Africa Watch

South Africa and Nigeria entangled in a family feud

Tiffs with Nigeria date back to Mandela

While both South Africa and Nigeria profess to adhere to a pan-Africanist brotherhood, the relationship between the two countries is increasingly taking on the shape of a family feud.

The latest spat surrounding the outgoing Nigerian government “inviting” its acting High Commissioner to South Africa home for discussions on the recent attacks on immigrants from Africa, just adds to a growing list of “unpleasant incidents” between the two countries.

The tense relationship between Africa’s two strongest economic powers dates back to less than three months after the ANC won the 1994 elections.

At the time newly elected President Nelson Mandela, in June 1994, dispatched his then deputy, Thabo Mbeki, and archbishop Desmond Tutu on missions to Nigeria to try and persuade its then military leader, General Sani Abacha, not to execute 40 political opponents.

Feeling betrayed after being led to believe the executions were off, Mandela criticised Abacha in public after nine of these opposition leaders were executed in November 1995. He also lobbied for a suspension of Nigeria from the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Nigeria retaliated with a campaign to isolate South Africa in Africa for being “manipulated ... by the forces of British and American imperialism”.

Under ex-president Thabo Mbeki things seemed to calm down and economic and trade relations expanded considerably. The Nigerian energy conglomerate, for example, listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and South
African corporations, notably in the communication and retail sectors, entered the Nigerian market. By 2012 the bilateral trade between the two countries was worth $3.6 billion.

Tensions from competition

As can be expected, the competition for the top spot of economic and political power house on the continent brought its own tensions.

In recent years it has often found expression in diplomatic spats, and relations took a knock in 2012 when 125 Nigerians were turned away at Oliver Tambo Airport for allegedly being in possession of forged yellow fever certificates. Nigeria promptly retaliated by expelling 56 South African business people. For a while Nigeria’s Arik Air cancelled flights to South Africa.

During that same year Nigeria actively campaigned against South Africa’s former minister of foreign affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in her bid to become the chairperson of the African Union Commission. In the end Dlamini-Zuma won that battle, but in the meantime the competition for a permanent seat for Africa on the Security Council of the United Nations is still on.

A new low in relations came shortly after a church hostel in Lagos collapsed in September last year, killing 115 mostly South African guests. South Africa expressed concern about a perceived slow response to the disaster. Weeks later, at Lanseria Airport, South Africa seized 15 million dollars intended for an alleged ‘unauthorised’ arms deal.

Early this year South Africa also expressed concern about what it regarded as illegal recruitment of ex-members of the old South African Defence Force for ‘contract work’ in Nigeria’s fight against Islamist extremists.

The pot and the kettle

And so the story continues in what at times not only appears to be haphazardly managed relations on both sides, but often looks like attempts at mere point scoring.

In the process it also sometimes becomes a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

In an article on the website of the Turkish news agency Anadolu, under the heading “Nigeria should learn from S. Africa attacks: Experts”, Nigeria is reminded of how it in 1983 expelled a million Ghanaians. That incident appeared to be payback for Ghana, which in 1969 had expelled some Nigerians, hurting the two countries' relations.

It is also clear from this article that South Africa and Nigeria share similar problems and could in fact learn from each other.

In what feels as if he is talking about the post-1994 South Africa, Otive Igbuzor, executive director of the African Centre for Leadership Strategy and Development, is quoted as saying about Nigeria:

Since returning to civil rule in 1999, the economic growth rate has been phenomenal at between 6   and 8 percent. But this growth has been largely jobless, with increasing poverty and concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

The Nigerian Bulletin last week wrote: “Given their political and economic heft – together, the two economies are larger than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa's combined – relations between South Africa and Nigeria could be decisive for the future of a continent of 1 billion people.
“Nigeria and South Africa are like two prisoners in the same cell of poverty, inequality and bad leadership,” Nigerian writer and political commentator Elnathan John said.
“Together they could muster the strength to break their bonds and overpower the jailer but instead they spend time feuding with each other in a needlessly fractious relationship.”

by Piet Coetzer

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