John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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South Africa and Nigeria’s Edgy Relationship

by John Campbell
March 12, 2012

South African President Jacob Zuma (L) arrives for the inauguration ceremony of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan at Eagle Square in Abuja May 29, 2011. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters)


The tragic murder of a British and Italian hostage in northern Nigeria and the video on Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army that has “gone viral” has largely deflected attention away from a seeming tea pot tempest in the bilateral relationship between Nigeria and South Africa. Last week, the South African immigration authorities “deported” (did not allow to enter the country) 125 Nigerians whom, they alleged, presented false yellow fever vaccination certificates. Nigeria retaliated by refusing entry to 84 South Africans arriving in Lagos, claiming that they, too, were traveling on irregular documents. Especially on the Nigerian side, there was some chest thumping commentary to the effect that not only was South Africa “dissing” the Giant of Africa, its businessmen are also unscrupulously making money. The minister of foreign affairs took the opportunity to warn South African firms against bringing in their co-citizens when there were qualified Nigerians to do the work. Elsewhere, there was other commentary to the effect that South Africa’s economic wings in Nigeria should be clipped—not good for encouraging South African investment, as the Nigerian government wants to do. The Nigerian and South African foreign ministries moved to damp down the tempest, and the South African government issued an apology.

The episode spotlights a complicated relationship between the two giants of Africa. During the apartheid era, Nigeria regarded itself as a “front line” state, and South Africa was popularly regarded as the national enemy. Nigerians are proud of their forthright stance against apartheid, and some feel that post-apartheid South Africa shows insufficient gratitude for its role. Following the coming of non-racial democracy to South Africa, Abuja and Pretoria have been fervent about their fraternal solidarity. South African business leaders are enthusiastic about the investment opportunities in Nigeria, in particular because of the country’s enormous population. To cite only a few examples, South African telecommunications firms have done well, dominating the industry in Nigeria. A South African company has opened high-profile shopping centers in Nigeria, and South African banks eye opportunities. At the popular level, however, Nigerians are widely disliked in South Africa. They are a large legal and illegal community and South Africans routinely blame them for crime and as a source of corruption.

Despite the fraternal rhetoric, especially on the Nigerian side, there is a degree of ambiguity about the relationship. The Nigerian government trumpets a goal of becoming among the world’s twenty largest economies by 2020, and its rhetoric often features overcoming in size the South African economy. At times, “overtaking” South Africa appears to function as a unifying national goal, in a country that has few such sources of unity. With respect to diplomacy, Nigeria wants a permanent African seat on the UN Security Council; South Africa is its principal rival. Nigeria and South Africa frequently take different positions on African regional issues, as they did most recently over Libya.

This particular tempest will blow over but the rivalry between Africa’s two giants will not. South African entry documentation requirements will remain a potential flashpoint. Counterfeit travel documents are ubiquitous in Nigeria, while Nigerians resent the South African yellow fever vaccine requirement, which is levied only on those nationals of countries identified by the WHO as potential sources of the disease. (South Africa levies no such requirement on Americans –unless they are coming from WHO-identified states.) But, the Nigerian minister of health observes that the last confirmed case of yellow fever was in 1995. He questions the WHO designation.

Post a Comment 11 Comments

  • Posted by Maduka

    Nigeria can retaliate by requiring proof of HIV status from South Africans. After all, Nigeria isn’t the only nation in Africa with public health challenges!

    (It doesn’t help that South Africa is led by an individual with little formal schooling and several wives who thinks/thought that AIDS could be prevented by a quick shower and beetroot!).

    The wider point is that while Nigerians can tolerate insults and outright hostility from American, British and European immigration and embassy officials (that’s a topic for another day). They cannot and will not tolerate the same from South Africans.

    The average Nigerian doesn’t believe that the average black South African is better educated, more qualified or even more intelligent than him/her. He believes black South Africans are merely feeding on the talents of the White minority.

    The grisly attacks on immigrants in 2009 (open air “necklacing”) doesn’t help matters either.

    About the foreign hostages, there was little sympathy from Nigerians or even interest because (a) no one likes to see a former colonial power poking around (b) neither the British Government, Shell nor the British people are particularly interested about human rights abuses in the Niger Delta (c) Nigeria has a lot of unemployed engineering graduates who cannot find jobs and (d) the Nigerian government isn’t bothered when Nigerians are held hostage.

    The failed rescue operation makes British intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state less, not more likely.

  • Posted by James Kimer

    Very interesting article, Ambassador, and I am always pleased to see CFR giving coverage to an important country like Nigeria.

    However, I must disagree with the first comment on this article. I do not think it is not quite accurate to say that most Nigerian people don’t have sympathy toward hostages, especially given that an increasing number of Nigerian citizens are being kidnapped themselves by criminal gangs. This type of terrible crime is blind to nationality.

