President Jacob Zuma and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan inspect the ceremonial guard at Tuynhuys during state visit to South Afria last year by the Nigerian president. Next month Nigeria is expected to overtake South Africa as Africas largest economy, fuelling political competition between the two countries.

South Africa needs to step as up as Nigeria is set to become Africa’s largest economy, writes Peter Fabricius.

The humiliating defeat of Bafana Bafana by Nigeria’s Super Eagles in the African Nations Championship (Chan) soccer tournament earlier this month could not have come at a worse moment for South Africa. It only served to underscore the challenge which West Africa’s giant is increasingly presenting to its Southern African counterpart.

Next month Nigeria is expected to overtake South Africa as Africa’s largest economy, not by a sudden surge in economic activity but by an accounting exercise called “rebasing the economy”.

The Nigerian government claims that the size of the economy has been grossly underestimated for decades, largely because calculations neglected the contribution of new sectors of the economy such as entertainment and services in favour of more traditional ones, such as oil, gas and agriculture.

As a result, the Nigerian economy may well surge past South Africa’s, booming by 65 percent to somewhere between US$405- and $432bn, leaving us in the dust on a mere, $370bn.

The rise of Nigeria seems likely to thrust Nigeria and South Africa into increasing political competition too as Nigeria, never shy anyway, gains more confidence from its growing economic weight.

The signs are already evident. The two nations clashed over the resolution of the civil wars in Libya and Ivory Coast in 2011, with Nigeria fully backing forceful action to remove recalcitrant leaders in both countries, while South Africa warned of neo-colonialist, “regime-change” agendas by Western powers and called for political compromise with those leaders.

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan was furious that South Africa had meddled, as he saw it, in his backyard.

The turf war flared again at the AU summit in January last year when Zuma helped defeat Jonathan’s efforts to have Guinea-Bissau re-instated, even though it had not rehabilitated itself after a military coup.

And Zuma and Jonathan could well clash again at the AU summit this week in Addis Ababa over proposals to create an “African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises” (ACIRC), which would enable African countries which have the necessary military and economic clout, to join forces rapidly to intervene in conflicts using their own resources and paying their own way.

Zuma is leading the charge for ACIRC, which was inspired by the crisis in Mali, particularly, where French troops had to save the country from being overrun by jihadist and separatist rebels a year ago, because a proposed regional force could not muster in time.

Having to rely on the French was particularly galling to Zuma, who had staked Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s campaign for the AU Commission chair in 2012, largely on a promise that she would block France and other former colonial powers from meddling in African affairs.

Since then his embarrassment has only increased, as French troops have also come to the rescue in the Central African Republic.

But Jonathan is leading a group of about 12 countries, many of them West African, who oppose ACIRC, sources say. They argue that it is just duplicating the African Standby Force that has been under construction for more than a decade.

Zuma and other advocates of ACIRC counter that the ASF is taking too long to establish because it is so elaborate and so complicated – with 25 000 troops, 5 000 from each of Africa’s official regions – that it won’t be near ready for its scheduled launch next year.

ACIRC is supposed to be a stopgap measure, but Jonathan and his group apparently suspect it will merely justify stronger military powers like South Africa and Uganda throwing their weight around. They also worry it will bypass sub-regional groups like the Economic Community of West African States, which Nigeria dominates, as ACIRC will get authority for its missions directly from the AU.

South Africa is in global bodies like Brics and the G20 as Africa’s representative. It is going to have to improve its act to maintain that status as Nigeria rises.

* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.

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