Xenophobia: Apologies should be on people to people basis — Olubajo
• Unlike Other Nationals, Nigerians In South Africa Are Not United
Mr. Adetola Olubajo is the President of Nigerian Union in South Africa. In this chat with GBENGA SALAU, he gave insight into the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, insisting that the two governments must take pragmatic steps to halt the trend of xenophobia.
As the president of Nigerian Union in South Africa, how do you see the xenophobic attacks in South Africa?
Xenophobia is real, because it happens to foreign nationals, most especially those of African descents. This is because those who are Chinese and Europeans are not attacked.
And xenophobia is in two ways. There is the physical attack and the other is systemic. The physical attack is what everybody could see, looting, bombing and killing. The systemic one is when you are qualified for promotion, despite meeting all the requirements; you will not be able to attain a certain level.
The government of South Africa was in Nigeria to apologise, how will you describe that apology, especially looking at the way the South African government has handled the issue before now?
It is a step in the right direction, but more still needed to be done. This is the first time South Africa is accepting that they are wrong and for them to send a special envoy to come to apologise shows that they are admitting to the fact that the citizens and government agencies have not done what they ought to have done.
Nonetheless, the people that need protection and apologies are the people at the lowest level that have been affected by xenophobic attacks. Somebody like me, I am not affected; I have crossed that level, except if it is something that is sporadic and I am taken unaware. The apologies should have been on people to people basis. It should be programmed to integrate people into the communities. That would help to heal and compensation also should be considered. It is not something that should be put off the table. Also, people should be punished, because in most cases, South Africans use foreign nationals to get the attention of their government, through looting and attacking foreign nationals.
You said more should be done, like in which areas?
The Police should be strengthened to be able to combat the attacks on foreign nationals. Secondly, South African intelligence needs to be serious, because there is no attack that is not known to people before it is carried out. It is not done secretly. The one that happened recently, there had been text and whatsapp messages saying that they were going to do it. And all these were available to the common people, not to talk about the intelligence unit. So they should take this matter very seriously and be proactive, instead of being reactive.
On government-to-government basis, our government should not leave their guard, because they have received apologies. We need to seriously engage South Africa to protect life and properties of foreign nationals as enshrined in the convention that established foreign missions in different nations.
Is it true that the attacks were triggered by the actions of some Nigerians?
To say that Nigerians are not committing crimes there would be a lie. Some Nigerians are not doing us proud, but they are very few. And those are the people that do not have reasons to be in South Africa in the first place. To be in South Africa, they should have what to contribute. But that should not be an excuse. The South African law is dealing with that. For example, a Nigerian man was sentenced to multiple life imprisonment for human trafficking last week.
Two weeks ago, two Nigerians were sentenced to 15 years for drug trafficking. So, the law is taking its course in that regard. But the Police just need to do their job. For instance, look at what the Nigeria Police did during the reprisal attacks. Within 24 hours, we saw the body language of the Police. They arrested some of the perpetrators and recovered some of the loot and mounted police presence in places South African business interests are located.
We have seen cases where the Police in South Africa will help the looters to take some of the loots, watch while they lynch someone. In April 2018, Ebuka was burnt to death, yet Ebuka was not a criminal, he was a furniture maker. It was in the full presence of the Police when he was set alive. Thus, the Police need to do their job. Those committing crime, the law of South Africa is there and they should come down very hard on them, because they are actually tarnishing our image. And that is one of the reason, as an organisation, we foresaw this and in 2015, we launched war against crime, human traffic and drug. We were working with the Police commissioners in various provinces and we have a forum where we share intelligence on how to crack down on criminals, especially foreigners. Therefore, the Police need to help the citizens also, because there have been allegations of Police collecting bribe and allowing criminals to go scot-free.
Looking at the series of the xenophobic attacks, some South Africans have come to see that as a way of retaliating when the system is not in their favour. What do you think the South African government should do to halt this psychologically?
There is always a third force in every xenophobic attack. One can see some inflammatory statements from politicians, like a mayor said there was no need for apologies to Nigerians, as the attacks were justified. Such inflammatory statements are always there. And we believe that the political class needs to engage themselves and citizens should not use foreigners as soft target to get attention of the government of the day.
