The xenophobe in all of us
Recent unsettling events regarding the savage attacks on Nigerians in South Africa have brought to the fore the need to examine the sociological, political or nationalistic dimensions of that rarely-acknowledged human foible called xenophobia. It is reported that Nigerians now live in regular fear of violent attack in South Africa. There is however clear evidence that the attitudes underlying such aggression are not fomented through official channels even as the leadership of that country effusively expresses its eternal gratitude to Nigeria for her pivotal role in the eventual global rebuff and objective dis-mantling of apartheid.
The socio-political scene in Africa readily manifests the conflicting influences of the historical forces of tradition, colonisation and modernity. These phenomena are inextricably linked one to the other producing, in the main, a curious admixture of autochthony or nativeness and co-habitation of socio-political values, structures and processes. Societies that are in transition, like most African nations, are gradually or un-obtrusively giving way to confrontation societies that are better positioned to utilise or manipulate new or alien elements to serve established ends and values. Evidence abounds, however, that preferred ends and values are far from being established or institutionalised because and in spite of the “new and alien elements.”
We contend that Africa’s colonial heritage is the most fundamental cause of the problems of modernity that manifest in various parts of the region. This is however not an attempt to theorise the view that colonialism stricto senso informed, and still determines the structure and content of organised life in modern Africa. It is unarguable, however, that colonialism relates to social processes in contemporary Africa in such a philosophically reciprocal manner that one cannot reasonably distinguish one from the other. In sum, colonialism has imposed a new structure of relationships on all spheres of social life in the ordinarily pristine societies of Africa and has bequeathed to them legacies or values which inhibit the growth of modernity or development.
All nation states irrespective of their respective developmental stages or of other reasons for their founding are conceived or crafted for the protection of their citizens in all ramifications and especially so for their socio-economic well-being. A number of conventions, customs and enactments are legally fashioned to form the governing or ruling ethic. Within nation states some level of internal colonialism manifesting as the physical take-over of ultimate control of the economy, polity and society by a prescribed elite group is observable. Indigeneship, for instance, confers certain rights and privileges on the denizens or natives of communities concerning political preferments, commerce, economic strength and other stimulus for growth and development. So, it is the case that in Nigeria, for instance, non-indigenes may not be absorbed into the civil or public services of their host native communities. They are at best employed or retained as contract staff. The Indigenisation Decree of the military era, positioned to reserve certain areas of the commanding heights of the economy to Nigerian citizens to the exclusion of foreigners, is reminiscent of the sowing of the seeds of exclusion.
This xenophobic law that discriminates against the interests of persons who are deemed to be aliens or whose dis-qualification is premised on their foreign-ness is against the run of play and is patently bad. The expulsion of Nigerians from Ghana in the late 1970s is one notable act of irresponsible xenophobia from which the nations of the West African sub-region are still reeling in pangs of mutual suspicion and mistrust. In Uganda, xenophobia attained its ignoble zenith under Idi-Amin when he peremptorily expelled Asian businessmen, industrialists and farmers presumably to make way for native Ugandans. In the United States of America which boasts of the values of multi-culturalism, vituperations such as those denouncing that country’s diversity policy and programmes are widely expressed. They are strong indications of underlying nativist sentiments. They may not be wished away even as the results of the 2016 Presidential elections there have confirmed the centrality or relevance of nativist bunkum in the people’s thought process or action.
It is facile to criticise or upbraid the nativist instinct of the South African people to want to protect their economy from the smart, enterprising or versatile guests in their midst among who number Nigerians in their thousands. It is perhaps a natural human tendency to want to protect oneself against undue competition. Only a civilising circumspection through civic or humanist education can temper such nativist proclivity.
The Nigerian state manifests intolerable indifference to the plight of her people. Many Nigerians are thereby driven abroad with the hope of finding help to ameliorate their situation or circumstance. The failure of government in Nigeria is the reason for the exodus or “checking out” of a large army of our young people who are fleeing the country daily in search of greener pastures. The harsh or hostile environment at home inexorably drives the enterprising young man or woman into expectation of good value for his time and effort in relatively conducive environment. He dreams of achievement and fulfilment.
However, expectations of a warm and friendly disposition towards him by his host country are often misplaced. The globally-acknowledged monumental contribution of Nigeria towards the independence of South Africa is often glibly cited as the reason for the expectation of bon homie on the part of South Africans in relation to their Nigerian guests or visitors. But Nigeria is not a shining example along which South Africa may like to be modelled. Her pitiable socio-economic indices, her poor Human Development Index value, etc. are no emulable entries in a score card any forward-looking country wants to flaunt. Alas, Nigeria’s investment in South Africa’s freedom from apartheid and its gruesome manifestations has not yielded presumed or expected returns.
So, instead of the development of a general ethic that defends the life of the poor, that denounces the unjust destruction of lives and property, that enlarges the surface area of the practice of justice or that promotes the values of human dignity and equality, etc. most cultures are today irreverently espousing the politically-correct sentiments of exclusion, insularity and self-preservation using the coercive power of the law. Each such culture is cynically quick to identify the speck in the eye of its alleged xenophobic neighbour whenever it is at the receiving end; whereas all are damnified respecting their attitudes towards aliens, strangers or foreigners.
Something of a sacred regard for one another should animate the relations of nations inter se. When one considers that no nation is excepted from or can plead innocence of this bogey of domination or of external control concerning xenophobia [understood here as the un-critical or unscientific characterisation of persons as “natives” or “sojourners”] its arbitrary nature can well be judged. Xenophobia merely vainly seeks to postpone the maturation of the ideals of an inevitable globalised world.
Rotimi-John, a lawyer and public affairs commentator, wrote from Abuja.