Xenophobia: Beyond The Rhetorics, Platitudes and Palliatives

For sometime now, the media – both traditional and social – have been abuzz with chilling reports, pictures and videos of the Xenophobic attacks on foreigners, especially Nigerians in South Africa.

Like our diva, Tiwa Savage, a good number of us could not stand the gory sights. We simply recoiled and wondered how bestial some of us could go in ventilating our real and/or imagined grievances.

After a bit of hesitation, the Federal Government at a press conference jointly addressed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama and the South African High Commissioner to Nigeria, Bobby Moroe, condemned the attacks on Nigerians in South Africa and said it would be pressing for compensation of the victims/families of those attacked or killed in the unfortunate incidents.

This is not the first time; it is not the second and it may not be the last. Prior to 1994, immigrants from elsewhere faced discrimination and even violence in South Africa. With the emergence of the black majority rule in 1994, many had thought that the end of apartheid rule would mark the end of any form of social discrimination. But, contrary to expectations, the end of apartheid rule marked the beginning of xenophobia or so it seems.

Between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people died in what were identified as xenophobic attacks. In May 2008, no less than 62 people died from similar attacks; although 21 of those killed were South Africans who were also caught up in the melee. There was another spike in xenophobic attacks in 2015. Although the statistics of those killed, maimed and displaced were not readily available, the attacks led to a number of foreign government repatriating their citizens from South Africa.
As at the last count, 118 Nigerians had been killed in xenophobic attacks and 13 of them were said to have been killed by the South African Police.

It should be noted that xenophobia is a situation whereby a citizen or citizens of one country show a dislike or prejudice towards a citizen or people of other countries.

A research conducted in 2018 showed that 62% of South Africans viewed immigrants as a burden on society by taking jobs and social benefits and that 61% of South Africans thought that immigrants were more responsible for crime than other groups. Between 2010 and 2017, the immigrant community in South Africa increased from 2 million people to 4 million people.

According to reports, the immediate cause of the recent wave of xenophobic attacks on Nigerians and other foreigners in South Africa was the killing of a taxi driver by an alleged drug peddler from Tanzania in Pretoria.

After the briefing by Onyeama, President Muhammadu Buhari sent a special envoy in the person of the Director-General, National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Ambassador Ahmed Rufai Abubakar, to South Africa.

The envoy, we were told, expressed the concern of the President and Nigerians about intermittent violence against citizens and their property/business interests in South Africa and the need for President Cyril Ramaphosa to find a lasting solution.

While the envoy was on his way to South Africa, the President convened a meeting with Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and Onyeama.

Rising from the meeting, Nigeria pulled out of the World Economic Forum on Africa and latter summoned our High Commissioner to South Africa, Ambassador Kabir Bala.

All these happened about the same time there were spontaneous reactions from Nigerians in Lagos and Abuja. Whilst some hoodlums took advantage of the situation in Lagos and looted Shoprite Malls in the city-state, the situation in Abuja was quickly brought under control.

Of course, the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, also lent their voice to condemning the attacks, warning that enough was already too much.

Yes, Ramaphosa may have condemned the indecent, primitive and utterly barbaric actions of his compatriots. He might have also sent a special envoy to apologise to Nigeria. But, the intemperate outburst of South Africa’s Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula leave sour grapes in the mouth.

Mapisa-Nqakula said South Africa was a nation of angry people, adding that the attacks on foreigners were planned by criminals and that the government cannot prevent them.

That is the crux of the matter. What hope do foreigners have in South Africa if the Defence Minister could openly declare that there was nothing the government could do prevent xenophobic attacks? Whose responsibility is it to prevent crime and rein in criminals, if not the government’s?

A lot of commentators have recalled how Nigeria and Nigerians partook in the anti-apartheid campaign and donated men, money and resources in seeing to its end. If all these did not matter to the South Africans in the past, they may not matter now or even in the nearest future.

It is gratifying that some Nigerians have realised this and embraced the Air Peace- Federal Government’s collaborative efforts to bring them back home. After bringing them back, the Government must take steps to link them up with their families and/or reintegrate them into the society. It is not enough to give us the statistics of the returnees as the National Diaspora Commission has done. They must go a step further to ensure that they are not just dumped on the society. They are now more or less refugees and must catered for in line with the extant conventions and protocols.

It is not enough to apologise. Working with the South African authorities, the Federal Government must ensure that all those arrested in connection with the xenophobic attacks are brought to justice.

The governments of both countries may also want to consider launching a campaign to educate South Africans on the long-standing bilateral relationship that exists between both countries; our South African brothers should be told that not all Nigerians or blacks are criminals. After all, they too are largely blacks. They should be made to know that while the few criminals among the blacks/Nigerians could be reported to the appropriate authorities, a good number of them are contributing meaningfully to their economy.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has also suggested that South Africa should be formally reported to the African Union (AU) and that Nigeria and other affected countries should “take other measures if the first option did not yield the desired results”. Although, he did not expatiate on what the “other measures” should be, it is albeit loaded.

The “other measures”, in my view, should include a review of the Nigeria-South Africa relations – and perhaps the whole gamut of our foreign policy – which makes Africa its centre-piece. We cannot be more Catholic than the Pope. For instance, the U.S. foreign policy objective is “to build and sustain a more democratic,secure, and prosperous world for the benefit of the AMERICAN PEOPLE (emphasis mine) and the international community”.

For the U.S., it’s “the America People First” before the rest of the world. So, if the world’s big brother would not make the interest of “the world” it’s first priority, why should we make “Africa” ours. If the Afrocentric policy was relevant at independence and immediately after independence, it does not mean that same cannot be reviewed if present realities so demand. Pray, what is foreign policy if it does not advance the interests of a state or its citizens? Or shall we continue to do “Big Brother Africa” while our compatriots are being displaced, macheted, maimed and killed by fellow Africans? Or like Bob Marley asked, “How long shall they kill our prophets (citizens) while we stand aside and look?”

One is certainly not advocating any form of violence or resort to self-help. But, self preservation, they say, is the first law of nature. We owe it a duty to ourselves as a sovereign state and a people to preserve ourselves through any means possible and available to us.

When some analysts seek to rationalise the South African situation with their pre-independence experience as a country that evolved from an apartheid regime which was characterised by the rule of force, blood-letting, imprisonment and many other heinous crimes, the question that comes to mind is: why is their anger not directed at the whites who not only colonised them but subjugated them in every and anyway possible?

If the crime rate in South Africa is high, it is a systemic problem that only those with state power and the instruments of force and coercion can tackle and resolve. Foreigners are not possibly the only ones involved in cases of rape, drug abuse and the other violent crimes in South Africa. These crimes thrive because South Africans also indulge in or condone them. It will be difficult for foreigners to easily have their way in another man’s country without the active support or connivance of some of their hosts.

Let us go beyond the rhetorics, platitudes and palliatives. It is time for decisive steps and actions. Let us not wait till another xenophobic attack breaks out before we act. We have seen reciprocity in violent protests, no one can tell what would happen next if this issue is not properly handled and addressed, once and for all. Let us not just blow grammar, grandstand and then relax until another xenophobic attack breaks out – in the typical Nigerian way. It will be an ill wind that blows no one (read Africa) any good.

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