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Calmy-Rey visits troubled West Africa region

Nigeria's GDP is roughly double that of Mali and Burkina Faso but the wealth is very unevenly distributed Keystone

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has ended a trip to Nigeria, after talks that focused on economic issues and the Abacha funds.

This content was published on April 16, 2009 - 18:41

The minister is currently on a visit to West Africa. High on the agenda were discussions in Mali on the release of two Swiss kidnapped there. She will also visit Burkina Faso.

The three-day visit, which started on Wednesday, has been described as "an expression of Switzerland's sustained interest" in the region by the Swiss foreign ministry.

Katja Michaelowa, professor of political economy and development at Zurich University and the Centre for Comparative and International Studies, said that Nigeria mainly presented an economic interest.

There are long-standing aid ties with the other two countries.

"It is more of a donor-recipient relationship, as Mali and Burkina Faso are two of the very poorest African countries and are also French-speaking, so there's a connection that way too," she told swissinfo.

In a media statement on her departure from Nigeria on Thursday, Calmy-Rey said bilateral relations were very good.

"I am confident that there is scope to improve them even more," she said.

Abacha funds

The countries have conducted lengthy negotiations on the return of more than $700 million (SFr800 million) linked to the former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, who died in 1998.

"With the restitution of the last $7 million in March 2009, the totality of the assets looted by the Abacha clan from Nigeria and deposited in Switzerland have been returned," Calmy-Rey said.

She added that Switzerland was the only country to have returned all of its Abacha funds. Most were given back in 2005 and 2006.

Swiss law has now changed, making it tougher for suspected criminals to reclaim their money from Swiss accounts by making them prove it was obtained legally.

Economic ties were discussed. The former British colony, with a population of 151 million, is one of the world's largest oil producers.

Around 50 Swiss companies are represented in Nigeria, with $250 million of Swiss direct investments, Calmy-Rey said.

Racked by problems

Nigeria has however been racked by unrest between Christians and Muslims and its economy has been undermined by corruption and mismanagement. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita stood at $917 in 2006, according to the United Nations.

"One could easily say that Nigeria has even more problems than the other countries. In terms of general poverty, GDP per capita is about twice as high than in Mali and Burkina Faso but it's very unevenly distributed and there is an extreme amount of violence going on there," said Michaelowa.

"All the exports are focused on oil, but despite this it has an enormous amount of debt. That shows that governance problems in the area are tremendous. They are much bigger in Nigeria than in the neighbouring countries."

Priority countries

Mali and Burkina Faso are both priority countries for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

"Switzerland is really involved there in primary education, decentralisation support and issues like support of local economies," said Jean-Pierre Jacob, professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

"There is also budgetary help and contribution to good governance which is an agenda shared by all donors," he told swissinfo.

One of Calmy-Rey's main tasks in Mali, her second stop, was holding discussions on the January kidnapping of two Swiss nationals in the north. Calmy-Rey thanked the president of Mali, Amadou Toumani, for his help with the situation.

Malian officials had initially blamed Tuareg rebels for the abductions, which include two other tourists.

"There have always been problems with the north," said Jacob, adding that Tuareg rebels there want greater autonomy.

However, in February al-Qaida's wing in North Africa claimed responsibility. It also said it was holding two Canadian diplomats, one of them a UN envoy to Niger. Links between the group and the Tuareg have not been officially confirmed.

One of the particularities of Swiss aid to West Africa is that it is tailored to the countries involved, rather than applying a one-stop policy to all, Jacob added.

For example, there is pioneering work being done in bilingual education in Burkina Faso.

At the end of 2008, the Swiss government announced that it would allocate SFr24 million to the country for 2009 to 2011, to help establish the necessary conditions for strong and sustainable growth and the alleviation of poverty. The planned sum for Mali in 2009 is SFr11.25 million, according to SDC data.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

Key facts

GDP per capita:
Burkina Faso: $416
Mali: $498
Nigeria: $917
Switzerland: $50,250
All figures 2006. Source: UNdata

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Nigeria and Swiss funds

Between 1993 and 1998, Sani Abacha is said to have plundered up to SFr3 billion from the coffers of Nigeria. SFr870 million was frozen in Switzerland.

The Federal Court in Lausanne in 2005 rejected an appeal from Abacha's family and clan to stop the handover of the remaining funds still in Switzerland.

In March 2009, Switzerland agreed to hand over bank details to Britain in a multi-million dollar Nigerian bribery case involving a subsidiary of the United States Halliburton firm.

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Migration and aid

Calmy-Rey also proposed in her statement released on Thursday setting up a migration partnership with Nigeria, saying that the two countries faced problems that were "closely intertwined". Further discussions will take place on the issue.

Nigeria is not a priority country for Switzerland in terms of development. But the SDC supports small actions through the Swiss Embassy in Abuja, mainly in the fields of health, peace and security, the fight against corruption and the environment.

The political Division IV of the foreign ministry also supports some programmes in the fight against human trafficking.

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