Muhammadu Buhari’s inauguration as Nigeria’s president presents new opportunities for reinvigorating relations between Nigeria and South Africa, the continent’s biggest economies.
Since the 1990s, the collective leadership of Nigeria and South Africa has been vital in providing the foundations for African renewal, the creation of institutions on the continent and the mobilisation of African voices in the global arena.
The hallmark of this leadership was demonstrated during the time of former presidents Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008) and Olusegun Obasanjo(1999-2007). Both were instrumental in crafting the current African security and development frameworks.
These frameworks have frayed and lost direction on the watch of Goodluck Jonathan and Jacob Zuma.
The African Union remains underfunded and has made paltry efforts to generate additional resources. The flagship African Peer Review Mechanism program has no money to conduct country reviews to gauge adherence to good governance.
But it is not too late to return to the quest for African prosperity, security and dignity under a Buhari-Zuma leadership.
The Mbeki-Obasanjo partnership
Efforts to find multilateral approaches and reverse Africa’s international decline hinge, more than ever before, on vigorous leadership, backed by solid domestic support for promoting Africa’s development. Without domestic backing on African issues, Nigeria and South Africa will not succeed in projecting their power on the continent.
The Mbeki-Obasanjo alliance was propelled by the demands of the early 2000s, particularly the need to reshape African institutions in the direction of renewed mandates and responsibilities.
These goals were achieved with the formation of the African Union in 2002, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and the African Peer Review Mechanism, the voluntary body for assessing Africa’s performance.
Mbeki and Obasanjo led confidently on continental affairs because they were elected by comfortable majorities at home and had solid control of their political parties.
In contrast, Jonathan’s regime collapsed partly because he lost control over his People’s Democratic Party. Under his presidency, Nigeria was gradually descending into state failure, with dire consequences for the region.
Zuma has faced a fractious African National Congress, but so far has survived internal challenges to his leadership.
Buhari’s electoral victory reinforces the consolidation of Nigeria’s credential as Africa’s largest democracy. This victory should embolden him as he confronts the menace of Boko Haram and much-needed military reforms to restore Nigeria’s role as a force for stabilisation in West Africa.
Zuma is still distracted by the Nkandla scandal involving public money being spent on his family home. Questions over the expenditure have led to unruly scenes in parliament.
But Zuma should seize the chance to reinvent himself as an African statesman by reaching out to Buhari in new initiatives to address the malaise facing African institutions.
The resurgent Nigeria and South Africa should make no pretences to hegemony – that crude inclination toward unilateral approaches. Leadership on African issues needs to be collective and consensus-based, reflecting the realities of scarce resources in the context of complex and multifaceted needs.
Although both countries will not replicate the strengths and advantages of the Mbeki-Obasanjo era, they have no choice but to improvise on strategies to check the steady deterioration of institutions and frameworks.
South Africa and Nigeria can provide optimal leadership when they work with other like-minded African countries in peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building initiatives.
Leadership often entails sub-contracting roles to regional institutions which are better at galvanising political attention and resources.
The priority for both countries should be to return to the agenda of strengthening the security and economic capacities of bodies such as the Southern African Development Community, the Economic Community of West African States, and the East African Community.
More importantly, the African Union has wandered off-course in recent years because of a lack of clear direction. Some of its core institutions, such as the African Peer Review Mechanism, are in profound crisis due to a lack of funding and waning resolve about their continuation.
Reinvigorating peer review
Buhari and Zuma should organise an urgent conference in Africa to raise funds to rescue peer review from collapse. There should also be pressure on all countries that have not signed up to do so before the end of 2016. How will Africa forge common governance values when half of the African Union member states are afraid to be reviewed by their peers?
Reinvigorating the mechanism is necessary to boost the frameworks of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance which came into force in 2012.
The charter needs champions. There are already severe reversals in democratic gains. Burundi and South Sudan are good examples.
Africa and the international community invested considerable resources in the stabilisation in Burundi and South Sudan. The negotiation of pacts paved the way for democracy and power sharing, paving the way for the return of peace and stability. But erratic elites are single-mindedly leading these countries back into civil wars.
Nigeria and South Africa should lead from the front in defending the sanctity of democratic values and practices in Africa.
The International Criminal Court
As part of fresh commitments to end impunity and enhance accountability and justice, Nigeria and South Africa need to marshal the authority to repair Africa’s relations with the International Criminal Court.
The African Union is not the ideal forum for Africa to pronounce itself on the court. While there are genuine complaints about the court’s role in Africa, the African Union has taken unhelpful positions on African cases that have potentially undermined its reputation and stature.
The majority of countries that signed up to the Rome Statute that created the court are African. These countries have signalled their distinctive domestic value systems that distinguish them from countries that have procrastinated on joining it.
Nigeria and South Africa are parties to the court. They need to bring the African Union to order on the subject.