The tragic murder of a British and Italian hostage in northern Nigeria and the video on Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army that has “gone viral” has largely deflected attention away from a seeming tea pot tempest in the bilateral relationship between Nigeria and South Africa. Last week, the South African immigration authorities “deported” (did not allow to enter the country) 125 Nigerians whom, they alleged, presented false yellow fever vaccination certificates. Nigeria retaliated by refusing entry to 84 South Africans arriving in Lagos, claiming that they, too, were traveling on irregular documents. Especially on the Nigerian side, there was some chest thumping commentary to the effect that not only was South Africa "dissing" the Giant of Africa, its businessmen are also unscrupulously making money. The minister of foreign affairs took the opportunity to warn South African firms against bringing in their co-citizens when there were qualified Nigerians to do the work. Elsewhere, there was other commentary to the effect that South Africa’s economic wings in Nigeria should be clipped—not good for encouraging South African investment, as the Nigerian government wants to do. The Nigerian and South African foreign ministries moved to damp down the tempest, and the South African government issued an apology.
The episode spotlights a complicated relationship between the two giants of Africa. During the apartheid era, Nigeria regarded itself as a “front line” state, and South Africa was popularly regarded as the national enemy. Nigerians are proud of their forthright stance against apartheid, and some feel that post-apartheid South Africa shows insufficient gratitude for its role. Following the coming of non-racial democracy to South Africa, Abuja and Pretoria have been fervent about their fraternal solidarity. South African business leaders are enthusiastic about the investment opportunities in Nigeria, in particular because of the country’s enormous population. To cite only a few examples, South African telecommunications firms have done well, dominating the industry in Nigeria. A South African company has opened high-profile shopping centers in Nigeria, and South African banks eye opportunities. At the popular level, however, Nigerians are widely disliked in South Africa. They are a large legal and illegal community and South Africans routinely blame them for crime and as a source of corruption.
Despite the fraternal rhetoric, especially on the Nigerian side, there is a degree of ambiguity about the relationship. The Nigerian government trumpets a goal of becoming among the world’s twenty largest economies by 2020, and its rhetoric often features overcoming in size the South African economy. At times, “overtaking” South Africa appears to function as a unifying national goal, in a country that has few such sources of unity. With respect to diplomacy, Nigeria wants a permanent African seat on the UN Security Council; South Africa is its principal rival. Nigeria and South Africa frequently take different positions on African regional issues, as they did most recently over Libya.
This particular tempest will blow over but the rivalry between Africa’s two giants will not. South African entry documentation requirements will remain a potential flashpoint. Counterfeit travel documents are ubiquitous in Nigeria, while Nigerians resent the South African yellow fever vaccine requirement, which is levied only on those nationals of countries identified by the WHO as potential sources of the disease. (South Africa levies no such requirement on Americans –unless they are coming from WHO-identified states.) But, the Nigerian minister of health observes that the last confirmed case of yellow fever was in 1995. He questions the WHO designation.