Defend Truth


South Africa and Nigeria — the continental giants with a sometimes uneasy, but always symbiotic relationship


Dr Bobby J Moroe is the deputy high commissioner of South Africa to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He holds a PhD in Political Science.

Africa’s two continental giants, South Africa and Nigeria, maintain a complex relationship that is often misunderstood, leading some in the public discourse to conclude that the relationship is messy, truculent and laced with enmity.

Much has been written about the perceived or imagined rivalry, competition and the quest for the hegemony of the continent by South Africa and Nigeria, and much less about their successes, cordiality and milestones over the years. Even fewer works that are available focus on the socioeconomic contrasts between Nigeria and South Africa in a way that seeks to project and promote competition.

Formal diplomatic relations between South Africa and Nigeria resumed at the dawn of South Africa’s new democracy in 1994. The two countries have always enjoyed cordial fraternal relations dating back to the early days of South Africa’s struggle for freedom and liberation, a dark period during which Nigeria stood by South Africa.

Buoyed by their strong historical ties, the two countries established the Nigeria-South Africa Bi-National Commission (BNC) in 1999. Initially, the BNC was conceived at the level of vice-president/deputy president as a mechanism to manage their diplomatic relations. It was not until 2016 that the two countries elevated the status of this mechanism to head of state. Since then, the mechanism has operated at the highest level between any two nations who enjoy diplomatic relations, and this on its own signifies the strong bonds and ties that exist between the two countries and their people

There is no shadow of doubt that the relations between South Africa and Nigeria are among the most significant on the continent due to their enormous economies, abundant influence and conspicuous stature. In his book, The Eagle and The Springbok, Professor Adebayo Adideji validates the notion of two powerful states by asserting that: “The success of political and economic integration in Africa rests heavily on the shoulders of these two regional powers that have both collaborated and competed with each other in a complex relationship that is Africa’s most indispensable.”

To this day, this narrative remains strong and has disappointingly bred a narrow-minded and myopic picture about the two countries and how they view each other. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that any two nations, or more, pursuing relations of any form with each other, will always be confronted with challenges. These relations will be impoverished if they are understood within the context of the narrow confines of their divergences, and not in their shared common history, aspirations and global influence. It is important to change the existing narrative and focus on what enjoins the two countries towards a common destiny, rather than what can potentially destroy the very fibre of their relations.

There is, therefore, an urgent need in the public discourse to overcome a lack of substantive theoretical framework in defining the relations between South Africa and Nigeria and contextualise them within the framework of what they seek to achieve. By doing so, understanding relations within this framework will close the existing gap in the inadequacy of research conducted on how greater social and economic value can be achieved from harnessing South Africa-Nigeria solidarity for concrete, stronger and revived economic and social cooperation.

The National Development Plan (NDP) Vision 2030, in Chapter 7, asserts that: “The shift of global power towards developing countries provides South Africa with an opportunity to maximise its regional and international influence over the next 20 to 30 years”. Among the other strategic key intents of the two countries is their collective desire to drive and lead the advancement of the AU’s Agenda 2063. Advancing this agenda is critical for continental development — and the two countries are key in this process.

South Africa’s international relations are guided by the promotion of the wellbeing and upliftment of its people, protecting the planet for future generations and ensuring the prosperity of the country, the region and Africa. In order to achieve these objectives, a critical and pragmatic evaluation of existing international relations, and untangling the “spaghetti”  bowl of overlapping regional affiliations and commitments, is necessary (NDP 2011: 217). It is in this context, and in pursuit of national interests that South Africa’s approach to engaging with Nigeria must be understood.

While Africa’s growth increases the size of the continent’s economy, this growth provides the continent with a greater voice in global and economic institutions. To this end, Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, remains a key strategic country for South Africa due to its big economy, population, power and influence on the continent. As such, this presents an opportunity for South Africa to leverage available opportunities in Nigeria.

Nigeria and South Africa account for about a third of Africa’s economic might, with each accounting for 60-70% of the economies in their sub-regions (southern Africa and West Africa respectively). Both countries are former British colonies and are members of the Commonwealth of Nations and the African Union. According to a 2013 BBC World Service poll, 63% of Nigerians view South Africa’s influence positively, with 24% expressing a negative view. Nevertheless, it remains strategic for South Africa to maintain a strong presence in Nigeria due to its fast-growing economy, highest GNP on the continent, and third-largest manufacturing sector. Nigeria also boasts the largest agricultural output and the highest number of cattle, but requires partnership in agricultural research expertise which South Africa can provide through bilateral engagements.

According to US News and World Report’s 2019 power ranking, Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria are the three most powerful countries in Africa. Since South Africa and Nigeria’s transitions to democracy in different times of history, they have been economic allies and are also seen as competitors. The top South African investors in Nigeria are the MTN Group, Remgro, Shoprite, Pick n Pay Holdings, Black Rhino, Pep, Standard Bank Group, Clover Industries and Naspers. A total of R2.67-billion from six Nigerian companies has been invested in South Africa between 2008 and 2020. Dangote and GZI are the most significant, accounting for 95% of the total FDI from Nigeria into South Africa.

Despite their steady economic growth trajectory, which may be well below their potential, South Africa and Nigeria remain pivotal states in the continental firmament. According to Brand South Africa, the total African GDP/economic output in 2017/18 was $2,175-billion. Of this, South Africa’s output was $295-billion and Nigeria’s $405-billion.

Nigeria is a member of several international, regional, and sub-regional organisations, which include the United Nations (UN) and several of its special and related agencies: the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Non-Aligned Movement, African Union (AU), the Commonwealth of Nations, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), and the International Maritime Organization. In West Africa, Nigeria holds a powerful position in the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), as a member and host country. Ecowas seeks to harmonise trade and investment practices for its West African member countries and ultimately to achieve a full customs union. The West African country has also consistently committed itself to the cause of peacekeeping in the region.

On the other hand, South Africa is a member of SADC and remains one of the most influential member states in the regional body. Since the resumption of its membership in August 1994, South Africa has taken a leading role in the region to address issues including development and economic integration. Projections of global power capabilities among SADC countries using the International Futures forecasting tool show that by 2040, Angola will be the only country that approaches South Africa, but that the latter will still wield more power potential. The only other country in SADC that will come close to these two heavyweights is Tanzania, largely because of its rapid population growth.

With the two countries wielding so much power and influence in the region, and globally, their relations become significantly important, particularly for purposes of driving industrialisation on the continent. It is therefore critical that their relations are not only viewed within the context of competition, but rather, collaboration that seeks to benefit the entire continent. DM


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