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Nigeria’s democratic advance: What does this mean for Relations with South Africa?

Andrea RoyeppenFollowing the defeat of Goodluck Jonathan by Muhammadu Buhari, AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said that this was “An election which demonstrates the maturity of democracy not only in Nigeria but on the continent as a whole”. From this it is clear that the recent success of the Nigerian election has gained increasing importance in the continental conversation on security and development. By reviewing the inconstant relations between Nigeria and South Africa, this analysis looks at how the democratic election of Buhari will impact on relations with South Africa. The myriad of internal problems facing Buhari as he enters his term of office form a constant and inevitable backdrop for his relations with South Africa, the continent and the world. However, while addressing issues of internal security within the state, Nigeria should still aim to effectively commit to relationships with strong developmental outcomes. Nigeria’s relationship with South Africa, often viewed as a competitive one, has been described as inconsistent.

Post 1994, relations between the two states were already less than cordial when former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela advocated for Nigeria to be removed from the Commonwealth due to human rights abuse of Nigerians under the rule of General Abacha. Relations between two of the continent’s economic giants then went through a restorative phase under Mbeki and Obasanjo, when the two leaders committed to peace, security and sustainable socio-economic development and governance through NEPAD as well as the establishment of the Bi-National Commission (BNC), out of which the South Africa – Nigeria Chamber of Commerce was birthed. This helped to stabilise bilateral relations between the two states. And so, with Nigeria as South Africa’s biggest trading partner in Africa, issues of continental development were addressed by the two states.

However, relations between Nigeria and South Africa were undermined when in 2012, a group of Nigerians attempting to enter South Africa were not allowed into the country because they could not produce valid yellow fever certificates. As a result, Nigerian authorities retaliated by deporting a number of South Africans. The strain on the relationship was made worse when Nigeria (as part of a larger ECOWAS strategy) threw its weight behind Jean Ping to continue as Chairperson of the African Union Commission instead of Nkosazana Dlamini - Zuma from South Africa.

The recent crisis with the collapse of TB Joshua’s church building in September 2014 in which 84 South Africans died also presented a difficult diplomatic period. From here on, the relations between the states were cordial but marked with a divisive tension.

The last defining situation which brought the Nigeria-South Africa relationship into question surrounds South Africa’s actions to block a legal arms purchase in Nigeria by seizing up to 15 million US dollars. According to a comment made by a top official in the office of Nigeria’s National Security Advisor to AFP last year, this incident had the potential to ‘affect bilateral relations between Nigeria and South Africa’1 with Nigeria threatening to retaliate against South African mobile service provider, MTN, which caters to a large Nigerian market.

These developments set the scene for the new Nigerian President’s future engagement with South Africa. Understanding the potential impact of the cash seizure on diplomatic ties, it has been reported that South Africa has made moves to return the money and start off on a good footing with Buhari2. These latest efforts might be viewed as a good start to strengthening relations between South Africa and Nigeria however, questions are now raised as to how the recent wave of xenophobic attacks in parts of South Africa will affect these bilateral relations?

Lessons learned from the past show that ties between the two states have largely been maintained by how the leaders relate to each other. Will Buhari and Zuma share the same rapport as Obasanjo and Mbeki? It is within Buhari’s interests to steer Nigerian foreign policy to South Africa in a more positive direction toward more effective co-operation. As a former military general, Buhari may ensure a better co-ordinated and strategic approach to the fight against Boko Haram.

To stabilise the country, restore its place in cotninental politics and rebuild its socio-economic ststatus, Buhari will need effective relations with other big economies – like South Africa. Stabilising the country and the region will obviously be advantageous for South Africa as Nigeria provides a gateway to important markets needed for South African economic development but this partnership should aim for balanced trade relations.

Consequently, while it would seem that Buhari’s fairly peaceful transition to the Nigerian Presidency could lead to a more stable and peaceful future for the continent’s largest economy and the region, it remains to be seen how Buhari will translate these dreams into reality and how Nigeria’s current commitment to stability will impact on diplomatic relations with South Africa. If Africa’s two continental giants are able to co-operate and maintain solid ties, this could translate into a stronger and more united front in multilateral bodies. If this is prioritised, furthering security and development on the continent could take on a different dimension including in respect of joint transformation of the AU peace and security architecture. The African Union Summit which is scheduled to take place in South Africa in June this year will provide a perfect space for Buhari and Zuma to actively take hold of the strategic importance of a strong relationship.

Ms Andrea Royeppen is a Researcher at Institute for Global Dialogue associated with Unisa. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD, Unisa

1 Nigeria threatens SA over frozen weapons deal http://mg.co.za/article/2014-10-08-nigeria-threatens-sa-over-frozen-weapons-deal 
2 Zuma’s cash plan to schmooze Nigera http://mg.co.za/article/2015-04-09-jacob-zumas-cash-plan-to-schmooze-nigeria 

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