Battle For Supremacy Between Two African Giants


In the global arena, there has been an unceasing battle for supremacy between two super powers – the US and China – with both states trying to strengthen their influence not only in economics, but also in the field of politics. This supremacy battle is also playing out on the African continent between the first and second largest economies, South Africa and Nigeria respectively. The most populous country in Africa and indeed the black race and the fourth most populous within the continent are undeniable hegemonic powers in their respective sub-regions and both account for half of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic might.

The relationship between both countries can be examined in four parts. The first is during the independence boom that swept through Africa from the 1960s to the latter stages of the infamous apartheid epoch in 1993. This period saw Nigeria playing a prominent role in bringing to an end apartheid rule not only in South Africa, but also the southern African countries. The second is from 1994-1998, which saw sour relations between both countries under the administrations of Nelson Mandela and the late Gen. Sani Abacha. The third part is from 1997-2007, during the presidencies of Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki; the period saw improved but lopsided relations between both states. The last part, the period from 2008, now under the administrations of Jacob Zuma and Goodluck Jonathan, is further witnessing lingering bilateral tensions.

Topical reports that Nigeria’s economy could overtake South Africa’s as the largest in five years have left many nationalistic South African analysts livid. The rivalry between both countries can be traced to South Africa’s criticism and backing of Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth in1995, after the late Gen. Sani Abacha executed human rights campaigner Ken Saro Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni followers infamously dubbed the ‘Ogoni Nine’. Mandela previously believed that he had received personal assurance from Abacha of clemency for the Ogoni Nine. Feeling betrayed, he called for oil sanctions and Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth. Hence, Nigeria responded in 1996 by boycotting the African Nations Cup, which was held in South Africa, having won the competition in 1994 in Tunisia and was thus unable to defend her title.

During the Obasanjo and Mbeki administrations, bilateral trade increased and Nigeria became South Africa’s largest trading partner. However, South African companies in Nigeria began assuming predatory behaviours, profiting from the vast Nigerian market – three times larger than South Africa’s – while refusing to open up their own markets. Culpable South African companies included MTN, Multichoice, Woolworths, etc. Also, at the turn of the 21st century, xenophobic attacks against Nigerian nationals residing in South Africa started. Furthermore, exasperated by the ignominy visited on Nigerians trying to obtain visas to South Africa, Nigeria imposed stricter visa requirements on South Africans. Media reports in South Africa consequently began disseminating negative stereotypical reports of Nigerians as drug traffickers and criminals.

The ascension of both former vice-presidents – Zuma and Jonathan – to the helm of affairs in their respective countries saw the continued rivalry and burgeoning ‘special relationship’ between both countries. The election of Zuma in 2009 saw South Africa’s increased cooperation with Angola, having identified it as a foremost strategic ally. This consequently created tension with Nigeria, as it appeared to relegate the special relationship. Also exacerbating both countries’ rivalry is the fact that South Africa is the only African representative in the Group of 20 (G-20) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) groupings.

Both countries also disagreed via disparate approaches in tackling the post-election conflicts in Ivory Coast. Nigeria adopted a belligerent posture towards Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to concede defeat after losing the country’s election. South Africa provocatively sent a warship to the Gulf of Guinea, where Nigeria is the hegemonic power. Also, the opposing stance of both nations over the embattled late Libyan leader, Muammar Ghaddafi and the recognition of the government of the Transitional National Council (TNC) during the Libyan revolution was an attestation of the feud between both nations. The Nigerian government maintained that Libya under Ghaddafi had never been ruled under any known constitution since he took over power in 1969 and thus, the AU Constitutive Act could not apply to Ghaddafi. This stance was further backed by 34 member-states of the AU.

South Africa, however, claimed that the Constitutive Act did not allow the Union to recognise the TNC, because it was an illegal force, maintaining that the government could only be removed through a constitutional process. They were backed by the president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who have been in power for 32 and 26 years respectively.

In 2012, there was a salient diplomatic clash between both countries at the AU Summit in January, over recognition of the government in Guinea-Bissau, which Nigeria was supporting and South Africa opposing. That same year, Nigeria and South Africa were embroiled in another diplomatic feud, after the authorities at Oliver Thambo Airport in Johannesburg deported 125 Nigerians (including legislators), alleging that their yellow fever vaccination cards were fakes. The Nigerian government responded by deporting 84 South Africans in two days, forcing South Africa to apologise.

Also, the same year, Nigeria’s continental battle with South Africa suffered a great blow when South Africa triumphed over Nigeria in a keenly contested election, as Dlamini Zuma of South Africa was elected chairperson of the AU Commission, thus becoming the first woman to lead the continent. More recently, lingering bilateral tensions were again evident when Abuja ignored Pretoria’s invitation to join part of the BRICS summit in Durban, South Africa.

Another evident tussle between both countries is the jostle for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Nigeria and South Africa have both been non-permanent members on the Council and Nigeria is poised to begin another two-year term beginning in January next year for a record 5th time, a feat parallel to none in the continent.

From the afore-mentioned extractions, it is evident that there is a growing superiority feud between both nations. Having played the ‘big brother’ role over the years in the emancipation of South Africa and other southern African countries from apartheid rule, with Nigeria, South Africa should ordinarily be more reverent. However, with consistent bad governance, ubiquitous leadership deficiency, prevalent corruption and impunity, an economy overly dependent on a single sector inhibiting diversification and lack of articulate economic and foreign policies, South Africa today can also lay claim to being the giant of Africa. In 1993, Nelson Mandela was elected president 33 years after Nigeria’s independence, but Nigeria is presently trailing behind the economy of South Africa as the largest economy in Africa.

Nonetheless, Nigeria’s foreign policy thrust needs to be articulately appraised to Nigeria and Nigerians’ interest as being the centre of her foreign policy objective, especially in conformity with major developed countries’ foreign policy thrusts. Also, the policy of reciprocity needs to be adopted by the Nigerian government, to serve as a deterrent to other nations taking hostile actions against Nigeria and her nationals. More importantly, the criteria of appointing ambassadors need to be overhauled, as over the years it has largely been used for obsequious partisan patronage instead of taking into cognisance qualification, professionalism, integrity and competence.

With such foreign policy stance, a viable economic base, an adept purposeful political leadership and viable governance structure, Nigeria would indeed be able to leave indelible footprints once more across Africa, effectively making her the undeniable Giant of Africa.

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