Nigeria opens its doors to South Africa Business leaders use state visit to network

April 12, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Staff Writer

ABUJA, Nigeria -- A young businessman walked up to a group of people in the lobby of a fashionable hotel here and produced a business card with his address in Lagos, the nation's bustling business center.

"Are you from South Africa?" he urgently asked a black person in the middle of a group of whites who had descended on this new capital. "I'd like to give you my card," he said, pressing one into the visitor's hand. Then he smiled and disappeared.

Abuja, an emerging city in the center of this West African country, was abuzz with excitement at the visit Thursday and Friday of a South African delegation led by President F. W. de Klerk.

Three South African business leaders traveled with the president's delegation to meet with Nigerian businessmen, who seemed eager to talk about opportunities that would arise as the doors to South Africa swing open.

The two-day state visit marked an important turning point in South Africa's relationship with the rest of the continent after more than two decades of isolation. It displayed the new willingness by black African nations to open the doors to trade and communication with a country they once rejected for racist policies.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country with 110 million people, is rich in oil and is a major player in the politics of Africa. Its president, Ibrahim Babangida, is currently chairman of the Organization of African Unity, a policy-making body that played a leading role in the campaign against apartheid in South Africa.

With apartheid crumbling, Nigeria seems prepared to play a similar role in bringing South Africa back into the fold of African politics and trade. Businessmen and politicians in Abuja expressed an almost uniform feeling that it was time to welcome South Africa and establish trade and economic links that could benefit both countries.

"I think it's good for both countries that the South Africans are here," said Mohammed Musa, a barber at a market outside the city.

He echoed the response of many Nigerians when asked what they thought of the fact that South Africans were visiting their country.

"Hopefully the stage has been set for continued contact and expanding our relationship," Mr. de Klerk said Friday at a news conference ending his historic visit.

He said Mr. Babangida and he had reached no specific agreements on this first visit but had had a "general discussion" that he hoped would be followed up with new agreements between the two African giants, establishing normal diplomatic ties and trade relationships.

"I believe South Africa should become a full-fledged member of the structures of Africa," he told reporters after meeting with Mr. Babangida for nearly two hours.

The leaders issued a joint statement calling for "closer cooperation between and among the states of the continent in order to find peaceful solutions to current conflicts."

South Africa is hoping to transform itself from a racist regime run by the white minority to a multi-party democracy with equal rights for everyone, regardless of race. At the same time, Nigeria is trying to move from a military regime to civilian rule. Elections for a new Assembly are set for June, and a new president is to be chosen in December.

South Africa hopes to establish an interim government this year to replace the regime and oversee the transition to black majority rule.

The visit to Nigeria is the most significant so far in a string of new contacts between South Africa and black African states.

Ivory Coast, another West African country, announced last week that it would restore full diplomatic relations with South Africa. It is only the second black African country to have an embassy-level presence in South Africa, joining little Malawi, a country that is largely dependent on the South African economy.

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