Nigeria & South Africa: time for the frenemies to step up co-operation

Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo
South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki (L) listens to Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo during a session of the 23rd Africa-France summit in Bamako December 4, 2005.

Muhammadu Buhari and Cyril Ramaphosa, the leaders of Africa’s two biggest economies, are set to meet and break bread in Pretoria in October.

Nigeria’s septuagenarian statesman won reelection to a second democratic term – and his third stint in power – earlier this year.

His counterpart across the continent emerged president after ousting former leader, Jacob Zuma.

Nigeria’s presidential spokesman Garba Shehu says the South African leader extended the invitation to Buhari at the weekend as he celebrated the Eid festivities at his country home in the northwestern state of Katsina.

Top on the agenda will be discussions about improving bilateral trade relations, but it is expected that the subject of xenophobia will also come up.

The recently signed Africa Continental Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) might also make the agenda as well as the woes of Nigeria’s biggest telecoms operator, South Africa’s MTN, which has struggled with both the central bank and regulators over the last five years.

Friends turned foes

Nigeria and South Africa had been allies for decades from as far back as the apartheid years when the West African country contributed support – including finance – for the African National Congress (ANC) and other freedom fighters.

  • Things took a sour turn under late dictator General Sani Abacha who withdrew Nigeria – then defending champions – from the continental football tournament held in South Africa in the mid-90s after a stern rebuke from South African President Nelson Mandela over the handling of the Ken Saro-Wiwa matter. The environmentalist and Niger Delta human rights activist was controversially hung alongside eight older Ogoni elders in 1995.
  • But Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had been a frontline supporter of the ANC, struck up a smooth bromance afterwards with his South African counterpart Thabo Mbeki, with both acting as moral prefects for the continent. A similar friendship blossomed between their deputies Atiku Abubakar and Jacob Zuma.
  • After their exit from office, relations soured again, worsened by the seizure of $15m in two separate incidents that Abuja had sent to procure arms to help its fight against the Boko Haram insurgency.
  • The overzealousness of South Africa’s immigration officials, particularly towards Nigerian visa applicants, has also not helped matters.

Love thy neighbour

Worse still, a wave of xenophobic attacks targeting Zimbabweans and Nigerians in parts of Johannesburg, fuelled by inciting comments from sections of the country, including a 2015 speech by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, ironically a visitor to Lagos clergyman TB Joshua’s synagogue, did not help relations.

According to Nigeria’s Senate President Ahmed Lawan, it has led to the deaths of at least 118 Nigerians over the course of a decade, including 13 killings by South African cops.

  • Julius Malema, outspoken leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, told supporters earlier this year that he was ashamed of being South African after another wave of attacks in the Limpopo and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces.
  • Incensed by the lack of government intervention on both sides, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), the umbrella union of Nigerian students, issued a threat to South African businesses in the country, especially the hugely popular trio of MTN, Multichoice and Shoprite.
  • Ahead of the August 14 deadline it gave them to exit Nigeria, it shutdown a Shoprite outlet in the southwestern town of Abeokuta with some of its members carrying placards that read: “South Africans must go” and “You can’t continue to kill our people and still [eat the]fat on us.”
  • NANS has previously made good on a promise to pursue violent redress. In 2017, it attacked an Abuja office of MTN, damaging property.

Ramaphosa has allegedly said that a bilateral commission will be set up to foster better relations and it is expected that a reasonable line of political willpower to eradicate xenophobic attacks will be pursued.

Perhaps this meeting could signal the start of another presidential bromance?

Why this is important: Two wrongs do not make a right so both the xenophobic killings by South Africans and NANS’s actions must be roundly condemned by all.

Moving forward, however, South Africa must do more to shake off the perception that it has ignored the plight of Nigerians within its borders for two reasons. One, because it is the right thing to do. Two, for the sake of its multinationals whose profit centres are in Nigeria.