South Africa’s Zuma calls Nigerian leader after diplomatic spat, but Pretoria ‘happy to see him go’

The two countries have had a frosty relationship during Goodluck Jonathan’s term in office.

SOUTH African President Jacob Zuma called outgoing Nigerian leader, Goodluck Jonathan, to mend relations between the two nations after a diplomatic spat following xenophobic attacks.

“The two presidents reaffirmed the warm and cordial relations between South Africa and Nigeria and pledged that the two countries will continue to work together for the good of their peoples and the continent as a whole,” Zuma’s office said in an e-mailed statement on Thursday.

Nigeria ordered its two most senior diplomats in South Africa to return home on April 26 for consultations following a wave of attacks against immigrants, including Nigerians, in Johannesburg and Durban that left at least seven people dead. 

Recalls are diplomatic speak for expressing displeasure with a foreign government, though Abuja later recanted the decision.

Protests at the South African consulate in Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos, led to the office’s closure for two days last week.

But a South African diplomatic source told our sister M&G publication that Pretoria was not sad at Jonathan’s pending departure. (Read: Zuma turns on African leaders)

The two countries have had a frosty relationship during Jonathan’s term in office, rolling back gains that had been nurtured during former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure.

On Monday at Freedom Day celebrations Zuma stoked further regional opprobrium when he lashed out at African governments who “criticise the South African government but their citizens are in our country.”

“As much as we have a problem that is alleged to be xenophobic, our sister countries contribute to this. Why are their citizens not in their countries and are in South Africa?” he asked.

On Tuesday he continued the push back. We cannot shy away from discussing the reasons that forced migrants to flee to South Africa,” he said. “All of us need to handle our citizens with care.”

A barb at outgoing Jonathan

The diplomatic source said the president enjoyed the full backing of his Cabinet for Monday’s speech.

“The bulk of Zuma’s speech was directed at [outgoing Nigerian President] Goodluck Jonathan. We are happy to see him go.”

The two countries sparred over the recall of the Nigerian diplomats, leading to an extraordinary statement by South Africa that called the move “an unfortunate and regrettable step”.

The Department of International Cooperation then went on to deride the Nigerian government over its failure to rein in the Boko Haram insurgency, while raising the issue of the collapse of a church building last year that left 84 South Africans dead. Their bodies were only repatriated nine months later. 

It was a rather undiplomatic statement that left many baffled, even as many South Africans said they supported it.

But Pretoria had given president-elect Muhammadu Buhari’s incoming government advance warning of the statement. 

“Buhari understands. We had to warn him and say: ‘Don’t be alarmed.’ We are still going to work well with him,” said the diplomatic source.

South Africa’s presidency says it will issue a statement supporting its earlier remarks.

While South Africa is hopeful of better ties with Buhari, it remains a possibility that the former military general will re-enact the foreign policy of his first stint in power in 1983-85.

Nigeria at the time adopted an Afrocentric approach of “concentric circles” which emphasised its leadership role in the sub-regional bloc ECOWAS, in addition to seeking to reboot the Organisation of African Unity as the continent’s main growth and political vehicle.

It may thus see the African Union, which succeeded the OAU, as a natural stamping ground as it seeks to leverage its new found status as the continent’s outright economic superpower. 

In the meantime South Africa is cracking down against illegal immigrants as it seeks to pacify its locals, even as it treads a fine line not to antagonise African governments. 

Mugabe to the rescue

Its army has been roped in, with searches and deportations likely to be regular, with the benefits of such an undertaking expected to justify the costs.

At an extraordinary SADC summit on Wednesday in Harare, president Robert Mugabe gave Zuma a face-saving exit, saying that South Africa isn’t the “heaven” that would-be migrants think it is, and countries in the region should do more to curb their citizens from flocking there.

“Yes, it’s highly developed, but go there and see that the Africans in the country are still very low,” Mugabe, 91, told reporters in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, following the heads-of-state summit. “It’s the whites that are living better lives, more advanced lives.”

A surge of attacks on immigrants in Johannesburg and the eastern port city of Durban this month has left at least seven people dead and thousands displaced. South Africa deployed the army into townships to help quell the violence.

“People must get back to their own country,” Mugabe said. “We, the neighbours, should do whatever we can to prevent more people going into South Africa and try to get those who are in South Africa to get back home.”

Zimbabwe has the most migrants in South Africa, estimated at at least one million. South Africa’s indulgence of its neighbour has been blamed by some analysts for the wave of immigrants, which surged following its economic crisis of 2008.

—Additional reporting from Mail &Guardian, Bloomberg

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