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Obasanjo, Mbeki as thick as thieves

Rumours of a rift between Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki have been much exaggerated. These reports were particularly widespread after the Commonwealth summit in Abuja last December and were picked up in the Mail & Guardian (”Zimbabwe ruins African unity”; January 9)

The pundits of such rumours fail to understand the political depth of Africa’s most strategic bilateral relationship. As Obasanjo told Mbeki in Abuja in October 2000: ”Our location, our destiny and the contemporary forces of globalisation have thrust upon us the burden of turning around the fortunes of our continent. We must not and cannot shy away from this responsibility.” This is a close relationship forged during Mbeki’s time as head of the African National Congress office in Lagos, when Obasanjo was head of state in the late 1970s.

Calls for Africa’s two potential hegemons, South Africa and Nigeria, to impose a Pax Africana on the continent grew louder after the American-led United Nations debacle in Somalia in 1993 made it clear that most Western countries were unwilling to send their boys to die in African wars, as most shamefully demonstrated by the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

South Africa led a controversial peacekeeping mission into Lesotho in 1998 and Pretoria is currently leading peacemaking efforts and contributing substantially to peacekeeping missions in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nigeria has led three peacekeeping missions into Liberia and Sierra Leone in the past decade.

Mbeki and Obasanjo are, however, prophets who have been more celebrated abroad than at home. Both have faced severe criticism at home for embarking on frequent foreign trips and for not spending more time on alleviating pressing problems of poverty, unemployment and crime.

Both leaders have huge domestic challenges in consolidating their fragile democracies and closing the massive socio-economic gaps caused by decades of apartheid and military misrule. Both countries remain deeply divided: South Africa along racial and class lines; Nigeria along ethnic and religious lines. Nigeria, despite its oil wealth, is ranked among the poorest countries in the world. Nearly half of South Africa’s population is unemployed and the country has the world’s highest Aids rate.

Despite these constraints, however, Pretoria and Abuja still possess the attributes to become Africa’s leading powers. They have two of the continent’s largest armies, account for more than half of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic strength and host about a quarter of its population.

Mbeki and Obasanjo have indefatigably traversed the globe spreading the idea of an ”African renaissance” — focusing largely on democracy, development and security — and seeking foreign investment to revive Africa’s ailing economies.

While Mbeki can be viewed as the ideas and values man, Obasanjo, a former soldier and farmer, may be described as the practical, institutions man. Mbeki has stressed values and norms such as democratisation and governments of national unity, sometimes modelled on South Africa’s own political settlement. Obasanjo has pursued a more institutional approach, pushing the African Union to adopt the idea of a Conference on Security, Stability, Development and Cooperation in Africa, modelled on Europe’s ”Helsinki process”, which promoted shared values of good governance. Nigeria’s leader has also promoted institutional links between the Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community of West African States, and has been active in efforts to resolve Zimbabwe’s political crisis through the Commonwealth.

Both Mbeki and Obasanjo have lobbied the rich world to focus greater attention on African problems. At the G8 meeting of the world’s richest states in 2000, they argued that the rich world should forgive Africa’s debt. Both have called for technology and resource transfers from the West to Africa, criticising the gap between promise and delivery on the part of most Western states.

The New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), championed most vociferously by Mbeki and Obasanjo, proposes a simple bargain: the West provides debt relief, opens its markets, invests in Africa and supports peacekeeping missions, in exchange for democratic accountability and financial probity by African leaders through a self-monitored peer review mechanism. The resources provided for Nepad have, however, been disappointing.

An important obstacle to fulfilling the dream of an ”African renaissance” centred on a Pretoria-Abuja axis is that success relies too heavily on the personal relationship between Mbeki and Obasanjo. There is a need to institutionalise the bilateral relationship between the countries so that it survives the exit of both leaders from the national stage.

The creation of a bi-national commission and growing bilateral commercial ties could help to overcome this concern. In 1999 the two countries established a bi-national commission to promote trade and political cooperation, which has since met five times. A Nigeria/South Africa chamber of commerce was established in 2001.

Trade between the countries has exceeded R3-billion, with Nigeria sending oil to South Africa in exchange for manufactured goods and technology. Nigeria has already become South Africa’s fourth-largest trading partner in Africa. South Africa’s MTN has a large stake in Nigeria’s mobile market, while Pretoria is helping to revitalise Nigeria’s electricity and rail sectors. ThisDay newspaper, launched in South Africa last year, is owned by Nigerian investors.

The idea of Nigeria and South Africa as continental leaders is far from universally accepted. The strategic alliance between the two countries is seen by some as little more than a new breed of African imperialism.

Only by taking measures to alleviate such concerns can South Africa and Nigeria become the continental beacons of democracy and engines of economic growth to which their leaders aspire.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town. Dr Chris Landsberg is director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg

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