No. 251: SA, Nigeria - African giants star in Shakespearean drama / Adekeye Adebajo / The Sunday Independent
12 May 2013
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan paid his first state visit to South Africa this week where he addressed a joint sitting of the South African Parliament. With six Nigerian ministers present, agreements were signed in the areas of defence, gas exploration, and electricity.
The visit was after a recent trip by President Jacob Zuma to Abuja. Despite recent spats between both countries, Pretoria's debacle in the Central African Republic (CAR), its plans to send more troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and its increasing antipathy towards the interventionist French role in Africa, seem to be forcing a rekindling of the previous close relationship between Africa's two giants, who together account for half of sub-Saharan Africa's economic might.
This relationship has always represented a mix of co-operation and competition. Reports that Nigeria's economy could overtake South Africa's as the largest in Africa in five years have rendered many jingoistic South African analysts apoplectic. However, even if this were to occur, a comparison could be made with the relationship between the US and China. Even if Beijing and Abuja were to overtake Washington and Pretoria in economic terms, their economies would still remain less sophisticated and more infrastructurally deficient. Rivalries between regional hegemons is also not limited to Africa: China and Japan, Brazil and Argentina, and Germany and France, all exhibit aspects of co-operation and competition.
The relationship between South Africa and Nigeria has, in fact, been akin to a Shakespearean drama in four acts: the first is set in the apartheid era from 1960 to 1993; the second act occurred under Nelson Mandela and Nigeria's General Sani Abacha, from 1994 to 1998; the third act during the presidencies of Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo from 1999 to 2007; and the final act is in the period between 2008 and today, now under the presidencies of Jonathan and Zuma.
The annus mirabilis of African independence in 1960 saw the birth of Nigeria amid great hopes that a political and economic giant could take its preordained place in the African sun. In the same year, South Africa was about to be expelled from the Commonwealth for the killing of 69 unarmed blacks in Sharpeville. The country's foreign policy, like Nigeria's, was paradoxically suffused with a missionary zeal. While apartheid's leaders talked patronisingly about their country having special responsibilities to spread Western values north of the Limpopo, Nigeria advocated decolonisation and regional integration. In the three decades that followed, both countries failed to achieve their leadership aspirations for very different reasons.
In the case of Nigeria, its attempts at seeking greater political influence in west Africa through economic means were frustrated by France, which encouraged Francophone states to create rival trade blocs. South Africa, by contrast, dominated the Southern African Customs Union (Sacu) and established, alongside Botswana, Swaziland, and Lesotho, the common market that eluded west Africa.
But since South Africa was diplomatically isolated and forced to bear the brunt of international sanctions, Nigeria was the prophet, South Africa the pariah. Nigeria attended meetings of the Frontline States of Southern Africa, and chaired the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid.
After Mandela's release from jail in 1990, he visited Nigeria, and received a $10 million campaign contribution for the ANC. There were great expectations that these developments would mark the birth of a strong alliance between Africa's two powerhouses.
These hopes were soon dashed by the unexpected souring of relations between Abuja and Pretoria. It is important to understand the two protagonists in the second act of this drama: Abacha and Mandela.
In his 2002 play King Baabu, Nigerian Nobel literature laureate, Wole Soyinka, depicted Baabu as a brainless, brutish buffoon and corrupt military general who exchanges his military attire for a monarchical robe. The play is a thinly disguised satire of the Macbethian General Abacha's debauched rule between 1993 and his death in 1998. In power, Abacha was ruthless and reclusive, but hardly as inept as the caricature depicted by Soyinka and Nigeria's political opposition, who greatly underestimated him. Abacha proved to be a political survivor who understood how to control Nigeria's army and buy off its political class.
Mandela, with the noble bearing of a Julius Caesar, is the starkest contrast one can imagine to Abacha. An educated, middle-class lawyer and a cosmopolitan Anglophile, this Nobel peace laureate spent 27 years as a political prisoner and embodied his people's aspirations for a democratic future. Under Abacha's autocratic rule, it was Nigeria, and not South Africa, that was now facing mounting criticism over its human rights record. Having abandoned its apartheid past, South Africa was widely acknowledged to be the most likely political and economic success story in Africa.
The nadir of relations between the countries was reached after the hanging by the Abacha regime of Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his fellow Ogoni campaigners, during the Commonwealth summit in New Zealand in November 1995. Mandela believed he had received personal assurances from Abacha of clemency for the "Ogoni nine". Feeling deeply betrayed, he called for oil sanctions against Abacha's regime and Nigeria's expulsion from the Commonwealth.
