Xenophobic attacks: Options before Nigeria

KUNLE ODEREMI and DAPO FALADE write on the role of Nigeria in most African countries and beyond over the years against the backdrop of the increasing xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa.


SOME leaders of the African Continent of blessed memory must be full of regrets in their graves for championing pan-Africanism while alive. Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Nelson Mandela, to mention just three of the quintessential leaders, forcefully led the crusade of the spirit of African brotherhood. They deployed native wisdom and intelligence, coupled with erudition and dynamism to fire the cause that upped the prestige and recognition for the continent of Africa that was ravaged by the bug of colonialism.

Whereas virtually all the countries on the continent are asphyxiated by the malaise of crushing leadership failure, poverty, disease, underdevelopment, environmental and economic disaster, bigotry and discrimination is fast becoming the order of the day. It has eclipsed the gains of the pan-Africanist movement and renaissance. Policies of free trade and movement across the continent, espoused under the charters of the African Union (AU), regional and sub-regional organisations, are constantly under threats.

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In the last few months, a large number of the nationalities of other countries resident in the former apartheid enclave, South Africa, have been sent to their untimely graves by South-African. The majority of the victims of the unending xenophobic attacks are Nigerians doing legitimate businesses in the country or professionals while on assignments to South Africa, as it now appears to be a crime for Nigerian to be on the South African soil. Apart from killing Nigerians, South Africans also loot and set ablaze the shops of their victims.

The report of a research conducted by an independent body claimed that the motive for the savagery by the South Africans is availability of jobs. According to the report, the people believe that the immigrant population has diminished the natives of access to employment and other opportunities that can enhance their social standing. Of course, there is the factor of petty jealousy of a twin dimension: the status of a country like Nigeria in the comity of nations because of its immense human and material endowments. Coupled with this are the economic breakthroughs recorded by immigrants in their professional callings and businesses.

Reports indicate that Nigeria alone has lost about 200 of its nationalities to xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Astounded by the dizzying affair, President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan, told the South African High Commissioner to Nigeria, Bobby Moroe, that Nigeria would no longer brook such a situation. “We in the parliament must speak and prevent any further killings. These killings must stop. This is the era of the social media where corpse of a victim may spark violence that may go beyond the control of government. The South African government must, as a matter of urgency, do whatever it takes to protect the lives and property of Nigerians living there, just as the Nigerian government remain committed to the safety of South Africans residing here and their investments. I believe we have faced enough, we will no longer take it anymore. We want to write the names of Nigerians killed and the South African parliament must act fast to put a stop to this menace,” Lawan had warned.

There is a groundswell of anger among the Nigerian populace. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) separately demanded a quick action that would restore sanity. “Urgent steps need to be taken with the South African authorities and The African Union to bring an end to this ill, wind that can only end up destroying the fabric of our African brotherhood,” Atiku said.

On her part, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, advocated legal assistance to the victims of xenophobic attacks at the African Court to ensure that justice is served. She said: “On the killings in South Africa, Nigeria, through the Minister of Foreign Affairs, must make a declaration to allow the government and dependents of the deceased to access the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights.”

But Senator Shehu Sani chided Nigeria for lacking the power to bite against the ‘bully’ in South Africa. In a post on Twitter, Sani said: “Sometimes our response to xenophobia is that of turning the other cheek and sometimes that of playing the barking dog in the face of a bully.”

The South African government underscored the seriousness of the situation, with the country’s president planning to convene an emergency meeting of his cabinet. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his twitter handle @CyrilRamaphosa: “I condemn the violence that has been spreading around a number of our provinces in the strongest terms. I am convening the ministers in the security cluster today to make sure that we keep a close eye on these acts of wanton violence and find ways of stopping them.”

However, his government seemed to have dilly-dallied over the criminal action of his country against immigrants as the South African leader could not comprehend the resort to such brutish action. His words: “The people of our country want to live in harmony; whatever concerns or grievances we may have, we need to handle them in a democratic way. There can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries.”

The South Africans behind the xenophobic attack on Nigerians seem to believe that Nigeria can only bark and not bite. More Nigerians have been killed and the shops of others looted and set ablaze by the natives in spite of the assurances given by President Ramaphosa.  Some Nigerians are already weighing other stiffer options apart from the recent protests by a number of concerned Nigerians in the premises of South African firms operating across Nigeria.

