Let the giant shake off the ashes of xenophobia
The fury is spent. The South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has apologised to Nigeria for his citizens’ unwarranted criminal xenophobic attacks on Nigerians and other African nationals in his country.
From the look of things, Nigeria has accepted the apology. The sins of the South Africans would be advisedly forgiven and both countries would let bygones be bygones. It is the way the game of diplomacy is played to prevent a slight rupture in relations between nations from causing permanent enmity between them. Nigeria and South Africa must be good friends because the way forward for the continent is a burden both of them must carry and discharge.
We should now shift our attention to two things, namely, the returnee victims who would begin the delicate and painful process of picking up the pieces of their shattered business lives back home and what the Nigerian nation must do to prevent a similar trauma in the near future. It would not be easy for the victims to pick up the pieces, but they would be sustained, I hope, by the outpouring of sympathy for their plight and the willingness of fellow Nigerians who see their tragedy as a national tragedy and their pain as a national pain.
One man, Allen Onyema, amply demonstrated that Nigerians could be the keepers of their brothers and sisters in situations such as this. Onyema promptly rose to the critical challenge of not making matters worse for the victims of the South African attacks. He is the owner of Air Peace. He put his airline in the service of the uprooted Nigerians and brought hundreds of them home. He did not set out to be the hero of the tragedy, but he has emerged as one. I think the nation owes him a huge debt of gratitude expressed in something beyond a presidential handshake.
The time for tears is over. This is the time that sorely tries our nation. We must turn our attention to the challenges of the South African xenophobia. As the poet said, there is a soul of goodness in things in evil. There should be a soul of goodness in this tragedy. It should be possible for the Nigerian state to find that soul of goodness from the xenophobic evil wrought on our fellow citizens who journeyed forth to South Africa in search of greener pastures. I fear that if we do not find that soul of goodness and take immediate steps to own it, we would have wasted our tears and emotions and the lessons would not be learnt, the challenges would not be taken up and we would wait until another country resorts to a violent expression of their disenchantment with Nigerians and try to uproot them in a manner not less beastly than what happened in South Africa. That would be a tragedy. But we do have a history of letting such challenges slip through our fingers as a nation only to bite our fingers in frustration.
Let us try and make a difference this time around. The cruel uprooting of our fellow citizens from another country poses serious challenges to the Nigerian state. It cannot continue to run away from them without doing incalculable damage to itself.
To begin with, there is nothing wrong with our citizens seeking pastures where they believe they are greener than in the country. Citizens of other nations do the same too – and for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being economic difficulties and narrowed opportunities back home. Thousands of Nigerian professionals – doctors, university professors, dentists, nurses, accountants, IT experts – are found in various parts of the world, who are not just earning a living but also making positive contributions to the economic and social development of those countries.
The global search for greener pastures has a positive impact on both the global economy and the economy of the nations whose citizens go elsewhere and remit part of their earnings home. The South-East Asians are past masters at this. No one should attempt to discourage Nigerians from continuing to be part of this global free flow of persons across international borders. In the seventies and eighties, Nigeria played the big brother role to Ghanaians whose country found itself stuck in the mud of economic difficulties.
Part of the problem is that the global economy has a bad attitude and tends to demonstrate this when nations are most vulnerable. We are reminded of this each time there is a glut in the international crude oil market and buyers offer OPEC member-nations prices far below what could keep the national treasury full. This was how we were driven to this rather pathetic pass with some 98 million of our citizens living in extreme poverty. When our citizens stream out to other countries, they are not really looking for greener pastures; they are looking for any types of pastures, provided they are not entirely brown in colour. They are escaping a hard life at home.
This, then is the challenge for the Nigerian state. God knows we need doctors here at home but over 6,000 Nigerian doctors are forced into other countries in what has often been excused as brain drain, a special affliction of third world countries that train professionals in various fields but are unable to make the situation conducive for them to put their expertise into good use at home. We are suffering but we should not be smiling any more. Other African countries do not resent Nigerians because our people are smarter or more intelligent. They resent us because they believe that if we had not squandered our human and natural endowments, our country would be the huge protective umbrella for other African nations.
Nigeria is a big and rich nation. It has the largest economy on the continent. South Africa, the great attraction for Nigerians, was dethroned from that position by Nigeria. It now comes a piddling second. All things being equal, Nigeria has enough resources to lift it from the nightmare of being potentially great to being truly, truly great.
In other words, Nigeria should be the first destination of choice for its own citizens. If they had a choice, the majority of our citizens out there in other countries would rather stay back home. Foreigners encounter xenophobia in various forms in their host countries. The grass at home is not that green. Everyone knows that. It has been turned brown by narrowed economic and other opportunities for the citizens. Brown grass does not support life. You do not have to be a farmer to know that.
Our first determined step should be to make our pastures green again. It is a huge and complex challenge. If the pastures at home are green, few Nigerians would be driven to seek anything greener than what is available at home. Greener pastures are more of a myth than fact if you take into consideration the peculiar difficulties that foreigners must necessarily cope with in their host countries.
There is no magic in economic management. It requires only focus dictated by a common-sensical approach. The solution to two basic problems would change the colour of the pasture for many Nigerians. A steady power supply in the country would open doors to big, medium and small players in our national economy. If farmers feel safe enough to till their land, it would make a major difference in our food importation. Agriculture, once the mainstay of our national economy, still has the potential to employ more people than the oil the manufacturing industries put together.
The ball is in the court of the Nigerian state, as indeed, it should be. This giant must now rouse itself. Our Afrocentric foreign policy should be turned into a Nigeria-centric policy as an economic model and strategy for national development. Only so can the grass turn green again and open up opportunities for every imaginable player in the national economy.