Even Mandela's status, however, failed to rally regional support against Nigeria. It took a deus ex machina event — Abacha's sudden death in 1998 — to transform this tale of the prophet and the pariah into a tale of two prophets.
Mbeki and Obasanjo assumed the presidencies of their countries in 1999. Mbeki greatly admired Coriolanus and suffered a similar politically tragic end to his hero due to his arrogant aloofness. A Sussex University-trained economist, he often wrote his own speeches and fancied himself as a Philosopher-King. Obasanjo, a Falstaffian figure and soldier-engineer who later became a farmer, was military head of state between 1976 and 1979, before returning as civilian leader 20 years later. He had visited Mandela in jail in 1986 as a member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (EPG).
From his first-hand experience as head of the ANC office in Lagos in 1977/1978, Mbeki developed much respect for Nigeria's fierce sense of independence. Both he and Obasanjo worked closely at managing African conflicts and promoting norms of democratic government through the African Union (AU). Bilateral commerce increased, with Nigeria becoming South Africa's largest trading partner in Africa, a relationship now worth R36 billion a year.
Nigerians, however, complained of predatory behaviour by South African companies such as MTN, MultiChoice, and Woolworths, accusing them of profiting from the Nigerian market — three times larger than South Africa's — while refusing to open up their own.
There were also strains in bilateral relations which were addressed by seven binational commission meetings between 1999 and 2008. Annoyed at the indignities visited on Nigerians trying to obtain visas to South Africa, Abuja imposed stricter visa requirements on South Africans. Nigerian diplomats often complained about negative reports and xenophobic stereotypes of their compatriots as drug-traffickers and criminals in the South African press.
Khalifa is the term used in northern Nigeria for kings-in-waiting. Two such khalifas — both former deputy presidents — are now presidents of South Africa and Nigeria: Zuma and Jonathan. Both have been accused of indecisive leadership.
After Zuma's election as South Africa's president in 2009, Pretoria co-operated closely with Angola, having identified it as a key strategic ally. This created tension with Nigeria by appearing to downgrade the "special relationship" between Pretoria and Abuja. The fact that South Africa is the only African representative in the Group of 20 and Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) groupings, further exacerbated this.
There were also disagreements over differing approaches to tackling the conflicts in Ivory Coast and Libya in 2011. During the post-election crisis in Ivory Coast, Nigeria adopted a belligerent stance towards Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to stand down after losing elections. South Africa provocatively sent a warship, the SAS Drakensberg, to the Gulf of Guinea in Nigeria's traditional west African "sphere of influence". Pretoria eventually belatedly recognised Alassane Ouattara's electoral victory.
Though South Africa and Nigeria both voted in the UN Security Council to support intervention in Libya in 2011, Nigeria became one of the first African countries to recognise the country's National Transitional Council (NTC). South Africa delayed recognition of the NTC and accused the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) of having abused its mandate in Libya.
Zuma enjoyed good relations with Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, enabling him to serve as the AU's envoy to Tripoli during the crisis. The Zuma administration, was, however, stung by criticisms within the ruling ANC (in which Gaddafi still enjoyed much popularity as a revolutionary leader) that South Africa's support of the UN resolution to protect civilians had opened the door to Nato's "regime change" agenda and the subsequent brutal assassination of Gaddafi in his home town of Sirte. This pressure explains Pretoria's delaying the unfreezing of some of Libya's assets in the UN Sanctions Committee.
There was another diplomatic clash reported between Jonathan and Zuma at the AU summit in January last year over recognition of the government in Guinea-Bissau which Abuja was supporting. More damagingly, South Africa expelled 125 visiting Nigerians (including legislators) in March that same year, claiming that they were carrying fake "yellow fever" certificates. Abuja retaliated by expelling 78 South Africans trying to enter Nigeria, forcing Pretoria to apologise.
It will be important for both countries to re-establish a common strategic approach if Africa's voice is to carry weight on the global stage. Encouragingly, the first meeting of the binational commission in four years took place in May last year, with both sides agreeing to relax visa requirements. They also agreed to strengthen African regional bodies, and to push for reform of the UN Security Council.
But lingering bilateral tensions were again evident when Abuja ignored Pretoria's recent invitation to join part of the recent Brics summit in Durban. In the immortal words of the Bard, the hope for this vital relationship is that: all's well that ends well.
Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War