While some individuals and pressure groups are canvassing that the Federal Government take decisive actions that can send a warning signal to the irresponsible few South Africans that are behind the attacks, others called for caution so as not to imperil the unity of the continent. The latter group believes in a quick intervention by the AU to stem the tide, as the immigrants from neighbouring Southern African countries are also victims of the shameful attacks.

It is not only the people of South Africa that treat Nigerians with disdain and worst humiliation. The people of many other African countries that benefitted hugely from the generosity and humanness of the most populous black nation in the world, just like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola and Mozambique, are beneficiaries of the aggressive foreign policy of the Nigerian government to secure their independence from colonial masters.

Nigeria deployed its human and material resources to fight for the political freedom of those countries.  Its troops led the liberation struggles in so many countries in and outside Africa. Nigerian troops were called to duty in countries where there were serious security breaches and calculated attempt to undermine democracy and particularly in countries that slipped into civil strife after general election.  Unfortunately, Nigeria fails to take advantage of the privileges and honour in economic terms that should accompany such huge sacrifices and investments after it had succeeded in restoring peace to the troubled countries.

According to an expert in international relations, SM Niworu, Nigeria spent US$61 in fighting apartheid in South Africa. “She has been in the fore front in peace keeping operations in Africa with devastating effect on her human and material resources. Yet she is not recognised by African countries that benefited from her magnanimity and therefore challenged her interest at regional and international levels,” he said.


Historical perspective

Historically, the relationship between Nigeria and South Africa can be traced to their existence as two former British colonies. The countries, incidentally, were also members of the Commonwealth of Nations and the African Union.

It was therefore not a surprise that Nigeria was one of the foremost supporters of the various anti-apartheid movements (including the African National Congress (ANC) which later transformed into a political party) during the period of the greatest manifestation of racial segregations between whites and blacks in South Africa. As cited in Wikipedia, the Nigerian government issued more than 300 passports to South Africans seeking to travel abroad at the peak of apartheid.

At the end of the apartheid era in 1994, many Nigerian professionals moved into South Africa, at the instance of South African businessmen. An estimated 24, 000 Nigerians were said to be living in that country, as at 2011.

However, the relationship between the countries became frosty and nosedived rapidly thenceforth from 1994 due to what some people ascribed to the increasing activities of some organised Nigerian criminals, especially illegal drug traffickers, said to be operating in South Africa. The relationship was further worsened by mutual distrust engendered by an increasing competition between the countries for positions at multilateral organisations.

The political crisis that followed the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election in Nigeria also compounded the frosty relationship between the countries, even as the then President Nelson Mandela sought to help in resolving the imbroglio caused by the annulment. Nigeria and South Africa later got engaged in a diplomatic row with the execution of the late poet and environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and nine other Ogoni leaders by the late General Sani Abacha administration. The execution drew public criticism from Mandela, a globally respected icon who personally pushed for a two-year suspension of Nigeria’s membership of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Xenophobic attacks
Geoffrey Onyeama

From thenceforth, the relationship between the countries were said to have took a further turn for the worse, when the former apartheid enclave started patching its relationship with other African countries, as part of its effort to regain regional prestige at the expense of Nigeria. For instance, in 1995 when Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, as the leader of an exiled Nigerian democratic group, attempted to hold a conference in South Africa, its government refused to grant visas to Nigerian participants as the ANC government called for the cancellation of the conference.

The Nigerian debacle forced South Africa into a new foreign policy approach, leading the country to abandon a ‘go it alone’ policy and into a policy that sought to build partnerships with fellow African states through regional and continental bodies. It also made South Africa reluctant to engage in any confrontation with any other African state.

The relationship between the two former British colonies was seriously damaged in 2012 when 125 Nigerians were expelled from South Africa for not having valid yellow fever certificates. In retaliation, over 50 South African businessmen were expelled by the Nigerian government. The incident prompted the countries to enter into discussions over easing of travel and visa restrictions in order to enhance bilateral relations and trade.


Nigeria in Liberia

Beyond the issue of its frosty relationship with South Africa, Nigeria has been playing a vital role as a big brother within the West African sub-region and beyond. For example, the largest country in Black Africa played a critical role in the maintenance of peace in West Africa through the Economic Community of West Africa Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), the military arm of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) formed in 1990 to end the deadly civil war that broke out in Liberia and restore peace to the country.

Nigeria, through the operations of ECOMOG, made contributions to the restoration of peace in the thick of the first Liberian civil war. Many people believed that, but for the intervention of ECOMOG, brought together at the instance of Nigeria, the war which lasted from 1990 to 1996 would have been more deadly, resulting in more extensive destruction and massacre of innocent people. Indeed, Nigeria committed large sums of money and military personnel to bring the war to end. At the peak of the war, there were about 16,000 ECOMOG troops in Liberia and 80 per cent of the soldiers were Nigerians.

