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Published On: Thu, Sep 5th, 2019

This diplomatic “Standoff” with South Africa

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By Gimba Kakanda

Nigeria’s image crisis is an offshoot of its domestic economy. If we want to be respected, then we owe it to ourselves to position Nigeria as an industrially independent country.
Nigeria is a severely threatened place. We are surrounded by Francophone countries whose allegiances to France neutralizes this ECOWAS sentimentality we promote as a guarantee of non-aggressive future. Cameroon isn’t a member of ECOWAS. At continental level, South Africa is the continent’s more favored and preferred ally of developed economies, and this explains its member of the association of leading markets referred to as BRICS (an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
In the sub-regional balance of power, the francophone alliances are a powerful force. This was demonstrated during the Biafran War when their big Uncle, France, supported the separatist group and the Francophone countries meant our borders were porous. Ivory Coast also supported the pro-Biafra. The war trigger an epiphany for Nigeria realise the essence of sub-regional alliances, and we extended such gesture by selling oil to our energy-poor neighbours at concessionary prices. But later clashes like that invasion of Nigeria by Chad during the Shagari government and the Bakassi standoff with Cameroon are proof of our extant security risks.
Our assertive foreign policy in the past was driven by the oil economy during its boom, which is no longer a leverage in external affairs. Dependent on oil, we overestimate our strength in the international system and failed to build an industrially viable country when we had the resources. Corruption mainly forestalled all attempts to build industries, and can be inferred from our successive governments turned the Ajaokuta Steel Company into a personalized money-making venture.
This diplomatic “standoff” with South Africa has exposed the discussions we have avoided in our “Giant of Africa” euphoria. There are too many things at stake here. South Africa used to be a bully that Nigeria restrained through proxy supports to its neighbours like Angola, and our relationship has long evolved into sibling rivalry, especially economically.
Forget Shoprite, DSTV and MTN for a second, Nigeria does not rank high among South Africa’s export destinations. We make more money in trading with South Africa. Nigeria accounts for less than 1% of South Africa’s exports. In 2018, Nigeria’s imports from South Africa amounted to just $514.3 Million according UN COMTRADE data, while South Africa’s imports from Nigeria were $3.83 Billion. We have remained a commodity-dependent country while South Africa has built a highly diversified economy, and with an industrial structure we can’t match.
To see the security implication of a strain in Nigeria – South Africa relations more broadly, we must note the interceptions of Nigeria-bound arms by South Africa in 2014 (a private jet attempting to smuggle arms through SA) and 2018 (a ship loaded with arms and reportedly bound for Nigeria). Nigeria had to patronize the black market for arm supplies for failing to live up to the expectation of its legitimate suppliers. Our unstable relations with the West mean our arms supplies in tackling internal security crises are not guaranteed. Obama administration refused to sell arms to Nigeria, citing the American Leahy Law, which prohibits the US from selling arms to countries that violate human rights.
We could’ve built a country that South Africa can’t hold by the balls as it does today, with a domestic industrial capability that does not rely on external support and imports this heavily. But, as it stands, we are dialoguing with South Africa from the position of weakness.
The lesson this reluctance to punish South Africa teaches us is the elementary understanding of foreign policy decision-making, that you can only go for the jugular if you have the capability. But, with South Africa, we are just that poor-performing brother who must speak softly to resolve this recurrent problem.
Nigeria’s image crisis is an offshoot of its domestic economy. If we want to be respected, then we owe it to ourselves to position Nigeria as an industrially independent country, and with the diplomatic means of restraining misbehaving allies like South Africa.
Gimba Kakanda is a Public Affairs Analyst.

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