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South Africa-Nigeria Tensions: Whither Cooperation for Common African interests?

Wasted opportunity is a phrase that best captures the unexplored possibilities for cooperation between two of Africa’s major powers — Nigeria and South Africa. Embroiled in numerous feats of tug-of-war, South Africa and Nigeria find themselves opposing one another too often. This leaves little room for heightening political and economic cooperation between the two African powerhouses.

The battle for a potential African seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has been a major source of contention between South Africa and Nigeria. As the most populous African nation, Nigeria’s permanent membership on the UNSC would more proportionately represent the African continent. Similarly, as the most economically advanced country in Africa, a seat for South Africa could signify increased economic possibilities for UN operations in Africa. While both South Africa and Nigeria offer compelling arguments for UNSC permanent occupancy, they would do well to ensure that their competition for permanent membership is not at the expense of their relationship.

Côte d’Ivoire’s 2011 post-election ruffle between Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo presented an opportunity for Nigeria and South Africa to reflect a united front and put an end to the explosive situation. However, the failure of the two hegemons to achieve consensus on whether to oust Gbagbo or to seek a negotiated settlement between Ouattara and Gbagbo underscored disunity between the two states. Similarly, concerning the Libyan crisis, Nigeria’s move in recognising the National Transitional Council (NTC) rebels went against South Africa’s decision, which sought a negotiated settlement between the NTC and pro-Gaddafi forces. A united South Africa and Nigeria in these pivotal instances, would not only increase the chances of achieving the stipulated objective, but would portray Africa as a continent that is capable of deciding what it wants.

Even when not engaged in power struggles, Nigeria and South Africa are falling short of optimising cooperation opportunities that could strengthen ties, promote economic development and promote Africa’s cause on the global arena. The long envisaged Bi-National Commission (BNC) between South Africa and Nigeria has grappled with going much further than having annual talk-shops that discuss the possibility of strengthening economic and trade relations between the two states. The potential of the BNC cannot be overstated, especially when viewed with regard to the possibility of combining resources and intelligence to fight transnational crime. Crime and immigration concerns are some of the areas that affect South Africa/Nigeria relations and so concerted efforts to addressing these issues would provide opportunity for the two states to deepen cooperation and promote economic development.

South Africa and Nigeria have made significant progress in expanding economic ties between the two countries, as South African companies have made inroads into the Nigerian economy. Telecommunications giant; MTN, Protea Hotels and Woolworths; one of South Africa’s departmental stores are just a few of the South African companies that have moved in to Nigeria. Such moves are positive, in that they highlight Africa’s potential to develop without Western involvement. However,

suspicion and distrust for South Africa’s ‘imperialist motives’ in Nigeria hamper more resolute economic cooperation between the two nations. Conversely, security concerns in parts of Nigeria, where ethnic and religious travails exist also diminish the investment potential of Nigeria.

The South African vs. Nigerian battle shows no sign of coming to a close, as South Africa’s 2011 bid for the position of African Union (AU) Chairperson, provoked a similar response from its West African counterpart, in the form of a bid for the peace and security commissioner position. Nigeria’s bid for a position, which has historically been filled by North African States, could be viewed as a knee-jerk reaction to South Africa’s move in bidding for AU Chair, a position usually filled by smaller states.

Both Nigeria and South Africa need to lay aside their differences and refocus their attentions on adopting measures that would improve Africa’s standing both politically and economically. Increased cooperation between South Africa and Nigeria would increase the possibility of developing and harmonising an African agenda in the global stage. Arenas such as the G20, the Word Trade Organisation (WTO) and the UN, for instance, would see a more united Africa. Delegations from South Africa and Nigeria in multilateral settings would be more capable of pooling their resources and representing Africa’s needs in a more functional way. Deeper collaboration between Tshwane and Abuja would furthermore assist in providing African solutions to Africa’s problems and would allow for the harnessing of efforts towards addressing issues that arise on the African continent, whether it is in Somalia, Zimbabwe, Libya or Madagascar. Collaboration in peacekeeping, for instance, would promote peace and security on the continent.

I do not suggest that an alliance between South Africa and Nigeria would be the ‘cure for all ills’ in Africa, as cooperation from other key actors on the continent would be essential. Instead, partnership between these two key players would be a starting point on which to build other cooperation initiatives and to maneuver through the political and socioeconomic quandaries facing Africa. Collaboration should thus, be prioritised in the foreign policies of both states and implemented more rigorously.

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