African Press Association

EXCLUSIVE: Diplomats see more than meets the eye in superpowers’ spat

Presidents Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria

JOHANNESBURG, (CAJ News) – THE old-age African adage highlighting that when two bulls fight, it is the grass that suffers, appears to be ringing true in the frosty relations characterising Nigeria and South Africa, as diplomats wade into the divisions afflicting the two continental superpowers.

According to the envoys posted in Pretoria, there is more to the fallout than the recurrent xenophobic attacks in the Southern African country.

Diplomats speaking to CAJ News on condition of anonymity said the tiff represented the latest in a string of episodes pitting the country contesting for the “Big Brother” tag in the continent.

Besides being the leading economies, the duo also wield political muscle, with a sole permanent seat for Africa in the Security Council of a proposed, reformed United Nations.

“It is quite simple,” said a diplomatic from the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

He said while indeed the attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa, and threats of reprisals in Nigeria were condemnable, at diplomatic level, sentiments suggested diplomatic friction returning to haunt Nigeria and South Africa over who wielded more political and economic influence than the other.

The West African country, the most populous in the continent (187 million 2016 estimates), reacted angrily to the recurrent attacks describing them as “unacceptable” alleging over 100 of its nationals were killed.

A delegation of senators from Nigeria is expected to hold talks with members of the South African National Assembly this week.

“The noise about Nigeria and South is about economic dominance in the continent as well as jostling for power to become the only permanent UN representative of the African continent,” the SADC diplomat argued.

“If you remember quite well how Nigerian citizens complained about unfair treatment in South Africa, vis-a-vis South African companies operating in Nigeria also grumbling about foul business play, one would see there is a ‘secret war’ ongoing between the two countries,” said the SADC diplomat.

An East African diplomat based in Pretoria, to give credence xenophobia was not the issue at play, accused Nigeria of double standards.

In 1983, Nigeria retaliated and deported up to 1 million Ghanaian and other African immigrants when Ghana was facing severe drought and economic problems.

“What I find most funny is how the deportation of a ‘mere’ 97 Nigerians associated with drug dealing and promoting prostitution become hullabaloo,” he said.

“We have seen Mozambicans, Malawians, Zambians and Zimbabweans being deported, some unjustly, but diplomacy was sought than washing dirty linen in the public prevailed. So why Nigeria?” asked the East African envoy.

He added, “By 1983, Nigeria and Ghana were supposed to be best neighbours in the continent considering their historic relations that dates back to the pre-colonial period, but such never happened. Over a million Ghanaians found Nigeria as their preferred economic haven owing to the oil boom industry, but were deported.”

“Things got worse for Ghanaians in Nigeria when the country’s oil dried up, a development which saw Nigeria’s economic hardship soar above expected hence locals vented their anger on foreigners, precisely Ghanaians.”

The diplomat claimed Nigerians loved and celebrated the deportations of over a million Ghanaian at the time.

“Nigeria willy-nilly deported the Ghanaians whom the public accused of being illegal and stealing their jobs and women. Nigerians could not stomach the presence of Ghanaians.”

The diplomat claimed Ghanaians were loaded in trucks together with cargos while heavily armed Nigerian soldiers monitored developments.

“At least the government of South Africa is more humane in that it used luxurious airplanes to deport Nigerians.”

A North African diplomat in Pretoria said both countries were “guilty “of xenophobia.

“The only difference is that Nigerians cry too much. Maybe it’s because of they outnumber South Africa. The real tiff between Nigeria and South Africa is about who should be the Big Brother of Africa while on the other end the two nations fight to outdo each in the race to be the solitary UN permanent representative for the continent.”

Envoys mentioned a string of differences characterizing the two powerhouses in recent years.

Most recently, in 2015, Nigerian regulators punished South African mobile network operator, MTN, a record US$5,2 billion fine (about R83.2 billion), which was later reduced to US$3,9 billion (R62.4 billion) for failing to disconnect unregistered Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards, which Nigeria claimed were used by Boko Haram terrorists.

In a frosty turn of relations, several other South African companies with presence in Nigeria such as MultiChoice and Sun International Hotel Group have been at loggerheads with Nigerian authorities for alleged violating the country’s laws.

On the political front, South Africa was again at loggerheads with Nigeria over Western military intervention in Ivory Coast after the 2011 crisis. While Nigeria and the region advocated for invasion, South Africa preferred diplomacy with Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the election but clung on to deadly consequences.

A year earlier, the two countries were at opposite ends on the Libya crisis with South Africa’s voting in support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military intervention.

The antagonism would reappear in 2012 during a divisive election for the chairperson of the African Union Commission pitting eventual winner Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma of South Africa and Gabonese incumbent, Jean Ping.

Then-Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s government supported the candidature of Ping.
The relations thawed again when 85 South Africans were killed at a guesthouse of the Synagogue, Church of All Nations in Lagos, owned by Nigerian preacher Temitope Balogun (TB) Joshua collapsed.  Sport has also borne the brunt of the uneasy relations.

South Africa’s criticism and backing of Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth after military leader Sani Abacha’s government executed human rights campaigner, Ken Saro Wiwa, and his followers in

In reaction, Abacha pulled Nigeria’s senior men’s national team from the African Cup of Nations in South Africa, which the hosts would eventually win.

Research Fellow at the Hellen Suzman Foundation, Aubrey Matshiqi, said the tiff between the two countries should be amicably resolve.

“The problem with both countries is that they don’t really know who should be their strategic partners and strategic competitors in the continent, hence this unnecessary contestation,” said Matshiqi.

He urged both Nigeria and South Africa to view the following growing economies, such as Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Sudan and Tunisia as strategic partners in pursuits of their economic growth.

Veteran Nigerian journalist, Ken Ayere, who has worked as a bureau chief in South Africa for the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), said the tensions between his country and South Africa were “exaggerated.”

“Some of the differences between the two countries have been taken out of context. I can assure you, the picture out there in Nigeria is exaggerated. Such exaggeration and dramatization is inciting the Nigerian authorities to react angrily over their counterpart, South Africa.”

“There is an overreaction from Abuja without getting clear picture on the ground.”

However, on the xenophobic attacks, he argued poverty had been prevalent in South Africa prior to the influx of foreign nationals.

“Foreigners in South Africa are not the cause of poverty, there was always poverty even before Nigerians came to this country,” said Ayere.

He dismissed the claim by some diplomats that the spat between Nigeria and South Africa was about the position in the UN Security Council.

“The recent outbreak of violence in both Johannesburg and Pretoria is about economic opportunities. I call upon the South African government to urge its citizens not to engage in such deadly violence of burning other human beings,” said Ayere.

– CAJ News