After the election which brought former rebel leader Charles Taylor to power, another war broke out in the former American colony in 1999 and Nigeria stepped in again through the ECOWAS Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL). The military intervention had personnel from Nigeria, Mali and Senegal and they were led by a Nigerian top officer, Brigadier General Festus Okonkwo.

However, the Nigerian intervention in the Liberian affair was at a very huge cost in human, material and financial resources. While the country was said to have lost about 500 soldiers in the Liberian conflicts, about US$8 billion was also said to have been expended in seeking to help to quell the Liberian imbroglio.


Sierra Leonean civil war

Said to have been a spillover of the Liberian civil war, the hostility in Sierra Leone started as a result of the attempt by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group to overthrow President Tejan Kabbah. RUF, said to have been funded by former Liberian President Charles Taylor, brought in its the wake indiscriminate killing and maiming of civilians. While the international community was hesitant in intervene in the war, Nigeria, once again, played its role as a regional powerhouse as it sent in troops who were able to quell the rebellion and helped to restore peace to the war-torn West African country.

As it was with Liberia, Nigeria also paid heavily for helping to bring peace to Sierra Leone. While about US$4 billion, representing about 70 per cent of the cost of the ECOMOG operation, was said to have been spent by the Nigerian government, about 700 Nigerian soldiers were reportedly killed in the course of the civil war.

In spite of the military interventions, criticisms have continued to trail the peace missions of Nigeria. To some, the ECOMOG peace missions only helped to prolong the conflict in Liberia and also contributed immensely to the installation of corrupt government and human rights abuses in Sierra Leone.

However, Nigeria continued to play vital roles in support of countries having challenges of political instability. From 1960, when the country’s peace keeping mission when it joined the United Nations and 2014, Nigeria has been involved in the fight against the collapse of the African continent.

Playing out its big brother role to the latter, Nigeria has played a significant role as a regional stabiliser, conciliator and peace-builder in the Congo, Somalia, Sudan and many other countries in the continent. It also took its role outside the shores of the continent, spreading its military prowess to as far as Iran, Iraq and Israel.

A report has it that some of the peace initiatives that Nigeria has been involved within and outside the African continent included: Congo (ONUC), 1960-1964, Battalion operations; New Guinea (UNSF), 1962-1963, military observers; Tanzania (bilateral agreement), 1964, battalion operatiosn; India-Pakistan (UNIPOM), 1965-1966, military observers; Lebanon (UNIFIL), 1978-1983, battalion operations and staff officers; Chad (HARMONY I, bilateral agreement), 1981-1982, battalion operations and staff officers and Chad (HARMONY II, OAU), 1982-1983), brigade operations.

There were also Iran-Iraq (UNIIMOG), 1988-1991, military observers; Iraq-Kuwait (UNIKOM), 1991, military observers; Angola (UNAVEM II), 1991-1992, military observers; Sierra Leone (NATAG), 1991, training team; Angola (UNAVEM III), 1992-1995, detachment; Namibia (UNTAG), 1989-1990, military observers; Western Sahara (MINURSO), 1991, military observers; Cambodia (UNTAC), 1992-1993, military observers; Somalia (UNOSOM), 1992-1994, battalion operations and staff officers; former Republic of Yugoslavia (UNIPROFOR), 1992, battalion operations and staff officers; Mozambique (ONUMOZ), 1992, military observers; Rwanda (UNAMIR), 1993, battalion operations; The Gambia (NATAG), 1993, training team; Aouzo Strip (UNASOG), 1994, military observers; Israel (UNTSO), 1995, military observers and Dafur Peace Initiatives.

In the 1970s, Africa was the centre of the foreign policy of Nigeria. Issues affecting countries on the continent were given utmost priority such that even the super powers trembled when Nigeria made a pronouncement, especially at international fora like the United Nations and the then league of Non-Aligned Nations. Then, Nigeria had a strong, wide and bouyant economy. It is a fact in international politics and diplomacy that the dictate of the foreign policy of any nation cannot be completely divorced from the prevalent socio-economic and political situation at home front. With the current quagmire foisted on the ‘Giant of Africa’ and hitherto Father Christmas of the African continent by leadership ineptitude, can Nigeria call the bluff of South Africa and re-enact the bravery and courage that deflated the ego and arrogance of the colonialists of the apartheid era?

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