Technology and Science

Nigeria-Rwanda: A big brother, little brother affair

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By Tolu Ogunlesi in Kigali

One seeks to become a middle-income, ‘knowledge- based’ economy; the other to join the top 20 in the world. You scratch my back, as the saying goes.

Peter Ogidi-Oke’s first official assignment as Nigeria’s resident high commissioner to Rwanda was to attend a military function in Kigali.

What happened when he arrived surprised him. “When [the Rwandan] soldiers saw me, they started hailing me – Igwe! Igwe!” he recalls.

A lot of Nigerians are coming here. It’s one of the places in which it is easiest to do business

Igwe is an honorific for chiefs of the Igbo ethnic group in south-eastern Nigeria. He wanted to know how they came to know of the word.

The Rwandan soldiers told him: “We are Nigerian-trained officers!”

Rwandan army officers have been receiving training in Nigeria’s junior and senior military colleges for decades.

Patrick Nyamvumba, Rwanda’s current chief of defence staff, is a graduate of the Nigerian Defence Academy.

He enrolled as a cadet in the late 1980s. In 2009, he succeeded Nigeria’s General Martin Luther Agwai as force commander of the UN–AU Mission in Darfur – to which Nigeria and Rwanda are two of the biggest contributors of troops.

One Rwandan Defence Force reservist, a veteran of the rebellion that helped end the 1994 genocide and bring President Paul Kagame to power, recalls his experiences with Nigerian soldiers in Darfur.

“The Nigerian soldiers don’t joke with their prayers, you know they’re mainly Muslims. When they put their guns down to pray, we surround them to protect them.”

Military cooperation continues apace, and a group of Nigerian military officials conducted a study tour in Rwanda in April of last year.

Closer ties deliver benefits for both countries. For Rwandans, Nigeria offers access to Africa’s largest economy, a market bigger than the entire East African region.

For Nigerians, Rwanda – its modest population of just more than 12 million notwithstanding – offers a foothold from which to explore the region.

Rwanda is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, averaging 8% per annum over the past decade.

But the two have taken their time to strengthen their relationship.

Before the appointment of Ogidi-Oke in 2012, the Nigerian high commissioner resident in Uganda oversaw diplomatic relations with Rwanda.

Rwanda sent its first high commissioner to Nigeria in 2011: Joseph Habineza, who worked for Nigerian Breweries before going on to become sports minister in Kigali.

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan attended President Kagame’s inauguration in September 2010, and a year later paid a two-day state visit to Rwanda, during which the two governments signed a series of bilateral agreements.

Kagame attended Jonathan’s inauguration in May 2011 and the World Economic Forum on Africa in Abuja in May 2014.

In between, he paid a private visit to Lagos to deliver a lecture for the Oxford and Cambridge Club of Nigeria.

Sports, health and business

High commissioner Ogidi-Oke says there are regular visits by professional and sports groups.

Rwanda is also one of the countries to which Nigeria sends health professionals as part of its Technical Aid Corps scheme.

Lagos hosted a Nigerian-Rwandan Economic Summit in May 2012, two months after representatives of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group – a federation of Nigerian businesses – visited Rwanda.

Whereas Nigerian businesses tend to set up their East African operations in Kenya, the region’s largest economy and an air transport hub, they now are considering Kigali.

The city is set to become an important transportation centre, as RwandAir now flies to more than a dozen destinations in Africa and the Middle East.

It started flying to Lagos in 2011 and now offers daily flights between Kigali and Nigeria’s economic capital.

Because it offers a cheaper service than competitors like Emirates, RwandAir is increasingly a popular alternative for Nigerians travelling to Dubai.

The signing of a delayed bilateral air service agreement should lead to improved air transport between Nigeria and Rwanda.

Escape from Lagos

Kigali, only four and half hours from Lagos, is unlikely to remain a well-kept secret for holiday-seeking Nigerians.

At the serene airport in Kigali a Nigerian TV journalist says: “I come here when I want to run away from the madness of Lagos. It’s my hideout.”

Another element of the strengthen- ing relationship is Rwanda’s receptiveness to business and investment.

The World Bank’s Doing Business index for 2015 lists it as the second most efficient country in terms of business regulation in Africa.

Its 55th place on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2014 puts it well ahead of Nigeria, which took 136th place.

“A lot of Nigerians are coming here. It’s one of the places in which it is easiest to do business,” says high commissioner Ogidi-Oke.

Airline Services & Logistics, a Nigerian company that provides catering services at the international airports in Lagos and Abuja, announced the launch of its operations in Kigali in December 2013.

Nigeria’s Access Bank and GTBank have also opened shop in the city, and others plan to follow suit.

The East Africa Exchange (EAX) is a commodities market that operates across the sub-region, as well as in Nigeria.

Launched in 2013 as a partnership between Nigerian businessman Tony Elumelu, German investor Nicolas Berggruen and former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs Jendayi Frazer, EAX is headquartered in Kigali City Tower, a 20-storey high-rise building that opened in the rapidly modernising city in 2011.

EAX country manager for Rwanda Kadri Alfah says the decision to have the headquarters in Kigali was not a difficult one.

Because of its bid to become “the hub for trading financial instruments in East Africa,” he explains, Rwanda has created “favourable conditions” for entrepreneurs.

Nigerian internet entertainment company iROKO opened its East Africa office in Kigali in 2014.

“Our vice-president for Africa spent two hours at the Rwanda Development Board and was issued the company certificate just six hours after leaving. Electronically. And it was free,” wrote iROKO founder and chief executive Jason Njoku in a blog post.

Nigerian movies are popular across the region. Nollywood star Ramsey Nouah is a regular face in Rwanda, attending the annual gorilla-naming ceremony and teaching acting workshops. He is currently shooting a film, Love Brewed in a Rwandan Pot, in the country.

The same goes for music. Nightclubs in Nairobi, Kampala and Kigali are thriving on hits from Nigerian superstars like Davido, Flavour and P-Square.

Davido, the headlining musical act for July 2014’s Liberation Day celebrations, was received at Kigali airport by President Kagame and his family.

“There’s so much pressure on me to bring Nigerian musicians and actors [to Rwanda],” says Ogidi-Oke.

“I think this is one country that genuinely likes us. They really receive Nigerians very warmly.”

At the World Export Development Forum in Kigali in September 2014, the Rwanda Development Board encouraged local companies to learn from the development of Nollywood and the Nigerian service sector.

Linguistic ties

Nigeria and Rwanda also now share a common language. Decades before and after independence, Rwanda was a Francophone country.

The Kagame government decided, in 2008, to repudiate that linguistic legacy and switch to English.

The decision was in part due to deepening tensions between the Rwandan government and France.

But it was also a hard-headed economic move, aimed at consolidating ties with the English-speaking countries – Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya – that dominate the East African Community (EAC) economic bloc.

Rwanda became a full member of the EAC in 2007, and, in November 2009, formally joined the Commonwealth, making it the second country to become a Commonwealth member without historical or colonial ties to Britain.

Though largely ceremonial, Rwanda’s membership has improved business connections with countries like India, Canada and Australia, not to mention African Commonwealth members.

Rwandan writer Fred Mwasa says: “A lot of business has come in, which may not have come had we [remained] French-speaking.” ●

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