Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at the Indian Air Force Station on the outskirts of Srinagar. Singh is on a three-day visit from Sunday

The fact that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s May 28-30 three-day-long visit to the West African country of Nigeria is the first one ever by an Indian defence minister, is replete with significance because of the timing.

Besides the fact that Singh—who is leading a large delegation comprising defence ministry and military officials—is in Nigeria primarily to attend the swearing-in ceremony of President-elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu, India is currently pursuing a pro-active ‘Africa Outreach’ policy that is laden with huge political, economic and military implications.

Just two months ago, India had invited the military chiefs of 25 African nations—including that of Nigeria—to take part in the first-ever India-Africa chiefs conclave that was held in Pune on March 28.

The military chiefs’ conclave had followed the India-Africa Defence Ministers Conclave that was held on the sidelines of the DEFEXPO 2020 in Lucknow and the India-Africa defence dialogue in Gandhinagar on the sidelines of DEFEXPO 2022.

Nigeria—Africa’s largest oil producer—is considered to be among the most important nations on the West African coast. Despite huge hydrocarbon reserves, the oil production lacks consistency in supply because of disruptions due to local pipeline vandalism and oil theft.

Nigeria has also been holding China’s interest in Africa for quite some time. Till 2021, China had invested approximately $21 billion in the African country mainly in oil-extraction and free trade and export processing zones. China is also the leading contributor to Nigeria’s infrastructure including in roads, rail and airports.

A growing Indian influence in Nigeria would serve to counter and circumvent China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy that seeks to establish a network of Chinese military and business establishments from western Africa to the Chinese mainland in the east.

For India, another attractive proposition would be the big market Nigeria would provide for export of India-made weapons and other military systems and platforms, given the fact that the Indian defence production capability is growing fast.

During 2018-22, Africa was the destination for about 5 per cent of the total world weapons import. The main suppliers were Russia (40 per cent of African imports of major arms), US (16 per cent), China (9.8 per cent) and France (7.6 per cent).

But with Russia embroiled in the ongoing conflict with Ukraine, it is much likely that Russia would encounter difficulties in maintaining assured supply of weapons and military equipment to Nigeria. And that is where India can step in with a foray into the African arms market.

What would strengthen already existing bilateral ties is the similar background of being ruled by the British—which means Commonwealth membership, a strong ideological mooring in democratic ideals, playing important roles in the non-aligned movement, and a history of trade relations since ancient times.

Nigeria is home to more than 8,00,000 Indian-Nigerians. It is the biggest ethnic minority and mostly descendants of Indians who were taken to Nigeria by the British to build the rail network in Africa.