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French President Emmanuel Macron discussed ways to intensify the battle against Islamist militants in West Africa during talks with Nigerian leader Muhammadu Buhari.
Nigeria’s fight against the nine-year-old Boko Haram insurgency in the far northeast has left more than 20,000 people dead and forced millions to flee their homes. In the semi-arid Sahel region south of the Sahara desert, France has deployed 4,000 troops in its Barkhane mission that’s hunting down Islamist militants in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger.
“We have to increase the pressure and operations against jihadists. France will remain present in the Sahel as long as necessary,” Macron told reporters Tuesday in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. “What we have to understand is why so many people join the jihadists. We spoke a lot about that and it’s often from economic and ethnic crises. It’s not just about security.”
The visit marked the eighth that Macron, 40, has made to Africa since becoming president. During his training for the civil service, he had a six-month internship at the French Embassy in Abuja.
Nigeria is France’s biggest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa, with commerce worth $19.7 billion last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The French company Total SA is one of the major international producers of crude in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil exporter.
Macron traveled to the commercial hub, Lagos, later in the day and visited the New Afrika Shrine founded by Femi Kuti, son of the late Nigerian afro-beat artist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He attended a colorful evening of live music, an art exhibition and a fashion show.
“It may be a surprise that a French president goes to the shrine, but it never surprises anyone if I go to the Albert Hall or the Met,” Macron said. “We have to change that.”
Macron’s program on Wednesday includes a French-Nigerian economic forum and meeting young entrepreneurs in Lagos.
But during the meeting in Abuja, the focus was on security and economic cooperation, Buhari said.
“Our discussion on one-to-one basis is around security, especially in the Sahel, the economy of the region and how it can be successfully and politically integrated,” he said. “I’m very grateful to France for the support we have been getting.”