President Jacob Zuma will welcome Nigerian counterpart Goodluck Jonathan with red carpet pomp and ceremony on his first state visit to South Africa, the first by any Nigerian leader since 2009.
The pair are expected to ink several pacts in a display of warming ties between the two African powerhouses on the heels of a trip last month by Zuma to Lagos.
“I think symbolically it’s very important to indicate a growing closeness between the leadership of the two countries,” said Dianna Games honorary chief executive of the South Africa-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce.
“There is a kind of a rivalry that has dogged the relationship over some time, and as a result the two countries are not speaking with a united voice on issues affecting Africa, let alone issues in the relationship itself.”
While South Africa is still the continent’s biggest economy, Nigerian business activity is set to grow more than twice as fast, by 7.2 percent, this year, according to the International Monetary Fund estimates.
Total trade has risen between the two countries to $4.1 billion, with a surplus in oil-rich Nigeria’s favour, according to South Africa’s department of trade.
The two states, both of which want seats in an expanded United Nations Security Council, were at loggerheads last year over who would become head of the African Union’s commission.
“It created a very frosty relationship between the two countries,” noted Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari, analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
“My view is also that South Africa has also been trying to overstretch its role on the continent by trying to play a very important role” in countries in Nigeria’s backyard such as Ivory Coast and Mali.
An embarrassing tit-for-tat row also broke out over yellow fever vaccinations that saw passengers turned away at airports.
The fact that there had not yet been an official state visit between the two leaders was “abnormal for two continental powerhouses”, said Hengari.
“Ordinarily in his first year in office, Jonathan Goodluck should have been to South Africa and President Zuma should have been to Nigeria. That is a symbol of a very very strong bilateral relationship.”
South Africa’s “charm offensive” pointed the way to a more cordial relationship where cooperation could be deepened and contentious issues discussed, he said.
The relationship has enormous potential benefit, a fact recognised by those who preceeded both Zuma and Jonathan, said Dames.
While courting the emerging BRIC markets — Brazil, Russia, India and China — South Africa has not shown the “same political eagerness on the continent” with Nigeria an obvious target, she said.
“If this is the start of a closer relationship, then I think that would be a very good thing all around for both countries and the continent as a whole because they are the two big powers in Africa,” she said.
While in Cape Town, Jonathan is to address the South African parliament and the two leaders will attend a meeting of a bilateral business forum.
The Nigerian leader will also hold separate meetings with the South African-based MTN telecommunications firm, as well as representatives of car manufacturers Toyota and Nissan in South Africa.