Nigeria and South Africa have no other choice but to collaborate. President Muhammadu Buhari could not have timed his visit to South Africa better, particularly on the 20th anniversary the Bi-National Commission; yes, that exists – believe it or not.
Africa’s deferred destiny hinges on sound intra-African relations, especially bilateral congeniality between top member states like these two. Sadly, the Abuja-Pretoria nexus has been riddled with sideshows and squabbles over things not worthy of countries in a region supposed to be the world’s last economic frontier.
Writing in a South African Institute of International Affairs journal in 2013, Dr Oladiran Bello and Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari characterised the value of solid Nigeria-South Africa relations by saying: “When Nigeria and South Africa co-operate, they are more likely to deliver continental public goods, including economic development, peace and security.”
This was following the return visit to South Africa by then president Goodluck Jonathan in May that year. Bello and Hengari at the time bemoaned the degeneration of bilateral relations from what they termed Mandela’s “principled stance against Sani Abacha’s dictatorship in the 1990s” to “close and effective engagement” during the Mbeki-Obasanjo decade, to “a low point, with the two continental powers unable to reach agreement on the chairmanship of the AU Commission in 2012”.
Although entrepreneurs and companies have done business in each other’s country, it would be an understatement that the situation described above has continued to deteriorate to the point where Nigerian nationals in South Africa were seen attacking police. During the latest attacks on foreign nationals from the rest of Africa, one would have been forgiven for thinking Nigerians exist solely to sell drugs and commit fraud.
Social media went berserk, with video messages of hate between the nations, including threats of Boko Haram descending on South Africa, as if that were Nigeria’s national army. In the din of all such Afrophobia, it is easy to overlook the volume of trade between the two countries and the crucial role they both play in holding Africa together.
Figures from Tralac.org state that 46% of Nigeria’s intra-African exports end up in South Africa. While world imports between 2017 and 2018 rose by 26%, “intra-African imports increased by 25% – imports of petroleum oils (not crude) increased by 18%”, with imports from South Africa soaring by 24%.
By coming to South Africa hardly a week after planes were supposed to have flown droves of Nigerians home, Buhari demonstrated the ability to go where needed most. The mudslinging was becoming destructive. Shops were attacked in Nigeria in September in what was evidently a retaliatory strike for what South Africans were doing to Africans in the name of fighting crime and defending jobs.
Labelling every drug dealer and human trafficker Nigerian was offensive, and accusing South Africa of turning its back on those who had supported its defeat of apartheid was unrealistic and misleading.
However long it takes, tensions must be resolved objectively and comprehensively to make the African Continental Free Trade Agreement dream come true; we need that badly.