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Russia: President Pledges To Increase Ties With Nigeria

The first-ever visit to Russia by a Nigerian leader is a sign that Moscow is again focusing on its former economic partners in Africa. A three-day visit by President Olusegun Obasanjo saw both countries pledge renewed cooperation in boosting economic and military ties. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini says that Russia has much to gain from forging a post-Soviet relationship with the African continent. Here is her report.

Moscow, 7 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo leaves Moscow today after a three-day visit that saw both countries -- among the world's chief oil producers -- taking steps to resume their Soviet-era commercial friendship.

The trip ended with pledges from Obasanjo and Russian President Vladimir Putin to boost economic ties and military cooperation. It was the first visit ever to the Russian capital by a Nigerian leader.

Russian officials say the visit -- one of Putin's first meetings with an African head of state since assuming office -- also shows Moscow's interest in resuming its ties with Africa, which was a strong military and trade partner before the collapse of communism.

Russian television footage showed the imposing Nigerian leader, dressed in a traditional white African robe and blue head-wrap, shaking hands with Putin in the Kremlin. The two presidents then went on to sign an agreement on joint military projects, fighting terrorism, and the formation of what was called a "multi-polar world."

Putin also pledged to "intensify relations with African countries" and urged more global reliance on the United Nations instead of the United States.

Nigerian Defense Minister Theophilius Danjuma met with his Russian counterpart Igor Sergeyev, in addition to visiting Russian weapons factories.

Analysts say agreements on increased military trade may prove the highlight of the three-day visit. The two countries signed a cooperation accord providing a base for long-term weapons sales and the construction of military facilities in Nigeria. Russia has also pledged to send military advisors to the west African nation.

A decade after Russian-African relations dissolved in the wake of the Soviet collapse, some 30 percent of Nigerian military equipment remains of Soviet origin. And after trade slowed to a crawl in the 1990s, deliveries began to pick up last year with Nigeria's acquisition of MiG fighter helicopters.

Yury Golotyuk, a military analyst with the "Vremya Novostei" newspaper, said cooperation between the two countries goes back to the 16-year military regime that preceded Obasanjo's election, when Western sanctions forced Nigeria to find new trade partners.

Alexander Kazankov, a researcher with Moscow's state-run African Institute, says new weapons contracts with oil-rich Nigeria may pave the way to increasing Russian influence throughout the African continent.

"Russia is now concerned with re-establishing the international authority it lost in a number of areas as a result of perestroika. While it isn't clear what kind of reserves Russia [has to win this authority], it is clear that it has reserves in the arms-sales sector -- in particular, in tropical west Africa, where the key country is Nigeria."

West Africa is also important to Russia as a prominent diamond-producing region. The region's so-called "bloody diamond" trade has financed wars in Angola and Sierra Leone, threatening the "clean" diamond market, of which Russia is a major producer.

Kazankov points out that Obasanjo -- who is the first democratically elected president in Africa's most populous nation -- is an ideal starting partner for Russia. Obasanjo began his military career fighting rebels in separatist Biafra, and relied on Soviet weapons and military advisors to quell the 1960s uprising.

Kazankov says the Nigerian president's past experience with the Soviet military provides what he calls "natural ground" for talks between the two countries.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is also the main contributor to ECOMOG, the west African military union, which was instrumental in fighting anti-government rebels in Sierra Leone, where Nigeria stationed over 10,000 troops.

Kazankov explains how Nigeria's dominant role in west Africa could work in Russia's favor as it moves to restore its influence on the continent:

"Nigeria is laying claim to playing the main role in regulating the conflict [in Sierra Leone]. And with Nigeria's help, Russia can play a larger role in resolving the conflict there. In this way, [Russia] would advance its weapons on the African market and establish opportunities for a political comeback in this region with Nigeria's mediation."

Nigeria also stands to gain from the renewed partnership with Russia. Obasanjo's Moscow delegation discussed with Russian officials the long-stalled Ajaokuta steel plant in central Nigeria, which was built by the Soviet Union but has yet to start production.

Putin also said Russia would launch probing satellites for Nigeria. And today Nigerian and Russian business officials discussed building oil and gas pipelines, and said they were prepared to cooperate on developing the processing of precious metals and diamonds from Nigerian deposits.