What appears as diplomatic rivalry between Nigeria and South Africa has become more visible since the end of Obasanjo-Mbeki era as Presidents of both countries respectively. As opposed to the collaborative engagements in attending to African issues under the Obasanjo-Mbeki era, the trend in Nigeria-South African engagements at continental level has become pronounced in the different approaches adopted by Presidents Jonathan and Zuma’s administrations to addressing African affairs. This became manifest during the Cote d’Ivoire crises (2002-2011), the Libyan crisis of 2011 and the election of the African Union Chairperson in 2012. This has brought to the fore the role of personality variables in the conduct of foreign policy.
The foreign policy environment in Nigeria and implications for Nigeria-South Africa relations: Baseline study
It is safe to assume that the character of Nigeria’s foreign policy, from the early 1960s, logically shaped her firm stance against racism and apartheid in South Africa. To date, Nigeria has held firm to her ‘Africa-centered’ foreign policy, even when vilified and accused of playing ‘Father Christmas’ around the continent. This long-standing principle has seen her expend time and resources on issues affecting Africa and blacks in the Diaspora: the issues are too numerous to mention, whether in respect of financial or humanitarian assistance, as well as peacekeeping and conflict resolution.
Nigeria’s interest in the welfare of South Africans, whether under apartheid or at the present, is therefore part and parcel of her world view of being specially endowed as the country with the largest population of Black people in the world and that possesses the resources to help uplift Africa and Black peoples all over the world. Nigeria is quite unapologetic about this world view. South Africa should understand the role of Nigeria from this perspective and not from one which sees Nigeria as necessarily in competition with her. Indeed, it is germane to observe that it is South Africa that may be in competition with Nigeria. By this we do not necessarily mean only in terms of economic fundamentals, but in all ramifications. Indeed, it is possible that once South African leaders and citizens understand this, competition and rivalry between both countries will lessen or become non-existent.
Again, were South Africa not only to understand the Nigerian world view and role in Africa, but engaged Nigeria as a partner, and not a rival, as a point of official policy, then it is almost certain that not only South Africa and Nigeria would benefit immensely from this partnership, but the whole of Africa. History, mutual knowledge of each other, and necessity should be enough to spur South Africa and Nigeria towards a ‘special relationship’ rather than a ‘special rivalry’.
Related: A SAFPI series, all written by Dianna Games, which examines key issues in South Africa and Nigeria's bilateral relationship.