87. Economic woes reduce Africa’s giants to featherweights

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 21 October 2019
Publication: Business Day (South Africa)

Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari’s three-day state visit to South Africa this month took some political courage. He was under enormous pressure not to travel to Johannesburg following the recent xenophobic attacks against Nigerian businesses that led to about 600 of its citizens (many of them professionals) being evacuated back home. An estimated 500,000 Nigerians are thought to live in South Africa. The Binational Commission between both countries had not met in six years.

Four issues dominated deliberations. First, both leaders discussed key bilateral, continental, and global issues. In reality, presidential polls in Nigeria and South Africa this year distracted attention from bilateral cooperation, and the fact that neither president personally attended the other’s inauguration was not a good sign for this bilateral relationship.

The second key issue was bilateral trade, worth about 50 billion Rand last year. About 120 South African firms work in Nigeria’s 180 million-strong market in diverse sectors, while 90% of Abuja’s exports to the 57 million-strong South African market consists of oil. Both countries committed to making it easier for their businesses to operate in each other’s market. A Joint Ministerial Advisory Council on Industry, Trade, and Investment was also announced.

Buhari curiously sent his minister of state for industry, trade, and investment, Maryam Katagun, to share the stage with Ramaphosa at the joint business forum, raising diplomatic eyebrows. The forum praised Transnet’s role in efforts to revive Nigeria’s railway sector; and highlighted both government’s efforts to create a joint automotive sector. South African companies, though, expressed continuing difficulties in finding Nigerian business partners. Ramaphosa, in his speech, pushed for the rapid implementation of the continental free trade area; promoted the upscaling of the continent’s infrastructure; and advocated increasing both countries’ electricity output.

The third issue – the proverbial elephant in the room – involved the recent spate of xenophobic attacks affecting citizens of not just Nigeria, but also Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Somalia. Reprisal attacks by Nigerian looters against Shoprite, MTN, and Pep Stores in Lagos led to the temporary closure of these businesses. While condemning the attacks, Ramaphosa argued that other foreigners and South Africans had also been victims. Buhari warned his compatriots in South Africa to follow the laws of their hosts, noting that: “When you are in Rome, behave as Romans do.”

To forestall further xenophobic attacks, both leaders announced the establishment of an early warning system – involving the two governments and civil society – and mediation mechanisms. These instruments had, however, been agreed after earlier attacks against Nigerians citizens and property in Johannesburg in 2017, but were never set up. Despite the announcement of implementation mechanisms, it is unclear why one should believe that things will be different this time. A lack of political will and deep mistrust still characterise this relationship, and empty symbolism often masquerades as concrete substance.

Another example of this diplomatic shadow-boxing was the announcement by both presidents of the re-establishment of the South Africa/Nigeria Consular Forum which is to meet twice a year. Restrictive visa policies have been one of the thorniest issues in this bilateral relationship.  Abuja and Tshwane had already agreed in 2012 to facilitate long-term visas for business people. This, however, never happened. One bright spot in the relationship has been the quiet, but effective military cooperation between both countries, as Nigeria struggles to pacify its northeast and other parts of the country.

Finally, both presidents discussed coordinating their approaches to South Africa’s current two-year stint on the United Nations Security Council, Nigeria’s presidency of the UN General Assembly, and South Africa’s chairing of the African Union next year. Both also reiterated the need to democratize and reform the anachronistic 15-member UN Security Council.

But despite the efforts to “reset” this relationship, both countries currently represent crippled giants suffering from high unemployment, sluggish growth, widespread youth joblessness, and low investment. Both also lack a genuine vision and leadership in promoting regional integration to strengthen the Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community of West African States as pillars for continental integration. Despite euphoric talk of a renewed “strategic” partnership, this relationship still has a long way to go before both countries can act as engines of growth to power Africa’s sputtering locomotive.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.