A modest retaliation against xenophobia

Xenophobic attacks in South Africa are reshaping the African continent. Of recent the BBC reality check team reported that violent riots in the commercial city of Johannesburg, which is notorious for excessive violent attacks on black foreigners, claimed lives, as a mob went on rampage touching vehicles and looting many shops belonging to foreign nationals especially Nigerians.

In 2008, the year in which according to the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) xenophobic attack reached its peak, there were waves of Xenophobic attacks against non-South African Africans that led to the killing of more than 60 people, while thousands of others were displaced and property worth millions of Naira was either looted or destroyed.

Despite denial by the South African government of any attack targeted at foreigners, reports have it that in 2015, there was an upsurge of violent attacks against non-South African Africans mostly in the cities of Durban and the (in)famous Johannesburg. Following unrelenting pressure mounted on the South African government by human rights groups, the army were deployed to bring back the affected areas to normalcy.

Similar attacks were repeatedly carried out in few towns and rural areas; but due to low coverage, the fate of the victims and their number remained unknown.

This was later followed by an initiative launched by Pretoria to sensitize South Africans against the attacks and to offer improved access to ‘free’ medical services for victims of xenophobic attacks. I wonder if this is the best way to go about it.

With time, it is apparent that South African authorities’ contempt is what is pulling xenophobic attacks the more. From 2006 when the threats, attacks and killings against foreigners in South Africa began to date, Pretoria has done nothing decisive to either end the attacks or bring the perpetrators to book.

This argument be based on the South African Defence Minister’s recent comment that Pretoria cannot do anything about the resurgence of xenophobic attacks in the country.    

From September 1 to September 5, in Johannesburg alone, violent xenophobic attacks led to the of about 12 foreign nationals and destruction of property worth billions of Naira.

The attacks continued on September 8. Rioters wielding dangerous weapons marched through the city to the central business district and looted shops and gave foreigners a marching order to leave South Africa or face the dire consequences.

Why the attacks?

As violence against Nigerians and citizens of other African countries intensified, some South Africans, including government officials, accused Nigerians of peddling illegal drugs or grabbing jobs meant for South Africans and as unemployment figure stands at nearly 30%.

I watched a footage of BBCHausa’s interview with a Nigerian resident in South Africa. The chap detailed how some Nigerians peddle drugs and imported bad behaviors into the country. According to him, the recent escalation was caused by a young Nigerian who was so proud of his illicit business, defied all the forewarnings, and shot a South African taxi driver. 

South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister, Naledi Pandor was reported to have said that Abuja needs to address the fact that some Nigerians are involved in criminal activities in his country.

However, the Human Sciences Research Council is of the contrary opinion; it has identified four causes of xenophobic attacks in South Africa which include (1) intense competition for jobs, commodity and housing; (2) group (psychological categorization); (3) South Africa’s exceptionalism (superiority complex in dealing with other Africans); and (4) exclusive citizenship.

Notwithstanding all the above, I think there is no justification for the attacks whatsoever. If truly Nigerians are involved in illicit trades, I am of the opinion that South African authorities should have put security measures in place, as other countries, to stem the excesses; but not by allowing miscreants to take the law into their hands.

Staining South Africa-Nigeria relations

The expectation of all the black African countries that rallied behind South Africa to free the country from the excruciating pains of apartheid regime was that post-apartheid South Africa would be free of racial segregation of all forms; but unfortunately the aftermath was constriction and prejudice against black foreigners.

Unending xenophobic attacks is weakening South Africa-Nigeria relations. Nigeria-South Africa relations dates back to 1960 when the Sharpeville massacre led to the death 72 blacks and sever wounding of 184 others. The Tafawa Balewa-led government did the needful to checkmate the then white minority rule’s excesses.

During the reign of Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria was able to boycott and confront the white minority rule in South Africa for two reasons: Nigeria was economically buoyant – a card she played in ridding South Africa of the apartheid regime – and the country had a good reputation in world affairs.

Amidst the anxiety caused by waves of xenophobic violence in the city of Johannesburg recently and the growing strain relationship between Nigeria and South Africa, Pretoria closed its missions in Nigeria. The situation was unpredictable.

For the first time, President Cyril Ramaphosa openly condemned the attacks. He said: “Over the past few days, our country has been deeply traumatized by acts of violence and criminality directed at foreign nationals and our own citizens. There is no excuse for the attacks on homes and businesses of foreign nationals, just as there can be no excuse for xenophobia or any other form of intolerance.”

Subsequently, Abuja recalled its High Commissioner to South Africa and boycotted a meeting of the World Economic Forum on Africa that was underway in South Africa as did Rwanda, Malawi and DR Congo.

Retaliatory violence

Aggrieved by the news of their fellows being lynched in South Africa on almost a daily basis, mobs in Nigeria attacked South African-owned businesses in Nigeria, with MTN and Shoprite chains in some cities attacked and looted.

I am not a supporter of retaliatory attacks. To me, it is insensitive and uncalled for; besides the attacks will plunge our brothers and sisters into the chaotic recesses of unemployment, and exacerbate the current economic crises in the country.

Abuja’s next line of action was to repatriate its citizens following the incessant attacks. Privately-owned Nigerian airliner, Air Peace, volunteered to fly more than 600 Nigerians.

There was one great lesson as a flight carrying 189 Nigerians landed in the commercial city of Lagos. It was not just that the repatriated Nigerians punched the air and sang the national anthem, but also the action is indicative of how our destiny is attached to this nation. Summarily, despite the pretense of different dimension, we have no any other country than Nigeria.

Modest Retaliation

It is good President Buhari is meeting his South Africa’s counterpart next month to discuss the violence and possible solution. South Africa can even be expelled from the African Union over the persisting xenophobic attacks on African foreigners, as Paul Kagame has suggested. 

One, Nigeria needs to overhaul its economy. The country must be made attractive to investors. Despite the huge revenue Nigeria earned in the oil sector, the present economy continues to have a weak productive base and low indigenous capital. The country has weak institutions and poor accountability. Marginalization of the majority population by a tiny must stop.

Second, the narratives Nigerians’ bad image in the international community on the basis of crimes and terrorism must be changed. Any time news of Nigerian Diaspora emerges it is followed by one abomination or the other. The country and the citizens must do everything possible to shore up the country’s falling reputation.

This, I think, are the only two things that will bring back the country’s lost glories of being the giant of Africa and even earn it a respect among the comity of nations.

Abdulhamid writes via [email protected]

Twitter @yassara2013


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