Mills Soko: Can SA and Nigeria press the reset button?

Mills Soko
Mills Soko

The state visit this week by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to South Africa will once again cast a spotlight on the often tetchy relations between the two African regional powers. Billed to take place under the theme "Forging a new era in collaboration between South Africa and Nigeria," the visit is intended to reset the button in bilateral ties after years of acrimony, tensions and mutual misunderstandings.

To figure out what needs to be done to fix the dysfunctional relationship, it is important to understand what has led to the current stasis. And that necessitates a recap of the nature of relations between the two countries in the post-apartheid era.

Some of the tensions date back to the early years of the Nelson Mandela presidency. In 1995, General Sani Abacha, the notorious autocratic leader, ordered the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other human rights activists despite Mandela’s fervent pleas to him not to do so.

There was a great deal of progress in relations following Abacha’s death in 1998, particularly during the presidencies of Thabo Mbeki and his counterpart Olusegun Obasanjo. Some of the prickly aspects of the relationship have stemmed from the two countries’ competing aspirations for continental leadership. For example, tensions arose when they both sought a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Also, in 2008, the relationship was strained further by a spate of violent attacks against Nigerian and other African immigrants in South Africa.

The fact that South Africa is Africa’s only representative in key multilateral fora such as the G20 and the BRICS grouping has also been a source of disquiet in Abuja. In 2011, Nigeria and South Africa adopted conflicting positions in the UNSC and the African Union (AU) on how to deal with the military intervention by French and UN troops in the Ivory Coast and on whether or not to recognise the National Transitional Council as the legitimate government in Libya in the wake of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Relations between Nigeria and South Africa were also strained by Nigeria’s opposition to Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s bid for appointment as chairperson of the AU Commission.

The countries have also clashed over immigration policies, sparking a series of tit-for-tat spats. Previously, Pretoria expressed unhappiness that visas issued to South Africans visiting Nigeria were granted for six months. For their part, Nigerians were unhappy with being issued with multiple-entry visas for South African visits. Later in 2012, in retaliation for the decision by South African customs officials to deny 125 Nigerian travellers entry into South Africa, Nigeria prevented 78 South Africans from travelling to the West African nation.

South Africa’s competition with Nigeria has extended beyond the political and diplomatic spheres. Although the South African economy will remain the most advanced, sophisticated and diversified in Africa for some time, Nigeria has mounted a challenge to Pretoria’s position as the leading African economy. The rebasing of the Nigerian economy in 2014 (the first since 1990), saw the country overtake South Africa as Africa’s largest economy. The rebasing revealed that Nigeria’s economy grew by 89% and total national economic output reached $509.9bn, marking Nigeria as the 26th biggest economy in the world.

South Africa’s growing economic footprint in Nigeria has also been a source of rancour between the two powerhouses. There are over 100 South African companies operating in Nigeria in several sectors, including telecommunications, hospitality, mining, retail, banking and tourism. This has led, among others, to baseless accusations that although Nigeria has been open to South African investment, the latter has maintained protectionist policies against inward Nigerian investment. In this context MTN, the South African mobile telecommunications giant that has thrived within Nigeria’s huge domestic market, has served as both a lightning rod and proxy for bilateral schisms.

Leadership, cooperation, trade

Against this backdrop, a few things are essential to addressing the problems that have paralysed the Pretoria-Abuja partnership. First, the role of leadership. Past experience has shown that the two countries work well when there is a good rapport between their leaders. Understandably, Mandela had a non-existent and disastrous relationship with Abacha. The Mbeki-Obasanjo era represented a "golden age" in bilateral links. The two leaders got on well and this enabled them to achieve a great deal, notably in spearheading peacekeeping missions and in creating and reconstructing Africa’s institutions such as the AU, the New Partnerships for Africa’s Development and the African Peer Review Mechanism.

The presidencies of Jacob Zuma and Goodluck Jonathan marked a nadir in relations as the two countries failed, among others, to reach an agreement on who should lead the AU Commission. Zuma and Jonathan were not only perceived as weak and indecisive, but also as bereft of a continental vision akin to the one that drove the collaboration between their immediate predecessors. Presidents Ramaphosa and Buhari have started their partnership on a firm footing. Time will tell, though, whether this partnership will yield meaningful outcomes.

Second, attention ought to be paid to the institutional management of the relationship. Formal cooperation between South Africa and Nigeria has been conducted through the Bi-National Commission (BNC), which was set up in 1999. The BNC has, however, underperformed and failed to live up to expectations. Revitalising the BNC is crucial to ensuring a strategic coordination and management of the bilateral agenda. Had the BNC been operating effectively many of the problems – regarding mutual visa regimes, immigration, treatment of respective nationals abroad, and provision of consular services – that have undermined the relationship could have been anticipated timeously and contained before they burst into the open.

Third, commercial links are the cornerstone of two countries’ relations and they should be elevated to the top of their priorities. Without the deep business engagements, two-way ties would have not attained the strategic importance they currently enjoy. According to the Department of Trade and Industry, total trade between the two countries stood at R56 billion in 2018. South African exports to Nigeria include machinery and mechanical appliances, vehicles, base metals, foodstuffs, plastics as well as chemicals. Crude oil accounts for 98% of South African imports from Nigeria. Given the respective sizes of the two economies – they both account for nearly 50% of continental economic output – trade and investment relations remain disappointingly low. There is huge potential to bolster economic cooperation.

Fourth, there is a need to bridge the perceptual gap between the peoples of South Africa and Nigeria. Nigeria is a dynamic country that boasts some of the most talented and educated people in Africa as well as successful entrepreneurs. These are people with whom South African elites have frequently interacted and forged good working relationships. However, they are not known to ordinary working-class South Africans, whose experience of Nigerians has been largely that of drug peddlers and human traffickers.

To be sure, even Buhari acknowledged in an interview with the British Daily Telegraph in 2016 that "Nigerians have also made it difficult for Europeans and Americans to accept them because of the number of Nigerians in different prisons all over the world accused of drug trafficking or human trafficking." This is a global image of Nigeria that needs rehabilitation and it calls for increased people-to-people and cultural exchanges to dispel stereotypes and narrow the perceptual chasm.

South Africa and Nigeria have a lot in common, ranging from their global ambitions and regional dominance to their internal problems. As regional powers, they are stronger when they act together, not against each other. They stand to benefit from closer collaboration at bilateral, regional and global levels. The Nigerian state visit presents both countries with an opportunity to reboot a stagnant relationship. They should grasp it with both hands.

Mills Soko is a professor of International Business and Strategy at Wits Business School. Views expressed are his own. 

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