    Further, it is not true that most Nigerian people weren’t horrified by the brutal killings of Christopher McManus and Franco Lamolinara. I have already seen hundreds if not thousands of Nigerians denouncing this senseless violence on various forums and Facebook pages. The fact that these good people reject violence does not necessarily always equate to an blanket agreement with the reaction of foreign parties, wouldn’t you agree?

    We published an article concerning some of the regional rivalry between South Africa and Nigeria upon which we would we would welcome your comments and perspectives:

  • Posted by sunny kwushue

    The nation of Nig remain one of the only nation’s in th world which doesn’t not give provincial treatment to her citizens,any where you go in the world you ll see there foreign polices saying any nation that chooses to do beusiness here must employ 50% it her citizen.but here in Nig is a different ball game why do we chose to be these heart harden to our self.

  • Posted by Furious Frank

    The rivalry between South Africa and Nigeria is not policy driven but people driven. Nigeria perhaps has the most educated elites in the continent and they are proud and confident to boot! As Richard Dowden pointed out in his book on Africa, “In business, law, science, art, literature, music, sport, Nigeria produces phenomenonally talented individuals as if its super heated society throws up brighter, hotter human beings than anywhere else.” That is a statement of fact. Add the fact that Nigeria never really put up with any inferiority complex during the colonial subjugation of the continent.

    Most Nigerians believed that it is their nation’s destiny to lead Africa given the fact that one out of every six black African on planet earth today lives in Nigeria or can trace their root to Nigeria. This is why the nation’s foreign policy often seems to go against it’s own economic interest. Nigeria pushed to end apartheid even when it’s economy suffered a jolt as a result of nationalization of corporations with links to apartheid South Africa. This policy seems to have run through the vieins of every administration in Nigeria, be it military or civilians.

    South Africans xenophobic riots in 2008 against Nigerians and Zimbabwe opened the eyes of Nigerians at large to the limitations of their policy in the African continent. Nigerians always stand up for free trade as it has many successful business persons with transborder corporations all over the continent. That is the main reason why Nigeria tolerated the incursions of South African businesses in the Nigerian economy and that leverage looms large in the capitulation of the South African foreign ministry following the recent incidence. South Africa seems to have rallied a coalition of pro-Ghadafi “sit-tight” rulers at the recent African Unity conference against Nigeria and that also plays into the recent episode.

    I expect more clash in the future between the two nations, but events in Africa are often dictated by “happenstance” than a deliberate policy.

  • Posted by South African

    Nigeria will never be over South Africa. i have learned something in many posts and comments made by Nigerians that they likr claiming things they don’t have. The sooner they accept that they are not the African giants and start adhering to our principles, the better. We are trying to make this continent a better place for all, a competetive continent in the world and a developed continent. Resources don’t mean that you are the best because you can have them and be unable to run them. This thing of Nigerians trying to compete with us won’t get them anywhere. They are threatning that they will do this and that to our investment companies in their country as if it will do them any favour. they must know better as educated people of africa that, if our businesses can be closed down in Nigeria, Nigerians are going to suffer more than we will. Investments benefit both the investors and countries where where the investment take place. Nigeria is the worst country in terms of political instability in Africa, and i need not to remind you guys that political instability affect the economy of the country.

    Tripoli have tried to compete with Pretoria in the past but it failed. That was when Gaddaffi was campaigning for the United States of African and we beat him with our lobbying for the foundation of the African Union which was founded in Durban, South Africa. NEPAD and APRM are the examples of how committed South Africa is to the development of Africa as we were the driving force behind the creation of those bodies. We are the major and uncontested contributor to the GDP of the whole continent. Nigeria with its yearly attacks between certain groups of people in that country shows that, Abuja is no where near being the leader of Africa. Abuja must just accept that Pretoria rules and accept being led by this giant. We want to lead this continent not because we want status but because we want this continent to radically change for the better and lead the world and we are the only country which has the potential to transform this continent with the support of other African states including Nigeria. We are the driving force towards the implementation of the African Renaissance values in the entire continent and, we don’t need competitors, we need supporters. If you can ask why Nigeria is so keen to competing with us, you will find that they merely want the status of being African giants, but what can they do for Africa? because as for us, Following the foundation of the AU,NEPAD, APRM and the effectiveness of SADC under our leadership, it evidently shows what we are capable of.

    Aluta Continua

  • Posted by Anwar Hussaini Adamu

    Very funny Mr. South African, but in the game of geo-politics things aren’t necessarily as simplistic as you think; a healthy competition between Nigeria and South Africa may prove equally beneficial to both parties. For one thing, it could force the Nigerian government to clean up its act and awaken to the responsibilities that its huge economic, demographic and military capability has bestowed upon the country- the only African nation with the influence that resembles regional nay continental hegemony. It could also foster prosperity not only in Nigeria;s and SA’s immediate neighbourhood but through out the region.

