3 September 2019
It is becoming disturbingly routine for some South Africans to target Nigerians and other foreigners in violent attacks. Yesterday in Johannesburg rioters targeted and looted shops owned by foreigners, mostly Nigerians.
Nigeria’s foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama responded on Twitter:
Some Nigerians on social media have dismissed his response as weak. Onyeama’s government has serious credibility issues and can’t possibly occupy the moral high ground on the issue of violent attacks against Nigerian nationals for a variety of reasons.
However, let’s get a few things out of the way. South Africa owes Nigeria big time. Nigeria was a major contributor financially to the international effort to end apartheid in South Africa and gain freedom for the black majority in the country. This contribution ran in millions of dollars starting from the 1960s. Nigeria also provided a haven and free education for South African nationals in exile from the apartheid regime. In 1979 Nigeria nationalised British Petroleum’s operations in the country in response to the British government’s decision to allow the company’s oil sales to the apartheid regime.
Winnie Mandela said much later during a visit to Nigeria: “I feel very guilty because I do not recall our country acknowledging the role played by this country (Nigeria) towards our liberation. My daughter and son, Danladen, reminded me that long ago, before the ‘coup’, His Excellency, Tafawa Balewa secretly donated 260 British pounds to the ANC, now our government, for the purchase of ‘hardware’ or ‘AK 47’ for our military wing of the ANC and the army continued to support us underground! We owe so much of our freedom to you! On behalf of South Africa, thank you Nigeria! Nelson Mandela also said: ‘Nigeria stood by us more than any nation’. Lulu Mnguni, South African High Commissioner to Nigeria, said in 2016: “Mandela came to Nigeria in February 1963 to beg for money to help in the struggle for the people of our country and he was given the needed support. “Nigeria as a country helped South Africa a lot in the struggle for freedom; I want to use this opportunity to thank Nigerians for the role they played in our struggle.”
So those, mainly young, South Africans should first go and learn their history before they start resenting the presence of Nigerians in their country. Their governments since the country was liberated from white minority rule in 1994 have done very little to address the economic imbalance of apartheid that left much of the country’s wealth in the hands of the white minority, with the majority fighting for scraps. Bob Marley captured this brilliantly in the song “Ambush in the night”: “Through political strategy, they keep us hungry, and when you gonna get some food, your brother got to be your enemy”.
John Pigler wrote in his book Hidden Agendas: “Behind the often theatrical facade of ‘reconciliation’ between oppressed and oppressor, the absolutions dispensed by Desmond Tutu and the deifying of Nelson Mandela… The ANC [African National Congress] has effectively scrapped its Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which offered modest reforms in housing, land redistribution and jobs. Whenever the ANC’s fine, liberal constitution is invoked, there is seldom mention of the fact that it guarantees the existing property rights of white farmers, whose disproportionate control of the land has its roots in the Land Act of 1913, which established a captive labour force and apartheid in all but name. It means that more than 80% of the prime agricultural land remains in the hands of whites.”
In those circumstances, it should come as no surprise that, despite liberation from apartheid, black South African nationals have genuine grievances. Those grievances are often channelled against other struggling black people, who happen to be foreign, instead of being directed against the ruling party and the white South Africans that still wield most of the economic power.
Against this backdrop, we have Nigerians who have left the economic misery of their homeland to try and make a living in South Africa and being targeted for just being Nigerian. While the xenophobic attacks are deplorable, a Nigerian government that can’t protect its own citizens at home is in no position to talk. Nigerians in South Africa, despite the incessant outbreaks of xenophobia, are still safer than the folks back home. The Nigerian security agencies have been accused of “collusion” with murderous Fulani herdsmen in attacks across the “Middle Belt” by former defence minister Theophilus Danjuma. The Nigerian army were indicted by a Kaduna State government inquiry for massacring nearly 350 Shia Muslims in Zaria in December 2015. Dozens of unarmed Shia protesters have been killed since. In 2016 Amnesty International claimed that Nigerian security forces, led by the military, killed 150 peaceful pro-Biafran activists between August 2015 and August 2016. Additionally, an unknown number of Nigerians have died from violent crime involving Boko Haram terrorists, “bandits”, kidnappers, armed robbers, and so on in recent months. The country has all the hallmarks of a failed state, with a government unwilling and incapable of protecting its citizens.
The Nigerian government’s impotence in performing its primary duty is portrayed at home and abroad in full unedifying glory and personified by the criminal negligence of President Muhammadu Buhari – foreign minister Onyeama’s boss. In the early 2000s, then governor of Lagos State Bola Tinubu said Buhari’s “ethnocentrism would jeopardize Nigeria’s national unity”. Buhari’s disdain for Nigerian lives – in stark contrast with South African president Cyril Ramaphosa – was demonstrated fully during the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in London in April last year. Violent protests and looting in South Africa forced Ramaphosa to cut short his stay in London. Buhari carried on in London despite many Nigerians dying from Fulani herdsmen attacks and the police using live ammunition during Shia protests in Abuja.
So on the very serious matter of Nigerians being victims of attacks in South Africa, the Nigerian government has no credibility whatsoever. Nigeria’s official condemnation of such attacks runs the risk of turning these tragedies into a morbid joke, in which the government seems to be saying that the right to kill Nigerians should be the exclusive reserve of Nigerian security forces and their partners in crime such as Fulani herdsmen.