In a sickening relapse into one of their favourite pastimes, whining and moaning South African youths have once again taken to the streets of their major cities in an orgy of violence that has resulted in the killing and maiming of fellow Africans, including Nigerians, destroying their means of livelihood and looting their property. Unrepentant as ever, they have been calling for a crackdown on those they claim are stealing their jobs. To make it justifiable, they are branding them criminals and drug barons.
Unfortunately, some miscreants in Nigeria have also decided to take the law into their own hands, trying to vandalise and loot some South African businesses in obvious retaliation. Similar responses have also been witnessed in other African countries, where people have emptied into the streets to protest the conduct of their South African brothers. However, timely responses, especially in Nigeria, have prevented the situation from getting out of hand.
This is a heartrending development for a continent that has been preaching unity, both in the areas of culture and business. It is a setback for a continent that has been lying prostrate due to centuries of exploitation and dehumanisation by foreigners and therefore needs the resounding clear-cut support, cooperation and solidarity to bring it back to its feet. Such unwarranted horror as has been so often witnessed in South Africa should be condemned in strongest terms.
Although President Cyril Ramaphosa has come out to condemn the mayhem, he cannot wish away the fact that the unending attacks represent a monumental failure of government. It is the primary responsibility of the government of any country to protect lives and property, not only of its citizens, but also those of the foreigners among them. It is also accepted that when criminals are out to disrupt the peace, the authorities are expected to come out with a superior instrument of enforcement or coercion to stop them, not to appeal to them. So far, the South African government has continued to handle the maltreatment of other Africans by its citizens with kid gloves.
The official twaddle must end now. The Nigerian government has been failing to provide strong enough protection to its citizens when they are unjustly treated abroad. This is why her response this time, though belated, is appropriate. The country has to use all the diplomatic weapons in her armoury to defend her citizens in any part of the world. By boycotting the World Economic Forum on Africa, sending a special envoy to the South African leader and also summoning that country’s High Commissioner, Nigeria has demonstrated that it is no longer going to be business as usual where her interests are concerned. South Africa has some of the biggest businesses here in Nigeria and should, therefore, treat the country and her people with respect.
Since the end of apartheid rule in 1994, South Africa has had an offensive romance with xenophobia, which has blossomed because it has never been confronted frontally. A BBC report quoting the African Centre for Migration and Society shows that there have been xenophobic incidents in that country practically every year since 1994, even though the violence of 2008, where over 60 people died, stands out. During a similar orgy of violence in 2015, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation said, “The fabric of the nation is splitting at the seams; its precious nucleus – our moral core – is being ruptured.” The African Commission on Human Rights says the resurgence of violent xenophobic attacks not only constitute possible violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter), but are also contrary to the principles and ideals of African solidarity cherished in the charter.
It is particularly repulsive that the South African government is always in a cosy relationship with the plunderers by its arrogant justifications of people who should be treated as common criminals. For instance, in a particular incident in February 2017, a BBC online photograph showed South African security agents looking the other way as a Nigerian was receiving a kick on his side, just as other xenophobes, armed with rocks and sticks, were awaiting their turn to strike. In fact, the police have been implicated in some of the cases of extrajudicial killings of Nigerians.
Also, in 2015, the Zulu king, Goodwill Swelithini, threw caution to the winds when, to a thunderous acclaim by listeners, he described foreigners, blacks like himself, as “lice” that “should be plucked out and left in the sun.” He continued, “We are requesting those who came from outside to please go back to their countries.” Then, in a message that was unmistakably meant for Nigerians, whose role during the apartheid years was globally acknowledged, he added, “The fact that there were countries who played a role in the country’s struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience locals.”
It should therefore not be surprising that Nigerians have been the main targets whenever the monster of xenophobia is unchained. The Chief Executive Officer of Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri, said last month that by 2016, 118 Nigerians had been killed extra-judicially in South Africa, while additional 88 had been killed since then. This has been possible because the Nigerian government has been too weak in defending Nigerians. The failure of government to run an economy that provides jobs and reduces poverty has also contributed immensely to the mass exodus of Nigerians abroad where they are faced with a raw deal. If at home, Nigerians are not treated with dignity, is it abroad that they expect to be respected?
If, for instance, the government of South Africa had been made to pay heavy compensation for the killings, perhaps the country would have been more responsible in protecting the lives of Nigerians and other Africans in that country. The flurry of reactions from artistes and sportsmen who have severed contacts with that country as a result of South Africa’s repulsive and arrogant handling of the violence is also encouraging.
It is obvious that this barbarism has been perpetrated for far too long – and with official complicity – that is why some Nigerians decided to thread the path of retaliation. But that is not the way to go; just as the decision of the South Africans to take the law into their own hands cannot be justified. The looters and murderers sometimes claim that the people they attack are drug barons and criminals who are responsible for the high rate of crime in their country. This is indefensible in a country that has an organised justice system. Rather than go into mad looting and killings, why not report such cases to the authorities who are better equipped to handle them?
The Nigerian government must take consular protection of Nigerians more seriously. In international relations, there are no permanent friends, but permanent interests. The Buhari government should end the irresponsible act. It should be ready to provide consular assistance to Nigerian nationals overseas, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or belief. Nigeria should apply the principle of reciprocity in dealing with issues that affect her core interests in international politics. To drive the point home more forcefully, Buhari should cancel his state visit to South Africa scheduled for next month.