The recent visit by South African President Jacob Zuma to Nigeria may be indicative of the warming diplomatic ties between the two countries but not a reflection of the relations between citizens of both countries, writes Damilola Oyedele

President Jacob Zuma’s visit to Nigeria was accompanied with all the pomp and pageantry deserving of a President of one of the largest economies on the African continent, but the question on the lips of many Nigerian citizens was, “ what is he doing here?” Those who feel that way cannot be blamed so much.

Where the relationship between the governments of South Africa and Nigeria may seem friendly, the relationship between the citizens of both countries leaves much to be desired. This may not be unconnected with the general posture of the South African government, which many diplomats believe pay lip service to continental integration. This is hinged on the fact that the visa policy of South Africa towards other Africans remain one of the most hostile on the continent.

The bilateral relations were however not supposed to be that way owing to the fact that the rest of Africa, gingered by Nigeria in 1976, worked for the emancipation of South Africa from the apartheid regime.

Friction between both Countries
Many Nigerians would recall the denial of entry and instant deportation of 125 Nigerians by the S/African immigration authorities in 2012 for not being in possession of yellow cards, even though Nigeria did not have a yellow fever epidemic. Unconfirmed reports had it that a serving member of the Nigerian National Assembly was among those deported. The country remained unapologetic until Nigeria commenced deportation of its citizens, including businessmen, and was reportedly set to commence an enquiry into the activities of South African businesses in Nigeria.

Interestingly, while about 120 South African firms are well established in Nigeria such as MTN, DSTV and others, just a few Nigerian firms have been able to find root in South Africa. Businesses accuse the South African government of deliberate frustrations of investors from other African nations.

Also the constant xenophobic attacks that occur in the country, where Nigerians and their thriving businesses have been targeted for looting, leaves an ugly stamp on the bilateral relations. The constant attacks are blamed on the government who other Africans, including President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, have criticised for downplaying the role that the rest of the continent played in the liberation of the country.

It is necessary however to acknowledge that the unscrupulous activities of some Nigerian citizens residing in South Africa have projected an extremely negative image of Nigerians, through their involvement in drug trafficking, fraud, and other immoralities. This group have carried out nefarious activities to the extent that the Nigerian passport is looked down upon while the bearer is treated with scorn and suspicion.

It was also believed that the rebasing of Nigerian economy as the continent’s largest economy did not go down well with many South Africans (who hitherto held the position) who in turn criticised the Jacob Zuma led government for allowing the economy go downhill.

Though both countries sit on the African Union Peace and Security Council, they hold divergent views on many continental issues such as Libya during the planned ouster of Moammer Ghadafi by the Allied Forces, and Cote d’Ivoire following Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to hand over power after losing elections.

The relations further worsened under the last administration where South African authorities siezed and held on to $9 million allegedly smuggled into the country to purchase arms from the black market in the fight against Boko Haram. The death of almost a hundred of its citizens at the collapsed Synagogue Church in Lagos further embittered many of its people towards Nigerians.

Strengthening ties
A major achievement of the Binational Commission (BNC) which was established in 2009 was the waiver for visas for diplomats from both countries. It has however not been able to negotiate succour in the visa policy of South African towards ordinary Nigerians. Since its establishment, eight sessions had been held, and 34 agreements and Memorandum of Understanding had been signed.

It has also helped in boosting the business ties between both nations, whose gain, sadly is one sided. Several frosty issues are also handled before they degenerate. Despite this, both countries seem to hold different views on continental issues, a development experts believe may not be too good for the development of Africa. It was in a bid to strengthen relations between both countries that President, Zuma accepted an invitation from President Buhari to visit Nigeria.

Zuma Addresses Nigerian Parliament
The last time a Joint Session of the Nigerian Senate and House of Representatives was addressed by a foreign leader was in 2000 when United States President Bill Clinton was accorded the honour.
Accompanied by President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday, the visiting leader recalled the enormous roles Nigeria played in anti-apartheid struggle as he paid tribute to the late Head of State, Gen. Murtala Mohammed, whose address, he said, gingered continental support and resistance to apartheid in the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1976.

“From the mid-70s, Nigeria and its people also hosted some of the exiled freedom fighters from South Africa, with numbers increasing after the Soweto Student Uprising in 1976,” Zuma recalled.
For him, both countries as the two largest economies on the continent, must complement each other and forge strong partnerships to facilitate accelerated economic growth and prosperity among Africans and ensure continental integration.

Nonetheless, there is room for greater business to business engagements particularly in the areas Nigeria has identified as potential growth sectors, he said.

“These include the diversification of the economy, namely electricity generation and supply, agriculture and agro-processing, tourism development including the hospitality sector, mining, banking, infrastructure development, aviation, manufacturing and the automotive sector. We must strive for the diversification of our economies, so as to cast the net wide enough to create more job opportunities for our people, to improve their living conditions and grow our economies through domestic resources in the first instance,” he added.
Zuma’s words were nice, but as Speaker Yakubu Dogara puts it, the hospitality of Nigerians to South African businesses and its citizens should be reciprocated.

“We…seek that this brotherhood between our leaders translates to good relations between citizens of both countries and it is only then that both countries can speak to true integration of our peoples in the interest of our continent,” Dogara said.