In the difficult moments of our history, looking precisely at the period of Nigeria’s war of unity 1966-1971, Egypt proved to be a strategic partner, from helping to train our military to supporting with equipment and aircraft maintenance.
In the course of his bilateral meeting with the Egyptian leader, Abdul Fattah El-Sisi, President Muahmmadu Buhari recalled that in the course of his service in the army, he too received military training in Egypt.
The 24-hour visit to to the Red Sea resort of Sharm Al-Shaikh was not just a ‘trip to Egypt’ as it has been wrongly portrayed, as if it were primarily bilateral in nature or a ritual courtesy call on President El-Sisi. The purpose was to promote investments and job creation in Nigeria and throughout West, Central and East Africa, alongside other African leaders.
The Sharm el-Sheikh ‘Africa 2016’ conference aimed at tearing down trade barriers between North and sub-Saharan Africa – a partnership anchored by the continent’s biggest and third-biggest economies (i.e., Nigeria and Egypt) by the injection of life into a 26-nation free-trade pact signed by half the number of countries on the continent a year ago.
The organisers brought together more than 1200 delegates to Sharm el-Sheikh, included among these eight presidents and prime ministers, ministers of trade and investment, representatives of global financial institutions, businessmen and investment executives.
It is expected that this new pan-African initiative will directly benefit Nigeria in its efforts to expand and diversify jobs and exports beyond the oil industry – a core component of President Buhari’s economic vision for the country. Knocking down trade barriers within Africa will create new markets for Nigerian farmers, manufacturers and other businesses.
In his opening remarks, Egypt’s President El-Sisi said that the forum aimed at “pushing forward trade and investment in our continent to strengthen Africa’s place in the world economy.”
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari who touted an extensive economic agenda mentioned this as not being without challenges. “The new problem affecting investment is international terrorism…lots of resources that could be used for development are being diverted to address security issues.”
As he and many others noted, the only way this can be redressed is by widening the participation of the private sector in African economies, the very idea behind the conference in Egypt.
One shining example of how this could be done came from the African Development Bank (ADB) which announced through its President, Nigeria’s Akinwumi Adesina that it would be investing 12 billion dollars in the energy sector in the coming five years to provide access to electricity.
There are 645 million Africans without access to electricity.
President Buhari’s visit to Egypt wasn’t limited to the business of “Africa 2016” in its success, as it turned out to be one that is a remarkable watershed in bilateral ties between the two states.
While it was not surprising that El-Sisi rolled out the red carpet for President Buhari in line with what many say is a plan by Egypt to rebuild the country’s money-spinning tourism industry which had been in tatters since the mid-air bombing of a Russian plane in October 2015, killing all 223 tourists and crew, the truth is also that these two of Africa’s three biggest economies have been too far apart it terms of trade. The two leaders had equally bonded well at their first meeting in Addis Ababa early in the year.
At the last count, bilateral trade between the two states amounts to a meager USD 100 million, with Egypt drawing about 80 percent of the benefits. Egyptian pharmaceutical companies are making good sales in Nigeria. Egypt is also Nigerians’ preferred destination for medical tourism. Linked to this is the country’s successful airline business in Nigeria. Egypt Air does seven weekly flights to Lagos, and six each to Abuja and Kano.
There is little or nothing to show from the Nigerian side and this one of the things President Buhari wants to change.
In welcoming our president to the bilateral discussion, the Egyptian leader did not hide his joy at the acceptance of the Nigerian leader to visit.
The two leaders agreed to strengthen ties between their two states, to reestablish that historical closeness which helped Nigeria remain a single country decades ago. They talked about furthering this through enhanced partnership and cooperation in the areas of trade, security and defence.
President Buhari welcomed Egypt’s decision to strengthen strategic cooperation and intelligence sharing with Nigeria, from which a framework for dealing with terrorism would emerge. To this end, he gave instructions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to follow up with a meeting to structure modalities. Further progress is expected to follow on security and trade issues. In addition, the President requested El-Sisi to promote Egyptian investment in education in Nigeria.
The two leaders discussed a range of regional and global issues. As to be expected, terrorism topped all these. They both expressed concern that the anarchy in Libya, a disturbing situation that has provided great impetus to terrorism in areas far and around the failed state. The leaders also emphasised their cooperation on climate change and energy issues.
Experts in the field of diplomacy say that personal bonds between two leaders can help pave the way for better relations among states.
In Nigeria and Egypt relations, there is a good chance of this working to the benefit of the two countries.
Garba Shehu is the senior special assistant to the president on Media and Publicity.