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Xenophobia as Nigeria’s wake-up call for nation building, cultural transformation

By Oladeji Jonathan Damilola, Pretoria
15 September 2019   |   4:35 am
While the African Union (AU) continues to push Agenda 2063 and the African Free Continental Trade Area, the questions of ownership and identity might instead of strengthening African relations and trade...

While the African Union (AU) continues to push Agenda 2063 and the African Free Continental Trade Area, the questions of ownership and identity might instead of strengthening African relations and trade, lead to deadlier conflicts as evidenced by South Africa’s recent crisis.

The AU has described Agenda 2063 as Africa’s blueprint and master plan for transforming the continent into the global powerhouse of the future. A realisation by African leaders that there was a need to refocus and reprioritise Africa’s agenda from the struggle against apartheid, and the attainment of political independence, to prioritising inclusive social and economic development, continental and regional integration, democratic governance, peace and security amongst other issues, were aimed at repositioning Africa to becoming a dominant player in the global arena.

The two giant economies on the continent- Nigeria and South Africa have continued to experience volatile conflicts, including xenophobia, terrorism, tribal and regional conflicts. The recent crisis in Pretoria, Gauteng Region, has seen over 600 Nigerians and more than 170 Zimbabweans electing to leave the country voluntarily. This does not bode well for the idea of unity, which the AU and African leaders have all along hoped to achieve.

This situation has also questioned the sense in Nigeria sustaining her front as a big brother on the continent, and this is one of the most critical questions on the lips of every person, that has witnessed the reign of terror on the streets of South Africa against foreign black Africans.

For a lot of Nigerians, the illusion of power and maybe even grandeur has been met with this sharp reality check causing everyone to wonder how we drifted so far away from that place where pan-african values drove solidarity and brotherhood across Africa, to a place where it’s “everyone for himself.”

Gimba Kakanda in his article, “Why Nigeria cannot afford a stand-off with South Africa,” reminds us in his closing remarks that, “the idea of one Africa is a farce taken too far, and successive Nigerian elite have pandered to this fantasy to the detriment of national interests.”

Why there is a standoff at all, is enough reason for serious concerns as African leaders must contemplate the direction that the continent is taking in the global and digital age that is fast overtaking the industrial revolution.

Land, immigration and identity have always been sore subjects that have led to centuries of bloodshed globally. It’s always about who owns what, and who should be considered a “foreigner.”

Wondering if this is simply an isolated issue peculiar to South Africa, we must look at Nigeria. We cannot ignore the unsettling nature and responses to the migration of Fulani herders and the suspension of RUGA settlements based on public dissent and discontent in Nigeria about who should be allowed to live and move within her borders.

It is also important to note that there is a role that distrust and insecurity play in this fear of immigrants or foreign black Africans.

An interesting fact to note about South Africa is how earlier in April 2019, the country shut down diplomatic relations with Israel because of “attacks” on Palestinians.

The struggle for identity and in a sense, class struggle, is a global one. Israelis are in a fight to determine who should be the second-class citizen in Jerusalem, so they push the borders ever further, using every force available and occupying more territories. Palestine on its part, continues to fight back so that it could have an independent state because of its dislike for its citizens being treated as second class citizens.

South Africa understands what it means to be treated worse than “second class” citizens, so the government took a stand with Palestine, an Arab nation. Their position is that Israel has no right to make Palestinians suffer like “foreigners.”

Meanwhile, back home in the streets of Johannesburg, Kempton Park, Hillbrow, the word “foreigner” is a label to depict a despicable crop of people whose second class citizen status must always be insisted upon.

Even in talking about food prices or parking spaces, foreigners need to be taught to know their place and queue behind the landowners. In personal squabbles, the identity you carry as a foreigner is one that asks you to be silent and when you do not stay silent, then someone must teach you not to hold such opinions that seem to elevate you above your status.

This is what South Africans demand, that “foreigners should respect South Africa.” That the struggle for returning South Africa back to its rightful owners must be respected in every quarter.

Indeed, if the price of this respect is the dehumanisation of other Africans, who for various reasons, have found themselves in South Africa, the local taxi driver does not mind.

Fuelled by popular opinion, the phobia for foreigners is gradually and subtly institutionalised in South Africa. With little or no efforts made to quell hate speech and prosecute crimes committed against black foreign nationals, including Nigerians, the violence on the street promises to grow.

The word foreigner is fast becoming a class tool. The only crime recognised by the citizens are those committed by foreigners and so, they should be taught to fear the system that has so “favoured” them by issuing permits. The fight is not limited to undocumented immigrants and criminals, it has evolved into conversations that profile foreigners from black countries as detrimental to the development of South Africa. This makes it socially acceptable to label and profile foreign black Africans in South Africans in such a way that poses the local criminal as a victim of foreigners.

This fear of foreigners is one driven more by social acceptability than by legality. The law does not allow such discrimination and threats as seen in the social media, but the social culture encourages it. This is what happens in a country where the community could very much override the law.

What is happening is also a way of reminding foreign black Africans who the landlord is in South Africa. Even though as a traveller or an immigrant, he/she most come to terms with the fact that he/she is never South African, and that the word foreigner, is now an important part of the social construct of the nation.

In a way, it is about labelling the land and marking territory for the everyday person. The sentiments are that, if the government does not serve to elevate the born natives to the identity of first-class citizens, then they must do it themselves.

