THE icy wind blowing down to SA from hot and humid Nigeria over mass yellow-fever certificate deportations this past fortnight has highlighted the tensions that lie close to the surface in this uneasy relationship between Africa’s two pivotal states.
This issue highlights not the problem of health requirements as much as the negative perceptions about each other’s nationals. The yellow-fever certificate issue is not new. It has been a thorny issue between the countries for years.
The question is why it has not yet been resolved by authorities on both sides of the fence. Notwithstanding SA’s apology to Nigeria for the poor treatment of Nigerian nationals, the issue at the heart of the matter has not been clarified. Are many Nigerians travelling on fake or problematic yellow-fever certificates or not?
It is clear this is not being policed properly at key points, despite the fact that SA’s authorities require the certificate in order to issue visas and immigration and airline authorities in Lagos are also supposed to do checks. And yet touts freely sell yellow-fever certificates outside Lagos’s airport.
Nigeria’s health minister says there has been no case of yellow fever since 1995 and there is no need for the certificate. But that misses the point. It is currently a legal requirement and should be respected by everyone.
But it is also not clear if there were real problems with the yellow-fever certificates of 123 people sent back off two flights 10 days ago, sparking the diplomatic incident, or if it was simply the result of bad attitude by a bureaucrat. The bilateral political dialogue that has taken place as a result of the diplomatic fracas has been positive. Officials have examined longstanding problems that have been raising tensions and perhaps they can finally be resolved. But it may take longer to tackle the deep-seated issues that lie at the heart of the problem.
Many analysts talk about the geopolitical aspect of the relationship — the competition between the two economic powers for prominence on the global stage. But it is actually the “soft” issues that have the most effect on relations between the countries.
Nigerians actively campaigned against apartheid for years and expected a warm welcome in SA in 1994. Instead they were greeted with hostility and suspicion.
The image of Nigerians being criminals was created by a tiny minority, but few South Africans bothered to look beyond the stereotype — although increasing business ties have markedly improved the situation.
The difficulty Nigerians experienced in getting visas to come to SA, and their poor treatment by officials at our diplomatic missions, fuelled tension and led Nigeria’s immigration authorities to tighten visa requirements for South Africans.
Unfortunately, when the political relationship hits a bad patch, South African companies bear the brunt of it as they are the face of the bilateral relationship in Nigeria. Business people suffered most from Nigeria’s retaliation on the visa issue and they formed the bulk of those turned back at the airport recently. The foreign minister had already threatened to “clamp down” on SA’s companies if SA did not apologise for its immigration officials’ actions.
Nigeria’s politicians also believe that the trade and investment relationship between the countries should be more equal.
This view negates economic and market realities but unfortunately it informs political sentiment.
Leaders on both sides have neglected the broader political relationship recently. The binational commission has become moribund and we have yet to see a state visit in either direction under the Zuma and Jonathan administrations.
No side came off very well in this unseemly diplomatic spat. For two countries that are seen as Africa’s key problem-solvers, there was no reason it should have come to this. Hopefully there is no lasting damage. The reality is that SA needs Nigeria more than Nigeria needs SA. The country is one of our biggest trade and investment destinations and a major source of crude oil.
Keeping the relationship on track does not mean compromising our regulations but it does mean applying them with respect.
• Games is CE of Africa @ Work and honorary CEO of the SA-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce.