Security issues dominate as France's Hollande visits Nigeria

18:27 27/02/2014

Abuja - Security issues threatened to overtake the festivities as President Francois Hollande arrived in Nigeria on Thursday for centenary celebrations, as calls mount for French help against Boko Haram militants.

Just hours before Hollande touched down, hundreds of suspected militant fighters laid siege to a town in Adamawa state, destroying scores of homes and businesses with heavy weaponry and explosives.

At least two people were killed in the attack late Wednesday, which destroyed four banks, hundreds of shops, a police station and several government buildings.

Hollande, guest of honour for the celebrations to mark 100 years since Nigeria's unification, arrived in the capital Abuja for a two-day visit, expecting to hold talks on trade and investment with Goodluck Jonathan.

But given the Islamist insurgency in the northeast and France's recent military interventions against militants in Mali and the Central African Republic, security has been pushed up the agenda.

The attack in Adamawa state followed an attack on a secondary school by suspected Boko Haram militants on Tuesday in which 43 people, mostly students, were killed in Yobe state.

Adamawa, Yobe and Borno state have all been under emergency rule since May last year in a bid to curb the violence, which has claimed thousands of lives since 2009.

Regional interests

Nigeria is not traditionally in France's sphere of influence.

French interests are largely confined to the oil sector, although the country is France's biggest trading partner in Africa with investments worth 5.9 billion euros ($8 billion), according to French government figures.

But it is surrounded by French-speaking countries, notably its former colonies of Chad, Niger and Cameroon, which have seen an increase in people from Nigeria's northeast flee across the border to escape the violence.

The United Nations said earlier this month that as of the end of January, nearly 12 500 Nigerians had fled east to Cameroon and 8 000 north to Niger because of the continued violence.

Boko Haram fighters are also suspected of having bases in neighbouring countries, crossing the porous borders to launch attacks before retreating.

Hollande, who ordered French troops in to fight Islamist militants in Mali in January 2013 and still has troops trying to stem religious-linked violence in the CAR, hosted more than 40 African leaders for a summit on the continent's security in Paris last year.

He was due to address a conference on the theme of "human security, peace and development" in Abuja later Thursday.

Nigeria's government maintains that it is winning the war against Boko Haram, despite the relentless wave of attacks and mounting death toll, but has indicated that French support would be welcome.

Information minister Labaran Maku said on Tuesday that Nigeria needed co-operation from both France and Francophone West African countries "before it becomes a major problem for France, for western interests... in west Africa".

"It will devastate French interests if we allow this terror to go on," the minister told AIT television.

A French official drew comparisons between Operation Serval in Mali and Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram, adding: "France fully intends to continue and deepen its intelligence dialogue with Nigeria."

Hollande won plaudits internationally and broad support at home for sending troops into Mali last year to combat Al-Qaeda-linked radicals who had seized control in the country's northern desert regions.

But he has not enjoyed the same support at home over his deployment of troops to quell sectarian strife in the troubled CAR, particularly since other Western powers are reluctant to match France's commitments.

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