John Campbell

Africa in Transition

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

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Which is the African Powerhouse, Nigeria or South Africa?

by John Campbell
February 6, 2013

A general view of the South African Petroleum Refinery (SAPREF) is seen in Durban November 29, 2011. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters)


South Africa is usually regarded as Africa’s economic powerhouse, but international commentators increasingly talk about Nigeria displacing it. Simukai Tinhu tries to get beyond the hype and has written a thoughtful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of both countries in his article “Will Nigeria Overtake South Africa as Africa’s Powerhouse.”

He argues that while Nigeria’s growth rate is high, and its population huge, there are serious weaknesses and instabilities in its political economy. He cites the economy’s dependency on high oil prices, a small entrepreneurial community, the Nigerian brain drain to London, New York, and Johannesburg, corruption, poor infrastructure, the rough neighborhood that is West Africa, and the ethnic and religious conflicts that pose an “existential threat” to state stability.

As for South Africa, he sees the threat to its leadership coming not from Nigeria but from its internal “tense social atmosphere,” as manifested in the Marikana massacre. He claims South Africa has failed to analyze the causes of this tense social atmosphere, or to adequately address them.

Simukai Tinhu’s comments reflect the importance (I would say primacy) of good governance to sustainable economic growth. Here, South Africa with its functioning democracy, strong government institutions, independent judiciary based on the rule of law, and vibrant civil society clearly has an advantage over Nigeria. Both are plagued with corruption, but in South Africa there is the strong political will to address it, and corrupt public servants and politicians are charged, tried, and jailed. That is much rarer in Nigeria, if not unknown.

One factor Tinhu does not address, however, is the educational gap between Nigeria and South Africa. For all of its faults, South Africa has the strongest education system in Africa, and it is the only African country with universities that are regarded as world class.  That promotes the development of a diverse and innovative modern economy. The same is true of medical services. In Nigeria they remain undeveloped; in South Africa there are parallel first world and third world systems, and the HIV/AIDS burden has been much greater. Nevertheless, according to the CIA World Factbook, the average life span for South Africans is forty-nine years in comparison with fifty-two years for Nigerians.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    South Africa is no longer a “frontier economy”, but Nigeria has barely begun to tap into her potential.

    Secondly, don’t allow the sophistication of Johannesburg & Cape Town fool you, the black South African middle class isn’t necessarily better educated or better prepared than the middle class seen in Lagos, Port Harcourt or Abuja.

    Nigerians may not be as well educated as South Africans, but they are educated enough in sufficient numbers to drive a massive low-skill manufacturing sector – if we can get around to providing the necessary infrastructure.

  • Posted by Thomas Timberg

    More generally the question is why the persisting low levels of life expectancy in Africa versus countries of comparable or lower economic status in Asia? Indeed, perhaps the higher incidence of HIV/AIDS explains the Nigeria/RSA difference. But why is Nigeria lower than Ghana — and even Niger and Burkina Faso. Perhaps there are also some problems with the underlying data in each case — since the West African statistical organizations may be weaker than RSA’s.

  • Posted by Franklin Nnebe

    For now South Africa is clearly the African powerhouse. Its major companies stand out as global players, its infrastructure is world class, it devotes a large percentage of its resources to education such that its universities are centers of excellence and it leads on the African continent when it comes to research (see Thomson-Reuters). But the wealth and strengths of South Africa is concentrated amongst a few companies and a few people and look closer and the real South African story reveals a country suffering a socioeconomic disaster of ridiculous proportions. Disease, crime, drugs, homelessness, high unemployment, teen pregnancy and local corruption is world class and ironically, similar to the rise of the Black American ghetto post the civil rights movement.. It says that South Africa has serious challenges to overcome now and well into the future.

    On paper, Nigeria in population, size and resources should far and away been a dominant economy and country. With 60% of the Niger coursing through it and some of Africa’s most fertile soils, Nigeria should have been a global agricultural powerhouse . Having tremendous resources of oil and gas should have made Nigeria an industrial giant. Home to 1/4 or more of the Sub-Saharan African population on less than 5% of Africa’s land area Nigeria should have created many of Africa’s wealthiest cities. But like a toddler Nigeria failed and continues to fail at the very basic test of governance. Despite oil money, its thoroughly incompetent, visionless and corrupt leadership have like colonial countries failed to build anything without direct personal benefit. Conference halls, banquet halls, public buildings dot the Nigerian capital while nationwide infrastructure that counts – namely roads, rail lines, ports and power stations, are decrepit and in pitifully short supply. It spends more on 400 members of its National Assembly than on universities pumping out over 300,000 students per year. Its solution to public healthcare is to fly to the UK, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.

    For Nigeria when it confronts the legacy of rotten governance will it live up to its potential otherwise the dynamism its entrepreneurs and people are known for is lost in an environment custom-built by its rapacious leaders to fail.

  • Posted by Pekwa

    Type your comment in here.. A very interesting discussion. I agree with the last comment. Whereas South Africa boasts of world class infrastructure and a diversified econony, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few companies and individuals. An example is the retail giant, Shoprite which has penetrated a lot of African countries. You wonder why the economy isnt growing and unemployment is so high. As for Nigeria, the people are more innovative and enterprising than the black Africans in South Africa, but they’ve failed to fully harness their entrepreneural spirit, nationwide

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