During an official state visit to Germany, Muhammadu Buhari called for closer economic ties. But faced with an economic downturn in Nigeria, German companies point to major hurdles to investment, reports Naomi Conrad.
In the end, it took two attempts: As Chancellor Angela Merkel struggled to pronounce Muhammadu Buhari’s name at a joint press conference in Berlin, the Nigerian President was busy trying to adjust his earpiece for the simultaneous translation. Finally, Merkel’s spokesman stepped in to help and the German chancellor began anew: This time, as she lauded the President’s fight against extremism, she pronounced his name correctly.
Buhari is in Berlin for a state visit, which includes several trade deals to further economic ties and cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
The visit comes at a time when Nigeria is struggling with an economic downturn, “a difficult economic time,” as Merkel put it, due to weak oil prices, and its economy continues to suffer from attacks on pipelines by militants.
Buhari, who was briefly a military dictator in the 1980s, was elected in 2015 on a platform of cracking down on corruption, fighting Boko Haram and boosting economic growth.
At the moment, according to Buhari, some 100 German companies operate in Nigeria, most of them in the manufacturing sector.
Economic downturn, attacks in Delta region
Buhari’s government yesterday announced the first negotiated release of 21 of the 218 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014. He would, the President added, continue to work towards the release of the remaining girls.
Overall, Buhari said, the militant group “has been degraded. They don’t hold any local government now.” The bombing of soft targets, such as schools, mosques and market places, had also been degraded, he said.
But Nigeria faces a major famine in the northeast, where Boko Haram has disrupted farming and transportation. Some areas remain inaccessible due to militancy.
Buhari announced that the government was talking to the leadership of militants operating in the Niger Delta. “We intend to negotiate for a ceasefire.”
He had also, Buhari said, asked Germany for help “in terms of intelligence training.”
German investors point to major challenges
And Buhari claimed that the economy was improving to some extent. The rainy season, he said, had been good. “We are expecting a bumper harvest.” In 18 months, he added, Nigeria would be able to stop the import of food and become self-sufficient.
But investors remain less optimistic. At a roundtable organized by the German-African Business Association in Berlin on Friday morning, German and African investors, many with major investments in Nigeria, concurred that doing business in Nigeria was hard at the moment. They pointed to high inflation and customs duties. Sometimes, one investor said, fellow investors would simply abandon imported goods at the harbor, rather than pay the eye-watering customs taxes.
Another major problem, they agreed, were restrictions introduced on foreign currency. “There’s effectively no currency in the market,” one investor said. This, the businessmen say, makes it difficult to send profits home, import spare parts and also pay expat workers.
At the moment, one businessman said, convincing board members to invest in Nigeria was “pretty hard.”
But, the chief executive officer of one multinational company added, “You simply can’t avoid Nigeria if you want to do business in Africa.”