challenge of the new era.
Peugeot, a French automobile company used to play a dominant role here in Nigeria but its influence has waned over the years. Is France worried about this trend and what is your country planning to do about it?
You are right to have raised the issue of Peugeot because the story of Peugeot in Nigeria shows the reality of problems. In the mid-90s, Peugeot Automobile Nigeria (PAN) produced 90,000 vehicles per year with a local content of 40 percent. Its assembly plant in Kaduna employed directly, 4,000 workers, besides all the sub- contractors who worked for that company. So you can imagine the enormous impact it had on the local employment in the whole of Kaduna and beyond. But then it went down and has now been reduced to very local production. Why?
PAN went down for a very simple reason. Presently, in Nigeria, about 90-95 percent of vehicles on the roads are second hand vehicles imported and simply smuggled into the country. Those who bring them in do so without paying taxes or import duties. So as long as you have this situation, it is no more possible to produce cars locally in Nigeria. It is not possible to be competitive with local production. Now, I noticed that the government of Nigeria has decided during the last few weeks to prohibit the importation of vehicles through the land borders. Under the new order, they want vehicles to come in through the ports in Lagos and the importers will pay taxes. I think this is a very positive development and this is absolutely necessary if you want to create the conditions necessary for production of vehicles in Nigeria. So you see that the problem is not with the foreign automobile companies. By the way, Peugeot is always ready to engage more again in business in Nigeria; to bring in the spare parts and re-launch its activities in Nigeria but the right conditions have to be created by the Nigerian authorities. The real issue is creating the conditions necessary for local production.
Has France intervened in any way to help Nigeria pull out of its present difficult economic situation?
Well, what we have done is to continue to encourage very strongly, French companies to come and invest in Nigeria and to engage in partnerships with Nigerian companies. This is because we are convinced that Nigeria has a bright future. Nigeria is an important country so we want to be present and to be present for a long time in Nigeria.
On the other hand, as I said earlier, we are working through the French Development Agency to provide soft loans to finance projects in Nigeria. We are intervening in the critical sectors that are of priority to Nigeria. These include power, agriculture and development SMEs.
You have been in Nigeria for some time and watched our democracy. Which areas do you think Nigeria needs to improve upon?
As I said earlier, the election in 2015 was a very good election for the presidency and it shows clearly that Nigeria has made progress in terms of democracy and of monitoring its democratic and electoral process. We are supporting that very strongly mainly through the European Union but it is a common effort of the international community. For instance, we are supporting the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to perform its roles, and also the civil society in Nigeria to be present at all stages of the electoral process.
But democracy is not all about elections…
(Cuts in) Yes, we know and that is why we are also supporting Nigeria in the fight against corruption. But the fight against corruption is a long term effort and much of these efforts have to be made by Nigerians. We can only encourage and support those efforts.
So you are saying that Nigeria is in the right direction in these two areas?
We hope so.