Zuma oils the wheels of friendship

President Jacob Zuma is welcomed by his Nigerian counterpart, Goodluck Jonathan, in the Nigerian capital Abuja this week. (Emmanuel Wole, AFP)

President Jacob Zuma is welcomed by his Nigerian counterpart, Goodluck Jonathan, in the Nigerian capital Abuja this week. (Emmanuel Wole, AFP)

During his official visit to Nigeria this week, President Jacob Zuma went on "a big push" to repair South Africa's ailing relationship with the continent's second most powerful nation, after a series of dis-agreements that put a great deal of strain on the long-term relationship between the two countries.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo, the executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, said that chief among the reasons for the deteriorating relationship is that Zuma's administration has neglected Nigeria.

"South Africa was seen as wanting to prioritise Angola as a strategic power in Africa when Zuma became president in 2009," Adebajo said. "Nigeria felt its relationship with South Africa was being undermined."

South Africa has embarked on a charm offensive to convince Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan in particular that it wants the best for the continent in terms of development, the economy, security and peacekeeping measures.

At the end of the visit, Zuma told reporters that South Africa and Nigeria would use their influence to solve the continent's problems. "We believe that it's important to align and harmonise our thinking on matters that need countries in the continent to take specific decisions."

A source from the international relations and co-operation department, who has knowledge of the mission, said: "We are on a big push [to fix the relationship with Nigeria].
We've committed to buying more of their oil, so that warmed their hearts a bit."

Convincing Nigeria
Last year, deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe signalled that South Africa was looking to Nigeria for oil when he said: "We are quite confident that Nigeria will become one of South Africa's trusted suppliers of liquid fuel."

This week's visit went well enough for Jonathan to be paying a state visit to South Africa next month, and he has also been invited to the World Economic Forum, which South Africa is hosting.

But it wasn't easy convincing Nigeria to welcome Zuma and his delegation, said department sources. "We insisted on that visit. They asked why Zuma wants to see Goodluck and we pushed harder the line that we needed to prepare for the state visit [by Jonathan, to South Africa]," the source said. "Finally they relented because they want to come to South Africa next month when we're hosting the West (at the World Economic Forum)."

According to Adebajo, issues that increased tension between South Africa and Nigeria include that:

  • The two countries differed on how to approach the conflicts in Libya and Côte d'Ivoire. "Nigeria wanted [Laurent] Gbagbo to leave after losing elections and South Africa wanted to question Alassane Ouattara's win." Adebajo said South Africa's decision to send a warship to the Gulf of Guinea without consulting regional players angered Nigeria;
  •  Nigeria sees South Africa as interfering in West Africa's affairs, Nigeria's back yard and an area of influence, without consulting the strong regional player;
  • Nigeria was one of the first African countries to recognise Libya's National Transitional Council at the time that South Africa held back because it was unhappy with Nato's intervention;
  • Last year, South Africa deported 125 Nigerians for allegedly carrying fraudulent yellow fever vaccine certificates. In retaliation, Nigeria deported 78 South African business executives.
  • Nigeria opposed the election of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as African Union Commission chair because it felt South Africa imposed its candidature without consulting key regional power brokers.

The freshest allegation against Nigeria is that the country tried to discourage heads of state from attending the Africa Dialogue session convened by Zuma on the sidelines of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics) summit last month. This is what South Africans regard as "professional jealousy" that Nigeria harbours towards Africa's leading economy.

Competition between the two countries has contaminated the relationship. Adebajo said that Nigeria was irked that South Africa is the only African country in Brics and the G20. In addition, both countries are vying for a seat on the UN Security Council and though there is a possibility of two permanent seats for Africa, it might just be one. That will cause the two countries to "elbow each other", Adebajo said.

No need to compete
A department of international relations source said Nigeria is contesting the space occupied by South Africa. "But there's no need to compete, because South Africa needs to work with Nigeria to push an African agenda."

The department of international relations and co-operation's spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, said the visit to Nigeria was "successful" but he was unwilling to define the success in clearer detail.

"South Africa and Nigeria continue to lead the African agenda in terms of the AU vision," he said. "We're looking forward to the state visit in May and believe our relationship is growing stronger."

Shortly after his appointment last year as Nigeria's ambassador to South Africa, Sonni Yusuf told the Expatriate magazine that there is a "lack of balance" in the way South Africa trades with Nigeria.

"Very few Nigerian companies have set up shop in South Africa, largely due to barriers of entry," he said. "There have been indications for several years that these impediments would be addressed but not much has changed."

Yusuf said the only two Nigerian banks in South Africa – First Bank and Union Bank – have yet to be granted retail licences despite being in the country since 1999. "And yet South African banks trade freely in Nigeria. I am keen to address the issue of such imbalances."

Declining relationship
But there is a bigger problem that's making the relationship more difficult, according to Adebajo. "I don't think Zuma has the strategic vision in foreign policy that [former president Thabo] Mbeki had, and I don't think Jonathan has the energy and strategic vision that [former Nigerian president Olusegun] Obasanjo had."

The poor relationship between Zuma and Jonathan adds to the two countries' declining relationship.

"The difference between what you're having now and during [the]Mbeki [era]is that Obasanjo and Mbeki got along and they managed differences well," said a department source. "Tensions are glaring now because the current leaders are not getting along."

It's good that the two countries are reaching out to one another because their relationship is "essential" for Africa, said Adebajo. "Without the two countries working together there's no way Africa will have leverage on the international stage."

"In order for South Africa to reduce French influence in Africa it's got to work with Nigeria, which traditionally has seen France as an opponent in Africa. Under Jonathan, Nigeria doesn't seem to have been critical of the French intervention in the way one would have expected."

The department of international relations and co-operation source said: "It's sad that Nigeria no longer has a strong leader and it's not helping South Africa fight this battle. We need a country like Nigeria to help us."

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice. Read more from Mmanaledi Mataboge

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