Nigeria-South Africa: Strengthening Relations Between Two Regional Powerhouses


Thursday, October 31, 2019  /  03:59PM  /   By  Ade Adefeko of Olam  /   Header Image Credit: Anon


Historically, Nigeria and the republic of South Africa have so much in common. The two countries are former British colonies and they both belong to same Commonwealth of Nations family. The two are also the most influential members of the African Union as the biggest economies on the continent.


Nigeria as a frontline state, though not geographically contiguous to South Africa,  played very significant role in the global and continental push against the pernicious minority white domination in South Africa against the majority blacks through the de-humanising apartheid regime that lasted for almost a century. Together with other African countries, Nigeria led a strong campaign against the evil of apartheid until the system was dismantled in 1990 and the subsequent emergence of President Nelson Mandela in 1994 as the first elected black President. In the 1970s, in the heat of the anti-apartheid struggles, Nigeria opened her heart and arms to receive scores of the African National Congress leaders like Thambo Mbeki who made Lagos home. Mbeki succeeded Mandela as second elected black President. They all lived at the expense of the Nigerian government and many went to school here before they joined their comrades in Zambia and other locations around the world.


Nigeria kept the flames of struggle against apartheid. Nigerians, including school children and civil servants were mobilised to campaign against apartheid system as a crime against humanity. School children, civil servants, market women and ordinary citizens contributed money to the fight against the oppressive system.


With this historical relationship between the two countries and their preeminence as the leading economies in Africa, it is expected that Nigeria and South Africa's special friendship will catalyse and galvanise the rest of the continent to deal with many of the developmental challenges still confronting us with a missionary zeal.


While it cannot be said that there is any dispute between Nigeria and South Africa at government to government level, the people to people relationship between the two countries has been strained in the last decade as a result of recurring xenophobic attacks targeted at Nigerians living in South Africa and other Africans due to the misguided behaviour of some criminal elements among the young South Africans who see other Africans as the reason for their lack of economic mobility. 


Nigerians love South Africa. We love to visit the rainbow nation for holidays, business travels and conferences. To encourage more visits to South Africa, South Africa Tourism opened office in Nigeria over a decade ago because of the amount of Nigerians that visit the country for leisure annually. Until the last 3 years where there was upsurge in xenophobic attacks against Nigerians in South Africa, Nigerians have very positive view of South Africa and her influence on the continent and the world. According to a 2013 BBC World Service Poll, 63% of Nigerians view South Africa's influence positively, with 24% expressing a negative view.


Some reasons have been adduced for the series of xenophobic attacks on Nigerians living in South Africa since 2017. The alleged involvement of Nigerians in drug trafficking, prostitution and human trafficking were some of the reasons adduced.


Without doubt, these attacks against Nigerians have put domestic pressure on the government to act to protect Nigerians living in South Africa. This invariably cast a pall on relationships between the two countries. The September 2019 attacks resumed with the destruction of properties of Nigerian in Johannesburg. An estimated 120 Africans were reportedly attacked in the last xenophobic uprising. 1,000 business were touched and 12 people reportedly killed. The Nigerian government worked to safely evacuate 600 citizens back home. Sadly, there was reprisal attacks reported in Lagos and Abuja against Shoprite, a major South African retail behemoth.


The recent attacks should not define the relationship between the two regional powerhouses. South Africa and Nigeria have much to give to lead Africa into the emerging new world where Africa has been designated as the new frontier for global investments and geo-political scramble. There is a new scramble for Africa by global powers. The fight for territorial influence among major powers like China, France, Russia, United States among others demand that Nigeria and South Africa must unite to provide the required leadership that prepares the continent to maximally benefit from this new global push. If the 20th century was period of colonialism with the attendant exploitation and plundering of our resources, this 21st century must represent a new paradigm shift.


Following the end of apartheid in 1994, South African businesses sought for professionals to immigrate and a large number of Nigerians responded. It is estimated that there are over 50,000 Nigerians currently living in South Africa. The number was put at about 25,000 in 2011. In a way, the fortunes of these two great countries are already intertwined.

In seeking solution to the xenophobic attacks with South African government, Nigerian authorities should not ignore that much of South African's good will towards Nigerians for supporting the ANC during apartheid regime has disappeared due to the activities of Nigerian organized crime. Nigerian organised crime groups, mostly involved in illegal drug trafficking, in South Africa grew rapidly between 1994 and 1998. It has now become a menace according to reports.


Another factor that possibly stressed the relationship between the two countries at some point was the increasing competition between the two countries for positions at multilateral organizations. Nigeria reportedly acted against South Africa in the race for African Union Commission Chairmanship position when the then South African Home Affairs Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma vied for the powerful position against the then incumbent Jean Ping from Gabon. Relations further deteriorated when South Africa appeared to have backed former president Laurent Gbagbo for control of Cote d'Ivoire in 2011 against the interest of Nigeria and the whole of the ECOWAS that supported incumbent President Alassane Ouattara.


