NIGERIAN-LEBANESE RELATIONS TAKING A NEW TURN
The bilateral relationship between Nigeria and Lebanon takes a new leap next week with the scheduled two-day state visit of Lebanese president, General Michel Sleiman to Nigeria.
It is a historical visit because it is the first of its kind by any Lebanese president to Africa's most populous country Nigeria, despite the age-long close business ties between the two nations.
Ever since Nigeria formally opened a diplomatic mission in Beirut in 1973, relations between both countries have witnessed tremendous progress especially where there are convergence of interest in terms of eradication of colonialism, apartheid, support for the promotion of new world economic order, peaceful settlement of the Arab - Israeli imbroglio and more recently, reformation of the United Nations Security Council.
The history of the Nigerian Lebanese communities in Nigeria dates back to 1885 when Ilyas Khoury, from Northern Lebanon, emigrated to Nigeria on a business adventure. Since that first step of Khoury on the Nigerian soil, the population of the Lebanese community in Nigeria had grown in leaps and bounds with remarkable Lebanese business empires in Lagos, Ibadan and Kano where many of them had inter-married.
Records of the Nigerian immigration service in 2008 put the population of Lebanese in Nigeria at 30,000, many of whom are third generation Lebanese-Nigerians who now hold the Nigerian passport.
''The high-powered delegation of the Lebanese top-ranking cabinet ministers and prominent businessmen expected on the entourage of President Sleiman underscores the 'high-level'' diplomatic classification of the visit,'' said the Nigerian Ambassador in Lebanon, Ambassador Oluwole Idowu, on Thursday in Abuja.
According to Ambassador Idowu, who is also in Nigeria because of the visit, there is bound to be a remarkable surge in economic collaboration between Nigerian and Lebanese businessmen after the visit. For the purpose of this visit, he said, more than 90 Lebanese businessmen, technocrats and financial experts recently obtained Nigerian visas in Beirut.
Citing the exploits of the Lebanese-Nigerian Friendship Association (LENIFRA) since he assumed office in July 2011 in Beirut, the ambassador noted that there had been a remarkable improvement in the socio-economic relationship between citizens of the two nations.
Besides the array of bilateral agreements expected to be signed by the two nations during the visit in Abuja, President Sleiman will also visit Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos where the breath-taking multi-billion Naira Eko Atlantic Project, which is being undertaken by Lebanese Chagouri and Chagouri Construction as a socio-economic joint venture with the Lagos State Government of Governor Raji Fashola.
Community development services are not new to the Lebanese community in Nigeria with signature projects like the legendary Idumota Clock Tower in Lagos and the Kano Polo Club.
Their business interests, which began with cocoa, hide and skin merchandising in the early 20th Century, had gravitated into the oil and gas, tourism/hospitality, construction, food and manufacturing industries in Nigeria.
Nigerians, however, need to spiritedly adjust the current trade imbalance between the two nations through exports into the Lebanese economy.
The president's visit will also elicit the show-casing of many major corporate organisations with Lebanese controlling shares in Nigeria. Such companies include SETRACO construction, DUMEX, Seven Up, Manimpex Holdings, Ideal Flour Mills, Mouka Foams, Amigo Super Market chains, M. Saleh & Co Ltd (Generators and Equipments) and Eko Hotels to mention a few. They all occupy prominent planes in the Nigerian economic landscape.
Wassim Ibrahim, the Charge d'affaires in the Embassy of Lebanon, Abuja described the visit as crucial to greater economic collaboration between citizens and governments of the two nations.
He said that the Lebanese community in Nigeria was mobilising fully to accord President Sleiman a rousing and befitting welcome in Nigeria from next Monday.
The Chairman of Manimpex Holdings Ltd., Mr. Nasrat Mansour, said that Nigerian and Lebanese flags had been produced in thousands for use by the Lebanese community in Abuja during the visit.
Mansour, whose company built the famous magnificent Ilorin Central Mosque about 30 years ago, described the growing bilateral relations between Nigeria and Lebanon as phenomenal.
Sources in the Nigerian Foreign Affairs ministry said that the key areas of engagement during the visit are the agriculture and food manufacturing, air services, security collaboration and political collaboration toward Nigeria's bid for a permanent seat in the United Nation's Security Council.
Ambassador Idowu believed that Nigerian businessmen have a lot to learn from the Lebanese tourism and hospitality industry, especially, given the globally recognised exploits of Lebanon in that sector. According to the Lebanese 2012 Annual Review, the nation boasts of 300 hotels, 21 of which are five-stars.
According to him, Lebanon records more than four million visitors at its numerous tourist locations annually. Although its economy is, like Nigeria's, import-oriented, its export bill of such things as fruits, vegetables, manufactured food products, bottled water, chemical and light machines totalled US$2.294 billion.
One of the mainstays of her economy is remittances from about 14 million Diaspora Lebanese which constitutes about 25 per cent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$18.83 billion per annum, according to the 2012 Lebanese ''The Business Year''.
A Nigerian diplomat, who craved anonymity, at a recent dinner in the Embassy of Lebanon in Abuja in preparation for this state visit stressed that increased collaboration between citizens of the two nations will also reduce the current trade imbalance between them, noting that the odds are currently in favour of Lebanon which 2007 population estimate is 3.9 million.
In what can be described as a regional diplomatic shuttle, President Sleiman is also scheduled to visit Ghana, Senegal and Cote D'voire before returning to Beirut.
Born in on November 21, 1948, General Sleiman assumed office as President on May 25, 2008. He was elected as an independent and unifying candidate following the Doha Accord that settled the Lebanese internal political crisis in 2008. Prior to that, he had served as the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces.