The Tango With South Africa —Osuolale Alaide



As the euphoric tam-tam of the last tango with South Africa begins to die down, it is worthy that we begin to explore some fundamental concerns in relation to Nigeria’s evolving relations with that country. In particular, it is crucial that we come to some understandings of the conceptual compasses that appear to direct the policy interventions of the two pivotal states in sub Saharan Africa in their global relations, and especially so on African Affairs and linked to that on the concerns of black humanity. This exploration would be undertaken in the context of the recurring rueful Nigerian nail biting about its role in the final dismantling of Apartheid and the backdrop of xenophobia in post-Apartheid South Africa. Paradoxes emerge in this engagement. Meanwhile, the Jonathan administration and foreign minister deserve to be commended for the quick time reaction – reciprocal repatriation – to the indiscriminate mass repatriation of Nigerians from South Africa. It was a sound decision to assuage the sentiment of a nation that is appalled by the helplessness of seeing their compatriots mistreated everywhere.

I have lost count of the number of Nigerians beheaded in South-East Asia for various mortal infractions. The repatriation of Nigerians from South Africa was a painful cut. However, a few days after the Nigerians arrived from South Africa, the United Kingdom also deported a batch of Nigerians back home. The utter silence locally to the UK action probably reflected the different contexts of the repatriations of Nigerians back home from South Africa and from the United Kingdom. For now, beyond this consular quagmire, the immediate and day to day human dimension of bilateral relations, the focus would be on South Africa and Nigeria and the increasing potential to clash on serious substantive questions facing black Africa.

Emerging from a historic centuries of institutionalised degradation of the value of black humanity under Apartheid, South Africa easily became the symbol of the trauma of black humanity. This socio-political condition was premised on the teachings of the Boer Church and such others as the Church of the Latter Day Saints – the Mormons. In West Africa, we had Muslim countries like Mauritania that nominally abolished slavery only in 1981 but still practise it till today. The worth of black humanity is no weightier in the Arab world. The struggle of South Africa was thus the struggle of black humanity everywhere. The geo-physical location of the struggle and its immediate victims were only a question of happenstance. If your Orisha pushed you to be born in the Apartheid enclave, you were in for it. The immense technological advancement of post-Apartheid South Africa was built on the broken backs of black South Africans. One can at least concede that.

In this context, post-Apartheid South Africa is faced with paradoxes and their attendant dilemmas. The first of these dilemmas is how to rationalise to the mass of black South Africans the literal “invasion” of their liberated country by other Africans and how to accommodate all comers in the face of the frustrations of the black masses. These masses, that bore the physical devastation and psychological brunt of the struggle for liberation, do not understand foreign policy nor are they interested in it. They only understand that many badly behaved Africans, including very insensitive Nigerians, have arrived on their shores and are reconfiguring the social space, as well as, in their perception, taking away their jobs and their women. The insignificant proportion of ordinary Nigerians abroad that are badly behaved are often also very loud. Also, the sizeable community of prominent Nigerians in public life in Nigeria who have made second and third homes in South Africa are thieves. They buy off the best estates and have very obscene and lavish lifestyles. Somalis running away from conflict at home are the same and very territorial. The Congolese are no better than Nigerians in their behaviour abroad. These constitute for many ordinary South Africans their first intimate contact with their black brothers and sisters from outside of their immediate environment. It is somewhat human to understand their frustration, especially as these rotten immigrant apples overwhelm the impact of the numerous very good ones. That leads to questions as to why under the nose of our authorities fake yellow fever cards are being bought and sold.

Yet, beyond these, is the more important question of policy. South Africa has been schizophrenic awhile. In December 1993, Nelson Mandela, in the unique context of South Africa’s struggle for emancipation, declared that South Africa could not escape its African destiny. It had to devote its energies to this continent to avoid South Africa falling victim to forces that have brought ruin to Africa. This policy entails the stout defence of Africans taking the lead in African affairs and rolling back entrenched neo-colonialist and neo-imperialist interests in black Africa. By 1998, the commitment to this vibrant policy was being questioned based on South Africa’s tepid response to the Abacha regime. An iconic global and Nigerian figure, commenting on the ineffectual policies adopted against the Abacha regime in Abuja by African states, including South Africa, was reported to have observed in Johannesburg in relation to the articulation of the African Renaissance in the policies of certain states, that there was a lack of will in the foreign policies of many governments. Against the lack of will to robustly confront the Abacha dictatorship, these observers of South Africa’s policy in Africa wrote further that when analysts and commentators searched the idea of the African Renaissance for policy content, there appeared very little to anchor what was a fine idea. To them, the African Renaissance substantively was an empty vessel. The concerns of observers of South Africa with the gap between rhetoric and actual policy until only recently had haunted South Africa’s policy articulation in Africa.

The disjunction between policy and implementation was also expressed in South Africa’s pacific approach in Africa’s First World War against Mobutu’s Zaire. Mobutu was backed by France, France’s allies in Central Africa led by the likes of Omar Bongo’s Gabon, Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA, and Morocco. In that ensuing war, although South Africa worked assiduously behind the scene with the United States of America to push out Mobutu, it failed to join the radical actors in Africa. France had mobilised over 3000 men lying in wait across the river Congo in Brazzaville for the expected bloody denouement in Kinshasa to save the Mobutu regime. The African actors were principally Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, Tanzania fighting alongside Papa Kabila’s army to overthrow the Zaroise dinosaur. The military initiatives of these radical states were important and significant expressions of the transformatory and emancipatory character of the African Renaissance. Since then and presumably lately accepting the burden of leadership, South Africa’s policy articulation would seem to have acquired the capacity to bite. The first outing of a more confident South African foray in Africa seems to be in Cote d’Ivoire. South Africa and the radical renaissance states were astounded by the conservative posture of Nigeria that was perceived as retrogressive and at variance with Nigeria’s historic profile. In its outing in Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria was perceived, and rightly so, as having aligned itself with forces that had brought and are still bringing ruin to Africa. This chasm in relations with South Africa was the undercurrent of the stalemated election of the President of the Commission of the African Union. Although South Africa’s choice of ex-Madam Zuma’s candidature for the Presidency of the African Union Commission has left observers wondering the rationale behind the choice, Nigeria has not endeared itself to the progressive camp in Africa in supporting Jean Ping. Jean Ping, of Gabon, is understood to be a proxy of France. In opposing Ping, South Africa hopes to remove a serious mole of neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism from the apex continental forum for Africans. Nigeria would appear to be indifferent to this. It reads into this a struggle for dominance between South Africa and Nigeria. This may be partially true, but it is only partly true. The way forward would appear to be for Nigeria, still in consultation with South Africa, to sponsor a candidate that would command the confidence and respect across the spectrum. It is important to guard the integrity of the African Union, even as Africans play their politics of the global underdogs.

The Association of Retired Ambassadors of Nigeria struck two very important chords last week in relation to the jostling between South Africa and Nigeria. These were that “this should not happen between countries that have hitherto maintained fraternal and cordial relations” and its description that South Africa is a nation “which Nigeria regards as a worthy and strategic partner in the promotion of progress and development on the African continent and dignity of the black race”. As important as these are, they represent worthy normative aspirations rather than express the concrete realities in relations between Nigeria and South Africa. Where does Nigeria stand on the most salient challenges facing Africa today? The fact is that since the days of Professor Ibrahim Gambari’s Afrocentricity and the dynamic Professor Bolaji Akinyemi and his enduring Technical Aid Corps programme as well as his bold Nigeria-driven Concert of Medium Powers, Nigeria has lurched from one quasi tentative concept to another without a broad conceptual framework to guide foreign policy. Perhaps a recent confab of largely old and tired foreign policy hands to map out new strategic guidelines to drive foreign policy may take us away from the dithering policy doldrums. Perhaps. Just may be. This is a critical lacuna in a largely transformed global canvass and in the face of major alterations to Nigeria’s domestic scenario. For now, in the absence of a comprehensive policy framework that codifies our understandings of the structure, the critical imperatives of the fast changing new global universe for Nigeria’s defined interests and how we plan to negotiate our way through the messy miasma of an inherently turbulent labyrinth, anecdotal victories and their accompanying resounding tam-tam would take us nowhere. All these, as some suggest, would not get us the coveted seat in a reformed Security Council. A first serious step towards that goal is clarity on what we represent to the world and more important, for black humanity. Our steps in this direction, for now, are faltering. As far as can be said, France, for many reasons, may sooner than later come to certain compromises, to advance the candidature of South Africa over Nigeria for the Security Council. Before its recent promise to Nigeria, President Sarkozy had in fact assured the South Africans of the support of France for its bid. Whether he wins or loses the election is immaterial. It’s the name of the game.

•Alalade wrote this piece for TheNEWS magazine.

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