In a year packed with many African elections, Nigeria went to the polls in February and South Africa votes this week. This begs the question of the significance of the elections on both countries’ relations and influence in Africa. Pretoria and Abuja enjoy a remarkable status in Africa. This stems from their coercive or hard power (economic and military capacity) and attractive or soft power (culture, values, and policies) that have positioned them as regional powers and find expression in their influential roles in their respective subregions, the continent, and the world at large.
In terms of hard power, with GDPs of $397 billion and $349 billion in 2018, Nigeria and South Africa respectively are the dominant economic powers in Africa and are also well ranked in military spending and capability. Nigeria’s peacekeeping efforts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and South Africa’s in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have rendered them major peacemakers on the continent.
Regarding soft power projection, Pretoria and Abuja’s power of attraction radiates across the continent and beyond. Nigeria arguably enjoys the most soft power in terms of the culture transmitted by its entertainment industry. This is exemplified by the reach of Nigerian movie (Nollywood) and music industries across Africa and further afield. South Africa’s soft power is derived from its liberal 1996 constitution that is regarded as one of the most progressive in the world; its post-apartheid political settlement that prevented racial Armageddon; charismatic leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki; its reputable universities that attract African, American, Asian, and European students; and its multinational corporations that operate across Africa.
Nonetheless, internal, regional, and external constraints undermine the capacity of these states to play an effective leadership role. The domestic challenges include high levels of poverty, unemployment, and slow economic growth. Regional impediments include envy and non-acceptance of South Africa and Nigeria’s leadership by other African states; and the external constraints underscore the influence of great powers including the United States (US), China, and France that circumscribe both African powers’ influence on the continent.
The major domestic challenges that have prevented South Africa from effectively pursuing its foreign policy goals are poverty, inequality, and unemployment. The country’s unemployment rate stands at 27% and more than 17 million South Africans (over 30% of the total population) rely on social grants. Successive post-apartheid governments have grappled with how to lift the black majority out of poverty. Accordingly, resources that could be useful to promoting South African foreign policy are diverted to addressing domestic challenges. This is evident in the increasing decline in South Africa’s commitment to its regional obligations. In recent years, South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) and its National Defence Force’s (SANDF) budgets have increasingly declined, and Pretoria withdrew most of its peacemakers from Darfur by 2016.
With 87 million people living in extreme poverty, Nigeria has emerged as the country with the largest number of extreme poor and an unemployment rate of 23%. Its domestic challenges have distracted the country from playing its role in regional politics, as citizens have shown little enthusiasm for African integration. For example, the Nigeria Labour Congress and powerful business interests opposed Nigeria becoming a signatory to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and President Muhammadu Buhari did not attend the African Union (AU) summit in Rwanda in 2018, where member states signed this agreement. Despite the potential benefits of AfCFTA, Abuja remains reluctant to sign the accord.
An important characteristic of an effective regional power is legitimacy in its own subregion. Both South Africa and Nigeria have struggled to gain acceptance from their regional counterparts. Nigeria’s peacekeeping efforts have been contested by Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Senegal. Some African states have also openly rejected Nigeria’s leadership in international forums. In 1977 and 1993, most African states voted against the country becoming a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, while in 2009, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Togo did not support Abuja’s candidacy, creating the impression that it could not rely on these countries to support its quest for a permanent seat on an expanded Security Council.
While apartheid has ended, the authoritarian regime’s destabilisation of its neighbours still lingers in the minds of Southern African leaders. Angola, Zimbabwe, and even Namibia have challenged South Africa’s regional leadership objectives. This was evident in their opposition to military intervention in the DRC in 1998, South Africa’s failed bid for sanctions to be imposed on the Nigerian military regime of General Sani Abacha in 1995, and its recent unsuccessful attempt to host the African Cup of Nations (AFCON).
Through initiatives such as the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), Washington has sought to promote its economic and security interests on the continent. This suggests that South Africa and Nigeria’s influence in the economy and security of other African countries is weakened by America’s substantial influence.
China has emerged as Africa’s largest trading partner with commerce worth $204 billion in 2018. Beijing’s incursions into Africa undermine South Africa and Nigeria’s influence in two significant ways. First, robust economic relations between China and African countries dictate that Pretoria and Abuja play a diminished role in African economies.
Second, China’s “no-strings attached” policy could undermine the efficacy of South Africa and Nigeria’s foreign policy of democracy and human rights promotion in Africa. France is another major actor that has challenged the influence of the African powerhouses on the continent. This was evident in the 2010 crisis following Laurent Gbagbo’s rejection of the verdict of the country’s electoral commission that declared Alassane Ouattara Côte d’Ivoire’s president. While Nigeria and South Africa dragged their feet, France dislodged Gbagbo from power. Paris was also the dominant player in the Congo and Chad crises.
Given these realities, South Africa and Nigeria have struggled to act as effective regional powers in their subregion. To play a meaningful role, the new administrations of Cyril Ramaphosa and Muhammadu Buhari in both countries need to work closely together to tackle these obstacles by paying serious attention to their respective domestic circumstances. This will curtail the perpetual Great Power incursions into Africa, and subsequently raise South Africa and Nigeria’s profiles in African affairs.
Oluwaseun Tella is the Editor of a book titled Nigeria-South Africa Relations and Regional Hegemonic Competence.