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Belgian ambassador to Nigeria seeks to strengthen trade relations

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In a bid to strengthen ties between Nigeria and Belgium, the Belgian Government rolled out plans to facilitate more high-level economic missions from Belgium into Nigeria earlier this year, with Antwerp having the second largest port in Europe. But how successful has this strategy been? CNBC Africa’s Esther Awoniyi spoke to Stephane de Loecker, the Belgian Ambassador to Nigeria to discuss this.

Nigeria and Belgium have had diplomatic relations since 1960, I’d like you to describe Belgium’s relationship with Nigeria right now.
Indeed we’ve had diplomatic relations with Nigeria since 1960, always good relations luckily for us both. Now I would say since Nigeria became a democratic country a few years back, our relationship has improved because it’s the way we see society. Now I’ll say that with the increased profile of the European Union in the world. I would say that our relationship with Nigeria has to be seen on both sides as bilateral and also as part of the EU, because the EU has huge programs and a lot of cooperation with Nigeria.

What is Belgium’s Africa policy?
I’ll try to summarise. Historically, Belgium was a colonial power. A small country in Europe, but a colonial power. Last century we were the colonial rulers of Congo or what was Congo at the time, Rwanda and Burundi – but that was after the first world war. Before that it was Germany. Historically it has developed our interest as a nation in Central Africa in particular and from there to other parts of Africa. When Congo became independent lots of Belgians migrated to countries in Southern Africa, including South Africa and Zimbabwe, so we developed an interest there, because thousands of Belgians were living and are still living in those parts of Africa.

Now for Nigeria and West Africa, I would say it’s essentially Antwerp. First of all Nigeria is and has always been a very big country; the first economy in Africa. It’s no doubt a very important part for us. Then regarding the particular case of Antwerp, indeed it’s the major entry point for Nigerian products to Europe, and mind you we are one of Nigeria’s major partners of Nigeria, because a lot of crude oil from Nigeria is exported to Belgium, refined and exported to other parts of the world which also include Nigeria. Your cars run on Belgian made gasoline.

Earlier this year you said that a lot of countries would perform trade missions to Nigeria. Can you give us an update on the progress that’s been made so far?
We have a few Belgian companies, no big ones, but small sized companies who have been active in Nigeria for over 2 decades. One particular case and the only one that I will mention is the dredging in the Benue river. The dredging work there for the oil exploitation is been done by a Belgian company, and the artificial Island, the Eko Atlantic project is being made by a Belgian company. So these are the sort of things that we’re doing. In the future the idea is that we have the perception that Nigeria has been, is and will be a country of challenges, but also of opportunities. Now, with the current direction that the country is going into – diversification of the economy, and the fight against corruption- what we call the Buhari agenda. Those are just two parts and the third part we also really support. We really support this trend and this change in direction.

You’re very confident in the policies that we’ve seen come out in the last two years?
Well, we support them. We know how difficult it is. It is a huge country with a population of 190 million people. It is simply that the direction is the right one, and the timing and the political climate in this direction towards diversification and fight against corruption is good too. We say to Belgian companies that the market is challenging and that there are difficult competitors… This country is tough. Nigerian businessmen and women are some tough people. It’s a tough environment business wise.

But that doesn’t mean that Belgian companies cannot succeed in this environment though…
No. It’s simply that you need to be strong, sure of your case and then you can get the opportunities but you need to know that yu are entering a market which is very special and you need to find the right techniques. That’s what I say to the Belgian companies.

But what do they say to you? There should be other opportunities here beyond oil.
I agree. Belgium is not into oil exploitation, we’re into dredging. But be it in the financial markets, or in telecoms, we may not have the largest companies but the companies that do operate there are very important, specialised and specific. When you identify them, you have a huge market like the Nigerian market with the demand and with money because the way money is spent in Nigeria is a problem for Nigeria. But… there is money so investing money here is a good move.


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Stephane De Loecker

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