Gauer : Common fight against Boko Haram has brought Nigeria and France closer
French Ambassador to Nigeria, His Excellency, Denys Gauer told The Guardian in an exclusive interview why France will not recognize current agitation for Biafra, France economic interests in Nigeria and why his country has become a target of terrorists, among other topical issues. He spoke to IGHO AKEREGHA, Abuja Bureau Chief and BRIDGET CHIEDU-ONOCHIE.
What is your assessment of the diplomatic relations between Nigeria and France?
I will say that over the last years, the relationship between Nigeria and France has been very positive. We have always had good economic relationship and France has positive presence in Nigeria – in the oil sector, cement sector, construction and also in other sectors. That means that economically, we have had a good presence in Nigeria. Nigeria is the first trading partner of France in Africa and of course, we are also buying a lot of oil from Nigeria. The trade balance between France and Nigeria has always been in favour of Nigeria and that is because we buy a lot of oil from Nigeria, but we also export quite a huge amount of goods to Nigeria. So, economically, it has always been good and it is developing now with more French companies in spite of economic difficulties in Nigeria. We still have more French companies interested to come to Nigeria.
In the political field, our relationship has developed very positively in the last years. I must say, ironically, because of Boko Haram. That means a common fight against Boko Haram has really brought us together. To address this issue of fight against terrorism globally, you know that France is fighting terrorist groups all over the world. We have fought the Talibans in Afghanistan. We are strongly engaged in Iraq, in Syria with various coalitions in the fight against Daesh (ISIS). In Africa, let me say that it began with Mali, when terrorist groups who were pushing towards Bamako, the capital, threatened it. That means that Mali was being threatened to be transformed into a terrorist country. So, at that moment, everybody was panicking across Africa. There was complete panic, not only in Africa but elsewhere also, because there was the prospect that Mali could be taken over by terrorist groups and to imagine all the destabilizing consequences this would have had on all the neighbouring countries in West Africa, including Nigeria.
At that point, everybody was saying that something must be done. We must intervene to stop those terrorists. But who did it? It was France and France alone, because in the beginning, we were completely alone and we sent troops and put booths on the ground to stop the terrorists in their progression towards Bamako. It was clear that the Malian Army could no longer stop them. So, we intervened directly in Mali to stop the terrorists. After that, we got the support of the United Nations, African Union and some other countries, which pulled international efforts in favour of Mali.
In your view, what do you think is the strategic interest of France in Mali?
Traditionally, France has very close relationship with all the francophone countries that were former French colonies in Africa. We felt obliged to intervene in Mali and even more so, when all the countries around it asked us to intervene at that point. We also know that terrorists know no borders, they were crossing all of the Sahelian region and then, that was why we extended our presence to all the Sahelian countries. This is what we called Operations Bakar, which made its presence in all the Sahelian countries – from Mauritania to Chad. Then, we tried to support all those countries in the fight against terrorism. This is what we called the G5. This brought us also into Nigeria and to Boko Haram because of the relationship between those Sahelian terrorist groups and Boko Haram.
Concerning Boko Haram, you remember that it was controlling greater part of the North East of Nigeria at the beginning of 2014. Then, there was this problem of the Chibok girls, which created enormous commotion worldwide, and former President Goodluck Jonathan at that time was in a rather difficult position with Boko Haram. And he decided that he must do something – that he must fight Boko Haram to a stand still and he thought that to fight Boko Haram properly, he needed to cooperate with his Francophone neighbours. But as you know, Nigeria always has difficulties in cooperating with its neighbours. And that was the reason Jonathan felt that to cooperate properly with his neighbours, he needed the support of France.
So, he appealed to the French President, Francoise Hollande to help him organise that cooperation with his neighbours. It was on the request of former President Jonathan that the French President organised the first regional meeting in Paris in May 2014, with the Nigerian President and the Presidents of all the surrounding countries – Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and the Republic of Benin. It was there that the real fight against Boko Haram was launched. It was after that meeting that the Multinational Joint Task Force, MJTF was established to fight Boko Haram and since then, France has made enormous efforts to encourage all Nigerian neighbours to work together to fight the insurgents.
