South Africa and Nigeria, best of ‘frenemies’

South Africa and Nigeria, best of ‘frenemies’

South Africa and Nigeria make a good show of playing nice. Our diplomats shake hands and smile for the cameras, our governments say all the right things, and neither country acknowledges what they think is really at stake: Africa’s future and the chance to dominate it.

Deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe met with his Nigerian counterpart in Cape Town this week as part of the Nigeria-South Africa Bi-National Commission to thrash out all the petty administrative issues between the two countries. They addressed the more mundane aspects of international relations: technical cooperation, existing bilateral agreement implementation and customs administration.

Don’t be fooled by the bureaucratic jargon: these things matter. It was in March that the innocuous-sounding “customs administration” caused the year’s most serious diplomatic incident, when over-zealous South African customs officials deported a planeload of Nigerians for having the wrong yellow fever vaccination documentation. Nigeria was incensed and starting refusing visas to South Africans. The situation was only resolved after an abject apology from South Africa.

Motlanthe acknowledged that the relationship between the two countries had been going through a difficult time recently, telling Nigerian vice-president Namadi Sambo, “Both of us need a heart-to-heart talk inspired by the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood as Africans with a shared destiny, so that we surface(sic) home truths as a prerequisite to clear up any irritants that may be currently serving as a wedge between us,” said Motlanthe, whose speechwriter was clearly enjoying the chance to employ some grandiloquent rhetoric.

The most pressing dispute between the two countries is also the most high-profile: the race to lead the African Union Commission. Nigeria is the biggest backer of Gabonese incumbent Jean Ping, and has been mobilising West African support for his second term. South Africa has its own candidate, home affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Nigeria is nervous that South Africa wants the position to consolidate its power and influence over the continent. For its part, South Africa is frustrated at Nigeria’s apparent unwillingness to reform the AU Commission. Neither side is willing to compromise, and another stalemate is predicted when countries vote at the next AU summit in July.

This issue was apparently not discussed by the two vice-presidents, although a journalist asked Sambo about it after the meeting. After a long digression, he gave the cryptic message that “not only a position in the African Union, but even at the United Nations, Nigeria will support South Africa to take any position.” SABC reported this to mean Nigeria was backing Dlamini-Zuma, but it seems more likely the quote was taken out of context. Officials from Dirco knew nothing about it when asked.

Even more unlikely is that Nigeria would give up the chance of a permanent seat on the United for Nations Security Council, which South Africa also wants. This permanent seat is theoretical at present, as United Nations reform is still a long way off. But when it comes, there will have to be at least one spot on the Security Council for Africa, and it will go to the African country with the most money, influence and power – or the one with the most influential friends. South Africa, as Africa’s biggest and most developed economy, is an obvious choice; but so too is Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

However, the biggest and most bitter strain on South Africa-Nigeria relations is economic. South Africa prides itself on being Africa’s biggest economy and as the go-to country for companies wanting to invest in Africa. Nigeria, on the other hand, is the great disappointment, a symbol of what might have been. Blessed with massive oil reserves and a hard-working, entrepreneurial population, but blighted by poor governance and rampant corruption, economic development has eluded Nigeria.

But this is changing. Burnt by its exposure to Europe, South African growth is slowing drastically, predicted to be under 3% this year. Nigeria, by contrast, is looking at 7% or more. And while South Africa’s gross domestic product is nearly twice Nigeria’s, this is no cause for comfort. In fact, it’s probably an accounting oddity. GDP statistics are always calculated from a base year and countries should usually update this base year regularly. South Africa last re-based its GDP in 2009; for Nigeria, there has been no re-basing since 1990.

When it does happen the effects will be dramatic. Ghana is a good recent example: when it re-based in 2010, the size of the economy suddenly jumped by 60%. Nigeria’s economy is predicted to increase by 40%, which will be a much more accurate representation of its real size. It will still be smaller than South Africa’s, but taking the respective growth rates into account, the Nigerian economy should outstrip South Africa’s by 2015 or 2016.

This could leave South Africa in a difficult position. Just imagine if Pretoria lost the AU race in humiliating fashion, was outmanoeuvred in the UN Security Council and found itself with a smaller and slower economy than Nigeria’s. Suddenly, Nigeria becomes a much more attractive proposition diplomatically, politically and economically. And South Africa becomes a country in decline.

The calculus for Nigeria is similar. It likes to see itself as an African superpower, but South Africa’s economic dominance and post-apartheid political muscle make Nigeria’s claim significantly weaker. Nigeria is also very sensitive about protecting its own economy from inroads by South African firms. MTN, Shoprite and DStv are making millions in Nigeria and most of that profit is flowing south. Hence the importance of protectionist measures such as strict visa regulations and restrictions on flights between the two countries (kept artificially low by a bilateral agreement between the two countries). These measures are just fine with South Africa, paranoid about illegal immigration.

Both countries are making mistakes. While their calculations make sense, it’s only because they’re based on the wrong premise: that it’s a winner-takes-all, zero-sum game and that there can be only one African “superpower”. But it’s a big continent, and there’s plenty to go round. Cooperation will be mutually beneficial for both country’s populations.

There was a promising hint of this kind of cooperation at this week’s meeting, with a deal for South African to start importing more Nigerian oil and liquid fuel. South Africa needs a new supplier as it is likely to observe American sanctions on Iran, and Nigeria is more than happy for a new customer – especially one that brings guarantees. “We would guarantee to our Nigerian brothers demand for their liquid fuels, because we don’t want to source our fuel in areas that are likely to be unstable,” Motlanthe said, wilfully ignoring the fact that Nigeria remains one of the most unstable countries on the continent.

This trust is a good start. If it could be extended to other areas – the AU race, for example, or a waiver of visa requirements – the two countries would be an unstoppable combination and a powerful driver of African development. DM

Read more:

Photo: Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. REUTERS.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.