History took a Hegelian curve of some sort with xenophobic South Africa last week. From former apartheid era ‘thesis’ of zestful solidarity by Africans (and other just-minded people everywhere) with majority black South Africans, who at the time waged a bitter struggle against minority white oppression, the country entered into the ‘antithesis’ of concerted African outrage and threat of isolation over its foreigner-hating mobs that the government seem lame or reluctant to rein in.
During those anti-apartheid years, Nigeria, though thousands of landmiles and many territorial boundaries away, was tagged a frontline state along with black majority countries contiguous with embattled South Africa. And that was so because of its extensive and sacrificial input to logistics as well as material supply for the gruelling struggle that black South Africans waged against their white oppressors.
Now South African blacks especially at the grassroots harbour deep resentment for African migrants in their country, particularly Nigerians, which manifests in periodic outbreak of xenophobic violence that costs lives, limbs and property and pitches the country on the polar end of apartheid era African solidarity. This has become some form of madness for which a cure is long in coming. It was such violence that rocked the country last week as battering mobs torched and looted business interests of Nigerians and other African nationals. South African authorities acknowledged at least ten persons killed in the latest rage.
The danger to foreigners in South Africa isn’t limited to mob violence given the country’s high rate of crime. Many Nigerians have been killed in isolated attacks by lone wolves. Although Nigerian government says no Nigerian was among fatalities of the latest mob violence, many of this country’s citizens had lost their lives in South Africa to isolated crime incidents. Nigerian top insurer, Obianuju Ndubuisi-Chukwu, was murdered in her hotel room in June; and in July, a high school teenager, Chinonso Obiaju, was shot dead in Johannesburg. Mid-August, businessman Pius Abiaziem was killed in Eastern Cape allegedly by four South African policemen who were interrogating him in his house.
The mob violence last week incurred reprisals like never before from countries that were allies of South Africa in the anti-apartheid struggle. Amidst revenge attacks by angry citizens on South African business interests in Zambia, the country’s football body cancelled an international friendly with Bafana Bafana that was scheduled for Saturday in Lusaka, citing fears of insecurity of the South African team when they come in. Zambia’s transport ministry as well warned truck drivers against traveling to neighbouring South Africa until security issues are resolved. Also in Zambia, a popular radio station pulled all South African music on its playlist, saying it would “cease to play music by South African artistes on (its) airwaves until further notice” in light of the xenophobic violence. And there was Ethiopia’s foreign ministry that deplored the destruction of businesses owned by its nationals in South Africa and warned of possible retaliation on South African businesses within its territory.
Nigerian immigrants have had a larger deal of South African xenophobia. So the anger in this country was no less profuse as outraged citizens stormed outlets of South African retail and communication giants, Shoprite and MTN, in major cities and forced many of these to close shop. Unlike the experience of Nigerian businesses in South Africa, however, our police personnel posted security cover for the embattled businesses and largely kept rioters at bay. And really, we needn’t stoop to the mob sentiment in South Africa because, as former American First Lady Michelle Obama once canvassed, “When they go low, we go high.”
But Nigeria as well led a counter-diplomacy charge with measures that, for once, showed this country has limits to its legendary tolerance. Besides issuing a travel advisory to Nigerians, the government recalled the High Commissioner to South Africa, Ambassador Kabiru Bala. Then, it pulled out at the last minute from a World Economic Forum summit in Cape Town that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was scheduled to attend on Wednesday. Cashing on an offer by a domestic airline, the government also announced plans to evacuate Nigerians willing to return from South Africa free of charge. And it talked unusually tough about the remedy being envisaged: “The South African government has to assume its responsibilities and protect Nigerians in South Africa, and we (will) hold them to account. They have to do that as well as pay full compensation,” Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said.
The backlash impacted enough to compel South Africa’s closure of its embassy in Nigeria. The country’s Foreign Minister, Naledi Pandor, was reported saying the missions in Abuja and Lagos were being temporarily shut over threats to staff safety. Significantly, he also admitted Africa-wide outrage against his country, saying: “There is Afrophobia that we are sensing exists, there is resentment and we need to address that.”
In effect, the rest of Africa, most of which fought alongside South Africa in its anti-apartheid struggle, is angry now with that country because its xenophobia has shown up to be more of irrational black-on-black violence than a crosscutting hatred of all foreigners. After all, white, Asian and Arab immigrants are rarely attacked. In the country of about 58million people, the foreigner population is estimated at 2.3million. South African comedian and television host, Trevor Noah, last week said some 1.6million of these are Africans. Unofficial projections put Nigerian immigrants out of the lot at about 800,000. And these have been the target of recurrent xenophobic violence by irate mobs in that country.
Noah aptly made the point that the xenophobic anger is misplaced, as Africans hold less than 0.00001 percent of the wealth in South Africa. Conversely, whites make up about 8.7 percent of the population and control over 85 percent of the wealth. “African immigrants don’t own lands, don’t run companies, don’t own mining companies, don’t operate trophy hunting companies, do not ship out capital to European banks… So, when I hear South Africans claim that other Africans are competing with them on dwindling / scarce resources, I say that your anger and outrage is misplaced. I don’t see fellow Africans as a competitor but a fellow compatriot who is struggling to feed his family and have some comfort in this short lifetime,” Noah said on Comedy Central.
Back home, we should commend private individuals who also applied the initiative of boycotting South Africa to drive home Nigeria’s displeasure with xenophobic violence against its nationals. Ace entertainers, Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage, headed up the red flag. Burna Boy said he would never again go to South Africa until the government “wakes up” to address xenophobia, of which he had his own experiences in 2017. Tiwa Savage, for her part, pulled the plugs on a concert in Johannesburg where she was billed to perform later this month because of “the barbaric butchering of my people” in South Africa. And there is environment activist, Nnimmo Bassey, who tossed a speaking engagement at a conference scheduled to hold September 10-11 in Cape Town.
Business captain, Jim Ovia, pitched in with the Federal Government by pulling his participation at the World Economic Forum summit in Cape Town even after he had shown up at the event. He deserves applause. But the overall impact of Nigeria’s displeasure was blunted at that event by Kaduna State Governor Nasir el-Rufai, Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi II and reputed activist Oby Ezekwesili, among others who attended the forum in their personal capacities. Was it snobbery, insensitivity, or the notorious syndrome of Nigerian leaders being unable to resist the lure of foreign travels?
A final point to be made is: while on the cause of pressing for remediation of recurrent mob violence in South Africa, our government should as well push through an allied demand for sustained security of Nigerian migrants in that country from lone wolf attacks.
Credit: Kayode Robert Idowu
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