Nigeria’s presidency has changed hands, and Russia is looking forward to working with the new leader, Muhammadu Buhari, to bolster the countries’ economic and strategic ties.

Schoolchildren admire an art work of depicting former General and Nigerian President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, during an exhibition of former Nigeria leaders ahead of the inauguration in Abuja, Nigeria, Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Photo: AP

Moscow is looking forward to working with Muhammadu Buhari, the newly elected leader of Nigeria, to accelerate Russian investment in the country, to expand trade and to achieve better balance in the trade relationship. At the moment the countries’ trade ties are lopsided in favor of Russia.

On the strategic front, Russia has pledged to help Nigeria turn the tide against an insurgency in the country’s northeast. Russia has experience with that challenge, having battled insurgents in its Caucasus region for almost 25 years.

Russia’s recent history in Nigeria

Russia decided a decade ago to breathe new life into its relations with Africa. Ties had withered when Moscow became preoccupied with the economic and political transition that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Six years ago, Russia underscored its interest in Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, by dispatching then President Dmitri Medvedev to the country for a state visit. Medvedev and Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s president at the time, announced petroleum exploration and other agreements. 

“We see new opportunities” in Nigeria, Russia’s ambassador to Nigeria’s capital Abuja, Nicholay Udovichenko, said in 2013. Russia’s goal is to help build the kinds of bridges that would improve both countries’ economies, he asserted. 

Meet Muhammadu Buhari

Buhari, who will be inaugurated on May 29, will bring economic, national governance and security experience to his new job. 

He was the first chairman of the Nigerian Petroleum Corporation. That background will be invaluable as he works with Russia on deepening petroleum ties. Nigeria wants Russia to help it develop more oil and gas deposits, which are among the largest in the world.

As for national governance experience, Buhari headed Nigeria for 20 months as a military general between 1983 and 1985. 

The 72-year-old is determined to use his military acumen to subdue the Boko Haram Islamic insurgency, which has disrupted the country’s social, economic and political life.

In fact, the key to his victory over President Jonathan in April was voters’ perception that he would do the best job of dealing with the insurgency, political analysts say.   

What Moscow expects from the new Nigerian leader

Russia has pledged to help Buhari fight the terrorists. It is selling weapons to Nigeria and training Nigerian troops in counter-terrorism.

Moscow was delighted during Nigeria’s election campaign to hear Buhari say he wanted his country to forge a “special relationship” with the BRICS countries, and in particular, Russia. The other BRICS are Brazil, India, China and South Africa.

A clue to the kinds of economic policies Buhari will pursue can be found in his belief in efficiency and orderliness, political observers say.

That means he is likely to reform economic institutions, rein in government spending and fight corruption, a major drag on Nigeria’s economy, according to Yvonne Mhango, Moscow-based Renaissance Capital’s lead economist for Sub-Saharan Africa.

Mhango said Buhari is also likely to prosecute the war against Boko Haram more vigorously. Curbing the insurgency would help the Nigerian economy, partly by attracting more foreign investment. 

Buhari has signaled his intention to make a long-discussed West African free trade zone a reality. He wants the Economic Community of West African States, a loose association of 15 countries that has been working on regional integration since 1975, to take the next step by transforming itself into a duty-free commercial bloc. And he wants the trade agglomeration to have a common currency.

The other countries in the Economic Community of West African States, better known as ECOWAS, are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

The link between the Nigerian economy and the Eurasian Economic Union

Buhari’s free trade zone and common currency goals are playing well with Russia, which teamed up with Belarus and Kazakhstan to form the Eurasian Economic Union in 2014. Armenia joined the bloc this year, and Kyrgyzstan has recently ratified a treaty on joining the Union. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he would like to see a common currency in the Eurasian Economic Union, similar to the European Union’s euro.

Russia and Nigeria’s two-way trade was a modest $350 million in 2013. Both countries say it should be many times larger, given that Russia is the biggest market in the former Soviet Union and Nigeria the biggest market in Africa.

Hopes in Moscow and Abuja are that the countries’ annual commercial ties will rise to billions of dollars in coming years.

Russia is already helping Nigeria explore for oil and gas. Nigeria has expressed interest in Russia helping it build nuclear power plants, petroleum pipelines, railways and other infrastructure. 

It’s also shown an interest in Russian agricultural and food-processing technology. And it has discussed Russian help on big construction projects and in homebuilding.

Both Russia and Nigeria have a wealth of minerals — and some could be the basis of additional commerce between the two. Nigeria's natural resources include gold, bauxite, zinc, tantalum, niobium, iron ore and coal.  

Nigeria and Russia are both “large economies” and “rich in natural resources,” Goodie Ibru, head of the Chamber of Commerce of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, said at a bilateral economic conference in 2013. “Although Nigeria is smaller in terms of technology and infrastructure development, there’s a lot for both countries to benefit from.”

The opinion of the authors may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.