/ 9 April 2015

Editorial: Giants must work together

Rivalry between Jacob Zuma
Rivalry between Jacob Zuma

South Africa is planning to release money that was confiscated from Nigerian officials last year when they arrived here with suitcases full of cash, intending to buy arms illegally. It is alarming that Pretoria is willing to subvert an ongoing criminal investigation in exchange for normalising relations with the new administration in Nigeria, led by the newly elected Muhammadu Buhari. We agree that defusing tensions between Abuja and Pretoria is important, but not at the expense of the rule of law.

Nigeria and South Africa have long competed for the position of the continental superpower. Relations between the two countries have mutated over the years, but they ended up in a state of cold war that got worse after Nigeria rebased its gross domestic product, the results of which made it the continent’s largest economy, seizing South Africa’s former top position. Recently, the jostling between the two nations seemed to be something other than genuine and healthy geopolitical competition; rather, it has looked like an egotistic, partisan rivalry between President Jacob Zuma and outgoing Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan.

This needs to stop. It is in South Africa’s best interests to work closely with Nigeria for both economic development and, most crucially, to defeat terrorism. Nigeria has seemed insufficiently organised, militarily, to face up to terror group Boko Haram, which has already exported its terrorism to neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon. This could have a ripple effect of destabilisation right across the continent.

A militarily strong Nigeria means a stable West Africa and the end of movements such as Boko Haram. Nigeria was once very militarily capable: it proved itself through its leadership of Ecomog, the multilateral West African armed force that helped to defuse the conflict in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Moreover, a stable and economically booming Nigeria means that Boko Haram will find it difficult to recruit unemployed, frustrated young men.

South Africa also needs Nigeria – in our own national interest. First, South Africa needs access to Nigeria’s vast markets, as shown by the financial success of companies such as MTN in Lagos, and we can only achieve this economic goal if there is a stable Nigeria. Second, Pretoria needs an influential and trusted ally in multilateral forums. The one-time duet of Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo, formerly Nigeria’s leader, raised Africa’s voice and stature in global forums. Fragmented communication and lack of co-ordination by a weak African Union have resulted in policy disjunction and incompetence but, if we get it right, Africa’s economic powerhouses could considerably boost development on the continent.