By Isaac Dachen
On November 26, 2020, Nigerian authorities issued a terse statement saying wanted fugitive, Abdulrasheed Maina, had been traced to Niger Republic, Nigeria’s northern neighbour, long suspected to be haven for some key politicians seeking safe hideouts for self, families and, perhaps, looted funds.
The ‘discovery’ was one of the many stories that had placed Nigeria-Niger relations on the front burner lately.
Referring to the hunt for Maina, Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency, The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had said, “The prosecution has obtained the bench warrant and its making frantic efforts to execute it while enlisting the support of other security agencies in the country as well as some foreign governments, particularly Republic of Niger and the United States.”
Not many were sold to the dashing discovery, given suspected official cover ups in the run up to Maina’s prosecution. It was, indeed, safe to speculate that the agency was flying a kite, as critics believed that the fugitive’s escape had been aided, and that the security agencies knew where to find him.
The record-breaking arrest and extradition of Maina from Niger was completed in seven days! He was bundled to the country on December 3, 2020.
Yes, Maina happened but Niger’s suckling relationship with Nigeria under the Muhammadu Buhari administration has forced a closer look by citizens.
The latest rounds of romance began sometime in January 2019 when two governors from Niger Republic stormed Kano State to support President Muhammadu Buhari who was campaigning for a second term in office on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
The governors, Issa Moussa of Zinder Region and Zakiri Umar of Maradi, came dressed in ‘Babanriga,’ designed with APC campaign ornaments.
Taking to his Twitter account, media aide to Governor Ganduje of Kano, Salihu Yakasai, had disclosed that the Nigerien governors and other top officials from that country came to the state to join in the campaign.
“H.E @GovUmarGanduje with his deputy H.E Dr Nasiru Gawuna, his former Dep. H.E Prof Hafiz Abubakar, Minister of Interior Abdurrahman Dambazau & that of Water Resources Kazaure, Governors of Zinder and Maradi from Niger Republic, & others getting ready to receive @MBuhari #PMBinKano,” Yakasai had tweeted.
Only recently, December 2, 2020, the Nigerian Senate approved the reconstruction and dualisation of the Kano-Danbatta-Kazaure-Daura-Niger road linking Nigeria with Niger Republic.
At the special plenary, the Senate took the resolution after adopting a “motion of urgent national importance” sponsored by the Senator representing Kano North Senatorial District, Jubrin Barau, and in record time, even with the House not having a quorum, adopted it.
According to the sponsor of the motion, “the road from Kano State to Niger Republic would be of economic importance to the country” and called for immediate reconstruction work on the highway to begin.
Even the President of the Nigerian Senate, Ahmad Lawan, called on his colleagues to quickly “adopt the motion as the said road project was a key part of the economic recovery programme of the current administration.”
Though the relationship between Nigeria and Niger Republic dates back to the colonial era, seeds of the romance were firmly planted far back in 2015 when President Buhari was sworn-in as an elected president after defeating Goodluck Jonathan.
Soon after inauguration, Buhari paid a visit to the Nigerien President, Mamadou Issoufou, at his presidential palace in Niamey, where he was welcomed with a massive and grandiose reception befitting of a royal.
At the end of the celebration, Issoufou gave Buhari significant gifts of a White Horse and a Sword, which are said to be gifts given to a conquering Fulani warrior.
In his first tenure, Buhari reportedly caused a stir when he nominated a supposed citizen of Niger Republic, Ali Mohammed Magashi, as a non-career Ambassador to represent Jigawa State.
It had been alleged that Magashi’s immediate younger brother from same parents, Ahamadou Harouna, is a lawmaker in Niger Republic and a member of the Convention Democratique et Social, one of the parties backing the incumbent president.
Though the claims remain unverified, the move raised initial concerns on the special relations which the Buhari administration was perceived to be pursuing with Niger Republic.
For instance, the announcement of the construction of a rail line that will link Kano-Jigawa-Katsina-Jibia to Maradi in Niger Republic at the whopping sum of $1.96 billion also drew wide reviews with critics querying the economic rationale of such a project, as local networks were yet undeveloped and Nigeria would have to borrow to fund the infrastructure.
