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Nigeria / South Africa - 2001-08-23

Business ties between Nigeria and South Africa are growing. Since the two countries came out of international isolation in the 1990s, bilateral trade between them has been assuming increasing importance. Observers say this is good not only for them, but also for the entire African continent.

Last week, Nigeria joined the list of countries using digital mobile phones. One of the companies licensed to provide the services is MTN - a South African telecommunications firm. It is one of several South African companies now doing business in Nigeria. Other South African concerns are active in a number of sectors - including power, tourism, mining, entertainment, and finance. Leading Nigerian businesses are also opening up shop in South Africa. Nigerian professionals are now contributing to the growth of South Africa's economy.

All of these developments have taken place in the years since the end of apartheid, when Nelson Mandela won the first multiracial elections in South Africa. MTN alone says it has invested 365 million U.S. dollars in Nigeria. The figure will reach one billion in a few months.

Emmanuel Ijewere is a Nigerian businessman who is happy with the trend. He says it's a natural attraction. "They have realized they are the giants of the south and we are the giants of West Africa, and these are two big giants. If Africa is going to move forward economically, the two giants must combine".

Mr. Ijewere says drug traffickers and fraudsters who first went to South Africa have given genuine Nigerian business people an image problem. But he says business organizations in the two nations have been exchanging visits that have been helping to build mutual confidence. A Nigeria-South Africa Chamber of Commerce has also been formed to further cement the ties. Mr. Ijewere, who recently played host to some black South African business people, lists some of the benefits of the growing business ties. "Our basic area of strength is that our economy needs a lot of assistance in terms of finance. They have a very good financial system, which Nigeria needs. Nigeria has a good network of professionals that could help them in their own country. Nigeria has the population to take goods from their own very advanced industries. Nigeria has lots of raw materials to be used to feed their own industries".

C.D.R. Halisi, an American scholar currently visiting Nigeria, says the development is good for Africa's economic growth. "The Nigeria-South Africa connection - and I see even at the level of hotels, communication, etc. - is an important one. And like it or not, I think Nigeria and South Africa will be the two important countries that will deal on the big issues of development, war and peace and other questions on the continent. And Nigerians and South Africans recognize that."

Despite these attractions, obstacles still remain. Drug dealers and fraudsters that went ahead of the genuine people continue to tarnish Nigeria's image in South Africa. But Mr. Ijewere says the problem can be overcome. He says the cordial relations between Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki is of great help here. "Our own President Olusegun Obasanjo and their own President Thabo Mbeki - their chemistry really works out beautifully. They are very close and very good friends and considering that Mbeki was here during the very dark days and recognizes Nigeria's position. At the top level, we've done very well - both heads of state."

Analysts are confident that the relationship will grow further, with both nations now multiparty democracies. Some, like Mr. Halisi, add that the much-talked about African Renaissance will remain a dream without this type of cooperation among African states. "I do think that South Africa and Nigeria will contribute to a rethinking of what were the foundations of the Pan African ideal of unity and diversity and I do believe that would be a contribution they would both make in tandem - together, sometime jointly and sometime in rivalry."

That anticipated rivalry, as one businessman puts it, will be the healthy variety, which should benefit the continent at large.