Ben OkoloMonday, May 26, 2008
Johannesburg, South Africa



outh Africa (SA) has been making world news headlines in the past weeks, and definitely not because of the euphoria of the approach of the 2010 world cup, but more about the xenophobic attacks against foreign blacks. These attacks which gained prominence in Alexandra, one of the townships littered in Johannesburg, spread to other parts of Johannesburg and provinces in the country. While the major incidence of attacks were targeted against Zimbabweans, Malawians, Mozambicans and other black foreigners staying in these townships, some of the hoodlums tried making their way to Hillbrow, Yeoville, Braamfontein and the Johannesburg Central Business District where mostly west Africans and notably Nigerians have their businesses. The timely intervention of the police prevented what would have been the most deadly incidence in the spate of attacks. However, some Nigerians lost their businesses to the rampaging mob, but managed to escape with their lives.


Before this wave of attacks, news of negative happenings to Nigerians either resident or visiting South Africa has been making the rounds. Much has been written by journalists about the victimization of Nigerians by the government and people of South Africa that a kind of animosity seems to be brewing between the two great African countries and their people. While it is true that Nigerians have been victims of crime and police brutality, it might be necessary for us to pause and ask ourselves why the news suddenly started gaining currency. Does it have to do with Nigeria's new foreign policy thrust? After all, Nigerians have been in South Africa for more than 14 years now, and the treatment they are receiving now is not new. In fact, some will argue that the lot of Nigerians in South Africa is far improved now than before, the xenophobic attacks aside. Or is it the result of a maturing democracy that has started listening to the voices of its people? There is the legend that on many occasions that the erstwhile president, Olusegun Obasanjo visited South Africa, in his interactive sessions with Nigerians in SA who cared to visit the occasion at the Nigerian House, issues of such bad treatment were raised. However, the president is reputed to have always retorted that such Nigerians should better leave the country and come back to Nigeria - what a response! Or is there a third force at work to see that the two countries that are the pillars of Africa remain at daggers drawn? What about the idea that this might also be a way of further tarnishing the image of SA as it gets ready to host the soccer fiesta come 2010? What is South Africa doing about this especially given the recent spate of xenophobic attacks against foreign blacks residing in the Republic?

In order to interrogate the above issues, it would be necessary to first provide some background. During the apartheid era, Nigeria amongst other independent African states fought for the liberation of their black brothers and sisters in South Africa. Assistance was provided for the liberation movements both by the government and individuals. In fact, it is on record that the Nigerian government spent over US$61 billion in its fight against apartheid. Nigerians also remember that after the 1976 SOWETO uprising, students of all levels in Nigeria were levied to contribute money towards the education of their black brothers and sisters in SA. The Nigerian High Commission in Botswana during the apartheid era is reputed to have issued 300 Nigerian passports to black South Africans to travel the world with, since the apartheid government did not grant some of them those privileges. On the musical scene, artistes like Ozzidi King, Sony Okosun (May his soul rest in peace) waged their wars against apartheid with songs like - Fire in Soweto, Papa's Land. Nigeria and indeed Nigerians were therefore thrilled in the early 1990s when the apartheid regime was decimated.

At the dawn of democracy in SA, Nigerians, especially the professionals were part of those that started to migrate to the beacon of hope in Africa, and indeed the world. Part of the philosophy of those early migrants was to contribute to the much needed nation building in post apartheid SA. As is usual in new discoveries - the good, the bad and the ugly get attracted. SA equally attracted the bad crew from Nigeria and elsewhere in the world. There is a school of thought that is of the view that most Nigerians engaged in illegal rackets of some sort, never migrated to SA with illegality in mind. The argument is that those early migrants who were not professionals had thought that they would be able to get one form of employment or the other. On getting to SA and realising that it was not as they envisaged, they saw an opportunity in crime which had been created by the decades of apartheid rule. Some of course created employment out of nothing for themselves and ended up employing even South African citizens. The next generation of migrants who are involved in illegal rackets could be said to have known what they were coming to SA to do - crime. These are those that had seen the returnee Nigerians from SA come in with effects of ill-gotten wealth. Because the racketeers are more in population, they invariably became the face of Nigerians in South Africa - even wrongly so. Also, because they were always on the wrong side of the law, the South African security institutions had the wrong impression that all Nigerians are criminals. This situation has been capitalized on by the bad eggs in the different security institutions to target and fleece Nigerians.

