Dr. Adekeye Adebajo on Nigeria and South Africa

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Nigeria and South Africa have led most conflict-management initiatives in Africa in recent years, and both account for at least 60 percent of the economy of their respective sub-regions in West and Southern Africa. “The success of the political and economic integration in Africa thus rests heavily on the shoulders of these two regional Gullivers, who have both collaborated and competed in Africa’s most indispensable relationships,” said Adekeye Adebajo, Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.

A Nigerian scholar who has lived in South Africa for many years, Dr. Adebajo assessed the two countries and their role in the regional dynamics of Africa at a March 28th IPI policy forum that also focused on his new book The Eagle and the Springbok: Essays on Nigeria and South Africa, titled after the mascots of, respectively, the Nigerian soccer team and the South African rugby team.

Dr. Adebajo is a widely known African commentator with an Oxford doctorate and a reputation for expressing his views with unflinching candor and wit. He is also a columnist for Business Day in South Africa and The Guardian in Nigeria and was the director of the Africa Program at IPI from 2000 to 2003 and from 2004 to 2018, the executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town.

He noted at the outset that the citizens of both countries have “strong views” about each other, and over the course of his remarks, he commented on some of the areas of dispute, competition and cooperation.

“Nigerians often complain about the ingratitude of South Africans in not acknowledging the role they played in the anti-apartheid struggle,” he said. “They also complain about what they perceive to be South Africa’s mercantilist behavior in that its companies are ubiquitous in the Nigerian market while they consider the South African market closed to Nigerian companies.”

For their part, he said, “South Africans complain about Nigerian involvement in drug trafficking and fraudulent scams, while its companies complain about bureaucratic obstacles and lack of infrastructure that makes doing business in Nigeria so difficult.”

He explained that these views were in keeping with the South African habit of directing their negative stereotypes against Nigerian citizens while Nigerians tend to direct their stereotypes against South African companies. But he pronounced himself “shocked” by the “vehemence of the anger” of Nigerians at South African companies, given the fact that South African firms have contributed to a wider range of services and goods than would have otherwise been available in Nigeria.

He observed that the citizens of both countries share attributes with Americans. “Like Americans, Nigerians have the reputation for being loud, brash, and arrogant while South Africans are an information-rich society, like America, which is staggeringly ignorant about its own region.”

Discussing other similarities and differences, he identified Nigeria as one of the most ethnically and indigenously diverse countries on the continent, and South Africa as the most racially diverse and most Westernized. Culturally, he said, the South African black majority “struggles to emerge from the legacy of Bantu education,” while “Nigeria has the largest black intelligentsia of anywhere in the world.” On higher education, he remarked, “While South Africa has several well-funded quality universities, Nigeria’s ivory towers are crumbling monuments to years of neglect and government closures.”

Dr. Adebajo said that opportunities for women were so scarce in both countries that he favored a system of quotas for their inclusion. “When people see women performing as competently or as incompetently as the men, it does change cultural attitudes,” he reasoned. “That may be the only way, in the short term, of correcting this because I don’t think it is going to correct itself anytime soon.”

Drawing a contrast between the two countries’ attitudes about human rights, he said, “While the South African liberal constitution has entrenched gay rights, Nigeria in 2014 criminalized homosexuality with 14-year jail terms.” He also contrasted the two countries’ positioning as continental powers. “While Nigeria’s legitimacy as an African power is unchallenged, South Africa’s black government continues to struggle with its legitimacy as an African leader because of the continued dominance of the ten percent white minority of the economy, of the university and NGO sectors.”

He illustrated the two countries’ differing fortunes in finance with the telling detail that the Johannesburg stock exchange capitalization is 15 times larger than that in Lagos.

He enumerated some similarities between Nigeria and South Africa with a list:

-Both were born out of British amalgamations

-Both trained regional elites at universities for decade

-Both were heavily dependent on mineral resources

-Both have companies which have expanded to dominate their sub-regional economies

-Both had tremendous cultural impact on the continent

-Both were prone to violence and vigilantism

-Both have very high youth unemployment – he called this “a ticking time bomb”- and are failing at providing adequate jobs for young people

Highlighting an important additional similarity, he added, “It should be stressed that the vast majority of Nigerians in South Africa are law-abiding citizens who contribute tremendously to South Africa’s social and economic life.”

Asked by the moderator, IPI Senior Adviser John Hirsch, how Africa should deal with the apparent disdain of the continent by Washington, he said, “You can’t ignore the imperial Rome…One has to have a long term view of US policy. Even with President Trump in the White House, the US still remains the largest economy in the world and third largest investor in Africa with a massive military presence.” Overall, he concluded, “South Africa and Nigeria cannot ignore the US, even if they wanted to.”

But while arguing for continued engagement with Washington, he noted, “It’s important to use the growing presence of China, the largest investor in Africa, to balance the relationship with the US and the Europeans and hyperactive powers like the pyromaniac fireman, France. Africa needs to play grown up politics, and actually define its own interests and try balance this presence.”

“China often knows what it wants to get out of Africa, but the Africans haven’t really defined in a strategic way how they want to leverage China’s presence on the continent…It’s building much needed infrastructure which your traditional donors and the World Bank and IMF no longer want to get involved with.”

To those who warn of over dependence on Beijing and counsel keeping one’s distance, he said, “There’s no reason absolutely not to take advantage of those opportunities that are there.”

He faulted both Nigeria and South Africa for their failure to better shape the work of the African Union. “The fact that the budget of the African Union, over 90 percent of the budget in the security field is funded by external actors, largely the EU, that means that interventions often occur in areas where the EU has an interest as opposed to where the needs may be.” He said he considered it a “serious indictment that Africans are not prepared to actually fund institutions that they created themselves.”

At the same time, he said he didn’t want to “let external actors off the hook.” In almost all the African cases that come before the United Nations Security Council, he said, the pen holders are Britain, France, and the US. “That’s absolutely appalling,” he said, “because that means then the agendas and decisions on those resolutions are basically going to reflect the interests of those powers instead of the interests of African states themselves.”