Pitfalls and prospects: Nigeria and South Africa in Africa

Photo © Annaliese McDonough/Commonwealth Secretariat.
President Goodluck Jonathan at CHOGM 2011

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and officially its largest economy as of April 2014, is holding presidential and legislative elections on 28 March 2015, which bear in equal measure the hallmarks of continuity and potential ruptures.

‘South Africa and Nigeria are critical countries in Africa and must work together so that Africa can move forward in the drive to boost the standard of living of our people’
— President Goodluck Jonathan on his visit to South Africa, 7 May 2013.

As Africa’s perennial promising nation, Nigeria has failed to live up to continental expectations in recent years. The forthcoming elections ought to provide a markedly different loadstar for Nigeria’s continental diplomacy and Africa’s collective future. In sync with some of its significant domestic assets, Nigeria has since independence framed its hegemonic destiny in continental terms. This grand association has often implied a foreign policy that has anchored its national heritage and assets in a continental vision.

It is why Nigeria has succeeded – irrespective of its own internal frailties – to provide support to liberation movements across Africa by leading diplomatic efforts in decolonisation, and specifically against apartheid South Africa. Manifestly, and notwithstanding the distance between Pretoria and Abuja, the destinies of Africa’s largest economies have been, and continue to be intertwined.

Therefore, if President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is re-elected, the elections in Nigeria are bound to confirm an existing relationship. On the other hand, the election of General Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) could translate into the charting of a new path between President Jacob Zuma and his Nigerian counterpart.

The success or failure of partnerships is not only the stuff of the material internal assets that states bring to the external environment. The personal rapport between men and women at the summit of states could lead to shifts in continental processes and new directions when visions, values and norms are shared.

At its zenith, the South Africa-Nigeria relationship during the terms of Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo, recast continental integration on a positive trajectory from the late 1990s until their departure at the end of the last decade. This golden era has not been emulated since. Yet, a solid Nigeria-South Africa partnership has the unique and unmatched potential to serve as a catalyst for more innovative policies and continental problem solving. After all, both countries have framed their foreign policies in ambitious sub-regional and continental terms. Moreover, as democracies, albeit a struggling one in the case of Nigeria, both countries have regional diplomacies that are normatively driven, with a strong focus on stability and democratic governance.

Until recently, Nigeria’s political and financial investments in its immediate neighbourhood, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led to the relative stabilisation of the errant states of Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. For its part, South Africa’s continental footprint in peace diplomacy and its search for normative policy convergence has had modest, but desired effects in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Lesotho.

However, in the absence of a strong bilateral Nigeria-South Africa partnership, efforts at continental peace have been residual in light of conflicting national interests and the wear-and-tear of internal malfunctions in both countries.

South Africa’s domestic challenges, notably xenophobic attacks, an economy failing to shift to a higher gear, and widening inequalities, have had a corrosive effect on the country’s prestige as an exporter of tolerant, humane values as enshrined in its white paper on foreign policy, Building a Better World: The Diplomacy of Ubuntu. Moreover, signs of institutional stresses in its security cluster and ongoing service delivery protests are stunting South Africa’s ability to project itself on the continent as a sound beacon of democratic governance, worthy of emulation.

Oddly, for an anchor state, Nigeria, which ought to serve as a guarantor of security, has now become an exporter of insecurity in the sub-region. The reign of terror inflicted by the Islamic fundamentalist Boko Haram in North-eastern Nigeria has violently displaced populations along the Niger-Chad-Cameroon border. Valuable, but scarce, financial and human resources have had to be mobilised in these countries and on the continent to counter this terrorist insurgency

In light of these domestic dysfunctions, Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council since 2014, has lost a large chunk of its allure as a purveyor of solutions to African problems, despite the rebasing of its economy as the largest in Africa. As Nigerians head to the polls on 28 March 2015, the country’s chronic contagious insecurity is embarrassingly an agenda item at the summits of key multilateral institutions. It begs the question as to how Africa’s two major powers can lead in addressing continental challenges when Nigeria’s domestic circumstances overshadow robust continental engagement.

Evidently, in the current state, the forthcoming elections will not be about what Nigeria (with South Africa) can do better in Africa. Rather, they are about the more insular and institutionalised fault-lines of region, religion and ethnicity inherent to Nigeria and the inability of the political system and leadership to properly channel and address expectations. These are issues that have hamstrung Nigeria’s African potential and the country’s ability to purposefully navigate its foreign policy and diplomatic efforts through strategic partnerships to pursue the prosperity of all Africans. On the eve of these crucial elections, the limitations of Nigeria’s ability to lead on the continent have never been so stark.

Still, notwithstanding the pitfalls in its relationship with South Africa, this election and its aftermath should create more, not fewer, opportunities for meaningful collaboration between the two countries. During his state visit to South Africa in May 2013, President Jonathan emphasised that co-operation between Nigeria and South Africa was key to Africa’s economic and political development. Prosaically, he also went on to say: ‘The world expects so much from us, we must co-operate and work together, so that we will not fail the world about these expectations’. This rhetoric suggests that there is agreement between South Africa and Nigeria on what the partnership and its consolidation should mean for the African continent. Giving concrete expression to the aspirations is crucial.

The relationship has been institutionalised through a high-level Bi-national Commission, which has opened up avenues to deal with some of the contentious bilateral issues such as market access and visas for Nigerian business leaders and tourists. However, this institutional basis should be geared to further deepen political co-operation in Africa, thereby opening up more opportunities for joint continental problem solving.

In the absence of a purposeful Africa focused partnership between South Africa and Nigeria, and mutually reinforcing continental initiatives, Africa’s integration and development risk being indefinitely postponed.

23 Mar 2015