THE BLOG

Africa's Strongest Bridges Won't Be Made From Steel And Stone

It should become standard practice for African countries to invest in each other and become primary consumers of each other's talents and raw materials.

28/02/2017 04:59 SAST | Updated 28/02/2017 04:59 SAST
Florin Iorganda / Reuters

Last week the Nigerian government announced plans to construct a new border bridge between Cameroon and Nigeria in order to strengthen the bilateral ties between our two countries. With attitudes and actions within world trade undergoing a fundamental shift, it got me thinking about the virtual bridges Africa must continue to build: the relationships we keep with other countries.

Last year brought us two seismic upsets in the geopolitical status-quo. First, in the summer the world was surprised by the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union, the economic and trading zone it had been part of since the 1970s. Shortly afterwards, similar surprise was expressed when a populist celebrity with no political track record, Donald Trump, was elected President of the United States. Quite aside from the political shift this may represent, both countries have since expressed a fervent interest in exploring new trade relationships. This is something that Nigeria, indeed all of Africa, is well-placed to benefit from.

It was encouraging to see our government welcome the Commander of the U.S. - Africa Command, Thomas Waldhauser, and the American Ambassador in Nigeria, W. Stuart Symington, to the Presidential Villa last week. More so was the affirmation of our government's willingness to build "a relationship based on trust" that both our countries will "benefit tremendously from". Whilst efforts to help with issues in the North of the country are welcome, and certainly anything to protect the Christian communities at risk there is a great blessing, we must ensure that our relationship with the United States is one based on trade. More US Dollars in circulation in Nigeria would be no bad thing.

But some of our best opportunities lie not with Western superpowers, but within our own African powerhouse. Nigeria and South Africa have spent the last four years jostling for economic supremacy: to be the biggest economy on the continent. It is no secret that relations between our nations are strained, not least over the $5.2 billion fine imposed on MTN by the Nigerian Government in 2015. Diplomatically, we have turned away from each other. And now we see physical attacks on the premises of Nigerian businesses in South Africa, and vice versa. It is a worrying trend, but it will be a temporary one because ordinary South Africans know that a prospering Nigeria is good for South Africa and vice versa.

So, as the continent's leading economies, what can South Africa and Nigeria do to help each other? Nigeria currently exports just $5billion dollars worth of goods and services a year to South Africa. A large amount, but a measly amount of the trade that could be flowing between our nations' businesses. It may be Nigeria's largest trading partner in Africa, but Nigeria exports twice as much to Spain and three times as much to India.

The potential for more trade between the two biggest economies in on our continent is huge. It is sometimes said that Nigeria is the Africa of human resources, and that South Africa is the Africa of mineral resources. This is certainly one way to think about how we could boost our inter-country trade. Nigeria's financial and telecommunications services sectors are growing over time, and could be put to good use in South Africa. Likewise, the technical knowledge and innovations that have bolstered South Africa's agricultural sector should be sought out by Nigeria to help with the much-needed diversification of its economy.

Some of our best opportunities lie not with Western superpowers, but within our own African powerhouse.

History tells us this is all possible too, provided there is the political will on both sides to make it happen. The first South Africa-Nigeria Bi-National Commission in 1999 resulted in South African exports to Nigeria increasing by over 500 per cent. It has been nearly eight years since the last one was held in Pretoria. What better way to get our economic relations back on track than to host one in Lagos in 2019?

But aside from these grand ambitions overseas or thousands of miles apart, what is encouraging about the construction of the Cameroon-Nigeria bridge is the message it sends to our neighbours locally: we are in this together. Because many of the greatest opportunities exist slightly closer to home. Some of our best opportunities lie not with Western superpowers, but within our own African powerhouse.

As recently as 2014, Nigeria enjoyed a positive trade balance of $47 billion but none of its top-five trading partners was on the African continent. Exports flowed to India, Spain, Brazil, France and even the Netherlands, but the countries to our north and south, east and west we ignored. I believe it should become standard practice for African countries to invest in each other and become primary consumers of each other's talents, products and raw materials. With physical bridges and diplomatic inroads, buzzing trade between African states can become a reality.

The construction of a land-bridge between Cameroon and Nigeria might be a costly project, but it is a powerful statement of intent: Nigeria is ready to cement ties with new trading partners, and it looks like local opportunities are finally being pursued.