An acknowledged but disturbing fact is that the country’s railway system has remained decadent for years and, with the exception of the much-touted Lagos-Kano, Abuja-Kaduna, and Lagos-Ibadan railway system, other connecting rail lines have remained moribund.
However, the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, had argued that the Maradi project was approved by the Federal Executive Council for purely economic purposes, noting that the rail line would place Nigeria in a competitive position against its Benin, Togo, and Ghana counterparts for movement of Nigerien cargoes to the sea.
Amaechi had said: “The decision to invest in Kano-Maradi rail line is purely economical, but people are politicizing it. I made that decision because there is a competition between the coastal States of Nigeria, Benin Republic, Togo, and Ghana.
“Nigerian businessmen find it difficult to do business in Nigerian seaports. So, to be able to attract those cargoes, we decided to construct a rail line from Kano to Maradi. Maradi is a village in Niger Republic and we will also build warehouses there to be able to attract cargoes from neighbouring countries and transport it effectively to Tin-Can or Apapa seaport for movement onward or outside the country.
“Or we make them import through our seaports and we drop it off at Maradi where they can use their cargoes. Nobody has talked about the employment this investment will generate nor has anyone talked about the economic benefits and how we would raise funds for the country. The economic interest by far outweighs the current investment.”
He added:“Most coastal economies are competing better than us, in terms of cargo, we decided to join the market and compete to make the Lagos seaport viable. Since they, Niger Republic, are not going to use the roads because they are afraid of crime, customs and police checkpoints, we introduced the Kano-Maradi line so that they can convey their goods from Maradi to Lagos seaport.
“People ask about the commercial benefits of the Kano-Maradi rail line. With that line we can compete favourably with other coastal countries of West Africa in servicing the landlocked countries around us in the area of movement of cargoes, to make the Lagos seaports very viable.”
A more intriguing development in Nigeria’s special relationship with Niger Republic emerged on November 20, with the announcement that Nigeria had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Niger Republic to begin importation of petroleum products from Niger’s only refinery.
The refinery is said to be jointly owned by China and Niger Republic.
What critics, perhaps, find distressing is that Nigeria, an oil producing country, had ran its four refineries with over 400,000 barrels capacity aground, and now leaning on a country with just about 20,000 capacity.
The Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Mele Kyari had, a few weeks ago, confessed that Nigeria had pumped billions of naira into the maintenance of the refineries for several years without commensurate results.
In measured tones, Kyari had said: “As I speak to you, we deliberately shut down all the refineries – all the three – because it does not make any further sense to continue to operate them for two reasons. We are unable to supply crude oil to the refineries.
“Except the Escravos-Warri line which we managed to sustain through this contracting process that we have, and Bonny-Port Harcourt refinery, it is practically impossible to run these pipelines at their optimum capacity.
“The lines, as a result of the acts of vandals and thieves of all sorts, anytime we attempt to pump more than 110000bpd into the Escravos-Warri line, the line gives up. Therefore, you cannot practically operate Kaduna and Warri refineries with the current structure of the pipelines.”
He added: “Let me address the issue of refineries: the refineries didn’t fail because there were no skills, they failed because we are unable to take care of the refineries. And we don’t have to give excuses why we didn’t take care of them. We can blame anyone. But what we have decided to do is to make them work. There is no scarcity of skilled people.”
And while Buhari campaigned in 2015, he had promised to fix the refineries and make sure Nigeria stopped importing fuel. That has remained a mere promise five years down the line, even with him as the substantive Petroleum Minister!
Hear President Buhari:
“The 16 years of the PDP has been a waste in Nigeria. In 16 years, they have not been able to turn around the NNPC, they have not built a single refinery. If I am elected, I will build one refinery every year in my first four years.” Sadly, his promises have turned out empty!
What has come clear is Nigerians can hardly fathom what has hit them, as they contemplate the growing bond between the present administration and their Nigerien counterparts.
Nigeria’s incredible romance with Niger has already got critics tagging the latter as the country’s 37th state. A pertinent question needing answers, therefore, revolves around why Nigeria is expending scarce resources and, sometimes borrowing, to service Niger Republic’s economy.
Until the answers are found, insinuations that a section of Nigeria’s political class is freighting the country’s resources into Niger Republic for selfish gains would remain an unresolved debate.