It has now become official that the South African economy is, once again, the continent’s largest economy, a return to the status quo which Nigeria disfigured in 2014 when a recalculation of her economy gave it the number one position. Nigeria’s rise was celebrated and reckoned with globally even as many believed that, beyond the statistics, the South African economy is ways ahead of Nigeria’s. Yes, huge population and huge market three times that of South Africa, the Nigerian economy is, nevertheless, prostrate, almost completely dependent on oil rents and little or no manufacturing. And the country is running the risk of severe crisis as oil heads down the way gold headed into relative backbench position.
Additionally, Nigeria confronts the risk of not finding the market for her crude oil in the very near future, what with the return of new actors such as Iran, Saudi Arabia’s marketing dexterity in Asia, especially its pricing of oil sales to China and, not the least, the emergence of China as an oil power in its own right in Asia. North America as well as the European market is equally not there for the taking for Nigerian oil anymore with the rise of the United States as a major supplier, notwithstanding fears around the sustainability of fracking, both as a method and as technology. Without a developed petroleum technology, observers do not see Nigeria compensating plausible loss of market by entering Latin America. With less than 2m barrels daily production, Nigeria is not in that league of game-changers in global energy politics.
Meanwhile, traditional as well as emergent sectors such as agriculture, transport, telecommunications and tourism, among others, have not been developed in Nigeria as to replace loses associated with the feared decline of oil markets in Nigeria. Neither does the knowledge industry nor the infrastructural stature to sustain a quick revamping of these exist at the moment. Above all, there seems to be confusion about what deregulation means or should mean in Nigeria. There is little chance of a magical breakthrough going by any roadmaps so far circulated, whether from the Nigerian State or any of the numerous actors in the economy, domestic and otherwise. And whatever Nigeria earns today is spent the next day on imports. Nigeria imports virtually everything the citizens consume, including oil which it produces. A large percentage of the imports are from factories located in South Africa, ranging from cars, soft drinks, wine, media products and groceries.
This context explains the doubt that Nigeria was in any substantive ways the largest economy on the continent anytime in the last decade beyond the statistical support for it. Some people even argue that the then impending 2015 presidential poll in Nigeria had a hand in the recalculation exercise from which Nigeria emerged the largest economy.
A kind of competitive co-operation underlines Nigeria – South Africa’s relationship broadly since 1994. The relationship has its own frictions but the two countries understand that they have little choice than to be friends in need and indeed in relation to standing for Africa, a challenge they are each uniquely equipped to shoulder but jointly. South Africa has a certain mystique or elusiveness while Nigeria has grandeur and they blend into a powerful combination. This was at its best when Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki were the presidents of Nigeria and South Africa respectively. The two had understanding of each other at personal levels preceding their coincidental emergence as the presidents.
Division over Africa’s response to the NATO war in Libya in 2011 caused not a little crease between Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria. Now, it is not clear what the rapport is between Muhammadu Buhari, the incumbent president of Nigeria and Jacob Zuma. The rapport between Obasanjo and Mbeki might only have been surpassed if Atiku Abubakar, Obasanjo’s deputy has also succeeded him as Zuma succeeded Mbeki. Serving as the respective vice-president, Atiku and Zuma developed a rapport that analyst describe as tight. Fortunately or unfortunately, Atiku did not succeed Obasanjo as Zuma did Mbeki.
Though the South African economy is not free of crisis, what with its own share of relative de-industrialisation, unemployment, corruption and poverty, the major difference between it and Nigeria’s economy is that South Africa is, by far, more competitive than Nigeria. Its status in the wine, defence production, solid minerals and the media industries are of reckoning on a global scale. Notwithstanding contestations over its qualification for membership of BRICS, (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), that membership as well as of the G20 are real. And they rest on a powerful self-understanding as the gateway into the continent and a hub of international finance. The crisis of racial inequality in the ownership and control of its modest industrialisation might be said to have been resolved in the deliberate strategy of reconciliation rather than equity through official redistribution of wealth. It is widely argued that whatever the demerits of that strategy might be, it has guaranteed democracy as opposed to the chaos that any other option could have brought about.
Of course, Nigeria is in a position to leave South Africa far, far behind in a very rapid manner should it get hold of itself and pull itself out of the collective rentier mentality Nigerian power elite suffers. With nearly 200 million hardworking citizens and over abundant natural resources, Nigeria’s only missing link is what Dr Abubakar Muazu, the University of Maiduguri scholar calls “an elite core with a binding national narrative”. Only God and time will tell if such a core will ever emerge, when and from which constituency in Nigeria: politicians, private sector, traditional rulers, technocracy or retired Generals in politics? In the meantime, the country is lost in a debate on restructuring rather than on development strategy. What a pity!