Nigeria and SA are more alike than we think

2013-05-19 14:00

Thankfully, the visit of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to South Africa has been uneventful. On that score, he is luckier than his two ­predecessors.

When the late president Umaru Yar’Adua visited in 2008, it was in the immediate aftermath of ­vicious attacks that saw many ­Nigerian businesses attacked and looted. “Xenophobia overshadows Yar’Adua visit,” read one headline.

Four years earlier, president Olusegun Obasanjo visited. On that trip, he became the butt of jokes by a pair of radio ­presenters.

A displeased South African government, describing the comments as “defamatory” and “insulting”, complained to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of SA.

But no lessons, it appears, were learnt by the South Africans.

Five years later (by then Obasanjo was out of office), the South Africans released District 9, a sci-fi film. One of its key villains was a paraplegic Nigerian arms dealer-slash-crime-kingpin who went by the name “Obesandjo”. Expectedly, the Nigerians weren’t happy.

I have no idea what Obasanjo thought of those attacks, or whether, on this trip, Jonathan daily fell asleep to the relentless droning of South African radio, nervously awaiting an uncomplimentary reference. (Perhaps the reaction will be delayed, and he will show up in a 2017 thriller as “Sgt Gridlock”, a bisexual Nigerian smuggler running rings around Soweto police.)

What I know for certain is that there’s a troubling question in need of an answer: why does South Africa like provoking Nigeria?

Is it something to do with South African DNA being encoded with “hostility-to-all-foreigners” genes?

Tragically, lost amid the tensions that erupt regularly between both nations is a realisation of just how much we share in common.

And this alikeness extends well beyond reports of presidential profligacy, or dysfunctional governing parties, or private jet scandals (Guptagate and Amaechigate). In the journeys that both nations have taken in the last two decades, they share a remarkable kinship.

Nigeria and South Africa emerged into multiparty democracy with boundless hope, South Africa for the first time in 1994 and Nigeria (for the third time) five years later.

Both Nelson Mandela and Obasanjo were prisoners-turned-presidents. Both men went into office symbolising hope and healing.

At one time or the other, both men fought for the emancipation of their nations. In a 1987 speech at The Centre for International Strategic Studies in Washington, Obasanjo, best-known for his advocacy for a free and fair South Africa, envisioned the “reconciling role Nelson Mandela can play once he is released and political activities are allowed”.

Barely a decade later, a dramatic reversal of fortunes. For his opposition to the despotic regime of General Sani Abacha, Obasanjo earned himself a prison uniform.

In 1995, after Abacha extrajudicially executed writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, Mandela championed the imposition of sanctions on Nigeria.

Obasanjo went on to be elected president weeks before Mandela stepped down.

Now, both men are in the final acts of their lives and will, when they die, inevitably leave behind debate about their legacies.

» Ogunlesi is a journalist based in Lagos

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