However, after Dlamini-Zuma won the election, the then Nigeria's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru stated that although Nigeria supported Jean Ping for the position of AU chairperson in "a position which was principled along with our ECOWAS members and we stood by it. But as usual, people can insinuate that once Nigeria was not in the camp of South Africa, it means that Nigeria is against South Africa. We are not against South Africa".


In a move that showed Nigeria and South Africa have moved past whatever animus the AU Commission Chairmanship position might have caused, South Africa stepped down from the contest for the Presidency of the African Development Bank in 2015 and supported Nigeria's candidate, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina who has served meritoriously and now running for a second term in office.


What should be the relationship between Nigeria and South Africa in a continent that looks up to the two continental giants is the focus of the book with the title Nigeria-South Africa Relations and Hegemonic Competence edited by Oluwaseun Tella.


The book x-rays the current relations between Nigeria and South Africa and their implications for regional influence across the African continent. While Nigeria leads the 16-member nations ECOWAS regional bloc the same can be said of the Southern African Development Community, (SADC) where South Africa leads the pack. As the largest and second largest economies in the region and a historical status as the major peacemakers on the continent, it is mainly argued that Africa's fate is directly linked to the success or failure of these regional powers. While there is widespread reference to each state's capabilities and regional influence in the extant literature, little analysis is offered on relations between Nigeria and South Africa and their impact on regional governance and provision of public goods on the continent. Nigeria-South Africa Relations and Hegemonic Competence attempts to fill the gap by engaging issues such as the regional leadership of the two states, their credentials for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, the moves towards continental integration, and their quest towards combating the dark side of globalization including climate change, drug trafficking and xenophobia.


Africans and friends of Africa want to see to what extent Nigeria can and South Africa working with other members of the continent's Big 5 like Egypt, Algeria and Ethiopia mobilise other African states to achieve sustainable development on the continent? The Big 5 are the top five leading economies in Africa with population of over 50million people. What should be the areas of cooperation and competition since all countries of the world, regardless of areas of mutual cooperation, still seek to defend personal interests? The argument is that Africa's interest should be more important to Nigeria and South Africa than other interests.


Whichever way anyone sees it, the relationship between the two countries has been beneficial and catalytic for socio-economic development. The two countries are the largest trading partners on the continent. South African businesses like MTN, Stanbic bank, DSTV among others are thriving in Nigeria. Beyond their commercial success, these companies have also become good corporate citizens, employing thousands of Nigerians, paying taxes and investing in communities through Corporate Social Responsibility. MTN in its recent sustainability report said it has paid N2trillion in taxes, import duties and other fees since 2002 when it started business in Nigeria. While South African businesses have been very successful in Nigeria, there is also the thinking that South African government has not provided same level of protection and conducive environment for Nigerian businesses to flourish in South Africa.


Nobody in Nigeria can argue against the positive impact of DSTV in content creation and boost to the local entertainment industry by working with local talents and other professionals. The company created Nigerian millionaires who are dealers and resellers with thousands of technicians who earn their living daily as installers. The Africa Magic Channels popularised Nigeria's Nollywood movie industry across Africa. Nigerian actors such as Rita Dominic, Patience Ozokwor, Geneveve Nnaji, Joke Jacobs, Stephanie Okereke, Kanayo O Kanayo, Olu Jacobs, Osita Iheme, Chinedu Ikedieze (Aki and Paw Paw), Pete Edochie among others have larger than life image. These movie stars are mobbed by crowd each time they get into countries like Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Namibia. Because of Kanayo, Olu Jacobs and Pete Edochie, a typical Nigeria big man is regarded as an Igwe in these countries. That is how well DSTV has done in promoting our movie and entertainment industry- a sector that has become our biggest cultural export in the last 20 years.


It is important to note that President Muhammadu Buhari played the role of an African statesman with his recent state visit to South Africa in the heat of the anger at home on the back of the recent xenophobic attacks on a number of Africans including Nigerians in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Despite Nigerians' calls for retaliatory actions by our government against South Africans' interests and push for severance of diplomatic ties, President Buhari showed courage under domestic pressure and braced the odds to personally visit South Africa to honour the invitation of President Cyril Ramaphosa to smoothen a convulsed relationship.


Nigeria and South Africa have a manifest destiny to lead the Africa renaissance. With a bulging youth demographics and the demand by the population for better standard of living, the imperatives to expand opportunities through investment in education, healthcare, free trade, infrastructure and inclusive growth is more urgent than before.  The two leading nations must unite to drive the African Union agenda 2063 in one accord.


The AU agenda 2063 is both a vision and an action plan that calls for action on all segments of African society- governments, private sector and the civil society- to work together to build a prosperous and united Africa based on shared values and a common destiny. To achieve this ambitious agenda in the next 40 years, Nigeria and South Africa must reject mutual distrust and lead from the front.


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About Author

Ade Adefeko, is Vice President Corporate and Government Relations, Olam International. He can be reached by e-mail vide: or by telephone vide: 0817 742 0080.


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