BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman departs Tuesday on a historic visit to West Africa, home to a large Lebanese expatriate community, under the shadow of concerns over the fate of two Lebanese hostages feared dead in Nigeria.
Ansaru, the militant Islamist group that kidnapped the Lebanese from a Lebanese-Nigerian construction company compound last month, announced Saturday it had killed all seven abducted foreigners.
While the governments of Britain, Greece and Italy said their citizens had likely been killed, Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that the two Lebanese did not appear to be among the executed hostages featured in a video released by the group.
A source from Baabda Palace told The Daily Star that the president would be following up on the matter with the Nigerian government but did not elaborate.
Sleiman’s weeklong visit to Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire is a first for a Lebanese president and will place emphasis on improving business ties between Lebanon and those countries.
Sleiman will be accompanied by some 60 people, the source said, one of the biggest delegations ever to escort the president on an official visit.
The group includes prominent businessmen from the banking, advertising and industrial sectors, particularly those with investments in African countries, as well as security personnel and journalists.
“This [trip] aims at encouraging mutual investment,” the source said.
Talal Makdisi, a well-known advertising executive who will join the convoy, said he was looking forward to accompanying the president on such an important visit.
“This is the first trip ever by a [Lebanese] president to this part of the world, where we have a community of Lebanese that are contributing hugely to the reconstruction of the country, and I believe that such visits are absolutely necessary to link those expats that are supporting our economy [to Lebanon],” Makdisi said. “This is the minimum a president can do and I praise him for it.” Lebanon’s economy depends heavily on remittances, which reached $7 billion in 2012, approximately 18 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank’s latest figures. Another report by the Migration Policy Institute indicates that 10 percent of these funds, some $700 million, originate in Africa.
Makdisi said the delegation had already been in contact with Lebanese business communities in West African host countries, and he hopes the trip will lay the groundwork for future partnerships.
Regarding the Setraco hostage crisis and its implications for Lebanese-Nigerian relations, Makdisi said: “I feel for their families and I trust the president will take proper action.”
Makdisi concluded by saying he hoped the president’s meetings with Lebanese expatriates would encourage the Lebanese government to grant Lebanese living abroad voting rights, “because we need them.”