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Ordeals of xenophobia

By Eno-Abasi Sunday, Victor Gbonegun, Kehinde Olatunji (Lagos) Anthony Otaru (Abuja)
15 September 2019   |   4:30 am
It took three years of constant wasting of the lives of Nigerians living in South Africa by South Africans, and agencies of the state, especially the South African Police, before Nigerians resorted to a violent response.

Returnees from South Africa last week…

• Counting Losses At Home, Abroad
It took three years of constant wasting of the lives of Nigerians living in South Africa by South Africans, and agencies of the state, especially the South African Police, before Nigerians resorted to a violent response.

Importantly, this was after many aggrieved Nigerians came to the conclusion that the Federal Government was being too slow in calling its South African counterpart to order, or was simply being insensitive to the wanton killing of their kith and kin in the former apartheid enclave.

Indeed, many Nigerians, who were choked by the Federal Government’s annoying inaction had to rise in a desperate move to get a solution to the recurring problem or force it to act with dispatch.

For the records, at least 127 Nigerians have been killed by South Africans and their police force between 2016 and August 2019.

Since 1994, long before South Africa began investing in diverse business interests in Nigeria, including banking, hospitality, telecommunications, and in the energy sectors, xenophobic attacks have been taking place in parts of the country, but on a manageable scale. After the attacks initially peaked in 2008, a breather was observed until the madness resumed in 2015. In all of these, there were no reprisals from Nigerians.

However, a few days before Nigerians carried out the reprisals, a video of persons jumping, or even falling off the roof of a building that was on fire circulated virally on the social media, as well as on WhatsApp was thought to have taken place in South Africa, but it was not.

Apart from that, another video of a man that was set ablaze in an alleged xenophobic attack in South Africa, which also went viral, plus another video of the immediate past South African Deputy Minister of Police, Bongani Michael Mkongi, who criticised why four in every five residents of Hillbrow are foreign nationals seem to mislead and anger Nigerians. Hillbrow is a city in Johannesburg.

Mkongi, who left office in May this year, in the video, addressed the foreigners as “people and lunatics,” and warned that South Africa may someday have a President of foreign descent at the rate.

Insisting that Hillbrow could be dominated up to 80 per cent by foreign nationals in years to come, he stressed the need for a national discussion on the trend, which he said was unhealthy.

Though the controversial Mkongi’s video was first aired on July 2017, it poured gasoline into the raging inferno, which the billowing xenophobic attacks had become.

The reprisal on South Africa-linked businesses, especially behemoth retail outlet, Shoprite, mobile telecommunication giant, MTN, and a clothing retailer – PEP Stores, left in its wake, one death, millions of naira worth of losses, injuries to innocent shoppers and Nigerian franchise holders (of South African firms) and other business owners. This happened in Ibadan, Oyo State, and Lagos State in the South West, and Uyo in the South South.

Those whose operations were mostly impacted are shop owners and dealers at the Shoprite Mall in Surulere, Lekki, Ajah and Ikeja, who occupy visible facilities like, Circle Mall, and Novare Mall and others in Jakande and Sangotedo.

Ogiameh Igun, an investment banker still counts himself lucky to have escaped the wrath of his countrymen, when they descended on the MTN shops in the Surulere area of Lagos and shattered glass blades, damaged printers and generally vandalised the facility.

“I went to make an inquiry at the shop, but before I had the opportunity to do that, irate youths poured into the shop and the reign of chaos started. Before long, the entire place was upside down. Expectedly, some of the protesters were not genuine ones because genuine protesters would not end up vandalising the shop. I was happy to sneak away unscathed,” Igun told The Guardian.

Mr James, a business owner at Shoprite Mall, Surulere, said fashion items worth millions of naira were carted away from a popular boutique and other shops within the facility, while he lost goods worth over N500, 000.

“Hard times are ahead as a result of the reprisals, but I have to move ahead, get loan to re-stock my business because I no longer have good stocks. But the government should strive to ensure the safety of life and property of residents at all times,” he said.

Protesters that ransacked clothing outfit – PEP Store in the same Surulere neighbourhood were not different from those that attacked the MTN facility in the manner they carried out the attack.

A staff member, who preferred anonymity said: “All was well in our shop since opening for the day until the protesters arrived. And as locusts would descend on a cereal farm, within minutes they had nearly emptied the place. Unfortunately, we could not stop them from looting the goods we sell for which we get paid.”

When The Guardian visited the shop late last week, the place was still under lock and key, while workers found around had no idea when it would re-open for business.

“The place is undergoing renovation because the devastation was so much. We have not been informed when the shop would be re-opened and I cannot also tell you how much was lost to the attack by the company,” another worker said.

At Novare Shopping Mall, Sangotedo, angry youths carted away from one of the shops- Timekeepers Store, expensive watches and sunglasses. These in addition to the damage made the firm lose over N200m.

Residents and motorists in the axis are currently lamenting the closure of the shops, saying it affected their businesses.

A taxi driver in the area also lamented the shutdown. He said: “It has affected our businesses badly. The area has been like a ghost town since last Tuesday that the attack took place and for some of us who work here from Monday to Sunday, it has been a difficult experience. Closing down the mall is not the solution to this problem, because thousands of people are losing their jobs and millions of goods are locked up, wasting away.”

