By Oke Epia

A two-day state visit to Nigeria this week by Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa marks a watershed in bilateral relations between both countries. Like the title of this article ambitiously suggests, it symbolizes a romantic rapprochement between two countries that have often seen themselves as continental rivals instead of partners in progress. But it may yet be a new day for Africa if the historic visit is seen as a burgeoning partnership between leading lights of a beleagued continent. As Zuma himself put it when he addressed a joint session of the National Assembly of Nigeria, the visit “tells a story of the need for our two sister countries to partner together not only to strengthen bilateral relations but also to partner together in pursuit of the continental integration, peace, security and development.”

An important event which headlined the visit is Zuma’s address to the parliament of Nigeria. In diplomatic relations, the gesture of a visiting Head of State/Government to address the legislature of the host country signifies respect and regard if not reverence for the foreign nation. As Zuma acknowledged in his speech, “this gesture indicates the seriousness with which the relations between South Africa and Nigeria are taken by this House.” Because the parliament comprises elected representatives of the people, addressing a session is tantamount to speaking directly to citizens. It is a reserved public diplomacy opportunity to achieve foreign policy objectives.

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This was not lost on Zuma and so when he mounted the platform to address Nigeria’s 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives, he took the opportunity to speak to the sentiments and reasoning of most Nigerians. Perhaps for the first time since the Nelson Mandela presidency, a South African leader lavishly acknowledged and praised the contributions of Nigeria to the liberation of his country from the stranglehold of apartheid. There had always been attempts by the Southern African country to downplay the sterling roles Nigeria played in the war against white supremacy. Recall the displeasure and muffled protests in Nigeria when in 2014 at Zuma’s inauguration for second term, the West African nation was barely acknowledged; ex-president Goodluck Jonathan simply made the numbers as one of the 20 Heads of State who graced the occasion. To make matters worse, the Chibok abduction episode in which over 200 girls were seized in the night by Boko Haram terrorists, overshadowed Jonathan’s presence at the event.

And then Nigeria’s $15million arms cash smuggled into South Africa on a private jet and was seized by the authorities in 2014 further strained relations between both countries. On another level, the frequent ill-treatment of Nigerians living in South Africa, especially the reprehensible 2014 xenophobic attacks badly tainted the rainbow nation. That particular episode touched directly on the nerves of Nigerians many of whom called for stringent action against South Africa and compensation for victims. To underscore the level of public grievance over the issue, Nigeria’s students’ body had warned Zuma to stay away from Buhari’s presidential inauguration in May 2015 because of his perceived shoddy handling of the organized attacks on Nigerians. Incidentally, the recent killing of a Nigerian boy- Timothy Chinedu- under extra-judicial circumstances was another sad reminder that citizens of Africa’s biggest black nation were not safe in the rainbow nation. Notably, this recent event had attracted the attention of Nigeria’s parliament barely a week before Zuma came calling. On the economic front, bilateral relations also went awry. The $5.2billion penalty imposed on MTN, South Africa’s multi-national telecoms firm, by Nigerian regulators for failure to register SIMs of its subscribers underscored this point.

These sore points formed the context of Zuma’s visit. Fortunately, he was smart to have addressed some of them before the National Assembly. He appealed to emotions and reason alike. “National Legislatures have come to play a pivotal role in the enhancement of bilateral relations between countries, evolving from their traditional roles of oversight of the executive and passage of legislation,” he told the lawmakers, adding: “We are convinced that relations between the National Assembly of Nigeria and the Parliament of South Africa will grow into a cooperation that will enhance people-to-people exchanges.” It was as if the visiting leader was re-echoing a position canvassed by Nigeria’s House of Representatives a week before. Nnena Elendu Ukeje, Chairperson of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, had stressed the need to strengthen people-to-people ties between Nigeria and South Africa through inter-parliamentary engagements. Speaking on the killing of the Nigerian lad at a hearing with some stakeholders in Abuja, she envisaged a situation “where our parliament engages the parliament of South Africa in a constructive way to show to them what Nigeria has done to promote brotherliness among African people.” Such engagement according to the ranking parliamentarian addresses the undesirable situation where “as our governments are getting closer, it will seem that the citizens are getting farther apart.”

Good enough, Zuma sufficiently played on that point in his oratory as the president tried to sell his country’s battered brand to the hearts and minds of Nigerians. He spoke glowingly of Nigeria’s roles in the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles in Southern Africa; Nigeria’s smooth and exemplary political transition in May 2015; and the increasing investment/trade relations between the nations; among others. In a clever stunt, he spoke of how “Nigerian civil servants had a “Mandela Tax” deducted directly from their monthly salaries to support our struggle for liberation. This was a real selfless contribution to the cause of freedom and an end to apartheid colonialism in South Africa.” Zuma espoused pan-Africanism and inspired hope in better bilateral relations when he declared that “South Africa and Nigeria are strategic partners in the pursuance of the African Agenda, South-South Cooperation and in the promotion of a rules-based International System. Both countries share a common vision on issues of political and economic integration in Africa and on the need for a sustainable conflict resolution mechanism in Africa that is primarily driven by Africans.”

He went on: “Nigeria and South Africa must forge a strong strategic partnership. We need to strengthen our political, economic social and cultural cooperation. Let the citizens of Africa march together to defeat all those forces that bring harm and suffering. Let the citizens of the continent march together towards a brighter future, a future filled with prosperity and happiness. South Africa and Nigeria, acting together in unity, must play a key role towards the achievement of these goals.”

Zuma surely deserved the thunderous applause he received at the end of his address to Nigeria’s lawmakers. But beyond the fine rhetoric, Nigeria and South Africa must put the decades-long rivalry between them behind and embrace collaboration for continental benefits. This is the path Zuma must thread. It is trite to say that better relations must be evident in better treatment for Nigerians living in South Africa; those seeking consular services; and Nigerian businesses in South Africa must be allowed to thrive competitively and fairly. The list can be longer. As Yakubu Dogara, Speaker, House of Representatives, said in his vote of thanks at the joint session, Nigeria looks “forward to better reciprocal treatment of our citizens in South Africa.” Indeed, now is the time for Zuma to walk the talk and get the rest of his rainbow nation to strut along.

Follow writer on Twitter @resourceme

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