One week ago, on March 2nd, an Arik Air flight departing from Lagos, Nigeria arrived to O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, carrying 125 passengers of Nigerian nationality. But as the passengers approached customs, the South Africa Port Health Authority declared that some passengers were carrying fraudulent yellow fever immunization cards (despite the fact that visas cannot be obtained without already having proved immunization), and decided promptly to bar entry to the country and deport all passengers back to Nigeria. In response, Arik Air suspended all flights to Johannesburg for a number of days, denouncing the flawed and “discriminatory” protocol exercised by the Port Health Authority that had turned away hundreds of passengers in recent months.
As the story circulated in the media that the passengers had been held for 24 hours without food or water in poor conditions before being deported like refugees, the public outrage grew and the Federal Government was prompted to speak out, including a tit-for-tat deportation of 136 South African travelers. Despite demands for an apology at the highest levels, the South African government remained obstinate for days before finally reversing and offering an official apology and a promise to improve bilateral relations and to find a solution for the immunization card issue.
The feud may be resolved for the moment, but much of the harsh tone exchanged between Africa’s two largest nations belied an air of emerging economic rivalry and no small amount of national pride. South Africa’s stature among many other African nations is gradually changing from a model to be imitated to a sense of resentment of perceived arrogance – which was forcefully driven home by the nature of the deportation of Nigerians for “health” reasons.
“What you see playing out is … xenophobia by South Africans against all Africans, not just Nigerians, including even those from their neighbouring countries,” said Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru earlier this week, drawing applause from the floor of the National Assembly and no doubt resonating across a number of other nationalities in the region. What was interesting about this diplomatic spat, however, was that the South Africans remained firmly unapologetic up until the moment in which the Nigerian authorities indicated that there could be penalties or more difficult conditions for South African investments in the country, a development that highlights how influence has shifted in Africa away from “the center” (ie, from European colonial powers to the U.S. and now China/India) and toward the “periphery” (with both South Africa, Nigeria, and, to a lesser extent, Kenya and Ghana, all competing for economic and political influence in the region).
An Undisputed Regional Power?
The controversial handling of the Arik Airways deportation issue by South Africa was in many ways a reflection of power. Perhaps Pretoria believed it could dictate its own terms to the Nigerians because for so many years now they have been the unchallenged regional leader, accustomed to making rules, not taking rules.
No one would question why South Africa is seen as the star of the region, as it boasts the highest GDP on the continent ($363.7 billion in 2010), impressively advanced transportation and utility infrastructure, and 18-years of stable post-apartheid governance under a constitutional democracy. South Africa has become the economic powerhouse of Africa, accounting for 24% of the continent’s GNP, with strong economic diversity in mining (almost 19% of the economy), manufacturing, agriculture, real estate, and financial services. To boot, South Africa has been formally invited to join the Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRIC) quartet, becoming a full member during the 2011 BRICS Summit in Hainan, while also holding a little event known as the 2010 FIFA World Cup – something that all Africans were proud of.
So how does Nigeria, with its penchant for self-destructive corruption, terrorist violence, and notoriously poor governance, stand a chance of competing with South African for regional influence?
To put it quite simply, Nigeria has much more in common with the nations of the BRIC quartet than South Africa for the sheer size of its market and its potential for future economic growth and consumption. South Africa has just shy of 50 million people, while the population of Nigeria, though not counted by a proper census in years, is estimated to hover well above 170 million and growing quickly (in many Nigerian cities there are literally more people than products to buy), representing a staggering level of human capital alongside massive oil reserves and many other untapped natural resources. Nigeria’s sizable military also allows for one of the largest contributions of soldiers to United Nations Peacekeeping Missions in Africa, something that the continent could arguably not survive without, further extending Abuja’s influence in the region.
As for South Africa’s inclusion among the BRICs (which alone is a poorly understood grouping), there are also some questions as to the country’s candidacy as a premiere emerging market. The economist who invented the acronym, Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs, has remarked that he feels disappointed that the grouping has utilized more as the basis of a political pact rather than strictly basing membership on economic fundamentals. “It [South Africa] is nowhere near constituting a BRIC, and without staggering productivity improvements and major immigration or improvements in birth rates, etc., it is never going to get there,” O’Neill said, pointing out the small size of South Africa’s market and population. “South Africa has played on the notion that because they do have developed markets and Western governing standards in some areas they’ve said ‘look, we are the gateway to the rest of Africa. (…) What intrigues me is whether other big African countries accept that and I doubt that Nigeria is going to be very happy about that.”
Adding fuel to the fire of the Nigeria-South Africa economic rivalry was an announcement last fall that Nigeria would rebase the estimation of its Gross Domestic Product from 1990 to 2008, which would in theory catapult the country up to the level of South Africa to compete for the #1 spot as the continent’s largest economy and the premiere destination for foreign investment over the coming years.
But all this is not to say that we can expect Nigeria to outpace South Africa’s high level of development anytime in the short term. Pretoria will likely continue to enjoy several critical advantages over Nigeria in terms of 1) political stability, 2) national security, and 3) depth of non-export economy (value-added service sector employment). Not many people like to talk about it, but the ruling Africa National Congress (ANC) party suffers from deep levels of corruption on par with a number of Nigeria’s institutions, while the poorest 25% of South Africans live on even less than the poorest segment of Nigeria’s population. So much of Nigeria’s success in becoming a regional leader will relate to its ability to deliver quality governance, establish stability and security, and address some of the long overdue critical needs, such as a reliable electricity grid, but if these concerns can be met, the sky is the limit. And if Nigeria is able to make real progress toward these ends over the next decade, the very nature of how Africa’s biggest economies become integrated and organized will be changed.
Africans in charge of Africa
What is emblematic of this healthy competition between Abuja and Pretoria is the broader shift toward regionalism in global affairs, where geography begins to take on much of the role formerly held by “hard power.” As the US analysts Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group and Steve Clemons of New America Foundation have argued in The Atlantic, “In response to the global power vacuum, we’ll see a return to geography as a primary organizing principle, where a country’s placement will determine its friends and enemies, trading partners, and foreign policy focus to an outsized degree. (…) A host of factors and forces are promoting unique constellations of regional power around the world. Clearly, the nature and degree of regional cohesion will vary. Some groupings are more formalized — the European Union is the most formal and mature integration of states, with significant institutional capacity at a regional level. Other regions will be more informally arranged, with sheer power dynamics driving cohesion; in this regard, the Caucasus and broader Middle East regions come to mind. In some cases, unity will be more symbiotic with voluntary participation — in other cases, a coercive local hegemon may impose integration on neighbors that do not have the capacity to hedge their bets against it.”
So what kind of regional integration can we expect in Africa over the next decade? Will it be formal or informal, voluntary or coercive, or based along ethnic and religious lines? The institutional efforts that have been made so far to integrate African nations politically (African Union) and economically (ECOWAS, COMESA, etc.) have so far failed to materialize any formal strength and lack any enforcement mechanism to uphold their rules. This would indicate that in the future, the regional economy would be organized on both voluntary (soft power) and coercive (Nigeria’s UN military commitments and South Africa’s financial prowess) bases. Given how sharply both Nigeria and South Africa butted heads over the immunizations issue, the outcome of this growing rivalry will come to define who plays what roles in the future of Africa’s economic development, and who will make the rules and who will take the rules.