This piece will seek to put into context South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s initial silence over the SARS crisis in Nigeria, and how it represents a quandary between Nigeria and South Africa whose basis was established more than twenty years ago. For the last two weeks, the world has witnessed how protests against the excesses of Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) have spiralled into violence and a 24-hour curfew that is redolent of the country’s unfortunate history with military governance. There have been contrasting stories about the extent of the violence and the number of deaths. António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, condemned “the violent escalation on 20 October in Lagos which resulted in multiple deaths and caused many injuries.” In like manner, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, decried the violence and offered “condolences to the families of those who lost their lives and wished a speedy recovery to the injured.” Mahamat counselled the use of dialogue and welcomed the Nigerian government’s decision to disband SARS. Multiple civil society organisations issued a joint statement urging “the federal government of Nigeria and the relevant state authorities responsible for ensuring safety and security in Nigeria to end the unlawful violence and prevent further escalation of the situation.”
South Africa’s President and current African Union (AU) Chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa was conspicuously mum about the turmoil. The many voices condemning the violence make Ramaphosa’s initial silence more apparent, especially as he is the 2020 Chairperson of the AU. On 22 October 2020, during the African Union, the Regional Economic Communities and Regional Mechanisms meeting, he finally broke his silence and expressed concern about the current situation in Nigeria.
Rather than precipitately pillorying Ramaphosa for his silence, it is advisable to put his situation in perspective. Several factors on Nigeria-South Africa relations make the interaction between Africa’s biggest economies a very difficult affair to manage. These factors extend even to the time of Nelson Mandela’s presidency in South Africa and the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha in Nigeria. When the Abacha junta executed nine Ogoni activists in November 1995, Mandela pushed for sanctions against Nigeria both in Africa, and outside the continent. Unfortunately, his pleas were not met with enthusiasm in Africa and other countries that largely relied on Nigerian oil. As a retort to Mandela’s criticism, however, Abacha ordered the Nigerian soccer team not to participate in the African Cup tournament that was coincidentally held in South Africa in 1996. There is another twist to this saga; South Africa won the tournament and there is speculation that this would not have been the case had Nigeria, who were defending champions at the time, participated in the tournament. Even on matters of sport, one begins to see the contours of a complex rivalry between the two countries.
Apart from political differences of the 1990s, the two countries subtly compete on matters of economics and a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. Despite Nigeria outstripping South Africa as Africa’s biggest economy, South Africans adroitly burst Nigeria’s bubble by emphasising that they remain Africa’s most industrialised economy. The competition and awkwardness percolates to the subnational level, at which Nigerians residing in South Africa have often been subjected to scorn and resentment. During the September 2019 wave of attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa, Nigerians were among the main targets, compelling Ramaphosa to offer profuse apologies to Nigeria. In October, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, defying the advice of some Nigerians, visited South Africa to discuss further cooperation between the two nations and, of course, the proverbial elephant in the room. Amid all the blandishments and smiles, he asserted that attacks on foreign nationals were unacceptable.
This background of competition and inescapable cooperation between the two countries creates some perspective on why South Africa would be loath to denounce the violence obtaining in Nigeria, especially if evidence points to the government as the offending party. Understandably, Ramaphosa dithered on this issue for fear of appearing self-righteous and hypocritical, owing to the occasional hostility and violence that South Africans have meted out to Nigerians. Furthermore, Ramaphosa has pressing domestic issues to deal with – an economy that has taken a hit amid the spread of COVID-19 and a string of arrests of people from his party on corruption charges. In the final analysis, however, should we treat Ramaphosa’s prolonged silence on the Nigerian crisis with understanding?
Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS)