Jonathan and Jerusalem: Would a new Nigerian President hinder Nigerian/Israeli relations?

(Photo credit: Reuters)(Photo credit: Reuters)
Three minutes. That is how close the militant group Boko Haram came on Monday to assassinating Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan in Gombe City. According to eyewitness accounts, Jonathan’s convoy had just left the venue when a female suicide bomber detonated her device in the carpark, just missing the President to kill one and injure another 18.
If President Jonathan had been killed, the fall-out would not have just been felt in Nigeria. There is a real chance that Israel’s relationship with Nigeria would face an uncertain future should Jonathan’s Presidency end – either by bloodshed, or through Nigeria’s impending General Election.
Relations between Abuja and Jerusalem have increased considerably since President Jonathan came to power in 2010. In 2013, Jonathan became the first Nigerian president to visit Israel, visiting a number of religious sites in Jerusalem and Nazareth as a Christian pilgrim. The trip also allowed for a vital – and surprisingly strong – personal connection to be established between Jonathan and Netanyahu, to the point where Bibi feels he can count on Nigeria’s firm support of Israeli positions in the UN. The abstention of Nigeria on December 31st 2014 at the United Nation Security Council’s vote over Palestinian statehood is evidence of this.
This relationship is buttressed by other links. Nigerian tourists flock to Israel in impressive numbers, with 31,570 Nigerians visiting Israel in 2010 alone. 2011 saw this number increase to 50,620. Christian pilgrims make up a substantial number of the Nigerian tourists visiting Israel each year. After the United States, Nigeria has the highest number of pilgrims travelling to Israel annually. In 2013 the number of pilgrims was well over the 30,000 mark again. In May 2014, the head of the Nigerian Christian Pilgrim Commission (NCPC), Secretary Kennedy Opara, announced that he is already aiming at getting over 100,000 Nigerian pilgrims to Israel yearly.
This annual influx of pilgrims from Nigeria has a positive effect on the Israeli economy, with tourism in the country beginning to depend on the largesse of Christian visitors from Africa’s most populous nation. The rate of which Christians from Nigeria travel to Israel has not been affected by insecurity issues in the Middle East, with Israel’s former Ambassador to Nigeria, Moshe Ram, stating that “the only steady components that go to Israel regardless of the security challenges are Nigerians”. Additionally, trade plays a major part in this relationship, with Nigeria being in the top twenty destinations for Israeli exports annually. Between 2012 and 2013, Nigeria’s exports to Israel rose from $165m to $276m.
Since 2010, Israel has committed to partnerships with Nigeria in healthcare and agricultural development. In January of 2014, Israel’s Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir and his Nigerian counterpart Dr Akinwumi Adesina signed a declaration for greater agricultural cooperation between the two nations. Further, the Israeli Embassy in Nigeria’s website states that a number of Israeli construction corporations are operating in Nigeria, and Motorola Israel Ltd is active in the country’s communications sector. The Nigerian-Israel Chamber of Commerce (NICC), based at the Israeli Embassy in Lagos, also states that Nigerian businesses are starting to invest in Israel too, with 5,000 Nigerian businesses and organizations scattered over the country.
With these economic and religious relationships in mind, it is then understandable that Israel has an interest in the Nigerian security situation. Israeli security experts were officially deployed to Abuja following the 2011 suicide bombing of the city’s United Nations Headquarters, which left at least 21 people dead. In May of last year, Jerusalem sent a team of military advisors to help in the hunt for the Chibok school girls seized by Boko Haram. Going forward, both countries are beginning to coordinate their efforts in combating their respective Islamic extremist insurgencies.
However, with Nigeria’s General Election less than two weeks away, questions remain over what would happen if President Jonathan fails to get re-elected. Would his rival, Muhammadu Buhari – a retired Army General and a Muslim from northern Nigeria – continue to expand bilateral relations with Israel, or would he undo all the good work that has taken place since 2010? If President Jonathan had been three minutes slower leaving Monday, we may have had our answer.