Defend Truth


Nigeria-South Africa Relations: A Roller Coaster Ride


Dr Oluwaseun Tella is Director, The Future of Diplomacy, at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge.

Relations between South Africa and Nigeria are pivotal to peace, sustainable development, Pan-Africanism and regional integration in Africa. However, these African powerhouses’ relations have been marked by constant oscillation.

As Africa’s largest economies, Nigeria and South Africa arguably have an edge over their regional counterparts on the continent. Nigeria’s peacekeeping role in countries such as the DRC, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali and Sudan; and South Africa’s in places like Burundi, Comoros, DRC, Sudan and Zimbabwe epitomise their status as major peacemakers in Africa.

Their roles in sub-regional organisations such as Ecowas and the SADC and regional organisations including Nepad and the African Union are unmatched.

Nigeria’s cultural output in the form of films (Nollywood) and music and South Africa’s multinational corporations have established hegemonic footprints in Africa. Accordingly, it is often argued that the continent’s fate is directly linked to the success or failure of these regional powers. Relations between the two countries are thus pivotal to peace, sustainable development, Pan-Africanism and regional integration in Africa.

However, these African powerhouses’ relations have been marked by constant oscillation. During the apartheid era, they were at their lowest ebb. Nigeria’s foreign policy objective of eradicating colonialism and white minority rule across the continent was in direct conflict with successive apartheid administrations’ interests. The country played a leading role as the chair of the UN Special Committee against Apartheid for 20 years and was at the forefront of calls for South Africa’s expulsion from the Commonwealth in 1961 and African states’ mission to ban the country from sporting events including the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the 1975 tennis Davis Cup and the 1976 World Amateur squash competition.

Nigeria also provided a safe haven and education to many South African students and political exiles including former president Thabo Mbeki from 1976 to 1978 and established the Southern African Relief Fund (SARF) in 1976.

The donation of 100 naira by a woman that was moved by graphic symbolism of the evils of apartheid during Nigeria’s Africa Day celebration on 25 May 1976 provided the seed money that ignited nation-wide contributions to this fund, including deductions from civil servants’ salaries. While the amount Nigeria spent on its fight against apartheid is the subject of debate, some estimate the figure at tens of billions of US dollars.

The dawn of democracy in 1994 promised cordial relations between South Africa and her African counterparts that made significant contributions to dismantling the oppressive regime. However, Nigeria-South Africa relations soured as the first democratically-elected president, Nelson Mandela could not turn a blind eye to human rights abuses by the then Abacha administration.

Abacha’s highhandedness came to a head when he ordered the summary execution of environmental activists, Ken Saro Wiwa and his eight Ogoni comrades at the time of the Commonwealth Summit in New Zealand in 1995. Mandela called for economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation including Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth.

His call fell on deaf ears, probably due to the fact that other African countries were not prepared to sever relations with a country that had made a significant contribution to African unity and development while South Africa was still in the doldrums of apartheid. Poor relations during the Abacha and Mandela administrations culminated in the Nigerian male football team not defending their title of African champions in the 1996 African Cup of Nations hosted by South Africa.

The Obasanjo-Mbeki era was a sharp contrast to the preceding administrations. Mbeki was in exile in Nigeria in the 1970s during Obasanjo’s military administration and the two established a relationship. In 1999, they emerged as presidents of their respective countries. Arguably, this era marked the golden age of Nigeria-South Africa relations. This is evident in the signing of the 1999 bi-national commission (BNC), their intensive co-operation towards African integration and development demonstrated by their efforts to negotiate debt relief, promote democracy, and their peacemaking and peacekeeping initiatives across the continent.

Nigeria and South Africa also played leading roles in the transition of the OAU to the AU and the establishment of Nepad and the African Peer Review Mechanism. Mbeki benefitted enormously from Obasanjo’s support in pursuit of the African Renaissance.

The end of Mbeki and Obasanjo’s presidencies witnessed a reverse in Nigeria-South Africa relations. Positive signs such as the relaunch of the BNC in 2016, and the fact that more than 120 South African companies have a foothold in Nigeria, while scores of Nigerian companies have set up operations in South Africa, as well as collaboration between their entertainment artists – Wizkid and Dj Maphorisa, and AKA and Burna Boy are but two examples – have been overshadowed by rivalry and competition.

Examples include the quest for a permanent seat in a reformed UN Security Council, the fiasco leading to the election of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as AU Commission chairwoman in 2010, the countries’ different positions on African states’ withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and events leading to the election of current AU chairman Moussa Faki.

The relationship was further compromised by the Nigerian government imposing a $5.2-billion fine on MTN over its disregard for the government directive to disconnect unregistered subscribers; the collapse of the Nigerian Synagogue in Lagos in 2014 that resulted in the deaths of more than 80 South Africans; the activities of Nigerian criminal networks including Advance Fee Fraud, internet scams (popularly called 419 and yahoo yahoo respectively in Nigeria) and drug trafficking in South Africa; perpetual xenophobic attacks targeting Nigerians; and the extra-judicial killing of Nigerians at the hands of South African police.

It goes without saying that the Buhari and Ramaphosa administrations are focusing on upcoming general elections in their countries in 2019. It remains to be seen if the post-2019 administrations will be able to mend and enhance relations to yield the obvious benefit of enhancing their countries’ prosperity and above all to promote peace, development, and regional integration on the continent. DM


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

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider