IT’S common knowledge South Africa and Nigeria haven’t always had the smoothest relationship; sometimes seen to be jockeying for position as Africa’s top dog.
But when Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was welcomed to South Africa on Tuesday for his first state visit, there was only sweetness and light in evidence between the two powers.
Ordinarily state visits have one of two purposes: Either they reflect strong ties between two countries, or they are a sign that cordial relations are being re-established after a period of friction. In the case of Nigeria-South Africa relations, perhaps it’s a case of a bit of both.
There is no denying the two powers have a mutually-reliant relationship: they are each other’s biggest trading partners on the continent, with bilateral trade having reached US$4,1 billion, though the balance is in Nigeria’s favour.
But historically, relations have not been peachy. In an article for The World Today last year, the Centre for Conflict Resolution’s Adekeye Adebajo explained that there were great hopes for democratic South Africa and Nigeria to forge a strong alliance, given the assistance Nigeria had lent to the anti-Apartheid movement.
But former South African president Nelson Mandela was deeply disapproving of the military regime of General Sani Abacha (1993-1998), which attracted worldwide condemnation for the hanging of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and nine others in 1995.
Following Saro-Wiwa’s murder, Adebajo notes, Mandela called for oil sanctions against Abacha’s regime and the expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth.
Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki and former Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo, who ascended to power in the same year (1999), developed a far more mutually respectful relationship, with increasing bilateral trade.
Under the most recent leaderships of President Jacob Zuma and Jonathan, though, there have still been elements of strain to the relationship.
Among them, Adebajo suggests, are the choice of South Africa over Nigeria as the only African representative in Brics; and Pretoria’s focus on a special relationship with Angola over Nigeria after Zuma’s election.
Jonathan assumed office in May 2010, but his current state visit to South Africa is his first. Analysts point to the tardiness of this visit as further evidence that the bilateral relationship between the two African giants may not have been as warm as might be expected.
Following the visit of Zuma to Lagos last month, however, there are indications that there is a strong effort underway to now effect closer ties.
At Tuynhuys on a beautiful autumnal Tuesday morning, the red carpet was laid out for Jonathan and his delegation, which included the governors of two Nigerian states.
ANC ministers lined the carpet to welcome President Jonathan, who was sporting his characteristic black hat. Jonathan duly carried out an inspection of the guards. A Nigerian TV journalist, broadcasting live from outside Tuynhuys, was heard telling his viewers that the ceremony was “small but impressive”.
At a media briefing in Tuynhuys afterwards, Zuma referred to Jonathan as his “dear brother”, and was at pains to stress the “growing and very warm” nature of the relationship enjoyed by the two countries. Last year, he noted, more than 70 000 Nigerian tourists visited South Africa, contributing over R720 million to the economy.
Zuma did not give figures for the number of South Africans who had visited Nigeria over the same period, but he urged his countryfolk to visit their “sister country”.
He also paid tribute to the amount of South African investments in Nigeria, particularly in the fields of telecommunications, engineering, as well as oil and gas exploration.
For his part, Jonathan was similarly effusive in thanking Zuma for the invitation to South Africa, saying that the world expects “maximum cooperation” between the two countries “so that we will not fail the world”.
He urged South Africa to open the door to Nigerian investors in the same way that Nigeria had done for South African investment. Jonathan also said that South Africa had set an example to follow when it came to matters like female representation in parliament.
Jonathan noted that the occasion was unique “given the number of documents signed”. And indeed, an unprecedented number of bilateral agreements (nine) were inked by the two countries.
They range from cooperation in the legal field to mining, the environment and communication technologies –– as well as an agreement on defence cooperation. Journalists were not told anything about what these agreements actually entail.
In an editorial on Tuesday, Business Day expressed hope that two issues would be resolved in the course of the state visit. “The first is that Nigeria detests the idea of South Africa poking its nose into the politics of Central and West Africa, where it considers itself the only legitimate arbiter”.
No particularly significant noises appeared to be made –– in public –– on this point; though Zuma said that Nigeria and South Africa “share a common vision on the need for a sustainable conflict resolution mechanism in Africa that is primarily driven by Africans”.
It is believed there has been tension between the two powers on the matter of which one will take up a seat on the UN Security Council, but in an address to the South African parliament on Tuesday afternoon, Jonathan rubbished this idea.
“I’ve never seen two women fight over a non-existent husband,” he said; a metaphor for explaining, perhaps not altogether convincingly, that there could not possibly be conflict over something that did not yet exist.
The other issue that Business Day wished to see the state visit address was “one of consular matters,” a reference to frequent disputes between the two about visas. Adebejo wrote last year that under Obasanjo’s rule, Abuja put in place stricter visa requirements for South Africans as a tit-for-tat move because of the difficulties experienced by Nigerians applying for South African visas.
Here there has been some concrete progress, although it will only ease the life of the elite: one of the memoranda of understanding signed between the two countries is on the matter of diplomatic visas.
On both sides, Jonathan’s visit was characterised by an “Africa is rising” discourse which is likely to be carried through to the World Economic Forum, kicking off in Cape Town later this week. Both sides, too, stressed the importance of the role played by Nigeria in supporting the anti-Apartheid struggle: addressing the South Africa parliament, Jonathan quoted the words of Nigerian singer Sonny Okosun’s 1977 hit Fire in Soweto.
But feel-good rhetoric, appeals to emotionally-resonant history and brotherly photo-calls will do little in real terms to broker a genuinely solid, mutually beneficial bilateral relationship. The real test of how lasting these ties are is likely to play out in future foreign policy issues, particularly those affecting conflict in Central and West Africa; and in jostling to be considered Africa’s number one. If Nigeria’s economy outstrips South Africa –– as some experts reckon will happen by 2018 –– this may also have an interesting impact on the brotherly love between the two countries.
After all, as Zambian Vice-President Guy Scott would say, South Africa does like to think of itself as the “bees’ knees”.