Nigeria and South Africa: The end of Boisterous Camaraderie?

Nigeria and South Africa: The end of Boisterous Camaraderie?

Dr. Abiodun Alao

For most of the 1970s, South Africa was a country very close to Nigeria’s heart. Many Nigerians still recall how their government deducted a day’s wage from the monthly salaries of all workers and how secondary school students voluntarily donated their lunch money to help fight apartheid in South Africa. With South Africa’s independence, the two countries realized that the struggle for the emancipation of blacks and the African continent had gained a major voice. Since then, South Africa has tried to remain close to Nigeria. Former President Thabo Mbeki’s close links with Nigeria, established while he was the ANC representative in the country, provided a strong boost to this effort. It was no surprise, therefore, that South Africa intervened when Nigeria fell under dictatorship. The Mandela government tried, even if not to the satisfaction of many Nigerians, to ensure that Nigeria threw away the feudal tyranny of the Abacha regime. There have also been close collaborations between the armed forces of the two countries. Formal and informal exchanges have also taken place between civil servants, non-governmental organizations and academics in the two countries.

This cordial relationship has extended to the international level where Nigeria and South Africa have tried to promote global peace through major international organizations. Within the Commonwealth, they served on the panels that looked at the situation in Zimbabwe and, until two years ago, spoke with one voice on a number of United Nations issues of concern to Africa.

It is against this background that it came as a surprise to some observers that the two took divergent positions on the issue of election of a new chairperson of the African Union Commission with the end of the term of office of Dr. Jean Ping. The election was scheduled to take place during the 18th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in January 2012 and Dr. Ping was re-contesting. He, however, faced opposition from Mrs. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs and former wife of South African President Jacob Zuma. Mrs. Dlamini-Zuma’s entry into the race raised a lot of dust due to the late announcement of her candidature and because it went against an unwritten rule that South Africa and four other regional powers, namely Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt and Libya, should not occupy the office of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission.

Her candidature was not announced until the end of 2011, although South African diplomats confirm that the decision to field her was made in August 2011. Some analysts believe that if the intention had been made known earlier, it would have been possible to address some of the issues that subsequently arose. In addition, Nigeria felt that by defying the unwritten rule and presenting a candidate for the chairperson elections, South Africa was, inadvertently undermining the Organization. It is against that background that Nigeria opposed the candidacy of Mrs. Dlamini-Zuma and voted for Dr. Ping, even though he had not been very pro-Nigeria in his policies during his first term.

The elections ended in a stalemate, even after three rounds of voting. During a fourth round of voting in which Dr. Ping was the only candidate, he still failed to secure the necessary two-third majority, thanks largely to the block voting position of the SADC countries. Under the circumstances, the Africa Union agreed to re-visit the issue at its next meeting in July 2012 in Malawi.

The politics of the Africa Union chairperson brought to the fore a number of issues that have been sources of disagreements in Nigeria-South African relations in the last two years, including Cote d’Ivoire and Libya. On Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa had been against the French intervention which Nigeria implicitly supported after the blatant recalcitrance of former President Laurent Gbagbo. Similarly, on Libya, Nigeria, a known critic of the late President Muammar Ghadaffi, endorsed his forceful removal while Pretoria found that venture repugnantly disgraceful to the African continent. Nigeria had been particularly surprised at South Africa’s position since Pretoria had endorsed United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the “No Fly Zone” over Libya, only to turn round and object to the NATO military intervention.

As Africa’s leading powers and strongest economies, disagreements between Nigeria and Nigeria pose particular challenges to Africa and the African Union. While respective national interests will sometimes dictate the pursuit of divergent policies, it is important to maintain a threshold to ensure that disagreements do not affect wider continental interests. While Mrs. Dlamini-Zuma’s candidature violates an unwritten rule, there is no doubt that she is an extremely strong candidate whose qualifications are not in doubt. It is generally accepted that she could have served credibly in the office. To save the continent from a protracted election process and maintain the credibility of the African Union, it may be best for both Dr. Ping and Mrs. Dlamini-Zuma to step down for a compromise candidate during the next round of voting in Malawi in July 2012. Africa is not in short supply of credible individuals who can serve as Chairperson of the African Union Commission. Continental interest will not be served if the two powers engage in a long drawn out fight over the Chairperson of the Commission. It is critical that Africa puts up a united front at the next summit and avoid another failure.


About africapeacesupport

Former Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral in Guinea-Bissau and Head of UNOGBIS.
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