Church disaster a test for relations between Africa's big powers

2014-09-30

South Africa and Nigeria have to work together for many continental initiatives to really take off: by all accounts, it is one of the most important relationships to take Africa forward. Recently, however, the already strained relations between Africa’s two biggest economies have once again been tested after the collapse of a guesthouse belonging to the Nigerian charismatic preacher, TB Joshua.

Altogether 84 South Africans died in the incident in Lagos – the biggest number of South Africans ever killed in such a tragedy in a foreign country.

The reaction of the Nigerian government provoked the ire of many South Africans – the main complaint being that lives could have been saved if the Nigerians acted more speedily and if South Africa had been informed earlier of the scale of the tragedy.

The South African relief effort was delayed for several days, allegedly because the government was never informed of what really happened and because of bureaucratic wrangling on the Nigerian side. The TB Joshua affair led to a flurry of criticism in newspaper columns and on social media, in many cases bordering on xenophobia, against Nigerian ‘incompetence' as reports filtered through of how the South African consul-general in Lagos struggled to get information.

The reaction of the Nigerian government provoked the ire of many South Africans

The youth league of the ruling African National Congress has called for Joshua to be barred from entering South Africa until there is a full investigation into what happened. The opposition Democratic Alliance also called upon Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, to assist victims and their families.

They called for the minister to institute a class action against TB Joshua and to investigate ‘the assistance of the South African government and the cooperation of the Nigerian government in as far as the tragedy is concerned.’

It is alleged that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is reluctant to condemn Joshua’s church for being negligent, with only five months to go before crucial presidential elections take place in his country. One doesn’t want to make an enemy of one of the country’s richest and most influential preachers at such a juncture, it is speculated.

The South African government, on the other hand, is being praised for its swift action by some local media – a rare accolade for President Jacob Zuma’s government, who increasingly has his back against the wall due to spending on his private residence at Nkandla. Zuma’s solemn address to the nation five days after the horror collapse, along with regular updates to the media, contrasted sharply with how the government has been acting on many internal issues.

While accusations fly back and forth, officials, however, have tried to keep the mudslinging from getting out of hand. Minister Nkoana-Mashabane refrained from pointing a finger directly at the Nigerian government during a press conference a few days after the collapse. She admitted, though, that there had been difficulty in obtaining information, saying that South Africa learnt of the number of dead mainly through its own sources. She reportedly described the relations with Nigeria as ‘very cordial and good’.

Clearly, officials from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation realise that too much is at stake to scupper relations that are already problematic. A number of serious incidents in the last few years have added strain to relations, including the expulsion of a group of 125 Nigerians by customs officials in 2012.

Officials realise that too much is at stake to scupper relations that are already problematic

On a continental level, disagreements between South Africa and Nigeria on issues such as the post-election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire and the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya created much tension. Nigeria’s refusal to back South Africa during the 2012 election of African Union (AU) Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma strained relations yet further. South Africa was accused of ‘bullying’ smaller countries into supporting Dlamini-Zuma.

In addition, it is clear even to those who have only a cursory grasp of the general chaos and lack of services in a city like Lagos that the Nigerians might not have deliberately tried to keep South Africa out. It also emerged that officials from The Synagogue Church of All Nations wanted to deal with the collapse without any outside help, hampering a quick response from the Nigerian government. Even without the role of the church, the lack of proper emergency services is a fact of life for many Nigerians.

Despite this, the insufficient cooperation between Zuma and Jonathan is a serious issue that needs mending. Paul-Simon Handy, a senior research associate at the Institute for Security Studies, says that while he believes the current spat follows an event ‘involving private individuals,’ one has only to recall the era when former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo were in charge of their countries to feel nostalgic about what could be achieved when leaders share a vision and work more closely together.

‘The Nigeria-South Africa relationship is crucial for pan-African matters. We saw how strong relationships between Mbeki and Obasanjo at a personal and an institutional level led to initiatives like Nepad [the New Partnership for Africa’s development] and the transformation of the OAU [Organisation for African Unity] into the AU.’

Currently, Zuma’s initiative to establish a rapid standby force across the continent is being hampered by this perceived lack of cooperation. Nigeria has yet to adhere to the initiative, dubbed the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), which is meant to start with the first three participating countries in October.

Handy says: ‘Zuma seems to be more interested in the southern African region, while Mbeki had more of a pan-African vision.’ Jonathan has so many internal issues to deal with – the threat of the Boko Haram insurgency being the most important – that he even lets down his own region, West Africa. ‘Jonathan failed to get deeply involved in issues beyond his own country in which Nigerian leadership was requested, like the crisis in Mali or the threat of Ebola in the rest of West Africa,’ said Handy.

The tragic events in Lagos haven’t led to a collapse of diplomatic relations; and Nigeria’s reaction is certainly the outcome of a much more complex situation on the ground than was initially stated. Ironically, the voices of the believers, those who trekked across the continent hoping TB Joshua will cure them of all sorts of ailments, are still to be heard. Very few of them and their families have spoken out against the preacher who has now promised to pay compensation to the families of the dead and injured.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS consultant

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