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Ramaphosa’s state visit to Abuja: A big window has opened to rejuvenate Nigeria-South Africa relations

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

Nigeria-South Africa relations have experienced a roller coaster ride, from the antagonistic relations during South Africa’s apartheid era and Nigeria’s military epoch in the post-apartheid era to more friendly relations. It is crucial for these regional powers to shelve competition and cooperate on many levels.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state visit to Nigeria as part of his four-state tour of West Africa — Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal — amidst the upsurge in the Covid-19 variant Omicron in South Africa represented a bid to rejuvenate bilateral relations with these countries (especially Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa).

The visit coincided with the 10th session and 20th anniversary of the Nigeria-South Africa Bi-National Commission (established in 1999 to strengthen bilateral relations), highlighting the successes, challenges and prospects of trade and investment between the two states.

This is critical in light of the fact that aside from their significance as two of the two largest economies and arguably the most powerful countries on the continent, the volume of trade between them is remarkable. In 2020, Nigeria accounted for 64% of South Africa’s trade in West Africa and Nigeria was South Africa’s top import market in Africa and sixth globally, only behind China, Germany, the United States, India and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, more than 120 South African companies are operating in Nigeria.

In his address, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari highlighted the need for stronger people-people relations between the states in a bid to shelve the unhealthy competition that has characterised Nigeria-South Africa relations. He noted that the Early Warning Mechanism agreed upon would enhance such relations and that the Nigeria-South Africa Youth dialogue would soon be inaugurated.

Buhari added that relations between the two countries are critical for Africa’s socioeconomic, technological and cultural development as well as peace and security on the continent.

Expressing his gratitude for his warm reception, Ramaphosa noted that Nigeria and South Africa had reviewed existing, and signed new agreements, including a Memorandum of Understanding on Youth Development, Women and Child Empowerment and Political Consultations, and agreements on audiovisual, arts and culture cooperation towards enhancing people-people relations.

A Joint Ministerial Advisory Council on Trade, Investment and Industry was also launched in a bid to enhance economic relations and mitigate challenges to doing business in both countries.

There is no gainsaying that Nigeria-South Africa relations have experienced a rollercoaster ride from the antagonistic relations during South Africa’s apartheid era and Nigeria’s military epoch in the post-apartheid era to more friendly relations, particularly in the time of the Obasanjo-Mbeki administrations. Given the fact that their relations are critical to continental peace, democracy, Pan-Africanism and regional integration, it is crucial for these regional powers to shelve competition and cooperate on many levels.

Aside from the people-people relations emphasised by both presidents, three key areas require immediate attention to strengthen the Abuja-Pretoria axis, namely, state-state relations, academic collaboration and celebrity collaboration.

Indeed, closer attention to people-to-people relations is critical. While the emphasis has been on the free movement of goods and capital, free movement of people and cultural integration has been undermined. The focus on goods and capital versus people has engendered increasing investment on the one hand, and xenophobia on the other. It is therefore important for Nigeria and South Africa to curtail xenophobia and encourage people-to-people relations.

In terms of state-state relations, South Africa should work towards inviting Nigeria to join the BRICS as a Nigeria-South Africa partnership in this grouping will be a stronger force to promote African interests. Beyond rhetoric, the countries should strive to provide a more enabling environment for their companies in their respective states. While more than 120 South African companies operate in Nigeria, including multinationals like MTN and Standard Bank, Nigeria only has a few multinational companies in South Africa. Both sides have often complained about debilitating state policies that undermine investments. It is therefore important that the governments of these states coordinate their policies to increase the influx of multinational companies in both directions.

They should also explore the potential of city-city relationships, especially the Lagos-Johannesburg axis. Given that these cities are the economic hubs of their respective states, extensive relations between them could reinforce Nigeria-South Africa relations.

It is also important for academics — especially those in the fields of international relations and economics — from both countries to engage in collaborative research that provides evidence-based results on the potential, successes and challenges of Nigeria-South Africa relations. This would enhance mutual understanding and relations and their implications for Africa. Research collaboration between the two countries would inform their policy choices in their bilateral relations and, by extension, relations with other countries on the continent.

It would also assist in highlighting the comparative advantage of each country and corresponding policy imperatives and showcase the cultures of both, highlighting areas of similarity and difference. All these factors could improve relations between arguably the most critical states in Africa.

Given the popularity of Nigerian and South African music and movies, there is an opportunity for the celebrities of both countries to collaborate to enhance Nigeria-South Africa relations. While there have been a few collaborations such as Nigerian Burna Boy and South African AKA, Nigerian Niniola and South African Busiswa, Nigerian Davido and South African Nasty C and Nigerian Wizkid and South African DJ Maphorisa, there is room for more collaboration.

Nigeria and South Africa can take advantage of this opportunity by deploying celebrity diplomacy to promote their respective national interests and enhance their relations. DM

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