Fresh opportunities

Nigeria’s ambassador to France, H.E. Gordon Bristol, discusses the improved relationship between France and Nigeria as well as the investment opportunities for French multinationals in English-speaking Nigeria.

Question: What are three reasons you would give for investors of any nationality to go to Nigeria?

Ambassador Bristol: First, Nigeria is a very large market. There are over 150 million people with various needs and requirements both as individuals and as a country. Second, Nigeria has a vast amount of resources, the number one of these resources being its hardworking people. There are a large number of highly educated and trained people from various institutions, local and foreign. Their variety of skills and services come at a very modest price compared to other economies.

Lastly, the Nigerian government does not interfere in private affairs and business. The investment climate is very positive and there are provisions for the movement of capital in and out of the country including profit repatriation; the exchange rate regime has also been liberalized over the years. I believe, all in all, the large skilled population of Nigeria, its natural resources plus an investment-friendly government are very potent reasons for anyone looking to invest. The gateway to Africa is also the heart of Africa.

Question: What is your view on the relationship between France and Nigeria?

Ambassador Bristol: France is one of the most important diplomatic missions of Nigeria. Franco- Nigeria relations are improving in leaps and bounds. In recent years it has taken the form of a strategic relationship. At some point in our history, I think there was perhaps a sense of competition even confrontation. Today this is being replaced largely if not completely with collaboration and cooperation.

Question: When French President Nicolas Sarkozy held the French-African summit in 2011 in Nice, he met privately with only two presidents, South African President Jacob Zuma and President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria. How would you describe this gradual shift in attitude of France towards Nigeria? Is it perhaps in recognition that Anglophone Africa is becoming a softer target for French multinational companies?

Ambassador Bristol: I believe that France is realistic enough to know that in any constructive engagements with Africa, it has to take into account some of the leading players on the African continent and Nigeria is one of the leading players. South Africa is another and I believe Egypt is also.

If you look at President Sarkozy’s Cape Town address in 2008 there are elements that gave an indication of how France was going to fashion its relations with Africa. The meetings with President Jonathan and President Zuma can be seen as recognition of the importance of Nigeria and South Africa.

Question: What are the greatest areas of cooperation with France?

Ambassador Bristol: There are a number of areas where we want to see greater intensity in the cooperation, especially the economic dimension of it. France’s involvement in the Nigerian economy is largely concentrated in the oil and gas sector. Total is a major player. There is some diversity. Peugeot in the automobile sector, for example. Given France’s knowhow in multiple fields, such as public transportation, we want to see greater French involvement and presence in inter-city and intra-city transportation.

Looking at agriculture, France is one of the bread baskets of Europe, so we want to see greater input in that sector, too, which is a key strategic sector for Nigeria. The energy sector – whether it is gas, petrol or even nuclear energy, where Areva for instance, is a leading player – is another one. I believe there is great room for extending and intensifying France’s presence in petroleum and energy sectors, and in other sectors in Nigeria generally.

Question: Is the supply of power a main concern of the French investors you speak with?

Ambassador Bristol: No, but if they do bring it up I explain to them that it is actually an opportunity that is calling for investment. Nigeria operates a private sector driven mixed economy. What is seen as a challenge can also be seen as an opportunity. The government has taken on the challenge by deregulating and freeing up market processes, and now that the sector has been freed-up, we hope that investors, both local and foreign, will take advantage of that.

Question: What is being done in concrete terms to improve the power sector and is there the genuine political will behind this?

Ambassador Bristol: President Jonathan, when he was Vice President, was Chairman of the Committee on Power. He has taken on the power challenge and his full attention is being paid to it. The Power Sector Reform Act has been passed and the PHCN has been deregulated. I believe that the private sector will play a greater role in the generation of power. Independent Power Producers (IPPs) are being formed. One of the challenges we face with the current transmission line infrastructure is that it is weak and cannot carry the necessary load.

There are a whole host of reforms that are being carried out and implemented simultaneously in the power sector, with the clear aim of attracting private investment, up to and including the pricing of the power, because if the tariff is not right, there will not be private money flowing into that sector. The reforms have to be holistic for it to be effective. You cannot address just one segment of it and hope for the best. All segments need to be addressed at the same time.

Question: There have been some positive responses in recent years benefiting from the high oil prices; 7% growth into 2009, 8.1% was predicted in 2010 which has now been confirmed. This all underscored a significant and growing resilience of the Nigerian economy. To what would you ascribe this new or growing resilience?

Ambassador Bristol: H.E. 2008 and 2009 were difficult years with the global financial crisis, exploding commodity prices, and other structural challenges which affected the African continent as well. Despite these, we had very robust growth in many African economies, particularly the Nigerian economy, where we grew in the region of 7%-8% per annum which is not a mean feat at all. A number of factors were responsible for this. First of all, there has been a great deal of good house-keeping: changes and reforms that were started from the Obasanjo administration, through to the Yar’Adua administration started to yield positive results.

The banking consolidation and reforms of the financial sector for instance, the earnest fight against corruption, were some key elements in a combination of many factors which have yielded positive results for Nigeria. Generally there has been a growing awareness on the part of both individual citizens and corporate Nigeria of the need for change. We have a ‘Vision 20:2020’ program, whereby Nigeria plans to be among the 20 most developed and industrialized economies by year 2020. This is a very serious program to which the government and corporate Nigeria are committed. It is not surprising therefore that this has yielded positive results. Of course, the fairly steady growth of oil prices has contributed to this scenario, not to mention the good performance of the agriculture sector.

Interview conducted by Leo Brenner