And also, bilaterally, France has been engaged in a very close relationship with the Nigerian Armed Forces and this is something we have not done before. It was new to us to work closely with the Nigerian Armed forces but this is what we are doing since May 2014. Then, of course, you had elections and President Muhammadu Buhari was elected and he followed the same policy. He paid a bilateral visit to France in September 2015. He organised a new regional summit, which was a follow up to the summit in Paris in May last year in Abuja. President Holland was in Nigeria and with President Buhari and all the Presidents of the Francophone countries, decided to continue the common action in the fight against Boko Haram.
So, that was the reason I said that France is in close cooperation with Nigeria. The French President came twice to Nigeria in not more than two years and two Nigerian Presidents came three times to Paris. So, you see how close our relationship is now – politically and in security matters. Apart from encouraging neighbouring African countries to cooperate with Nigeria we have also developed a strong bilateral relationship with the Nigerian Armed forces. In May 2015, the Defence Ministers of Nigeria and France signed a cooperation agreement between the two armed forces, which we did not have before. Since September last year, we have two French military officers who are liaison officers with the Nigerian armed forces to work on daily basis with them in furtherance of the cooperation. We are organising training activities for the Nigerian Armed Forces both in France, Senegal and here in Nigeria and most importantly, what we are mainly doing is exchange of intelligence. As you know, with our presence in Bakan operations and our presence in the whole of the Sahelian region, we gain a lot of intelligence and we are transmitting that intelligence to the Nigerian Armed Forces on daily basis. I can confirm to you that we are now very close allies to the Nigerian Armed Forces in the fight against Boko Haram.
Would you say that the agreement that was signed between the Ministers of Defence of Nigeria and France effectively created a military pact between the two countries?
Yes, of course, in the fight against Boko Haram. This is absolutely clear.
Beyond the fight against Boko Haram, is there a comprehensive military pact?
Yes. We signed an inter-governmental agreement on cooperation in the field of defence. Of course, it is mainly to fight Boko Haram but it was further than that. It is real cooperation in training activities, in exchanges and we are also ready to provide equipment to the Nigerian Armed Forces. We have no restrictions on that; we can sell any kind of equipment to the Nigerian government without any restrictions.
To what extent does the US military blockade against Nigeria during President Jonathan’s administration affect France supply of military equipment to Nigeria?
Well, it did not affect France because precisely, we do not have the same policy. If Americans have decided on some restrictions for themselves towards Nigeria, we did not impose any kind of restrictions.
During a recent military clearance operation in the Sambisa forest, it was alleged that the Nigerian security forces arrested some French nationals among Boko Haram insurgents, what was the French position on this?
Well, I saw that photo and that comment in one of the national dailies. I was very surprised and of course, I checked it. And what did we discover? First, the Whiteman in the photo was not a French national; he was a German. Secondly, the military men in the photo were not Nigerian military but those of Cameroon. And the picture was not taken in Nigeria; it was taken in Cameroon. Also, that Whiteman – the German was not cooperating with Boko Haram. He was kidnapped by Boko Haram and was liberated by Cameroonian soldiers who you see on the photo. So, this is the reality. This is a problem for the press. When a newspaper makes such a blunder, they lose credibility. Who will trust them anymore? This is a German who was kidnapped by Boko Haram. I don’t know where, but he was taken to Cameroon and has been freed by Cameroon forces.
Concerning French nationals, of course, we have a problem in France with some young French nationals radicalised and leaving France to go and fight with terrorist groups in Syria or in Iraq. We have that kind of problem. We have now established legislation in France to try to control them and to prevent those people leaving to fight in those countries. We also have a strong legislation so that when those guys come back to France, they are immediately arrested. We are faced with this kind of phenomenon, of people who want to go to Syria and Iraq, but concerning Boko Haram; I must say I am not aware of any case of a French national being a member of Boko Haram. I have never received such information.
There are concerns in Nigeria that France and some Francophone countries may be supplying welfare and logistics to Boko Haram.
How could we be sympathetic to Boko Haram? I told you we are fighting terrorist groups everywhere in the world. The Francophone countries you referred to are rather saying that Boko Haram are Nigerians; that it emerged from Maiduguri and Sambisa forest. Those in Niger and Cameroon are saying that they are also suffering Boko Haram attacks and that it is a Nigerian phenomenon, Nigerian problem, which has become a burden to their countries and threatening them. But we are telling them that it is a terrorist problem targeting everybody and which they have to work together and fight together to eliminate.