In fact, there is a story that the SA police for instance, get the addresses of Nigerians that stay in Town House Complexes from the private security guards through deception. The story is that when the cops come to a Town House Complex, they will claim that they are looking for this or that Nigerian in the complex. The security guards thinking they are helping them genuinely acquiesce to giving the name and unit number of the Nigerians in that complex. Most times, these police either come back with cooked up warrants or come in different guises, believing that they must invariably get some things to hold against the Nigerian. Where they do not get any implicating evidence, they are alleged to have "manufactured" them by themselves. Apparently, seeing the inhumane manner with which the country's law enforcement agencies treated Nigerians without being sanctioned by the government, the criminals in the society capitalized on it, believing, and rightly so, that crimes committed against Nigerians would not be thoroughly investigated by the police, if at all. The situation was also not being helped by the almost lack of concern for the welfare and image of the country exhibited by the Nigerian High Commission and Consulate at this early period. With this institutionalised belief, Nigerians residing or visiting SA were subjected to embarrassing reception. The most embarrassing of all was the treatment meted out to our own CB, Prof. Wole Soyinka in 2005 when he came to delver a lecture in honour of Nelson Mandela during the latter's birthday.

It is however interesting to note that until recently Nigerians were not known to come to South Africa for business or as tourists. The first set of Nigerians that "discovered" South Africa either came as economic migrants or professionals who were looking for better value for their services. These set of people were not in the habit of coming with cash into South Africa. In fact, the story is that such Nigerians came into the country with less than $500.00. Many in the country knew of this and hence, the JJC's in the country were never targets of armed robbery, especially the airport trailing type. However, the story changed when the Nigerian money bags started trooping to South Africa to off load their loots. Just as they saw that South Africa was a beautiful country to buy houses, la Alamieyeseigha, they also noticed that South African ladies have that so much sought after posterior by the African and Caucasian male. They made South Africa a haven for their stolen loot and where they could indulge in illicit affairs, the type they cannot get at home. You can easily discern the moneybags at the different malls in Johannesburg, especially the Sandton mall where they are buying up the whole mall. At the airport on their way back to Nigeria, their luggage most times weighs at least 60kg above the allotted weight - mind you the fine for excess luggage is about $15 per kg - which they promptly pay without batting an eyelid.

The above scenario therefore informs us as to why the probable change in the "target" of Nigerians. It must be stated however, that the airport trail robbery for instance is not specifically targeted at Nigerians. In fact, sometime in July 2007, the South African Ambassador to the UN, Dumisani Khumalo was trailed from the Airport and robbed on his arrival from New York at his son's home in a plush suburb in Johannesburg. In September 2004 an armed gang engaged the police and security guards in a shoot out at the Johannesburg International Airport in an attempt to loot a "valuable cargo" being escorted to a KLM jumbo jet waiting for takeoff. Again in July 2006, a gang of about 25 armed men robbed an SAA Cargo plane at the Johannesburg International Airport of about $10 million in different foreign currencies. Security analysts believe that there is an organised gang working the airport and they have tried to link the different security clusters at the airport to the incidence of such crimes.

However, Nigeria and Nigerians have the right to be concerned that its citizens are affected by such situations. We have heard many times when western countries send planes to evacuate its citizens from African countries once there are signs of serious rebellion. Recently, in the face of the xenophobic attacks against non South African blacks, the Mozambican government has sent scores of buses to evacuate its citizens back to Mozambique. The Malawian government is also doing same. Why then should Nigeria not care for its citizens? Going back to the scenario we raised earlier, one might argue that the furore being caused by the situation concerning Nigerians in SA now is a good pay off from Ojo Maduekwe's, articulation of his Citizenship Diplomacy and Retaliatory Foreign Policy. Nigeria has woken up to its responsibilities to its citizens in the Diaspora. That Nigeria is raising the issue with South African government presently should not be seen negatively. In fact, that is what diplomacy is all about. That is why the two countries have diplomatic relationship - for better relationship. The approach should be lauded as a sign of maturity of Nigeria's democracy. I am sure that the 1995 diplomatic row between Nigeria's Abacha and South Africa's Nelson Mandela is still fresh in the minds of many. You will recall that after the infamous killing of Ken Saro Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists by the Abacha dictatorship, despite personal appeal by Mandela for the commutation of their death sentence, Mandela's South Africa condemned Abacha's Nigeria and called for Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth. Of course, this angered the General that he had to shun South Africa in Africa. In fact, he instructed that the Nigeria's Super Eagles should not go to SA to defend the African Champions Cup Title it won in 1994. Fortuitously, due to Nigeria's absence, as has been argued by many, their younger brothers - South Africa won the title in 1996.