As a way forward, there should be an orientation and integration desk in every municipal so that every foreign national that moves in would register with the orientation and integration desk, because some of their prayers are genuine. A situation where you see a group of people move into your area and you do not know what they do, you do not know them and how to identify them. If government has such a thing, it could be under the department of art and culture, where there would be proper orientation on how things are done. And if there is any problem, there is a line that could be called and the community also can do same, if they have any problem with them.
For example, in 2017, a Nigerian mechanic was killed; it was not because he was a criminal. The people that killed him knew he was not a criminal. They were two on the trip and they were stopped to give direction to the house of Nigerians that were drug dealers. But because they said they did not know, they were beaten to the point where one of them died.
What we did then was a proper orientation, we went to the Police and talked to different stakeholders in the community and from then we meet periodically in a forum. And since then, there has not been attack on foreign nationals in that municipal. And to test the engagement, last year, a Nigerian connived with someone to take the car of a South African; there was no attack. But if that had happened under normal circumstances, all the foreigners around, especially Nigerians would have to leave. No attack, because we have a forum. At that forum, we quickly met and we helped in apprehending the suspect and he is in jail now, because he was remanded. So, there should be a proper platform where the community, the various structures in the community would engage. Such is not there at present.
Like you said some Nigerians are not painting the country good outside, how should government deal with that?
There are two ways I am going to address that. I will not use the rhetoric of government should fix our country. What I will suggest is that our foreign mission should as a matter of urgency get the data of Nigerians that are in South Africa. It should be a mandatory thing, because it is actually a shame that we do not even know how many of us that are living there. We speculate about the figure. And the figure by the foreign mission should be integrated with that of South African government. Also, immediately any citizen comes in, he should go to the embassy to get documented, through that there will be profiling and our mission will be able to have statistics.
For example, I am very sure that we have over 300,000 Nigerians, though the high commission is saying about 800,000; and it will be very difficult to have 30,000 Nigerians that are committing crime. So, the people that are committing the crime are less than two or three percent of the total population with proper profiling.
Secondly, there should be unity among Nigerians that are in South Africa. We are not united and our government officials are the ones that are not uniting us and I do not know what they are gaining from it. We should be united and under one umbrella. When we are united, we can isolate the criminals. What happens in South Africa is that everybody is just standing alone. Unlike other nationals, the Ghanaians, Ethiopians, Malians, they work together, live in the same area and they are able to put up a common front and demand. For instance, Ghanaians have been granted visa on arrival. It is because of the common front, not that there are no criminals that are Ghanaians, Malians. It is because they are able to make demands as one of the communities contributing to the development of South Africa. They are united. There should a deliberate effort by government to have Nigerians in South Africa under a body.
I was opportune to meet some of the top officials at the department of trade and industries, where we normally register companies. You will be shocked that there are hundreds of Nigerian associations, everybody is just doing their own and it is when there is problem that they remember that they have an umbrella body. So, our government officials should ensure that they have our data so that there can be proper statistics to confront any wrong narrative and perception of Nigeria.
Two, there should be unity, because what we see is that when a group is engaging a department in South Africa, some people will come forward that the group is not speaking for them and at the end of the day, both groups will not be able to have bargaining power because we are divided.
What is your position about the call for compensations for Nigerians?
I am strongly in support of the demand for compensation. It is part of a deterrent for government to be proactive. We started this issue of compensation in 2015 as a Nigerian Union. While our government is pursuing this issue of compensation with South Africa on the diplomatic level, we as foreign citizens will go to court to ask for recourse. If there is no compensation, people will be at liberty at every point to loot and attack. Some people have lost 25 years of their lives’ hard earned labour and resources in less than two hours in an unnecessary attack.
Do you support the reprisals in Nigeria?
I will condemn it, and advise against it, as we are not known for that. Even historically, in the Ghana Must Go case, we did not attack them or burn their things. And we were hurting ourselves, just like South Africans, because their people and not foreigners owned most of those buildings. Foreigners only rented the buildings. When you burnt Shoprite stores, some of the buildings are 100 percent owned by Nigerians, so you are actually damaging our businesses and that should not happen. And I give kudos to the Police for checking the reprisals.