By: Prof Adekeye Adebajo
Nigeria and South Africa account for about a third of Africa's economic might, and have led much of its peace-making and peacekeeping initiatives over the last two decades and a half. Both account for over 60% of the economy of their respective sub-regions. The success of political and economic integration in Africa thus rests heavily on the shoulders of these two regional Gullivers, who have both collaborated and competed with each other in a complex relationship that is also Africa's most indispensable. Nigeria remains among South Africa's largest trading partners in Africa, while Abuja and Tshwane have cooperated in building the institutions of the African Union. Both countries have sought to give Africa a stronger global voice, but have also competed as rivals on peacemaking issues in Côte d'Ivoire, Libya, and Guinea-Bissau. The rivalry between both powers can be compared to that between an eagle and a springbok: national sporting symbols in sports-crazy Nigeria and South Africa.
As a Nigerian who has lived and worked in South Africa since 2003, this author is particularly well placed to observe this relationship. Though Nigerians and South Africans are increasingly visiting each other's countries (about 48,000 Nigerians visited South Africa in 2015 alone) and trading more profitably with each other (bilateral trade was worth R55 billion in 2016), Nigerians often complain about the ingratitude of South Africans at failing properly to acknowledge their country's support for the liberation struggle against the apartheid regime. They also complain about what they perceive to be Tshwane's mercantilist behaviour in which South African companies make huge profits from Nigeria's large market of 180 million consumers, conduct apartheid-style labour practices, and exclude Nigerian companies from the 55 million-strong South African market. South Africans, in turn, often complain about the involvement of Nigerian citizens in drug trafficking and fraudulent scams, while its companies lament the bureaucratic obstacles and infrastructural deficits that make doing business in Nigeria so frustrating.
Some South African complaints about Nigeria are genuine, but others are based on stereotypes and caricature. It is, for example, sometimes shocking to encounter often xenophobic anti-Nigerian feelings, even among some South African intellectuals. The vast majority of Nigerian citizens in South Africa are law-abiding citizens and many of its professionals contribute positively to South Africa's socio-economic life. The anger of some of Nigeria's elite against South African companies in Nigeria is also sometimes shocking. South African firms in fact contribute to the variety of goods and services available to Nigerian consumers, and were important in opening up its telecommunications sector in the early 2000s. While South Africans tend to direct their negative stereotypes against Nigerian citizens, Nigerians tend to direct their wrath against South African companies. Both citizens and companies can, of course, become targets: Nigerian citizens were the objects of horrific xenophobic attacks in South Africa in 2008, 2015, and 2017, while the Abuja office of South African telecommunications giant Mobile Telephone Networks (MTN) – derided as "Money Thieving Networks" by Nigerian critics – was attacked in reprisal for the violence against Nigerians in South Africa in 2017.
But despite these disagreements, there are, in fact, many similarities between Nigeria and South Africa: both were born as a result of British amalgamations in 1910 and 1914. Both states have a triad of major ethnic groups: Nigeria's Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo, and South Africa's Xhosa, Zulu, and Sotho. Both have trained regional elites at their universities for decades; both have economies that are heavily dependent on mineral resources (Nigerian oil and South African gold and diamonds); both have multinational companies – such as South Africa's Anglo American and SABMiller and Nigeria's Zenith Bank and Globacom – which have expanded to dominate sub-regional economies.
Both countries have also had a tremendous cultural impact on the continent, as evidenced by Nollywood movies and South African soap operas; both societies are prone to incidents of violence and vigilantism; and both have perpetrated acts of xenophobia against citizens of neighbouring countries. Both countries can be compared to the United States: like Americans, Nigerians are often seen as brash, loud, and arrogant; while South Africans, like Americans, share a sense of haughty "exceptionalism". While Nigeria struggles with the issue of reconciling its over 250 ethnic groups speaking over 100 distinct languages, South Africa continues to pursue racial reconciliation between its black, "Coloured", white, and Asian populations. Like Nigeria, South Africa suffers from growing corruption, and is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Johannesburg and Lagos are two of the most feared global cities.
The contrasts between Nigeria and South Africa are also many. While Nigeria's legitimacy as an African power is unchallenged, South Africa's black government continues to struggle with its credibility as an African leader due to the continued dominance by the white minority of its economy and much of its higher education and civil society sectors. While South Africa's black majority struggles to emerge from the legacy of apartheid-era Bantu education, Nigeria has trained three generations of self-confident students and has the largest black intelligentsia in the world. While the entrepreneurial spirit of Nigerians – from Nollywood to street hawkers – has ensured it a reputation for resourceful innovativeness, South Africa struggles to implement economic measures to empower its black majority. While Nigeria represents the most indigenously diverse country in Africa, South Africa is undoubtedly the continent's most Westernised state.
While South Africa has been able to limit challenges to state authority, Boko Haram has killed an estimated 20,000 people in north-east Nigeria. While South Africa has, for years, had a steel industry that has fed its arms manufacturers, Nigeria's Ajaokuta Steel Complex – planned since the early 1970s and costing $5 billion – became a white elephant mired in corruption and inefficiency. While South Africa's digital-based cellular telecommunications network is among the world's largest, Nigeria's phone system continues to be notoriously erratic. South Africa produces ten times more electricity than Nigeria; the Johannesburg Stock Exchange's market capitalisation is 15 times larger than Nigeria's; and South Africa has more truly global multinational companies than Nigeria. While South Africa has several well-funded quality universities with well-stocked libraries, Nigeria's ivory towers are crumbling monuments to years of neglect and government closures. While South Africa has impressive transport and other infrastructure, Nigeria suffers from massive infrastructural deficits. While South Africa's liberal constitution of 1996 protects gay rights, Nigeria passed legislation in 2014 criminalising homosexuality (with 14-year jail terms).
With the recent assumption of South Africa's presidency by Cyril Ramaphos (a former chair of MTN), it will be important for Nigeria and South Africa to re-establish a common strategic approach if Africa's voice is to carry weight on the global stage. The bilateral relationship between both countries has been Africa's most indispensable over the last two and a half decades. If Africa is to be reborn, the Nigerian eagle must soar and the South African springbok gallop in sync.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Prof Adebajo's new book The Eagle and The Springbok: Essays on Nigeria and South Africa will be launched at UJ's Auckland Park Library (6th floor) on Thursday 8 March 2018 from 17h00 18h30.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in The Star (South Africa) and Business Day (South Africa), on 5 March 2018.