Also at Novare Mall, Lekki, a storeowner who pleaded anonymity said the destruction and goods looted from his shop was over N400, 000.

“When the protesters arrived, they went into shops and looted fashion accessories, clothes, and groceries. The invaders also destroyed parts of our shops before the intervention of security operatives. We appeal to the government to support us financially so that we can return to our businesses.”

In the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja, the major target of the attackers was the Shoprite Mall in Lugbe, along Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Road, Abuja.

A staff of Sholey Optical Company, one of the shops that were looted at the Shoprite Mall, Mathew Adeyi, told The Guardian that millions of naira worth of sunglasses was stolen by the protesters, who “broke into the shop, tore down our show glasses and looted our goods. Much as I can’t give you the exact value of what we lost, but my company has already taken stock, and is computing the value of the stolen goods. Nobody was injured nor killed here.”

But at the National Hospital Abuja, the Deputy Director and Head of the Department of Management Information Services, Dr Tayo Haastrup, admitted that “one patient, a victim of the Shoprite Mall, Lugbe attack, who was hit by a bullet was on admission at the hospital. His name is Otobo James

“The family brought him here, and our own is to treat him following the recent Federal Government’s policy that victims of gunshots be treated before prosecution, when necessary. That is just what we did, we have given him necessary attention and he is more stable now.”

Haastrup continued: ‘’The parents of the boy are saying it was the police bullets that hit him, and the police have been here, and both the parents and the police are still speaking, but our own is to ensure that the parents pay his hospital bills.’’

WITH a barrage of condemnation trailing both the attacks in South Africa and the reprisals in Nigeria, and dozens of attackers arrested by governments of both countries now in detention awaiting prosecution, President, Bolytag Centre for International Diplomacy and Strategic Studies (BOCIDASS), Prof Bola A. Akinterinwa said the attackers of South African business interests have, at least, forced the Nigerian government to begin to see more clearly.

Commenting on the place of reprisals in the dispute, Akinterinwa said questioning the relevance of the reprisals was “indirectly asking the extent of the usefulness of forceful retaliation in the matter. In other words, has it been more positive or more negative? Does it have the potential to resolve the crisis? Will xenophobia be thrown into the garbage of history as a result?

“What can be rightly said, at this juncture, is that reprisals have sent a message to the xenophobic attackers in South Africa that they do not have any monopoly of brutality and recklessness of attitude. The attackers of South African business interests acted in line of legitimate self-defence and that has, at least, compelled both governments to begin to see more clearly in the mania of Johnny Nash, that great musicologist,” he said.

Akinterinwa added: “It is useful to note here that many people believed that two wrongs do not make a right. The logic here is that, either by mathematical addition or multiplication, the element of wrongness is constant. Agreed, it is not tenable in terms of diplomatic negotiations. The mere fact that two parties are wrong necessarily paves the way for rightness of purpose in diplomacy. When two parties are in a conflicting situation, they are both right, or both wrong. The conflict exists based on order and counter-order amounting to disorder. Both parties believe they are right. The truth of the matter is that when both parties are unable to resolve the matter, the processes of mediation or reconciliation, adjudication, etc are resorted to.

“And more often than not, a compromise is reached in such a way that there is no loser and there is no winner, especially in the Gowonian mania, following the end of Nigeria’s war of national unity in the period from 1967 to 1970. Nigeria and Biafra were both wrong to have gone to war in the sense of their inability to find peaceful means to their dispute.

“What many observers of Nigeria-South African relations do not always factor in their analyses is that both countries are keen competitors in the quest for leadership of Africa. Many powerful countries of the world often prefer to support South Africa because of the minority white South Africans in the country. The white population controls the economy in all its ramifications. Black South Africans do the talking while white South Africans decide and do the acting. This puts the poor black South Africans permanently in a position of enslavement. The consequence is the xenophobic attacks being meted out to foreigners. Thus, only reprisals can make chronic aggressors see clearly,” Akinterinwa said.

THE Shoprite Group in response to a query by The Guardian “strongly condemns any kind of violence and intimidation against the citizens and businesses of countries on the African continent and anywhere in the world.”
The retailer “is highly concerned about the recent acts of xenophobic violence against foreign nationals that sporadically flare up and the resultant rhetoric of intolerance that is levelled against foreigners and the platform this creates for criminals to exploit it.

“As a company with deep African roots, who employs thousands of African nationals and works to bring affordable prices to consumers in 15 countries on the continent, we would like to see an end to xenophobia across the continent,” the group said.

It added that several stores in South Africa, the DRC, Zambia and Nigeria have been affected and were at times unable to open due to protest action during the past week. Extensive damage has been done to several supermarkets in these countries, impacting the lives of millions of law-abiding people. The safety and security of Shoprite’s staff and customers are of utmost importance at all times and each situation is monitored individually, with staff in some cases being advised to refrain from wearing uniforms as a precautionary measure.

The outfit maintained that all affected stores have reopened, apart from Shoprite Lekki Mall in Lagos, where repairs are still being done and equipment being replaced. Business operations have been impacted to a certain extent and are being managed, with contingency plans in place where necessary.

“We remain committed to engaging with government, industry and consumer groups so that decisive action is taken against those involved in violent crimes and intimidation against foreign nationals as well as to convey our strong position against xenophobia,” the group said.