from Africa in Transition

Which is the African Powerhouse, Nigeria or South Africa?

February 06, 2013

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Sub-Saharan Africa


South Africa

Terrorism and Counterterrorism


South Africa is usually regarded as Africa’s economic powerhouse, but international commentators increasingly talk about Nigeria displacing it. Simukai Tinhu tries to get beyond the hype and has written a thoughtful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of both countries in his article “Will Nigeria Overtake South Africa as Africa’s Powerhouse.”

He argues that while Nigeria’s growth rate is high, and its population huge, there are serious weaknesses and instabilities in its political economy. He cites the economy’s dependency on high oil prices, a small entrepreneurial community, the Nigerian brain drain to London, New York, and Johannesburg, corruption, poor infrastructure, the rough neighborhood that is West Africa, and the ethnic and religious conflicts that pose an “existential threat” to state stability.

As for South Africa, he sees the threat to its leadership coming not from Nigeria but from its internal “tense social atmosphere,” as manifested in the Marikana massacre. He claims South Africa has failed to analyze the causes of this tense social atmosphere, or to adequately address them.

Simukai Tinhu’s comments reflect the importance (I would say primacy) of good governance to sustainable economic growth. Here, South Africa with its functioning democracy, strong government institutions, independent judiciary based on the rule of law, and vibrant civil society clearly has an advantage over Nigeria. Both are plagued with corruption, but in South Africa there is the strong political will to address it, and corrupt public servants and politicians are charged, tried, and jailed. That is much rarer in Nigeria, if not unknown.

One factor Tinhu does not address, however, is the educational gap between Nigeria and South Africa. For all of its faults, South Africa has the strongest education system in Africa, and it is the only African country with universities that are regarded as world class.  That promotes the development of a diverse and innovative modern economy. The same is true of medical services. In Nigeria they remain undeveloped; in South Africa there are parallel first world and third world systems, and the HIV/AIDS burden has been much greater. Nevertheless, according to the CIA World Factbook, the average life span for South Africans is forty-nine years in comparison with fifty-two years for Nigerians.