You have a good education in politics and have served in several troubled countries. Is it that you are an expert in conflict and terrorism, that is why your country sends you to these countries or it is just a matter of coincidence that you are in crisis-ridden countries?
It is true that some diplomats specialize in one area or one geographical zone. In my case, I have been posted to many places, Moscow, Tokyo, South America, Africa, Guinea, and Sierra-Leone. Then, I was sent to Jordan and Iraq in the Middle East as well, where I got the experience of fighting terrorism. So, yes, it is true that I have such experience of complicated situations. It makes me more aware of the absolute necessity to fight terrorism.
Are you bringing your experience to bear on the situation in Nigeria? What is your general assessment of the combined efforts in fighting terrorists in Nigeria; will you say it has been successful?
Yes. And I am very happy about that because if you remember, at the beginning of 2014, Boko Haram was already controlling greater part of the North East in Nigeria. This was really threatening the Jonathan administration at that time. Since then, and with the combined effort by regional countries and support from the international community, France and the United States, real progress has been made. So, currently, I will say that though Boko Haram is not yet completely eliminated, as they are still able to create occasional insecurity, enormous progress has been made. The group has been pushed back to their sanctuaries and they have difficulties to exist. Mobilisation against Boko Haram has led to success and it is also interesting to see how forces are able to work together with their neighbours. This is a great achievement when compared to how it was before. I think the fight against Boko Haram is a great success and we have to continue the efforts to eliminate the group totally and to allow populations to go back to their cities and their villages. This is still not completely done.
France has been a target of terrorists; to what extent has the country deployed its experience?
Well, you are right. France has been severely affected by terrorist attacks. Precisely, we have engaged in the fight against terrorists everywhere. This has made us a target to terrorist attacks. But we have to continue that fight; we have to continue that effort. We have to do our best to protect our territories. So, we have increased mobilisation of our militaries but at the same time, we have to continue to live normally. We have to find the balance in making the effort to control our territories and at the same time, not change our ways of life because that is what the terrorists want.
The French Embassy has outsourced its visa application. What is the impact of the policy on visa regime?
We outsourced it to a Swedish company, VFS. What we have done is what many other countries have done. For applicants, it is easier to go through VFS. It is well organised. We try to make it as easy as possible to get the visa for France. We are interested in Nigerians going to France for business, vacation or tourism but at the same time, we have to fight against illegal immigration. We know the problem of immigration in the whole of Europe now. There is a terrible pressure coming from those countries affected by terrorists – Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and partly from Africa. We in Europe cannot accept everybody and so, we have to control our borders. This is why we seek permanent balance between controlling illegal immigration and at the same time, making it as easy as possible for normal travellers to come to our countries. What we are trying to do now is to ensure that normal travellers get multiple entries for longer period to make it easy for them. France does not own the VFS. I think they are doing a good job. There have not been complaints from visa applicants in the way they are treated. Of course, we are supervising to ensure people are properly treated. VFS is in charge of putting everything together, then, they transmit to us for decision. We insist they organise it well and they are professionals.
Cameroon is your former colony and there is crisis between the Anglophone minority in the South and the majority Francophone at the center. What is France doing to stem the anger?
This is an internal Cameroonian problem. Of course, it is a country with majority of Francophone and minority of Anglophones but they have to find a way to live together. I have seen pockets of protests recently but it is up to the authorities to solve the problem. What we are telling the Cameroonian authorities is that they have to speak to those people and appeal for dialogue towards solving the problem.
Mr. Paul Biya has been President of Cameroon for over three decades, has France ever spoken to him to expand the country’s democratic space?
I would say that we are very happy to see that West Africa has evolved very positively in the field of democracy. When we see what happened in The Gambia, I will say that in West Africa, you have good democratic process now. Elections are conducted properly, leaders leaving power. In Central Africa, not only in Cameroon, unfortunately, they are not at the same level. We regret it and would like Central Africa to evolve rapidly to follow the same path as West Africa. We tell that to the leaders. That is our official position but again, it is up to them to make their own choices.
France allegedly supported Biafran forces during the Nigerian civil war, and now, there is fresh agitation for Biafra. Would France be willing to support Biafra again?
The Biafran war was long time ago. Since then, there have been many changes and Nigeria has also evolved a lot. We are working with Nigeria and we are supporting it as the only country. This is absolutely clear and I don’t think there is any kind of future for Biafra. They are part of Nigeria and Nigeria has to remain as the only country.