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The appointment of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma at the head of the AU Commission last month after a fiercely contested election has left the organisation deeply divided.
The ascent of the former South African home affairs minister to the post was opposed by Nigeria on the basis that it broke with the unwritten convention that Africa’s big powers – including itself and South Africa – should refrain from seeking the commission’s top post.
Tshwane’s reluctance to acknowledge this and withdraw Dlamini Zuma’s nomination stoked fears that South Africa was pursuing a leadership role on behalf of Africa that Abuja has historically seen as its own.
Tensions between the two countries have been brewing for some time, and a recent meeting convened in Lagos by Cape Town’s Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) brought together senior Nigerian and South African diplomats and foreign policy experts in an attempt to explore these issues.
Building on the outcomes of a Nigeria-South Africa Bi-National Commission (BNC) meeting, which had been held in Cape Town a month earlier, the CCR seminar sought to help “reset” the bilateral relationship.
The two countries’ competition for diplomatic influence was discussed. Abuja and Tshwane have both made claims for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the world organisation’s most powerful body, with South Africa formally announcing its ambition in 2010.
The relationship also became strained after xenophobic attacks against Africans, including Nigerians, in South Africa in 2008; after increasingly divergent foreign policy positions in 2011 on the toppling of governments in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya; and earlier this year, when the two countries turned away each others’ citizens in a dispute over entry requirements.
But the two regional African hegemons were not always at loggerheads. In the not-too-distant past, the two countries forged a partnership that seemed, at times, to be akin to a “special relationship”.
In the 1960s and 1970s Nigeria, in its self-assumed role as the leader of the black world – it was and remains Africa’s most populous country – championed the anti-apartheid struggle.
Many Nigerian civil servants proudly remember the “Mandela Tax” they paid – contributions were regularly deducted from their salaries for the South African Relief Fund.
Subsequently, after 1999, the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria, Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo, initiated a “golden age” of bilateral relations, building new African institutions, working together to end conflicts in Africa, and leading sub-regional and continental economic integration and development efforts.
In addition, Abuja and Tshwane established the Nigeria-South Africa Bi-National Commission in 1999.
The partnership is still potentially Africa’s most strategic bilateral relationship, a view tacitly acknowledged by the recent meeting of the bi-national commission in Cape Town in May, when the body convened in full session – for the first time in four years – to resolve mounting tension between the two powers.
Diplomats on both sides stressed the importance of reactivating the commission and making it effective.
The establishment of focal points at the countries’ missions in Abuja and Tshwane and regular consultation between permanent secretaries and directors-general was agreed. It was suggested that the high commissioners from both countries should have better access to host leaders, and that the commission’s decisions need to be communicated at all levels of government.
In order for Nigeria and South Africa to co-operate fully to promote democracy, security, and development in Africa, their divergent national and regional interests need to be carefully managed. In particular, the two countries should co-ordinate carefully on any interventions in each other’s sub-regional spheres of influence.
It was recommended at the May meeting of the bi-national commission that Nigerian and South African diplomats in Addis Ababa, New York, Geneva, and Vienna should prioritise aligning both countries’ positions on key AU and UN bodies so as to promote African interests more effectively. For example, on the UN Security Council in New York, the five veto-wielding permanent members – the US, China, Russia, France and Britain – are adept at using divide-and-rule tactics to achieve their political ends.
This can lead to a blame game, in which the complicity of African countries on the council is sought for contentious actions – such as the UN-sanctioned intervention to seek “regime change” in Libya in 2011 – and Nigerian and South African efforts to keep and build peace in Africa are sometimes misinterpreted as attempts to further parochial agendas.
Resistance to such attempts at division could be bolstered by Nigeria and South Africa resolving their differences over representation on international bodies. Consideration should be given to a mechanism to formalise how the AU should select African non-permanent representatives to the UN Security Council.
One of the three non-permanent seats, for instance, could be rotated between Africa’s major powers; another between the continent’s middle powers; and the third between the smaller African states.
Abuja and Tshwane should also co-ordinate more effectively on nominations of senior officials to the AU Commission. In addition, Nigeria and South Africa should co-operate to support the African agenda on other multilateral bodies such as the G20, in which South Africa is the sole African country.
In support of continental interests, it was also proposed at the commission meeting in May that a tripartite group of Nigeria, South Africa and Angola could be created to consult on African issues, which could be later widened to include Ethiopia and Algeria.
Beyond the political sphere, greater South African investment in Nigeria should be encouraged to develop infrastructure and create mutually beneficial business models.
Economic relations could be improved through greater inclusion of the private sector in the bi-national commission’s work, and by relaxing entry restrictions.
Business schools in both countries should provide diversity training for SA businesses operating on the continent. A proposal to create a Nigeria/SA free trade area, which was made at the bi-national commission in March 2002, could be revived to remove high tariff and non-tariff barriers that inhibit intra-African trade.
A political commitment should also be made to create a free trade area between the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to promote regional integration and socio-economic development across Africa.
In addition, Nigeria and South Africa should lead efforts to redress capital flight from Africa – estimated at between $735 billion and $1.8 trillion between 2008 and 2010 – which would boost intra-regional trade, strengthen region-building efforts and help to alleviate poverty.
The bi-national commission should seek greater engagement from civil society in its work, particularly to counter common prejudices, such as widespread tales of Nigerian drug dealers and predatory South African mercantilists.
Governments on both sides need to work with civil society to communicate more effectively the benefits of close co-operation between the two countries.
Abuja and Tshwane should also seek greater public visibility for bilateral visits and events.
Links between trade unions, business organisations, militaries, sports clubs and cultural groups should be strengthened, and the establishment of friendship associations encouraged.
When Nigeria’s relations were at perhaps their closest with South Africa in 2000, Obasanjo noted that the two countries’ “destiny and the contemporary forces of globalisation have thrust upon us the burden of turning around the fortunes of our continent”. It is to be hoped that, in a renewed spirit of friendship and service to the continent, Nigeria and South Africa can once again work together to realise this destiny and lead Africa’s renaissance.
- Nagar is a researcher, and Paterson a senior project officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town. - Sunday Independent