Revival of Nigeria/South Africa relations
The state visit by President Jacob Zuma – accompanied by a powerful ministerial delegation – to Nigeria this month was significant, and could represent a thaw in relations between Africa’s largest economies. Relations had become strained under the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan between 2010 and 2015, with the expulsion of nationals from both countries on visa charges in 2012; South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s winning of the African Union (AU) commission chair in 2012; the delayed repatriation of 84 South Africans killed after a church collapse in Lagos in 2014; South Africa’s impounding of $9.3 million in cash brought into the country on a Nigerian pastor’s private plane to purchase arms in 2014; and diplomatic disagreements over Côte d’Ivoire and Libya. Abuja also felt that it had been replaced by Angola as South Africa’s strategic partner in Africa. Former Nigerian vice president, Atiku Abubakar, whose closeness to Zuma (in a relationship forged while both served as vice-president) had been considered a stumbling block in this relationship, could now act as a bridge. It was significant that he was among the delegation that received the South African president on his arrival in Abuja.
The fact that Zuma was the first foreign leader to have been hosted on a state visit by new Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, was significant. Both countries agreed to upgrade the binational commission – founded in 1999 – from the vice-presidential to presidential level. Zuma’s addressing of a joint session of Nigeria’s National Assembly in Abuja was a rare privilege that was disappointingly given scant coverage in the South African media. His speech covered four key areas. First, he went out of his way to heal a historical wound that many Nigerian diplomats and citizens have consistently complained about: South Africa’s perceived ingratitude for Nigeria’s substantial contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle. Zuma acknowledged the compulsory contributions of Nigerian civil servants of a “Mandela Tax”; the provision of scholarships to South African students; Nigeria’s membership of the Front Line States; its chairing of the United Nations (UN) Special Committee against Apartheid for 25 years; and its leading of boycotts of the Commonwealth Games in 1978 and 1986.
The second key area of Zuma’s speech involved economic and trade relations, with 120 South African companies operating in Nigeria (an increase from four in 1999), and firms like MTN making a larger profit in Nigeria’s large market of 170 million consumers than in South Africa’s 50 million-strong market within four years (The company has invested over $15 billion in the Nigerian market since 2001). Other South African companies include: Shoprite, Protea, Multichoice, and South African Breweries (SAB) Miller. Zuma also addressed the South Africa-Nigeria Business Forum to underline the importance of this key area. The president’s focus on economic issues revealed the current weakness of both countries: Nigeria faces low oil prices and a collapsing currency; while South Africa suffers from persistently low growth and faces the threat of a credit downgrade that would greatly increase its cost of borrowing. Zuma thus called for a diversification of both countries’ economies, with bilateral trade having increased from 17 billion Rand in 2008 to 45 billion Rand in 2015. South Africa has offered to assist Nigeria’s efforts at increasing its electricity supply, building an auto industry, exploring its solid minerals, and providing military hardware for Abuja’s fight against Boko Haram militants that have killed over 20,000 people in the past six years. Part of the tensions in this relationship though has been that, whereas South African firms proliferate in the Nigerian economy, over 90 per cent of Nigerian exports to South Africa still consist of oil.
The third area of Zuma’s speech was building people-to-people relations which implicitly could help improve understanding between the citizens of both countries. The president praised the new South African Airways’ (SAA) direct flight from Johannesburg to Abuja (though SAA pilots have reportedly refused to sleep in Abuja due to fears of Boko Haram terrorists!). This has added to the already lucrative Johannesburg to Lagos route. What Zuma did not mention is the importance of forging close links between civil society groups in both countries. About 4,000 Nigerians travelled to South Africa every month in 2015, and both countries are looking to increase tourism. The Nigeria Union in South Africa (NUSA), however, lobbied the Nigerian government to address what they complained was widespread xenophobic harassment of Nigerian citizens at the hands of South African security and immigration officials.
The fourth area of Zuma’s speech focused on the joint leadership of both countries which was most evident during the “golden age” of the relationship under the leadership of presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki between 1999 and 2007. This was the epoch when both countries closely coordinated their regional and global diplomacy and helped build the institutions of the AU. In Abuja, Zuma called for both countries to contribute to conflict management efforts, noting that Nigeria and South Africa had been recently re-elected to the AU’s 15-member Peace and Security Council. The fear of continued French interventionism in former colonies such as Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Central African Republic (CAR) could further push both African powers closer together. Zuma also called, during his visit, for Abuja and Tshwane (Pretoria) to work together to reform anachronistic multilateral institutions such as the UN Security Council, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As Nigerian foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyama, noted: “Nigeria and South Africa are the pillars of this continent. And moving forward, both countries have to work together, both presidents have to be close.”
Relations between Nigeria and South Africa had recently been soured by the fine of $3.9 billion imposed on MTN by Nigerian regulators for failing to disconnect 5.1 million irregularly registered cell-phone subscribers. In his first public comment on the issue and in one of the few discordant notes of this finely orchestrated diplomatic symphony, President Buhari angrily accused the South African company of having contributed to the deaths of thousands of Nigerian victims of Boko Haram through its inaction. Despite this reproach, this visit could signal the long-awaited rapprochement between Africa’s two power-houses. If an African Renaissance is ever to take hold, it would have to be led by both countries.
• Dr. Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg, both in South Africa.
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