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 Nigeria and South Africa try to “reset” relations


Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari (L) and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa give their opening remarks during his official state visit at Union Buildings in Pretoria, – Recent xenophobic attacks threaten to dominate Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s three-day official visit to South Africa and the presidency in Abuja has said he would use the state visit to discuss the “welfare of Nigerians”. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP)

President Muhammadu Buhari’s three-day state visit to South Africa this month took some political courage. He was under enormous pressure from some of his advisers not to travel to Johannesburg following the recent xenophobic attacks against Nigerian businesses that led to about 600 of its citizens (many of them professionals) being evacuated back home. An estimated 500,000 Nigerians are thought to live in South Africa. Though the Binational Commission (BNC) between both countries was celebrating its 20th anniversary and had been elevated from vice-presidential to presidential level, this was its first meeting in six years.  

Four issues dominated deliberations between Buhari and South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa. First, both leaders discussed key bilateral, continental, and global issues, emphasising the 2013 African Union (AU) Agenda 2063 and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA). Buhari’s visit sought to build on Ramaphosa’s July 2018 visit to Abuja during which both countries had committed to forging closer cooperation. In reality, presidential polls in Nigeria and South Africa this year distracted attention from bilateral cooperation, and the fact that neither president personally attended the other’s inauguration was not a good sign for this bilateral relationship.
The second key issue discussed by the leaders of Africa’s largest economies – accounting for about a third of the continent’s output – was bilateral trade worth about 50 billion Rand last year. About 120 South African firms work in Nigeria’s 180 million-strong market in sectors as diverse as telecommunications, banking, retail and fast food, while 90% of Abuja’s exports to the 57 million-strong South African market consists of oil, with just a few firms like Aliko Dangote’s Sephaku cement and Oando energy company operating in South Africa. Both countries committed to making it easier for their businesses to work in each other’s market.


This followed the Nigerian government imposing a hefty fine (eventually negotiated down to $1.7 billion in 2016) on South African telecommunications giant MTN for failing to disconnect illicit sim cards. Abuja later alleged that the company was illegally repatriating dividends from Nigeria. A Joint Ministerial Advisory Council on Industry, Trade, and Investment was announced at the BNC to meet by next April in Abuja. Buhari curiously sent his minister of state for industry, trade, and investment, Maryam Katagun, to share the stage with Ramaphosa at the joint business forum, raising diplomatic eyebrows. The forum praised the role of South Africa’s Transnet in efforts to revive Nigeria’s railway sector; and highlighted both governments’ efforts to create a joint automotive sector. South African companies, though, expressed continuing difficulties in finding Nigerian business partners. Ramaphosa, in his speech, called for “shared prosperity” between the two countries; he pushed for the rapid implementation of the continental free trade area, which he histrionically described as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity”; he promoted the upscaling of the continent’s infrastructure; and advocated increasing both countries’ electricity output.
The third issue – the proverbial elephant in the room – involved the recent spate of xenophobic attacks in Tembisa, Alexandria, Hillbrow, Cleveland, Jeppestown, Malvern, Germiston, and the Johannesburg and Tshwane (Pretoria) central business districts. Hundreds of foreign-owned shops were burned and looted, affecting citizens of not just Nigeria, but also Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Somalia. Reprisal attacks by Nigerian looters against Shoprite, MTN, and Pep Stores in Lagos led to the temporary closure of these businesses, as well as the South African High Commission in Abuja. While condemning the attacks, Ramaphosa argued that Nigerians had not been the only targets, and that other foreigners and some South Africans had also been victims. While also condemning the attacks, Buhari warned his compatriots in South Africa to follow the laws of their hosts, noting that: “When you are in Rome, behave as Romans do.” Abuja’s claims for compensation for the Nigerian victims of the attacks, had earlier been rebuffed by Tshwane.


To forestall further xenophobic attacks, both leaders announced the establishment of an early warning system – involving the two governments and their relevant civil society actors – and mediation mechanisms. These instruments had, however, been agreed after earlier attacks against Nigerians citizens and property in Johannesburg in 2017, but were never set up. Despite the announcement of implementation mechanisms involving relevant ministers meeting periodically, it is unclear why one should believe that things will be different this time. A lack of political will and deep mistrust still characterise this relationship, and empty symbolism often masquerades as concrete substance. Another example of this diplomatic shadow-boxing was the announcement by both presidents of the re-establishment of the South Africa/Nigeria Consular Forum which is to meet twice a year. Restrictive visa policies have been one of the thorniest issues in this bilateral relationship. As far back as 2012, Abuja and Tshwane had already agreed to facilitate the issuance of long-term visas for business people. This, however, never happened. One bright spot in the relationship – highlighted by Buhari – has been the quiet, but effective military cooperation between both countries, as Nigeria struggles to pacify its northeast and other parts of the country.
Finally, both presidents discussed coordinating their approaches to South Africa’s current two-year stint on the United Nations (UN) Security Council, Nigeria’s presidency of the UN General Assembly, and South Africa’s chairing of the African Union (AU) next year. Both also reiterated the need to democratize and reform the anachronistic 15-member UN Security Council.
But despite the efforts to “reset” this relationship, both countries currently represent crippled giants suffering from high unemployment, sluggish growth, widespread youth joblessness, and low investment. Both also lack a genuine vision and leadership in promoting regional integration to strengthen the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as pillars for continental integration. Despite euphoric talk of a renewed “strategic” partnership, this relationship still has a long way to go before both countries can act as engines of growth to power Africa’s sputtering locomotive.

Prof. Adebajo is director, University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, South Africa.


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