THE arrival of Nigeria’s president in South Africa on Monday for the first Nigerian state visit since 2009 is an important symbolic development in the relationship between two of Africa’s most important countries. The intention behind this visit, and that of our president to Abuja recently, is clear. The states need to leverage their collective strength for the good of the continent and themselves, and tackle the issues that divide them. The relationship is complicated.
It is often described as being simultaneously co-operative and competitive. Unspoken rivalry about continental leadership bedevils relations. South Africa’s role of being Africa’s voice in international blocs has served only to rile Nigeria and South Africa’s attempt to leverage its Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) membership to gain favour in Africa has not impressed the Nigerians.
Commentators are quick to seize on issues that raise areas of competitiveness. One relates to the size of the economies. The rebasing of Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) from 1990 to 2008 brings it much closer to South Africa’s GDP. At growth rates of about 7% a year, analysts predict Nigeria will soon overtake South Africa. The prospect of being a bigger economy than South Africa is a source of great delight to Nigeria, going by commentary on the issue.
Ironically, high levels of diversified South African investment into and trade with Nigeria have contributed to its higher GDP. South Africa’s trade with Nigeria has risen from R709m in 2000 to R6.1bn last year and there have been some sizeable investments by companies such as Tiger Brands and SABMiller, as well as reinvestment into existing operations by MTN and others. The commercial interest in Nigeria by South Africa’s companies has grown over the past few years as wary executives have accepted that no African strategy is complete if it excludes Africa’s biggest market.
Strong political ties are important for the success of South Africa’s business in Nigeria. Most companies do not rely on the government to expand their business interests into other countries, but issues at an official level can affect the kind of welcome they can expect. So it is good for business that the leaders of the two countries are increasing official contact. It is also important that state-run processes such as the South Africa-Nigeria Binational Commission have become re-energised since last year’s spat over alleged yellow fever certificate infractions by Nigerians that led to deportations.
But problems remain at lower levels of interaction. Negative views about each others’ countrymen at a bureaucratic level and among ordinary citizens present a problem for companies, as they are the main nonpolitical interface with Nigeria.
The difficulty Nigerians have in getting visas to visit South Africa has been a key source of tension. The media, too, have played a negative role by perpetuating negative stereotypes. South Africa’s media have tended to focus on drug dealers and frauds, while Nigerian newspapers often characterise South Africans as arrogant and exploitative. Newspapers carry damning reports about visa problems and the treatment of some of their nationals in South Africa.
Nigerians report that they continue to be unduly harassed by our airport officials and our police. The perception that South Africa does not allow Nigerian businesses to invest here is incorrect but it persists, fuelled by uninformed debate.
This week’s state visit is, symbolically, an important event that is setting the tone for a new era in South Africa-Nigeria relations. It is important that our leaders are talking and that they are seen to be doing so. But we can only hope they will not be sidetracked by talks about grand plans for Africa.
The real problems dogging the bilateral relationship are at a micro level, and if they are not tackled, strategic co-operation at the macro level could be compromised.
• Games is CE of Africa @ Work and honorary CEO of the South Africa-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce.