Monday, 2 November 2015


With a Nigerian at the head of the AfDB and a South African representing the AU, never has the time been riper for South Africa and Nigeria to forgive past disagreements and lead the continent towards greater cooperation.

Yet another session of hand-wringing over the laggardly progress towards a pan-African common market was under way at the Port Louis conference centre in Mauritius when Nduka Obaigbena, Nigeria’s rumbustious press baron, burst into the conversation: “If we want an African economic union, we need to do one thing: set up a Nigeria-South Africa free trade zone tomorrow and invite the rest of the continent to join us,” he said.

Rows of earnest conference-goers nodded sagely at Obaigbena’s impetuosity, murmuring comments about “rivalries and Realpolitik” and “confidence-building”. But far from being an idealistic radical, Obaigbena is a die-hard capitalist whose efforts to extend his ThisDay newspaper empire from Nigeria to South Africa soared then crashed and burned in a year and a half. The newspaper closed its doors in 2004.

His idea of a Nigeria-South Africa free trade zone is not part of a futurist manifesto but was one of the cardinal aims when the two countries established their bi-national commission in 1999. After that bold start, diplomatic relations have gradually flagged, punctuated by spats and perceived slights peppered with a dash of history.

The idea of a free trade zone between two big economies kickstarting regional integration has strong historical roots. France and Germany – bitter enemies in two world wars and also Europe’s biggest economies – blazed a trail to form a coal and steel community, essentially the foundation stone of today’s European Union. They started that process just six years after the end of World War II: political differences gave way to the commercial logic of a free trade area and economic integration.

Nigeria and South Africa should be playing that same locomotive role in Africa. They are the continent’s top destinations for investment and have the market size to offer a solid economic platform: Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy with a gross domestic product of $568.5bn and South Africa is its second with $349.8bn.

Commercial ties are on an upward course, albeit at a fraction of the pace that they should be. Compared to their transformative potential, Nigeria-South African relations are almost dysfunctional. What is the problem?

According to experts in Abuja and Pretoria, it is a mixture of personal chemistry, or lack thereof, and domestic politics outweighing foreign policy in both countries. Obed Bapela, a deputy minister in South Africa’s presidency, sounds the enthusiastic charge: “Look, you cannot ignore Nigeria. It will be to your peril if you do so. Nigeria is a factor in the continent, so we are a factor. We need each other. And we need to continuously build the relationships.”

Full story at Nigerians in South Africa.
By Crystal Orderson in Cape Town and Patrick Smith / THE AFRICA REPORT

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