Sijuwade Salami - South Africa versus Nigeria: The Curious Case of a Kettle and a Pot.


A few months ago, Akanmu visited his motherland, Nigeria. His first port of call was the Immunisation Centre in Marina, Lagos. With his local contact, he made his way through a prayer congregation, into an old colonial era building, and up the stairs. He entered a small office where vaccines were administered to the public.


He politely requested yellow fever, meningitis and cholera vaccines. The health officer asked for his name and passport number, and moments later, handed over a yellow card, signed and stamped, acknowledging that the bearer had received all three vaccines. Akanmu sat there, bemused. He asked, 'what about the vaccine', but the health officer did not respond. A gentleman, in religious frock, walked in moments later, holding a long list of names and passport numbers. The health officer got busy, issuing yellow fever vaccine cards without the supposed recepients present.

Akanmu's escort whispered in his ears that the officer had already done a big favour by issuing the card, and that Akanmu had offended this officer by not offering a tip for the service. He approached the officer again, with a N500 bill in hand and offered a special handshake, thanking him for his service. At this point, the officer picked two viles held in a Styrofoam holder on the table and administered the yellow fever and mengingitis vaccines, but the cholera vaccine was out of stock. Akanmu left that office, disheartened. He could appreciate that the yellow fever vaccine he had just received, had no credibility.

5 months later, health officers at the Johannesburg airport ordered the deportation of 125 Nigerians who arrived with what South African officials considered to be fake yellow fever vaccine cards. A South African official on a visit to Nigeria had easily purchased such a card at the airport before his departure from Nigeria. South African officials used that card as a reference point to identify fake cards. Suffice to say this was an error. The South African officials had probably purchased a 'genuine' card, issued illegally. As such, there is probably no real way to distinguish between cards issued with vaccines administered, and those issued without.

This unfortunate episode at the Johannesburg airport led to a major diplomatic spat, and further strained the relationship between sub-Saharan Africa's two regional powers. Nigeria retaliated this past week by deporting the exact same number of South Africans. An ultimatum was issued with clear threats made to South African business interests in the country. With too much at stake, South Africa acquiesced. A chastened deputy foreign minister, flanked by Nigerian diplomats, addressed a press conference at the foreign ministry in South Africa, apologising for the events.

In this latest episode in a complex relationship between the two nations, both sides have exposed the very worst attributes that limit their aspirations to greatness. Nigeria continues to grapple with pervasive systemic corruption. Many people view positions of responsibility as an opportunity to establish a 'rent seeking operation' to apportion a share of the wealth. They use such positions (in this case, as public health officers) to offer ‘services’ that yield short-run payoffs, but systematically damage society and its ability to create further wealth. To the rest of the world, corruption and fraud have come to define the Nigerian people. While Nigerian officials may celebrate yet another diplomatic victory over South Africa, the need for proper introspection cannot be overlooked. It is understandable that there will be no public admission to the flaws that have compromised the integrity of the Nigerian yellow fever vaccination card. However, in the aftermath these events, officials must seriously consider further reforms.

Likewise, South Africa needs to own up to the problem of xenophobia, visible through the attitude of South African officials and some sections of society towards other Africans. In 2008, scores of Africans were murdered in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, in what were the most vicious attacks against foreigners in recent history in Africa. Nigerian officials are right, when they say the mass deportations smirk of xenophobia. Globally, the standard protocol in response to the suspicion that an individual has not been vaccinated against yellow fever is to administer the vaccine at the airport. Deportation is not the normal course of action. Furthermore, if an individual has to be deported for whatever reason, there are protocols to be observed. Accounts indicate that the Nigerians were treated with contempt, denied basic rights, and even food and water, in a harrowing experience. The South African officials made no attempt to hide contempt. The South African foreign minister should not seek comfort in his words, when he claims that there is no xenophobia in South Africa. That is as ridiculous as a Nigerian official claiming there is no corruption in Nigeria, or Baghdad Bob claiming that a ragtag Iraqi army has roundly defeated American troops.

In describing the relationship between Nigeria and South Africa, some will draw parallels to 'chimerica'. Nigeria will harbour a sense of ascendancy in its relationship with South Africa, much like China does with the United States. When Nigeria's nominal GDP is rebased this year, it will better reflect the country’s growing economic power. Its nominal GDP (taking into account the current price levels and structure of the economy) has probably come pretty close to matching South Africa's, and if it hasn't already, it will almost certainly surpass South Africa's, in a few short years.