What should Nigeria learn from the way South Africa’s community has evolved in the past few years? Despite the violence and the dark hatred that this phenomenon has created, it’s important to learn where identity and society comes from.

Culture, reflecting the cult and the nature, is about the bonding of a people based on a common heritage and a singular purpose. The Nigerian heritage is one that is largely abandoned and scarcely discussed except in response to tribal conflicts. There is very little that binds the Nigerian to his identity as an owner of the commonwealth within her borders and this makes him easy target of smear campaigns, xenophobia and international wealth poaching.

In order to create stronger communities, cults are formed in the mind, and hearts of a people. Cults in this sense are not the violent secret societies associated with the word. Rather, it is the devotion to a common purpose and heritage. If the cult seeks to elevate its status, then it must topple the bigger powers and suppress any other culture that seeks to become prominent in its territory.

A relevant example being the collapse of the apartheid society and now the attack of foreign black communities that seems to be growing across South Africa. This base instinct is what has made nations war, kill and elevate borders for ages. It may never end.

The Nigerian culture, on the other hand, is one that accepts ridicule and shame in good stride. Nigeria’s leadership, and institutions, allow the negative profiling of her citizens, yet the world is at our doorsteps buying and owning the common heritage.

There are structures within the Nigerian borders that claim to bring employment and resources, but hardly reflect on the standards of living for the everyday Nigerian.

We need to carefully consider how many Nigerians are truly employed with the dignity of labour. How many Nigerians benefit from policies, contracts and trade agreements? Instead, we open our nation up to hostilities like those experienced recently in South Africa.

The weakness of the Nigerian cult is why investors like MTN pose to be doing the economy a favour, while over 86 percent of its value, close to N2t is staked in Mauritius and South Africa. Majority of MTN’s local Nigerian staff are low level, and in a lot of cases, complaints about the contracts have seen the business repeatedly in the news.

MTN Nigeria has more than 67 million customers at the end of last year, according to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), yet, the primary beneficiaries and owners of this mega telecom company are not Nigerians. This situation is replicated across several other foreign companies. Yet still, the position of Nigeria as a valuable community to these foreign powers is still in doubt.

We still get to worry about the repercussions of protecting Nigeria’s interests when hostilities arise, threatening our diplomatic relations with the rest of the world.

The Nigerian international business and trade scene is fraught with tax evasion, labour exploitation and grossly inadequate compensation for the locally recruited work force. These businesses claim to be building our economy, but are mostly repatriating huge profits out of the system and into foreign economies like South Africa. The few times anyone tries to challenge the employment policies of these outfits, they are silenced by force, or treachery.

These multinationals as they are called, are not designed to promote the Nigerian ingenuity, rather they are designed to take from the country while the world whines and cries about how horrible, and how despicable Nigerians are.

This brings to question the value of a Nigerian culture that seeks to serve the continent at the detriment of the development of Nigeria for Nigerians.

We don’t even see our land anymore, we are detached from the heritage which is ours. From years of fighting and bickering amongst ourselves, we have lost the identity of what it means to be owners and to protect what is ours. We do not throw stones and break down the homes of foreigners because “they are investors”. But all over the world, we break our backs to build societies that will forever use the word foreigner to dehumanise and kill Nigerians.

It’s time to restore the Nigerian cult and nature to one that can sustain her citizens first before others. Not with violence or through hatred for those who use our land and our people to serve foreign cults, and elevate the beauty of their own systems. The use of force has not served for nation building in Africa and so it must be eradicated without second-guessing.

Rather, we must celebrate the Nigeria we deserve and find identity through our institutions. We must remember to demand true dialogue and intellectual engagement across every government apparatus. Not to just take jobs, employment, foreign grants and loans. Rather, our institutions must be driven to demand for compliance with the interest of Nigerians.

If an Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa or Urhobo man in Nigeria is not wakened by the massive looting that is taking place across the vast land that is Nigeria, then looting in South Africa should be considered little compared to what is to come.

It must be established in our psyche that no one does any Nigerian a favour when we travel. This position needs to be maintained in the media. It is right and valuable for image building that Nigerians travel when they wish and have the legal capacity to do same.

Nigerians should not be cowered to think traveling is the exclusive preserve of the rich and privileged. It shouldn’t be a taboo for a Nigerian to travel, we are also investors in the future of Africa and must be treated as such.

Nigerians, like the whole world travel to find profits where it can be found, and we go there representing our own beautiful green colours.

For us to create a virile society, we must go back to embracing our culture, understanding what ours is. This will awaken the everyday Nigerian to our roles as nation builders. We are not just teachers or policemen, we are instruments for perpetuating the cult of what it means to be Nigerian.
Thinking about this as we serve ourselves will make it abominable to promote the bad press that has been used to sell us short. We will begin to understand why police brutality cannot be tolerated and why lawmakers and leaders cannot be allowed to lead without accountability.

Because the cult must live and thrive for our true nature to be seen, loved and respected by the world. God bless Nigeria.

Damilola, an AFRES Scholar at the University of Pretoria Masters Real Estate programme, and co-author of Life’s Chrysalis and author of five other digital books focusing on self-development and creative storytelling, won the Biopage Essay Contest in 2018. The freelance content developer and founder of cfwriterz currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa. He is the Head, Media and Strategy at Upside Africa and volunteers with Nigerian Lives Matter, South Africa.