By Tunji Ajibade
Nigeria’s Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, was in South Africa not long ago. He met with his counterpart out there. Both signed agreements and talked about cooperation. They mentioned assistance to deal with their respective military weaknesses and consolidate strengths. The air power capability demonstration held by the South African Air Force was the backdrop to all that. Abubakar’s visit caught my attention. It was one of the rare occasions I saw our top military officers showing up on their own in South Africa. Often, they were in the entourage of our presidents. Nevertheless, in the past, I had fully taken note on this page of occasions when our naval ships stopped in South Africa to visit their counterparts (“As Nigeria’s seamen ‘show off’”, The PUNCH, March 7, 2014).
I did think highly of the latest visit by Abubakar. It’s because I’m for closer ties with South Africa. I want both countries to do things together in the manner inseparable identical twins do. I’m sure the militaries of the two countries have a part to play in this. It’s one way Nigeria and South Africa can lead and get others to follow on the continent. They can’t, if each does its own thing and bicker from time to time. We know that people-to-people relations between the two nations aren’t what they should be. We know this leads to tension and exchange of words between them. It affects how government officials see the other nation and the comments they make, as Nigerian lawmakers passionately demonstrate of late following violent attacks on Nigerians by South Africans. Impassioned comments garnished with threats can be made by any state. It’s because states are run by people, so states speak and act in ways reflective of how the people that run them feel. The negative outcomes of this are what I desire that Nigeria-South Africa relations should stop experiencing.
I had chronicled some of the issues that were sources of tension between both countries in the past. One such occasion had followed the attacks on foreigners by South Africans in June, 2008 (“What’s wrong with xenophobic South Africa?”, The Guardian, June 8, 2008). Several other attacks had followed, as well as that face-off when South Africa sent back a planeload of Nigerians over a routine issue of yellow fever immunisation. Of late, reports of attacks by South Africans on Nigerians have become a regular occurrence. Along the line, Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, visited his South African counterpart over the issue, and he had barely left that country before there was another attack on Nigerians. One of the things Onyeama did out there that time was to come up with joint measures by both countries to curb the attacks. That was at the diplomatic level. We know there are other aspects to how peoples of two nations can feel good about one another. It takes more than diplomacy, or politician-to-politician contacts. It’s just that governments play a role in facilitating whatever contacts there may be.
In the past, I had expressed my concerns on this page that our government had not done all it could to ensure the South African populace sees Nigerians more positively. I had listened to how some of our officials enumerate how much we did for black South Africans during their liberation struggle. But I had pointed out that being in the good books of South Africans shouldn’t be left to what we did in the past. Most people don’t remember history, they don’t know it; rather they’re propelled by what they see at the moment. This is one reason UKAID, the British Council, USAID, and their embassies aided by their governments are ever on their toes across the world. In some of my past interventions, I had stated that our embassy in South Africa ought to be in action, getting South Africans to remember what we did for them in the past, and make them see what we’re still doing for them. It’s noteworthy that comments from our diplomats have always been that Nigerian embassies don’t have enough resources.
But I had stated that embassies didn’t need to have all the resources. They can’t have all the resources. The resources they need are the Nigerians in the country where the embassies are located. What this demands is a visionary ambassador who can galvanise Nigerians in host countries to come together and adopt various measures, professional or otherwise, to promote the positives about Nigeria. This speaks to my regular view that we can’t have people in leadership position who can’t administer. No one should sit in high office and give excuses for non-performance. Part of the work of the leader is to look for alternative solutions to a problem. Once an ambassador is able to persuade Nigerians out there to own an endeavour, the same people will spearhead and make the resources needed available. If they see it as being for their benefits Nigerians will give it their all. That’s the Nigerian spirit that I know, Nigerians who voluntarily supply generators, chairs etc at polling booths to ensure their votes count in their neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, most of our ambassadors don’t connect with the Nigerians in the host countries. They shut embassy gates, return home after their tenures, without tangible deliverables in their luggage.
As I’ve stated already, creating positive image for Nigeria and Nigerians can be done at different levels. Apart from the diplomatic level, the other is the military, which is why Abubakar’s visit to South Africa is relevant. It should be noted that the Chief of South African National Defence Force, General Zakaria Shoke, had been in Abuja back in March 2016. He had meetings with our Chief of Defence Staff, General Gabriel Olonisakin, to whom he re-affirmed his country’s willingness to work with the Nigerian Armed Forces for the benefit of the two countries. Shoke, at the time, further stated that Nigeria was important to South Africa, hence the need to work together. Olonisakin had equally sought for more cooperation in defence-related matters which he explained would go a long way in strengthening bilateral cooperation.
In July 2016, there was another visit by South Africa to Nigeria which involved the civilian officials of the Ministry of Defence of both countries. There were pledges of strengthening ties in military relations by combining forces, intelligence and resources aimed at building a large industrial complex that would dominate the defence economy and technology in the continent. Both countries said they would make efforts to strengthen their military relations for the advancement of Africa’s security and economy. This part is important, as it’s a good addition to how good relations could be built between Nigerians and South Africans.
I know many Nigerians have always had a good impression about South Africans. Even when they attack Nigerians, most Nigerians remain permissive, giving South Africans benefit of doubt. In fact, some of us believe these attacks happen mainly because, as a nation, we’ve not been doing enough to project our image as much as we should for the purpose of making the masses of South Africa relate better with Nigerians among them. Yet the matter isn’t helped by the few compatriots accused of involvement in illegal activities out there. After one of the recent attacks on Nigerians, foreign affairs minister, Onyeama, took steps, meeting with Nigerians in South Africa to formulate strategy on how they could inform the authority in that country about the few bad eggs among them. Onyeama also outlined other measures in conjunction with the South African government to ensure cases of attacks on Nigerians were reduced. That’s for the good of Nigeria and Nigerians.
Benefits of good relations between both nations extend beyond this though. It affects how well our continent fares. If Nigeria and South Africa become inseparable twins and they have quality governance, Africa will benefit. For it remains to be seen the nation on the continent that will be able to resist when these two nations speak with one voice against undemocratic tendencies, bad governance, corruption and illegal take-over of governments. Closer military relations between Nigeria and South Africa make this double sure. And that’s not to mention scarce resources that shall be retained in the continent when both militaries cooperate through exchange of expertise, training, as well as sale of military hardware.
Tunji Ajibade is a Public Affairs Analyst.