Giants of Africa Limp Along – South Africa and Nigeria

Image: Flickr, Mad African!:(Broken Sword)
Image: Flickr, Mad African!:(Broken Sword)

Nigerian taxis are known for their colourful writings that make personal and social statements.

On my way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence last week, I was struck by one Lagosian vehicle that bore the popular Nigerian saying ‘no condition is permanent.’ It got me thinking about how the Nigerian condition has changed in 50 years. I also pondered how the emergence of South Africa as a key ally and rival since 1994 will affect the upcoming review of Nigeria’s foreign policy, the first since independence.

In assessing the relationship between the two countries, the concept of a ‘special relationship’ between the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) is particularly instructive. Although western phenomena cannot be blindly replicated in Africa due to different historical trajectories, there are undoubtedly important ideas that can be drawn from the two countries’ historical alliance to influence the global political and economic order. SA and Nigeria have expressed no less a desire to transform the position of Africa in the global order.

The phrase ‘special relationship’ was coined by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1946. It is underpinned mainly by a common historical, political and economic vision. Churchill saw it as the embodiment and promotion of values shared by the two major English speaking powers. At its best, the relationship facilitated co-operation to end World War II and at its worst it culminated in George W Bush and Tony Blair launching an illegal war in Iraq. It has endured through various Republican and Democratic administrations in the US and Tory and Labour governments in the UK.

At a historical level, there can be no doubt that Nigeria was one of the leading African countries in the anti-apartheid struggle. Examples of this include its pivotal role in establishing the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid in the 1960s and the involvement of ordinary Nigerians like students who contributed financially to the anti-apartheid movement in reaction to the 1976 Soweto uprisings and Nigerian civil servants who likewise contributed portions of their salaries. Nigeria also supported the Frontline States through the 1980s and by the end of apartheid in 1994, it had contributed an estimated US$61 billion towards the anti-apartheid effort.

The much-publicised spat between Sani Abacha and Nelson Mandela in 1995 over the execution of environmental and human rights activist Ken Saro Wiwa presented the first test of how the two countries would engage each other as sovereign nations whose foreign policy portrays their national values. It was not until the arrival of civilian rule under Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 and the simultaneous election of Thabo Mbeki in SA that a strategic partnership emerged. There appeared to be something special about Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest economies’ determination to lead in the ‘African Century.’ A common sense of purpose emerged around the extinguishing of continental conflicts, reconstruction of the continent’s institutional architecture and the development of a continental socio-economic blueprint in the form of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

But as we enter the second decade of this century, the relationship is unsatisfactorily limping along. The Binational Commission (BNC) that was established in 1999 to facilitate the efficient management of the relationship has not met since last year’s tenth anniversary, which was soured by SA’s refusal to grant a visa waiver to Nigerian officials and diplomats. The BNC was supposed to convene in 2010 but as the year draws rapidly to a close, it is almost certain that it will not happen. There are a number of political, economic and diplomatic factors that have led to this state of affairs.

At the political level, there appears to be a growing suspicion of each other’s intentions. The recent arrest of Henry Okah in Johannesburg has generated angry reactions among Nigerian bloggers, some of whom claim to quote sources in government, alleging that SA deliberately failed to avert the Abuja bombings last Friday. Not much has been forthcoming on the reasons why it would be in SA’s interests to support terrorist activity in Nigeria. What is particularly concerning is that the Nigerian government has yet to issue a statement reaffirming its faith in SA.

In global politics, both countries have set their eyes on being the African candidate for a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Fierce lobbying for election is already under way. The test of these two countries’ ability to continue leading effectively will come as they both sit as non-permanent members on the in 2011 as well as on the AU’s Peace and Security Council. It will be the first time that they jointly share such a powerful international security platform. Yet there is no clarity on the extent to which they are co-coordinating their efforts to present a united voice. Somalia and the Sudan are two complex issues that require urgent attention and a sober, well-crafted African proposal at the Security Council is required. To be clear, SA and Nigeria’s voice will be weaker as unitary actors.

But beyond the grander African vision, both countries are under increasing pressure from their populations to present a foreign policy that speaks to the basic notion of providing a better life for their citizens. During a roundtable on Nigeria’s foreign policy hosted by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) and the Nigerian Peoples Democratic Institute (PDI) in Abuja last week, young Nigerian scholars and politicians wanted to know what the Nigerian people had to show for their country’s extensive involvement in continental and global peace-building, to which Nigeria has diverted billions of dollars since independence. Similar questions are being asked in SA as we evaluate our foreign policy since 1994.

Both countries have to define the overarching goal to which they are both staunchly committed. During the Cold War, “ideological soulmates” Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan centred the ‘special relationship’ around their conviction that Communism was the biggest threat to the existence of both countries. The common agenda that ought to solidifying the special relationship between SA and Nigeria should be the conviction that poverty is a serious threat to the existence of both these countries. Poverty eradication is the critical precursor to changing the position of Africa in the global order. Neither country can export to the continent what it does not have at home.

Both countries represent obvious economic benefits for their populations. South African firms like MTN and Standard Bank have thrived in Nigeria and contributed towards employment, revenue generation and improved quality of goods and services. Nigerian companies like Oando Nigeria and Dangote Group have made inroads into the Johannesburg Securities Exchange and the cement industry respectively, thus adding to SA’s investment appeal. Government’s intervention should not be about insisting on which companies should be awarded contracts, but it should shield these companies from falling victim to the creeping bad politics, while creating even further conditions for business opportunities beyond big business.

Elevated diplomatic relations between SA and Nigeria must of course take into cognisance the importance of engaging with other countries. David Cameron was recently pressed by the British media to measure the pulse of the ‘special relationship,’ especially after Tony Blair was accused of making Britain a poodle of the US. In response, Cameron stated that the relationship remained “strong, because it delivers for both of us…this is a partnership of choice that serves our national interests today.” He further asserted that each country’s formation of new alliances with emerging powers was “both pro-American and pro-British because it is the only way we will maintain our influence.”

One of the contradictions in UK-US relations is that governments have often failed to effectively convince their citizens of the relationship’s inherent benefits. Opinion surveys have often shown the British public to be averse to playing second fiddle to the US. South Africa and Nigeria would do well to learn about the importance of taking citizens on board. The South African government is rightly investigating ways to place greater emphasis on the promotion of citizen participation in the promotion of good relations between the two countries. But issues of rampant corruption at SA’s Home Affairs Department at home and in Lagos, coupled with the easy fraudulent access to Nigerian passports have only served the interests of criminal elements who present the worst face of the relationship, thus limiting the potential for decent citizens of both countries to appreciate what they have to learn from each other. Instead of bickering about visa waivers for officials and diplomats, the two governments should place more muscle behind their stated intentions of rooting out corruption in immigration services.

While an egalitarian foreign policy is ideal, the positioning of SA as a consensus builder on the continent means that it has to select some countries as key strategic partners above others. SA and Nigeria should accept their interdependence. One condition that should not be permanent is the half-hearted manner in which political, economic and diplomatic relations have been handled of late. Only then can a special relationship begin to have more substantive meaning for the lives of ordinary South Africans, Nigerians and Africans as a whole.