Already its most populous nation, the Giant of Africa, and soon to be its largest economy, Nigeria ascribes to itself, a belief in its 'natural leadership' of the continent, but the credibility of that leadership is contentious. Nonetheless, Nigeria projects power through its entertainment industry, boasting of the third largest movie industry in the world, dominating the sub-Saharan African landscape and influencing 'African culture'. Nigeria’s largest businesses match South Africa’s in new investment in other African countries. One of such businesses (Dangote Cement) has just invested $4 billion in new plants in other African countries: Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, Zambia, Tanzania, Cameroon. Nigerian financial institutions have spread their net across the continent, much like their rivals from the rainbow nation. Local telecoms firm (Globacom) has taken on South Africa's MTN in other African markets too. There have been massive infrastructure projects like the West African Gas Pipeline, that supplies gas to some other African countries, and Fibre-Optic cable networks, that now connect many African states to the rest of the world, all backed by Nigerian funds.

Nigerian diplomats have outmanuevred their South African counterparts and continue to score points off them on international issues. Both nations have been on opposition sides on issues regarding Zimbabwe, Togo, Cote d'Ivoire, Libya, and the recent contest for the position of Secretary-General of the African Union. Nigeria defeated South Africa in a bid to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth. It rebuffed South African attempts to influence the replacement of Gnassingbe Eyadema as Togo’s President, when he died in office. Nigeria backed Alassane Ouattara, who ousted Laurent Gbagbo (backed by South Africa) after contentious elections. On the UN Security Council, it voted along with Western countries to back a NATO-supported rebelion to oust the former Libyan dictator, sidelining South Africa, but more importantly, it successfully canvassed for recognition of the Libyan rebels by other African states, much to Pretoria's chagrin. But the final straw was this year's AU General Assembly, where Nigeria led a movement of opposing states, to block the South African President's wife's bid for the position of Secretary-General. And so today, South African foreign policy on Africa is in tatters, as she remains unsure of her capacity to lead in Africa, and build productive relationships with other African states. She has now turned to attempt to strongly ally herself with emerging nations such as China, and Russia. But if Russia's President Vladimir Putin's extensive writings on Russian foreign policy are an indication, strong relationships with other 'BRICS' nations will do little to help South Africa project power in Africa.

While Nigeria will feel that the balance of power continues to shift in its favour, and South Africa will be more tentative about its position and relationship with Nigeria, or the rest of Africa, and while both nations, moving forward, will remain in competition with each other, both nations must recognise how important they are to each other and foster greater mutual respect (both at an official level and amongst their people).

South African businesses continue to have a positive impact on the Nigerian economy. The Nigerian telecoms sector spluttered for a century, then South African firm, MTN, was brave enough to enter the Nigerian market. Telecoms exploded thereafter, as local firms (along with other foreign players) competed with MTN in the Nigerian market, and the West African subregion. Standards in the Nigerian entertainment industry were once appalling, but DSTv/Multichoice entered that market, and Nigerian entrepreneurs responded positively to the higher standards, spurring Nollywood and Nigerian music to explode across the continent. In the retail sector, Shoprite prompted the explosion of new shopping malls across the nation. Also, in the financial sector, Nigerian firms aspired to surpass their South African counterparts. The business relationship has been mutually beneficial. As South Africa pushes to sustain growth, it finds a large and ready market in Nigeria for its businesses. Energy, financial services, entertainment, IT/telecoms, commerce and agriculture are the cornerstones of the new Nigerian economy. South African entry has helped transform three of these.

Neither South Africa, nor Nigeria is perfect. Both nations represent the proverbial kettle and pot, besmirched by dark flaws. At the same time, both nations represent great potential as focal points for change and development across the entire continent. Nigeria cannot achieve its full potential as a 'natural leader' in Africa, if its institutions and people lack credibility, and corruption continues to stunt growth, and perpetuate abject poverty. Likewise, South Africa will find few friends in Africa, if xenophobia remains unchecked. Perhaps it is a good thing that both nations have exposed each other in such bad light at this instance, but what is left, now that the diplomatic battles have been won and lost, is for both nations to take the positives and make the real changes internally. The kettle and pot can become shining lights for all of Africa.

Sijuwade Salami

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