South Africa starts new chapter with Nigeria

President Muhammadu Buhari is keen to restore good relations with South Africa. (Mujahid Safodien, AFP)

President Muhammadu Buhari is keen to restore good relations with South Africa. (Mujahid Safodien, AFP)

When President Jacob Zuma meets his Nigerian counterpart Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja next week, the two men will hope to put the embarrassing incidents that have bedevilled relations between South Africa and Nigeria in the recent past firmly behind them.

Two years ago South African authorities seized $15-million that had been brought into the country by Nigeria to buy arms. The money comprised $5.7-million that had been wired to Standard Bank and $9.3-million contained in three suitcases carried by Israeli arms dealer Eyad Mesika and two Nigerians as they arrived at Lanseria airport.

South African officials seized the cash after spotting discrepancies in the transaction documents, but Nigeria insisted the money was legitimately intended to buy arms.

This sparked a diplomatic row, with South African authorities saying the money could only be returned after a court order, which was issued in October last year following a series of diplomatic and legal representations. The cash is set to be returned to Nigeria soon by bank transfer.

Nigeria has said that in future it will only work through official ­government channels when acquiring weapons from South Africa.

The Nigerian defence minister, Mansur Dan-Ali, was in South Africa this week to look at ways to acquire weapons to fight terror group Boko Haram and to pay a visit to arms manufacturer Denel. He was due to meet his South African counterpart, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, in Pretoria, but she had to be in Cape Town for the National Assembly ­sitting on the motion of no confidence in Zuma. They have agreed to meet next week instead.

Another issue that soured relations between the two countries was the Nigerian government’s hiring of private security company Executive Outcomes to help fight Boko Haram. Members of the company have since returned to South Africa. The South African government considers members of Executive Outcomes – ­former defence force soldiers – to be mercenaries and has claimed their activities are illegal.

And then there were the deaths of 116 people – 84 of them South African – in the TB Joshua church collapse in Lagos two years ago.

The attitude of the Nigerian government in the wake of the tragedy was perceived as unhelpful and obstructionist, and it took the efforts of the minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe, to get the bodies of the dead South Africans repatriated after months of wrangling.

Other issues that have strained relations in recent years include the xenophobic attacks in South Africa last year, which also targeted Nigerians, and the deportation of 125 Nigerians in 2012 who had landed at OR Tambo International Airport and presented fake yellow fever ­vaccination certificates.

A Nigerian diplomatic source said the country would be using Zuma’s visit to restore the country’s image.

“Some of [Nigeria’s] activities of the past have not been representative of a good image for Nigeria,” the source said.

Buhari’s election victory over incumbent Goodluck Jonathan in March last year raised hopes that diplomatic relations with South Africa could improve. Some of Buhari’s allies, such as Atiku Abubakar, have been historically close to Zuma.

Zuma will be accompanied by various ministers, including those responsible for home affairs, international relations, trade and industry and mineral resources.

A business delegation will also be travelling with him. This will not, however, include representatives from cellphone giant MTN. The company was fined $3.9-billion by the Nigerian government last year for failing to deactivate unregistered SIM cards and is in the process of negotiating with Nigerian authorities on how to pay the fine.

It will be Zuma’s first official visit to Nigeria since Buhari took office.

Zuma’s office said: “South Africa and Nigeria have good bilateral political, economic and social ­relations underpinned by strong historical ties dating back from the years of the ­liberation struggle.”

The countries conduct their bilateral relations through a bi-national commission, established in 1999. Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, is South Africa’s seventh- largest trading partner in Africa.

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