Viewpoint: South Africa-Nigeria axis flounders as rivals assume leadership

The former cooperation between South Africa and Nigeria has been bogged down by competing interests, and other countries are prepared to step up.


The former cooperation between South Africa and Nigeria has been bogged down by competing interests. Other countries are prepared to step up, writes Dianna Games

Nigeria and South Africa have always been viewed as the natural leaders of the continent, with commentators firm in the belief that the collaborative leadership of these two economic and political giants is essential to Africa’s progress.

The common wisdom is that each is a pivotal state in its own region, whose fortunes have a direct impact on the nations around them and a wider influence on the continent because of their huge populations and economic and political might.

There was a moment in time when the vision of the two big powers showed they were a force for shaping Africa’s integration and representing the continent’s interests on the international stage. Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria and Thabo Mbeki in South Africa showed the potential of this relationship in the early part of the century. The two men had a deep-seated passion for African development that found traction in the events of the time.

Mbeki, strongly supported by Obasanjo, was the key driver of the African renaissance concept, with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) being a key programme designed to enable the political and economic recovery of the continent for Africans by Africans. The two leaders combined to the sell the concept at successive G8 summits in the early 2000s with a bid to getting Africa back on the global map via debt relief for poor countries and other initiatives.

But latterly, the two countries have been bogged down by their own competing interests, including challenges in bilateral policy and arguments about process in the African Union and other institutions. The countries have abrogated their continental leadership responsibilities, amid the distractions of internal politics and economic issues.

Both have recently been through recession – Nigeria mostly because of a slump in oil prices as well as ongoing poor economic management and South Africa because of poor governance, ANC graft and uncertain policy in key sectors such as energy and mining. The two countries have been among the slowest growing nations of the past few years in Africa.

As their fortunes have waned, engagement between the two countries has mostly been ad hoc and opportunistic, relegated to a few state visits over the years. Institutional arrangements set up to bolster the relationship, such as the South Africa-Nigeria Binational Commission, have lost traction and effectiveness. The political space that could be directed to broader African initiatives has instead been occupied by concerns about bilateral issues – people-to-people relations, unequal economic engagement and other longstanding gripes. Nigeria is yet to sign up to the Continental Free Trade Area, ratified by South Africa in December.  

The perceived harassment by the Nigerian authorities of South Africa’s biggest investor in Nigeria, mobile phone company MTN, and huge fines imposed on the company for various regulatory infractions, has further raised tensions between the partners.

The outcome of elections in Nigeria and South Africa, scheduled to take place in the first quarter of 2019, may help to revive this historic partnership. Visible engagement at the top levels of both governments is urgently required on ares of mutual and continental importance – including trade, regional integration and infrastructure – if they are to revive their leadership roles.


In the meantime, other countries in Africa are not waiting around for South Africa-Nigeria co-operation to return. They are moving on, finding new alliances that will allow them to leverage the benefits of smart policy, proactive leadership, growing economies and new partnerships.

Ethiopia is key among them. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has shown himself to be a masterful reformist who is moving quickly to modernise one of Africa’s biggest markets. Despite economic challenges, the country is poised to continue growth of more than 8% in 2019 and is being eyed by investors as the business sector opens up. It is also assuming a new importance in the region for foreign powers seeking new alliances in the Horn of Africa for security and other interests.

Ethiopia is changing the security and political dynamic in the region with the recent cessation of longstanding hostilities with Eritrea and a growing closeness with Sudan, a pivotal link between North and East Africa.

Relations are also thawing with another potential African powerhouse, Egypt. The country is already a key player in North Africa and the Middle East and President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is set to capitalie on his one year at the helm of the African Union in 2019 to rebuild long neglected relationships on the continent.  

Currently in the grip of a fast-paced, radical reform programme and already Africa’s third largest economy after Nigeria and South Africa, Egypt is attracting significant interest from investors and development institutions alike as El Sisi builds relationships with East African leaders. Ethiopia and Egypt seem to have buried the hatchet after years of hostile relations over the potential impact of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile River, on which Cairo depends for its survival. This has the potential to bring these two eastern giants closer over time.

Kenya is already one of Egypt’s main trading partners in Africa while Rwandan President Paul Kagame, an ally of El Sisi, has been a special guest at Egypt’s Africa investment conferences in Sharm el Sheikh over the past two years. Rwanda’s economic progress has made it a force to be reckoned with in the region, despite its small size.

The East Africa region, home to some of Africa’s biggest and fastest-growing economies, is well positioned as a source of emerging centres of power in Africa as the continent seeks new models that may drive Africa’s interests more proactively than has been seen in the recent past.

In a rapidly changing world in which Africa constantly seeks relevance, new paradigms of leadership need to be considered that are better aligned to a modernising and more progressive continent than what is currently on offer from a disengaged Nigeria-South Africa axis.


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