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‘Xenophobia Is An Unacceptable Low Point To Africa’s Economic Development’

By Onyeka Agbedo
02 May 2015   |   12:49 pm
Charles Nwodo Jnr is the Executive Chairman, XL Africa Group Ltd, a services group with active operating subsidiaries offering diverse services in many sectors of the economies of many African countries and the U.S. An alumnus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the University of Lagos, Harvard Business School, Boston Massachusetts, and the New York…


Charles Nwodo Jnr is the Executive Chairman, XL Africa Group Ltd, a services group with active operating subsidiaries offering diverse services in many sectors of the economies of many African countries and the U.S. An alumnus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the University of Lagos, Harvard Business School, Boston Massachusetts, and the New York Institute of Finance, Wall Street, U.S., Nwodo is a Finance & Investment and Development Policy and Practices expert. In this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, he speaks on the recent resurgence of xenophobic attacks in South Africa and its likely implications on the quest for the economic integration of Africa. Excerpts:

How would you situate the resurgence of xenophobic attacks in South Africa at a time there are calls for greater economic cooperation among African countries?

The way to appraise this xenophobic attack in South Africa is to look at it from the point of view of Nigeria’s interest in South Africa and then South Africa’s interest outside South Africa. And if we take the first, that is, from the point of view of the Nigerian businessman with substantial interest in South Africa, it is sad because I know that this is definitely not the mainstream characteristic of South Africans. This is fringe behaviour by a fringe group of people that feel dissatisfied rightly or wrongly about the economic situation that they found themselves in South Africa. And unfortunately, in trying to indentify scapegoats for these conditions they found themselves, they feel that foreigners, mainly Nigerians, Zimbabweans and Mozambicans, many of whom are legitimately hardworking over there and are contributing to the growth of the South African economy are responsible. And so they have taken out their frustration on these people.

So, the first clarification I would like to make is that from my extensive knowledge of the South African political and business environment, what the world witnessed in South Africa do not represent mainstream South African mindset and the actions that have been visited on foreigners were perpetrated by fringe elements in that country similar to the Boko Haram situation in Nigeria.

The second point I would like to make is that the South African economy and government have my sympathy for what has happened. You would recall that the last time we had this kind of xenophobic attack was about seven or eight years ago and the South African government managed to bring it under control effectively. And I believe that the South African government had thought that the issue of xenophobia was dead and buried thereafter. So, I would like to believe that the recent escalation of xenophobic attacks in South Africa took the South African government by surprise just like the Boko Haram insurgency took our government by surprise. And by the time the government realised the extensive nature of the attacks, we saw how it rolled out the entire South African security apparatus to deal with the issue. I know that the South African government is planning to go a step further by sending delegations to nearly all the African countries affected on a peace and reconciliation effort to try and damage-control some of the consequences of the xenophobic attack.

Overall, the development is very sad for South Africa. Here is a country that in several ways represents the very best for the African man. They emerged from apartheid without any significant dislocation in the socio-political and economic architecture of the country to the envy of the rest of the world. And if you compare South Africa post apartheid in 1994 and what they have managed to accomplish to what is happening in Libya today after Gaddafi or what is happening in Iraq after Saddam Hussein or what is happening in Ukraine because of the difficulties they are facing or what is happening in Sudan and South Sudan simply because of the changes in their political situation, you begin to appreciate how critically valuable the South African experience has been for the Black man and for the rest of the African continent.

So, the xenophobic attack in South Africa is something that every African ought to be worried about. And for us as a business group, we are fully sympathetic to our South African friends and brothers. This is because we do realise that this is certainly something that is contrary to the trajectory of their socio-political and economic evolution especially after apartheid.

Yes, the economy has not met the expectations of the wide spectrum of the South African society especially the Blacks in terms of rural poverty and economic empowerment of the most vulnerable segments of the population. But it is in several ways the most developed economy in Africa with so many positives going for it. So, I know the rest of Africa is unhappy about this development in South Africa and even the South African people themselves must be rueing this development because it does not represent mainstream enlightened opinion of South Africans.

Do you feel the development would effect economic cooperation among African countries?

In the short term yes! But I think this is where the political leadership in South Africa has some jobs to do and they have started on the right footing. The information that we have is that the South African government will in the next couple of days and weeks reach out to several African countries to try and do some fence mending and effectively contain the damage that this incident has brought about or is capable of bringing about. So, they do recognise that there are some issues that have arisen that would have to be dealt with and they are taking the correct steps in my opinion to deal with such issues.

But I must say that Africa needs to emulate the rest of the world. Across the ocean, you see the European Union (EU) welcoming refugees and illegal immigrants that would have otherwise perished in the oceans; they don’t throw them away. They welcome them, give them medical attention and try to rehabilitate them. And now the EU is convening a summit where it will try to take a collective position about how to rehabilitate and attend to the needs of these desperate migrants that are fleeing the harsh economic conditions in her own Africa.

What I am saying is that there is an enlightened example for the rest of Africa to copy. I mean if we say that Africa is not the dark continent and that Africa is shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the world in terms of our values, belief systems and political convictions, we must be able to emulate them in terms of the treatment of immigrants and vulnerable people regardless of their circumstances. I think this is the example that the EU is holding up to the rest of the world, particularly Africa, to emulate.