    You must however understand that, Nigeria does not in any way consider south Africa as an opposition to its foreign policy; after-all, it is the liberation of your country from Apartheid and an end to the last vestiges of European Colonialism that Nigeria adopted as the centre-piece of its foreign policy since the early 60s. It is Mostly Non-Nigerian Intellectuals such as Professor Ali Mazrui that champion a more pro-active role for Nigeria in its foreign-policy, a pragmatic doctrine they call Pax Nigeriana/ Pax Africana. You should ask yourself why do so many people continue to envision a future where Nigeria despite all its shortcomings, leading Africa to the summit of greatness; one that would fit Basil Davidson’s infamous phrase “Different, But Equal”
    Perhaps you may ask others with better knowledge about the sacrifices that Nigeria made and continue to do so, not for any geopolitical considerations, but for the greater good of Africa. Do ask Madiba, while the west and the east were using Africa to play out their deadly rivalry via proxies veiled under the shadow of alien ideologies, which country had the audacity to place itself squarely against our former colonial masters? Which country stood more firmly and expended greater resources or suffered higher casualties in the pursuit of stability and continental harmony?
    When South Africa matches the courageous resolve that Nigeria had demonstrated by single-handedly bankrolling and leading the efforts that ended decades of civil war in Liberia and Sierra Leone, in addition to the restoration of democratic civil rule in both war-torn nations, then we could talk about rivalry. For now, every attempt by democratic SA to place itself in opposition to Nigeria’s diplomacy, is considered a testimony, a medal if you like, and an un-doubtable legacy of Nigeria’s successful foreign policy.

  • Posted by Brandon

    Nigeria’s economy will never surpass South Africa’s economy, dream on

  • Posted by Quakou

    @ Brandon & Mr South African. I am not a Nigerian but will comment as an African in this blog. I have read through your comments and will conclude that you are just guided by your ignorance as a majority of average South Africans will do. Nigeria offers the best investment opportunities today on the African continent and its economy is growing at the rate of 7% well above the average of South Africa which managed to grow this year at the rate of 2.5%. The growth rate of Nigeria is projected to continue in that same fashion until 2020 whereas South Africa is projected to slow as a result of the Euro Zone crisis greatly affecting its economy that is very much linked to the financial systems of Europe. It is obvious that an economy growing with such strength will surpass the economy of South Africa. Come to think of it in 2005 China was the 8th biggest economy in the world. With a fast growth rate, it surpassed powerful countries like Britain, Germany, Japan with slow growth rates to assume the 2nd position. In this regard, what makes you think Nigeria will not surpass South Africa. It is not about past glories it is about who is emerging here. Whose economy is more attractive as an investment destination. The Nigerian government has implemented reforms that makes the country look attractive and besides the population of that country provides an incredible force that no investor can overlook. It is about time you guys should address your minds to the current events and understand that South Africa is not indispensable to lead Africa. With the dynamics of the world today any country can overtake any in terms of economy as illustrated with China above.

  • Posted by Akosa

    It quite unfortunate that most nation-states, if not all, are envious of Nigeria due to its wherewithal, human and non-human natural gifts; inspite its determination to jeer itself to global economic power status. What bothers most is the” taking for granted” by post-Apartheid South Africa, having forgotten in a hurry Nigeria’s manifest role to salvage it from the Supremacist White rule before 1994.

    Although, that doesn’t mean South Africa should pat Nigeria’s back whenever it finds the latter being morally culpable.

    Instead, there’s more to call to order in a roundtable as sister countries to iron out what could degenerate public mockery to potential “enemies” to the continent. This should the ideal way life for sisterhood.

  • Posted by Eizzy

    Well,I”m a nigerian local who lives in south africa and i could every bit of what south africa and nigeria is all about…Basically i think structurally and government wise south africa is leading nigeria in the way in the sense that they had left the white mentality installed into their upcoming generations moreover they have got whites living in the country,But vividly i won”t be biased in my conclusion that an average black south african does not the ability in ruling a large bunch of sturbborn continent in the name of africa for example you could look at their universities,Colleges,Hospitals e.t.c looking into the person who is sort of more the manager in those firms is either a white south african man or a foreigner …

    It just can”t work like that.Well i could say nigeria are much more ahead in individual wealth and management than in a large group ,I”d love we nigerians in diaspora to try and take this mentality into the large group of people if this things could be done in place,I”m sure nigeria is a much goody bag for the whole world to see globally

  • Posted by KELECHI

    Tell the south africans that we are not their rivals but their leaders as destined by nature,finally we have passed them as the largest economy in africa even against all odds,this is to tell them that we have come out of our long-over-due slumber.we just cant compete but we can cooperate.

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