AT A dinner in Johannesburg a few weeks ago, hosted by the South African chapter of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation, former presidents and Olusegun Obasanjo recalled the early days of the Nigeria-SA relationship that goes back to the 1960s. The two men are seen as representing the “golden age” of the relationship. Obasanjo reminded the audience that Nigerian public servants had a percentage of their salaries docked for SA’s liberation struggle and provided thousands of scholarships for black South Africans to study in Nigeria. SA regarded Nigeria as one of the frontline states in the fight against apartheid, along with the countries in southern Africa.
They highlighted the importance of a strong relationship between the two pivotal states for the stability and prosperity of the continent.
Their remarks followed the deliberations of the first SA-Nigeria Binational Commission meeting in four years, held in May, where frank but cordial discussions were held to strengthen bilateral relations and to address the procedural “irritants” that led to the public fallout between the countries earlier this year.
A meeting in Lagos earlier this month attended by high-level diplomats, foreign affairs officials, academics and business people looked back at the history between the countries to see how resentments have developed and how they can be addressed. Political rivalries around leadership roles were discussed at length. The contest for a permanent African seat on the United Nations Security Council was largely dismissed on the basis that no such seat yet exists. But it was less easy to dismiss SA’s bid for the African Union (AU) Commission c hairmanship, especially with the second round of voting on the two candidates for the seat — and Gabon’s Jean Ping — scheduled for the AU summit next month. There is no doubt the relationship is at a crossroads. The timing of SA’s AU bid could not be worse.
Nigeria is adamant about its support for the informal convention that precludes five big states in Africa — SA, Nigeria, Egypt, Libya and Algeria — from standing for key AU positions. Clearly it also believed SA supported it too — until recently.
SA argues it has been nominated by southern Africa to stand for the position and it is not acting unilaterally. The country says its actions are not illegal. And they aren’t. But, as an international diplomat at last weekend’s meeting asked: “It’s not illegal, but is it wise?” Nigeria has made it clear that it intends to abide by the convention. This means it will support Gabon in the AU vote.
The issue needs to be handled carefully by the diplomats as it may be another thorn in the side of the fragile relationship, however the vote goes. Nigeria’s disapproval of SA’s bid for political influence at any cost and SA’s disappointment about Nigeria’s inflexible position will have consequences. It has the potential to damage trust.
I believe the AU needs all the help it can get and there is no doubt that the big states would bring more credibility and capability to the organisation. But this would require finding a way to work together rather than ending up in divisive rivalry over issues of little concern to most Africans.
If SA wins the vote, it is likely to be a hollow victory. It might compromise important partnerships on a continent where the country’s seriousness about its African agenda is already in question. If it loses, Nigeria will probably be blamed and negative sentiment towards that country could spread beyond SA into the southern region. SA could use its influence more strategically by helping to find another southern candidate for the position.
Whether the informal convention on big states’ participation in key roles serves the continent well is an issue that needs to be discussed — but not in an atmosphere of hostility and brinkmanship.
What is really driving SA in this? Could it be that it needs to prove to its partners in the Group of 20 and Brics that it has the leadership and influence in Africa they assume it already has?