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No way to say thank you, but…

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President Muhammadu Buhari (right) and hi­s South Africa counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa

Nigerians do have a right to expect a fair treatment in South Africa by the South Africans. The reasons stick out and they bear repeating. Nigeria was instrumental to the dismantling of the oppressive apartheid system that kept government in the hands of the minority whites to the exclusion of the black majority who could not participate in the government of their own country. They were oppressed and denied their basic human rights in diverse ways. Even an ambivalent world was horrified and demanded an end to the only system of government based on the colour of one’s skin.

Nigeria and the Nigerians too found this unacceptable. The giant of Africa along with other countries in and outside the continent rose to the huge challenges of ending minority white rule and bringing about majority rule, a struggle for which the late Nelson Mandela devoted his life, suffered for it and in the end won. He rightly became the first president of a post-apartheid South Africa. It was his victory, sweet victory. It took a long struggle, blood, sweat and a lot of tears in and outside the apartheid enclave.

It would be unfair for the South Africans not to remember the very commendable role Nigeria played in their darkest hours of need. Nigeria was their big brother in every sense of the phrase. The Nigerian government gave sanctuary to some of the freedom fights who were marked down by the minority regime for death. Nigeria gave generous scholarships in our universities to help train young South Africans for the post-apartheid challenges our country knew they would face as the future leaders of their country. I could go on but I am sure I have sufficiently made the point that our country answered the distress call of a fellow African country and spared no efforts, diplomatic and otherwise, as well as expenses to end apartheid.

This is why Nigerians and the Nigerian government find it unacceptable that our fellow country men living and doing their legitimate businesses in South Africa should be the main targets of the current xenophobia sweeping through parts of the country. The outpouring of anger is to only be expected. The attacks on some South African businesses in the country are sad reminders that actions generate reactions; sometimes out of proportion to the action. It is quite often difficult to dam anger but the Nigerian state must end the retaliatory violence. It would do neither country any good.

Nigerians are not in South Africa as exploiters or to marginalise the South Africans in their own country. They are not there because they have a sense of entitlement to a warm welcome in that country. They are there because they believe that the post-apartheid South Africa opened the doors of business opportunities to them to participate along with South Africans in the economic and social development of their country in the true spirit of African brotherhood and economic co-operation. It is a noble objective, all things being equal.

It was the same spirit that brought scores of top notch South African businessmen to Nigeria. Nigeria welcomed them with open arms in the telecoms, cable television, departmental stores and the hospitality industries. Compared to these billionaire South African business enterprises in Nigeria, the Nigerian businessmen in South Africa cannot be said to be threats to the South Africans. They are small businessmen.

The Nigeria-phobia came as a huge and shocking surprise to all of us. It is but a wretched treatment of our people. It has become both compulsory and patriotic to lay the cane across the back of the South Africans. I so lay my cane across their backs sans the frenzy by which we are generally actuated.

Nothing really excuses those attacks but it would be naïve for anyone to suggest that the xenophobia just happened. There had been cases in the past where Nigerians were attacked and their businesses torched in that country. The Nigerian state more or less kept mum. But it crept up slowly on the country over a long period of time until it reached the current level as a logical progression. Something eventually triggered it and caused it to spread to other nationals in that country. But the Nigerians were worsted.

Let us not pretend that what happened in South Africa is strange or unusual. Wherever two or more people from different racial and ethnic groups gather, there must be competition for scarce resources and the resentment of those who tend to corner those opportunities by being smarter or more aggressive in a positive sense. In all countries and even communities, stranger elements sit on their edge of their chairs because when something goes wrong with the economy and the economic space is inevitably narrowed, they wrongly take the blame.

It is worth remembering that Nigerians are aggressive businessmen. They do not always play fair or straight. They become a source of both envy and resentment among other nationals who cannot match their aggressiveness and, tongue in the cheek, business acumen. It happened in Ghana not too long ago. There was no outright xenophobia but the government carefully shut down the Nigerian businesses whose operation they could do without in the country.

Sometime in 2006, I visited Johannesburg in the company of the then governor of Nasarawa State, now Senator Abdullahi Adamu. Some Nigerian embassy officials took us on a brief tour of the city. They took us to a long street in the heart of the city and told us that all the businesses along that street were owned by Nigerians. They also told us that the street harboured criminal Nigerian gangs and that people were so scared of the street they found it necessary to avoid it. It would be unfair to suggest that the South Africans were happy about this. I am not excusing the xenophobia. I am only suggesting that nothing just happens. Is there something in the Nigerian character that causes resentment among other nationals? I suggest that our sociologists should explore that.

In the current climate of anger and emotion, it may be difficult to put in a rational word or two in our reactions. We must try if only because reactions are usually worse than actions that precipitated them. Xenophobia is virulent. It turns friends into enemies and seeks to deny other nationals the right to participate in their legitimate businesses. In no country are the opportunities for businesses and other legitimate pursuits limitless. When such opportunities become increasingly narrow, we do not need the babalawo to tell us that the strangers in our midst are responsible and must be uprooted from our soil. We see that in our country with the frequent inter- and intra-ethnic clashes, the most visible face of which is the equally virulent indigene and non-indigene problems that laid some communities to waste in many parts of the country in the recent past. These problems usually find expressions in the struggle for political and economic opportunities. Religion is then dragged in to complicate the complex problem.

The Nigerian state is morally and constitutionally duty bound to protect its citizens wherever they may be. We know that its record here is scrappy. I suggest that when the emotion and the frenzy run their course, we should have a sense of proportion in addressing why other nationals resent our people. The Nigerian state should assist the South African government to determine how best it could protect our fellow citizens and their legitimate businesses in that country. An outpouring of anger is merely politically correct. But it is sterile. It would not address or even solve the problem. We need a more rational approach than the sabre rattling that masks our impotence.


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