French President Emmanuel Macron met with his Nigerian counterpart Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday in Abuja before taking off his jacket and tie in Lagos to celebrate African culture.
Macron’s high-voltage visit to the Shrine — Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti’s music venue — was part of his latest attempt to forge closer ties with English-speaking Africa.
“I’m very happy to be here with you tonight,” said Macron, addressing the cheering and whistling crowd in English.
Macron’s jet touched down in Abuja from Mauritania, where he attended the final day of an African Union summit dominated by security issues in the restive Sahel region.
He was met on the tarmac by Nigeria’s foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, before the presidential convoy left for Buhari’s Aso Rock residence on the edge of the capital.
The 40-year-old former investment banker, who speaks fluent English, spent six months as an intern at the French embassy in the city in the early 2000s.
He told reporters travelling with him: “I like Nigeria a lot. It’s an appealing country. I’ve got a lot of memories… that haven’t left me.”
Since coming to power he 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.
– Security talks –
Macron said en route from Mauritania that “regional security and the fight against Boko Haram” would be high on the agenda in talks with Buhari, calling him a “key player”.
Nine years of violence in the remote northeast has spread across the wider Lake Chad area. As a result, Macron said “the mobilisation of African states is fundamental”.
Nigeria and its French-speaking neighbours Cameroon, Chad and Niger are involved in a joint military force to combat the jihadists, whose violence has killed at least 20,000 people.
Nigeria is also 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 — more than double that in the last 12 months alone.
That has put former military ruler Buhari, 75, under pressure as he looks towards securing a second term at elections in February next year.
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.
– Homage at the Shrine –
Late Tuesday, Macron touched down in Lagos and went directly to the Shrine, where he praised Nollywood — Nigeria’s massive film industry — and the country’s music.
Describing the concert hall as “iconic”, Macron said that “we have to build a new common narrative” in Africa.
“You have to recognise the bad and negative pages of this history, but you have to move forward,” he said to applause.
He launched the African Cultural Season which will take place in France in 2020, at an event showcasing music, fashion and theatre.
The choice of location surprised many Nigerians given its association with the anti-establishment musician.
No elected president is believed to have previously officially visited the spiritual home of the so-called “Black President”, which is more synonymous with marijuana smoke and gyrating dancers than diplomatic niceties.
When asked about life as an intern in Nigeria, Macron was tight-lipped about his past.
“Obviously I will not share all those memories because what happens in the Shrine remains in the Shrine,” Macron said to huge cheers and laughs.
On Wednesday, the president is set to inaugurate the new Alliance Francaise, a cultural centre, and is scheduled to meet young Nigerian entrepreneurs.