Nigeria and the Trial of Xenophobia

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In South Africa, Nigerians live in fear. They live a life of anxiety, not about what they will eat, drink, or wear, but about an ever-present threat of xenophobic violence by South African citizens. Provoked by yet another flare-up of the weird orgy of savagery and bloody violence in recent days, the Nigerian government has demanded action by the government of South Africa to curb its citizens. But Nigeria needs to go beyond the somewhat routinised demand to enact a firm response to the mistreatment of its citizens in South Africa.

The federal government reacted after penultimate Saturday’s outbreak of anti-immigration attacks in Pretoria West, as South Africans, allegedly, tried to rid the area of drugs and prostitution. The mobs of native South Africans raided homes perceived to be used as drug dens and brothels by foreigners, especially Africans, and demanded the deportation of prostitutes. They set fire to houses.

Two weeks before the Pretoria West incidents, 10 houses, allegedly, belonging to drug lords and brothel owners, were burned during protests in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. Locals claimed that Nigerians were behind the illicit activities.
Before the latest attacks, pamphlets were openly circulated and messages were shared on social media calling for a march against foreigners. Many Nigerians have died in the unprovoked attacks.

Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, said on February 7 in Abuja that in the last two years, 116 Nigerians had died in South Africa in extrajudicial murders, including xenophobic attacks.

Dabiri-Erewa said 63 per cent of the victims were killed by the South African police. She spoke when she visited the South African High Commissioner to Nigeria, Lulu Mnguni, following the killing of a Nigerian, Tochukwu Nnadi, in December last year by South African police officers.

Xenophobia has become standard fare in South Africa. This is largely because the South African government treats culprits with kid gloves – and the victims’ governments, too, pay lip service to the killing and maiming of their nationals. Nigeria must rise from this inertia and assert its capacity to defend the interest of citizens wherever they choose to live in the world.

In 2015, Nigeria and South Africa sparred over attacks on African immigrants, which targeted mainly Nigerians. In the ensuing diplomatic rift, Nigeria decided to withdraw its envoys from Pretoria. But this reaction drew condemnation from the South African government, which made derisive comparisons between its lethargic response to xenophobic violence and the Nigerian government’s perceived inability to rein in Boko Haram insurgency and its handling of a church building collapse in 2014 in Lagos that led to the death of 84 South Africans. The official South African response tended to play down the issue of bringing culprits of the attacks to justice.

In a similar vein, when on Tuesday the South African High Commissioner addressed journalists in Abuja after the recent outbreak of attacks in that country, he appeared to be more interested in warning foreigners in South Africa to respect the laws of their host country than assuring that those who took laws into their hands by attacking foreigners would be punished. Mnguni failed to unequivocally respond to the statement by the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which urged the South African government to take the strongest measures to protect foreigners living in South Africa and “quickly bring to justice the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.”

The South African government has for long mouthed cliché-ridden assurances of the protection of foreigners. And the civil populace in that country have denounced the violent anti-immigration tendencies through marches. But the tenor of the South African government’s communications on the issue of xenophobic violence tends to show a cautious rationalisation of the brutish conduct. That is why the Nigerian government must rise to the occasion.

Nigerians in South Africa are in a bad state of affairs, and that country’s government should be confronted and held to account. Besides prosecuting perpetrators of the xenophobic attacks, the South African government should be made to pay full reparations to victims of the attacks.

The federal government needs to take a hard line with South Africa and other countries that abuse Nigerians or tend to think that Nigerian lives do not matter.