Relations between South Africa and Nigeria have always had some turbulence. In the latest tense episode, Nigeria withdrew its ambassador, Uche Ajulu-Okeke, and its high commissioner, Martin Cobham, after a series of xenophobic attacks in South Africa in April.
Behind this latest quarrel lies a deeper and more enduring tension between the two countries rooted in their pursuit of global relevance and prestige. Both, for example, are competing for the yet-to-be established permanent African seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The big question is: will relations improve with the arrival of a new administration in Nigeria? That depends, in part, on how president-elect Muhammadu Buhari chooses to manage the decision made by outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration.
On gaining independence in October 1960, the Nigerian government joined the United Nations and vowed to fight for the liberation of other African countries that were still languishing under colonial rule.
As South Africa was under apartheid, Nigeria had no intention to forge relations with it. South Africa was a pariah state in the international community. These sour relations continued until 1991, when the end of apartheid ushered in democracy in South Africa.
Despite Nelson Mandela’s election as South African president in 1994, relations between the two nations continued to be edgy. During this period it was South Africa that harboured unease, expressing concerns about military rule in Nigeria.
In 1995, these hostile relations came to a head when Mandela called for Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth on the grounds that Sani Abacha’s government in Nigeria had no respect for human rights. The action that tipped the balance for Mandela was the Abacha government’s decision to execute Ken Saro-Wiwa, an esteemed Nigerian writer and activist, and the rest of the “Ogoni Nine”.
The post-Mandela era
In 1999, Thabo Mbeki took over from Mandela. During the same year Nigeria returned to civilian rule under President Olusegun Obasanjo. These two developments brought Nigeria and South Africa closer.
The two new leaders had a good personal relationship. While in exile in the 1970s Mbeki had established contact with Obasanjo. Under their leadership, relations between the two countries became cordial. Mbeki and Obasanjo made concerted efforts to revive African continental diplomacy through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Union. The South Africa-Nigeria Binational Commission was established and sustained.
The African National Congress’s decision to recall Mbeki from office in September 2008 triggered a great deal of speculation about what future relations between the two countries might hold. But Kgalema Petrus Motlanthe, who was interim president until May 2009, managed to maintain cordial ties. After taking office Jacob Zuma continued where his predecessors left off and sustained good relations with Nigeria.
A change of leadership in Nigeria, with the replacement of Obasanjo by Alhaji Umaru Yar'Adua in 2007, was also weathered well by the two countries.
Yar'Adua flew to South Africa on a state visit in 2008 as a gesture that the two countries were prepared to consider closer ties. His successor, Jonathan, also paid a state visit to South Africa in 2013.
Despite these overtures, relations between the two countries have never been as strong as they were during the Mbeki and Obasanjo years. For example, when South African immigration officials deported Nigerian nationals who landed in South Africa without yellow fever certificates in 2010, Nigerian authorities subsequently retaliated by doing the same to South Africans who landed in Lagos. This incident forced Zuma to fly to Nigeria in an attempt to mend ties.
This was followed by the acrimonious battle for the chairperson of the African Union. South Africa pulled out all the stops to get one of its ministers, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, appointed to the post. But the tactics used by South Africa to secure a victory for her left a bitter taste, particularly for Nigeria which supported the incumbent Jean Ping of Gabon.
What the future holds
Buhari inherits a difficult situation that will require the utmost diplomacy if the current tension between the two countries is to be eased. He will firstly have to get a good grasp on why the outgoing administration took such a drastic step only a few weeks before his inauguration.
Understanding whether the Nigerian government had exhausted other diplomatic options to address the issue before making its decision will be a crucial first step. Buhari may have some room for manoeuvre considering that Nigeria recalled its diplomats even though no Nigerians were among those killed in the attacks.
Buhari may be able to rekindle the goodwill felt by the Nigerian government in the wake of the death of 86 South Africans when a church collapsed last year. Despite considerable local pressure, the South African government chose to respect Nigerian laws and processes.
What is certain is that both countries recognise that they are better off having cordial relations than not. The ball is now in Buhari’s court.
*Bheki Mngomezulu is a senior lecturer and academic leader, international & public affairs at University of KwaZulu-Natal