The other probable reason as to the situation gaining so much media space both in Nigeria and elsewhere, even before the outburst of the recent xenophobic attacks, might be that there is a third force pulling the strings to make sure that Nigeria and South Africa does not maintain a good relationship. People have suggested that due to both countries, economic and political muscle in Africa, if they were to unite, they might dominate not just Africa, but have a global voice in the world. To some, especially in the west, this must not come to fruition. The other feeling is that due to the campaign by some disgruntled elements to see that South Africa loses the hosting rights to the World Cup 2010, the other way to rope African states into this anti-SA hosting campaign is to engineer a diplomatic row between Nigeria and SA. This, if it happens, would lead to most African teams and African nations calling for the stripping of the rights off South Africa. It must be mentioned however, that allowing oneself to be manoeuvred by external interest is the bane of African experience, given the spate of conflicts in the continent stoked from outside. While some will dismiss the above as mere conspiracy theories, suffice it to state that these theories exist out there. The recent revelations by the South African Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils, that there is a third force orchestrating the recent xenophobic attacks in SA seem to confirm the above prognosis.

What does this love - hate relationship portend for the two countries? If allowed to continue, the toll on economic, socio-cultural and political gains made throughout the two countries' history of interaction will be negatively affected. For instance, there is a generous level of intermarriage between the people of the two countries and a new generation of Nigerian South Africans and South African Nigerians are being raised. How would this continued love - hate relationship rub-off on this new generation or even between the families? In fact, as the xenophobic attacks were ongoing, South African families were giving the hands of their daughters in marriage to Nigerians. A South African lady expressed the dilemma of the situation when she remarked that her son, who is Nigerian through the father, will never understand why her people and her father's people are up in arms. Nigeria South Africa economic cooperation in the continent is one of the largest in recent times. The cooperation of the two countries in bilateral and multilateral issues on the continent, and especially in the area of peace and security will definitely be affected if this ugly trend continues unabated.

South Africans spoken to are however divided on the nuisance nature of Nigerians. While some see them as very brash, loudmouthed criminals, others are quick to point out that it was only with the arrival of Nigerians in SA did they know that a black man can look a white man in the face and tell him off. Could this therefore be a source of the conspiracy against Nigerians? Some will also tell you about the wonderful work Nigerian doctors, academics, professionals and business people are doing in SA. Mostly, they tell you about the ingenuity and enterprising nature of Nigerians. Nigerians spoken to are equally divided as to their opinion of how they are being treated in SA. Some tell of the wonderful friendship they have developed with South African families, while others speak of the terrible experiences they have had in the country. However, one common denominator that is present in almost all those spoken to is that, it will not be in the best interest of both countries to have wrong perceptions and diplomatic rows. The recent spate of attacks notwithstanding, Nigerians spoken to expressed empathy with the situation the South African blacks find themselves. They say they are ready to forgive those who were directly or indirectly involved in the attacks. They have also appealed to Nigerians back home not to engage in retaliatory attacks against South Africans living in the mother country as this will not resolve the issue at hand. Right thinking South Africans have condemned the attacks and have even gone to the extent of expressing how ashamed they are to be South Africans in these trying times.

The South African High Commission in Abuja for instance is already working on addressing the perceptions of ill treatment of Nigerians from an institutional level. At the just concluded Bi-National Commission session between the two countries which held in Abuja, a range of issues were discussed which if implemented, would improve the cooperation of the two countries. However, the issue of the repatriation deposit that first time travellers to South Africa are expected to pay at the SA High Commission was not ironed out. This has been a touchy issue between the countries. While the efforts are very commendable, it would also be very important that the South African government back home engage with its people both at the institutional level and at the grassroots level in order to create a better atmosphere between the people and government of these two countries. The Department of Home Affairs has to factor in this problem in its Indaba and Imbizo with the people. There would therefore be the need for continuous public education to change the perception and call for greater cooperation. The much touted spirit of ubuntu must be made to permeate the hearts of men and women in SA. Diplomatic relations must translate to good relations among citizens. At the same time, the Nigerian government both at home and in SA represented by the High Commission need to re-orientate the Nigeria public, especially those travelling to SA or residing in SA as to the fact that laws and ethics of host countries must be obeyed. The fact that the foreign policy thrust of the present administration is focused on protecting its citizens does not mean that crimes committed by Nigerian nationals abroad would not be subject to local laws. Nigerians in SA must operate in the country with the same moral and ethical uprightness as they would have exhibited in the mother country. The home office in Nigeria would need to institute in the psyche of Nigerians in Diaspora the need of registering with the Nigerian Missions in whichever country they find themselves. This would also make the job of assisting Nigerians in foreign countries easier for their Missions. Above all, the people of both countries would gain more by treating themselves with mutual respect.

Ben Okolo is a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Africa's International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa