Could it be that Nigeria is beginning to stir like Napoleon’s observation of China: “Here lies a sleeping giant, for when she stirs she will shake the world”? Or is that Nigeria is reminding South Africa that in population size it is bigger and in terms of contributions to Africa’s peace and stability it has more to offer?

Sanusha Naidu and Jude Udo Ilo
Date published on SAFPI: 
Friday, 30 March, 2012
Publication date of source: 
Friday, 30 March, 2012

Time for South Africa to stop sleep walking in Africa...

Series title: 
SAFPI Commentary No 04

The recent deportation of 125 Nigerians from South Africa on allegations of possessing fake yellow fever vaccination cards highlights the fractured and uneasy relations between Nigeria and South Africa. The anger raised by the immigration debacle cut across every strata of the Nigerian society resulting in fiery rhetoric from the Nigerian government, its National Assembly, and an outcry in the mainstream media and by commentators, condemning the actions.

 South Africahas since apologised for the deportation issue. Both countries have agreed to strengthen their dormant Bi-national commission and build up commitments to greater collaboration and communication on immigration issues that affects both countries, amongst other issues. South Africa, though, made it clear that it will not pay compensation to the victims.

Yet the deportation issue seems to mask a set of fundamental inadequacies in the relationship between Abuja and Pretoria that appear to underscore a deeper dissatisfaction with South Africa that goes beyond the deportation debacle. In fact the war of words from the Nigerian side suggests a lingering dissatisfaction with South Africa for lack of appreciation for the apartheid era assistance from Nigeria and a perennial disagreement with Nigeria on major continental issues. 

For some time now the view from the outside has been that South Africa’s economic infrastructure and the strength of its democratic transition makes it the continent’s economic powerhouse and the voice of the continent. Even South Africa’s own definition of its Africa policy sees the application of its continental engagements characterised by how it assumes the responsibility of advancing the African Agenda through its membership in global multilateral institutions.

What is interesting is that the view from the continent has remained muted. But where there are frustrations, these have been normally aimed at South African corporate expansion.

In both Nigeria and South Africa the tensions sparked by the deportations were identified as a result of what could be interpreted as a set of residual issues relating to the following:

  • That the Zuma Presidency challenged an agreed sub-regional position mandated through ECOWAS on the Ivorian Presidential crisis, and explicitly underminedNigeria’s leadership role in the intervention;
  • That the ruling party has failed to recognise the sacrifices made by Nigeria specifically and other African countries towards a democratic South Africa;
  • That Pretoria might be viewed as the economic powerhouse of the continent, but it is not invincible and
  • That South Africa disregarded a continental ‘gentleman’s agreement’ favouring candidates from small countries when it nominated Minister Dlamini-Zuma as chair of the AU Commission.

These underlying issues, amongst others, indicate that the lack of commitment towards maintaining and strengthening bilateral relations could have been boosted through track two-diplomacy from both sides.

What is clear, from the South African side, is that the situation regarding the deportation crisis should not have escalated into a diplomatic nightmare.

Moreover as much as the Nigerians are disgruntled (and rightly so) with the treatment of its nationals in South Africa, there must also be a level of honesty acknowledging that the sensitivities which underpin immigration and racial prejudices are not a South African exceptionalism.

At the same time Pretoria cannot ignore the image it purports in the continent with regard to the following questions: whether post-apartheid South Africa remembers the sacrifices made by other African countries towards a democratic South Africa? Or is it merely more of the same with the aggressive interventionism of the past now further augmented by corporate South Africa’s growing economic presence on the continent?

Clearly, for both sides a deeper understanding is needed as to why the deportation issue has triggered such a scathing response from the Nigerians.

Could it be that Nigeria is beginning to stir like Napoleon’s observation of China: “Here lies a sleeping giant, for when she stirs she will shake the world”? Or is that Nigeria is reminding South Africa that in population size it is bigger and in terms of contributions to Africa’s peace and stability it has more to offer?

Perhaps, the furore surrounding the deportation crisis is a wake-up call for what Pretoria needs to start recognising: that it is not the only voice on the Continent. But more than this, it also highlights that consideration must be given to the clash between reality and rhetoric when it comes to the African Agenda and whether there is resonance amongst AU member states and South Africa around how this agenda is viewed.

So where do Nigeria and South Africa relations go from here? 

First the commitment to strengthening bilateral ties through the Bi-national commission must not be an exercise in platitudes or short-term appeasement. Instead, and especially on the South African side, there needs to be a firm stance of public diplomacy that seeks to  educate bureaucrats and the South African public about the contributions and sacrifices African countries also had to endure during the liberation struggle.

Second, track two diplomacy must play a critical role in academic and scholarly exchanges, amongst others, so that both sides have a platform for constructive dialogue to promote a peer learning that generates knowledge about our respective countries. The impact of this must flow into the policy space so that informed decisions can be made.

Most importantly, and this is somewhat of a déjà vu experience, neither South Africa nor Nigeria can afford a stop-start relationship: the many demands in the realm of continental peace and security on the continent do not allow for this. The Bi-national Commission was established after dedicated groundwork by a range of academics, commentators and researchers on both sides who supported official efforts at normalising relations in the late 1990s. That carefully crafted relationship was allowed to languish.

Both sides, at the level of government and civil society, should return to that initial outreach process and revitalise it, but this time with a firm commitment to an enduring relationship built on regular contact, dialogue and cooperation. Together, these two countries have the power to make a lasting and positive impact on the continent, but this will only happen if we make a concerted effort to understand each other, and to work together with dedication and in an atmosphere of trust and confidence.

Naidu is Senior Researcher in the South African Foreign Policy Initiative (SAFPI) programme based with the Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSF-SA) in Cape Town and Ilo is an advocacy officer based in the Nigerian country office of the Open Society Initiative West Africa (OSIWA). 

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