The last point that is worthy of note in this whole issue is political education. I think that our leaders across Africa have not been effective enough in communicating the history of Africa to their subjects. How did we get to this point? What roles, for instance, did Nigeria play in the emancipation of Black South Africans and the creation of the South Africa that is the toast of many today? You will be amazed how little information exists across Africa about roles that countries like Nigeria played in bringing about multi-party democracy in South Africa. I remember contributing part of my pocket money to the ANC youth wing as a student and many Nigerians made even greater sacrifices. In those days, we even embarked on lecture boycotts in commemoration of the March 21, 1960, Sharpeville Massacre in identification with the majority Black population that was under oppression in South Africa. And I know that the Nigerian government deployed resources to the disadvantage of our own economic well being to make sure that the ANC veterans in those days and the freedom fighters had a semblance of normal life. Not only were they carrying Nigerian Passports, many of them were living in Nigeria including their former president, Thabo Mbeki. Nigeria by virtue of several of its actions towards the liberation of South Africa was considered a frontline state even though it is not so geographically.

But I doubt if this fact is well communicated to young Nigerians and South Africans by their leaders. So, what l am saying is that leaders in Nigeria and also across Africa need to do a lot more to pass on critical information about our history, struggles and evolution as a continent to young people. It is poor knowledge of historical facts that informs the ignorance that often times strains relations between Africans.

Apart from poor knowledge of history among young Africans, one is also inclined to believe that unemployment is another factor that is behind the current xenophobic attacks in South Africa…

Well, unemployment gives rise to disenchantment. But when you now focus your disenchantment on particular nationals or on a particular geographic category, in other words if you say it is people from Mozambique and other African countries that are behind it, you give the impression that it is these African countries that are creating the conditions that is giving rise to unemployment in your country. So, unemployment as a stand-alone factor is contributing. But it is not unemployment that creates the environment for certain countries’ nationals to be targeted. Therefore, unemployment is causative as a general factor but the fact that some countries’ nationals are singled out for attack is a product of misinformation and that is where the poor sense of history I am talking about comes in.

If the unemployed South Africans did not think that Nigerians in their country were economic opportunists, if they did not think that Nigerians were scavengers that were taking their places, they would not go after Nigerian business interests. In their own understanding, they feel that the position that Nigerians occupy in the economic landscape of South Africa is a position that makes it impossible for them to rise in the economic ladder. But if they could see that Nigerians through their hard work and the businesses they are creating in South Africa are in fact adding to their economy, and that if you take away Nigerians and Nigerian businesses, there will probably be more unemployment in South Africa, I don’t think they will go after Nigerians. Then add that to the fact that Nigeria and Nigerians played a critical role in creating the economic environment that is even giving them the opportunity to express themselves in the way and manner that they are doing today and they would be a little more circumspect in how they express the frustration arising from their unemployed status. So, I think that there is a strong role that communication will play in preventing xenophobia whether in South Africa, Nigeria or in any other African country.

What do you think should be the focus of African leaders towards creating an economically integrated continent devoid of xenophobia?

One of the important goals of the founding founders of Africa like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kwame Nkrumah, and Nelson Mandela is the integration of Africa. The foundation was based on the fact Africa is one. That is why we have the African Union (AU) that metamorphosed from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). We are now moving towards creating greater economic, political and cultural integration to be able to harness the full potential that African has. The African population can only be meaningful if it is integrated into a homogeneous economic, political and cultural region that can compare with the EU and the Asian blocks and that of the rest of the world. The rest of the world cannot be moving towards integration and Africa would be moving towards disintegration. It shows that something is wrong with our mentality. That is why our founding fathers anticipated that the future of the world and the future of Africa lie in greater integration.

So, any action, policy or initiative that serves the purpose of disintegration should be discountenanced in Africa because the world is moving towards integration. In fact, if you stretch the argument further, the world is moving towards a global community. The concept of globalisation is one that considers the entire world as a global village with shared values and concerns in terms of unemployment, climate change, poverty, infant mortality, child right, gender equality and so on and so forth. This is the conversation that is taking place across the world. We cannot come to Africa and be talking about Nigerian, Zimbabwean, Mozambican, South African whereas the rest of the world is talking about humanity and threats and challenges facing humanity and how to confront these challenges. A lot of these challenges do not discriminate in terms of colour, race or geography. So, for me, some of these actions we are seeing in Africa are illogical and antithetical to development.

So, I recommend that our leaders should do a lot more to create the awareness among our people on what the contemporary challenges facing the world are so that the scapegoating that is going across Africa would stop. I call it scapegoating because the Zimbabwean thinks his trouble is caused by the Batswana; the Basotho feels his problem is caused by the South African; the Nigerian thinks his problem is caused by the Ghanaian while the Ghanaian thinks his problem is caused by the Nigerian. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is uniting to create the necessary synergy to confront challenges threatening humanity. So, it really flies in the face of logic and everything that the world represents today to watch these developments taking place in Africa. I am trusting that the enlightened African community will rise to the occasion because this is not the path to the development of our continent. This is not the trajectory that our continent needs to be flowing towards in this age. Talking about xenophobia in this age is an unacceptable low point in our economic development as a continent.