The outcome of preliminary meetings on Tuesday between President Muhammadu Buhari and his visiting South African counterpart, President Jacob Zuma, has raised hopes that the frosty relations between Africa’s largest economies will finally begin to thaw. Feelers are that Nigeria and South Africa may well be rekindling erstwhile friendly ties that date way back to the early 1960s when the former took a front row seat among the comity of supporters of the latter’s struggle to end apartheid and its quest for independence.
Hope for the improved ties first surfaced when Zuma announced, shortly after the first meeting with his host, the signing of 30 bilateral agreements between the two countries, noting that both leaders had committed to improved trade and economic ties between Nigeria and South Africa. He also indicated that thorny issues, like the seizure last year of Nigeria’s money for the purchase of arms, that had strained their relations had been resolved. Except, however, he hinted that the eventual return of the money would await the resolution of some technical details.
Taking a cue from the reconciliatory mode, Buhari said concerns expressed over perceived harsh regulatory actions, which had seen Nigerian regulators impose stiff penalties on some South African companies, would be looked into. Although he frowned on MTN’s decision to take the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to court over the regulator’s $3.9 billion fine for the telecom firm’s failure to disconnect 5.2 million unregistered subscribers. He however hinted that succour might come the way of the company soon. While stating that agriculture, solid minerals development and security were cardinal to the development of Nigeria, Buhari said he looked forward to mutually rewarding agreements on cooperation in these key areas.
Zuma’s speech at the joint session of the National Assembly yesterday struck a similar cord with Buhari’s expectations. The South African president told the session presided over by the President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, that the two countries needed to strike a more rewarding business partnership by diversifying their economies to notable sectors such as agriculture, electricity, infrastructure development and manufacturing. This, he said, would create job opportunities for their citizens and improve their living standards.
In several ways, the renewed efforts to repair fractured relations between the two countries could not have come at a better time than now. Faced with severe headwinds buffeting their respective economies, both countries need to set aside their rivalries and rather cooperate with each another for mutually beneficial assistance.
Both, according to Bloomberg, have witnessed slowing down of growth at 1.3 per cent for South Africa and 3.3 per cent for Nigeria. With the South African economy facing stress and recession as demand from China, its main trading partner, weakens, and commodity prices plunge; and as Nigeria on the other hand is hit by a collapse in oil revenue, both countries need closer trade and investment ties to survive the global economic storm.
To achieve this, both nations’ leaders whose meetings continue today would have to quickly clear all those thorny diplomatic issues that bedevilled the countries’ relations in the past four years. For Nigeria, its concerns partly centre on the harassment of its citizens living and doing business in South Africa, hallmarked by the xenophobic attacks last year; seized arms money and visa restrictions. South Africa might, on its part, complain about the perceived targeting of its companies in Nigeria by regulators and the imbalance in trade between it and Nigeria.
However, there ought not to be any major difficulties clearing these outstanding issues and moving forward to more mutually rewarding trade, economic and diplomatic ties. After all, as both Buhari and Zuma have said at different times, Nigeria and South Africa have a historic relationship that has, in spite of recent disagreements, been essentially cordial, leading to incremental growth both in terms of trade and investments.