34. Nigeria vs. South Africa: The Heirs of Rhodes and Lugard

Author: Prof Adekeye Adebajo
4 February 2018
Guardian (Nigeria) and Business Day (South Africa)
Image supplied by: 
maddie.lawn via Twenty20

Nigeria and South Africa  account for about a third of Africa’s economy. While Nigeria is the continent’s largest economy, South Africa is its most industrialised state. Both account respectively for over 60% of their sub-regional economies, and the success of regional integration in West and Southern Africa depends heavily on the vision and leadership of both countries. To understand this indispensable relationship, it is important to historicise this debate on Africa’s two regional hegemons.

Two British imperialists left enduring legacies in Nigeria and South Africa. Both were devout prophets and proponents of Pax Britannica, seeking to annex as much African real estate as possible in order to spread British rule, influence, and values. Cecil Rhodes attempted to establish a Southern African federation built around South Africa. While Rhodes pursued federalism for the sake of imperial expansion, the Governor-General of Nigeria, Frederick Lugard, did so for the sake of administrative efficiency. Rhodes proved to be the forerunner of apartheid, introducing racist and segregationist policies while he was prime minister of the Cape Colony between 1890 and 1896. Lugard’s amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria by 1914 hardened ethnic and religious identities and differences in Nigeria by keeping the largely Muslim North and the largely Christian South administratively apart.

Today, the economies of Nigeria and South Africa are still dominated by mineral resources such as gold, platinum, and oil. Nigeria is now one of South Africa’s largest trading partners in Africa in trade worth R55 billion in 2016. The Nigerian market of 180 million consumers is three times larger than South Africa’s 55 million-strong market. South Africa also has only six big cities, compared to Nigeria’s 27. Business people from South Africa and Nigeria now frequently cross each other’s borders, and there are over 120 South African firms working in Nigeria, while about 50,000 Nigerians visit South Africa annually.

The impact of Lugard on Nigeria’s unity was devastatingly negative. His opinion of Southern Nigeria was that “education seems to have produced discontent, impatience of any control and unjustified assumption of self-importance in the individual.” Lugard thus sought to prevent the evolution of an education system in Northern Nigeria that might challenge British colonial rule, attempting instead to foster in the Northern elite aristocratic British public school values. His social engineering resulted in less than half of one per cent of schoolchildren in Northern Nigeria obtaining education until as late as 1931. Such disparities have continued today, with the North lagging behind the South in education, health, and other key social indicators, and poverty rates being 15 times higher there than in the South. Late Nigerian academic, Raufu Mustapha, described Nigeria’s North–South disparities as “the most dangerous fault-line for the country’s continued peaceful co-existence.”

Despite efforts by Nigeria’s post-independence leaders to build a consociational federal system by creating more states, introducing the principle of “federal character” – to ensure equitable representation of all groups in national institutions – and insisting on political parties winning some support in all parts of the country, Nigeria’s Lugardian curse continues to hamper its efforts at creating a united nation. Calls continue today for “fiscal federalism” and “restructuring,” as do criticisms by Nigerian politicians of what they deride as the country’s  “military federalism.” In its sub-region, Nigeria created the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) by 1975 as a way of reducing French influence over the plethora of francophone states, and to benefit from a larger market. Today, Nigerian companies like Zenith bank, Glo, and Nollywood movies dominate West African markets.

Rhodes, the greatest individual symbol of imperialism, dreamed of building a railway from the Cape to Cairo. This ruthless diamond and gold magnate fought to spread  “enlightened” British culture, institutions, and rule to as much of Africa as possible. Rhodes described Africa north of the Limpopo as South Africa’s “natural hinterland,” and his white successors were, in a genuine sense, Rhodes’s heirs. Jan Smuts supported the idea of a united Africa within the British Empire. This vision was also backed by South African big business, which sought a continued supply of cheap foreign mining labour and access to African markets. D.F. Malan spoke of “preserving Africa for white Christian civilization,” and believed that Europeans needed to establish a trusteeship over Africans. Apartheid governments saw themselves as very much a part of the West. Hendrik Verwoerd – the grand wizard of apartheid – claimed that whites had brought civilisation, economic development, and political order to Africa, and believed that South Africa would determine the continent’s destiny. Even before Thabo Mbeki, these were the “Renaissance men” seeking to spread enlightenment to a “Dark Continent.”

Many Southern Africans today still complain about a mercantilist South Africa, and fear that institutions such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) will be used as instruments by a black-led government to fulfil the historical aims of South Africa’s albinocratic leaders and big business of incorporating neighbouring vassals into a South African-dominated “constellation of states.” These sentiments are often greatly underestimated by many ahistorical scholars of South African foreign policy, though the South African government itself tends to be more sensitive about its past.

South Africa’s white-dominated corporate expansion into the rest of Africa with companies like MTN, Stanbic, and Protea, and its export of an American-style mall culture through chains like Shoprite, Debonairs Pizza, and Game has been the most marked economic phenomenon of the post-apartheid era, with commercial interests having been established in the mining, banking, retail, communications, arms, and insurance sectors across Africa.

The main lesson from this tale of the inheritance of two imperial Englishmen is that Nigeria and South Africa should not compete, but rather complement each other’s efforts, to promote genuine regional integration in Africa.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is at the University of Johannesburg. He recently published his book The Eagle and the Springbok: Essays on Nigeria and South Africa (Jacana, 2017).