In New Offensive, Nigeria Shuns Economic Forum in South Africa, Recalls Envoy

Geoffrey Onyeama
  • Buhari: Retaliations amount to doing same thing we condemn
  • Osinbajo heads for another event in Ghana
  • Police arrest 125 over reprisal, beef up security around foreign embassies, businesses.

Ejiofor Alike, Emma Okonji, Raheem Akingbolu, Nume Ekeghe in Lagos, Kingsley Nwezeh, James Emejo in Abuja, and Christopher Isiguzo in Enugu

Nigeria wednesday launched a raft of diplomatic offensive against South Africa after weeks of quiet diplomacy failed to get the rainbow nation to end the spate of xenophobic attacks on its citizens.

The country, which drew a red line that it would thenceforth no longer allow South Africa to cross, called off its participation in the World Economic Forum (WEF), which South Africa is hosting.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo who was initially billed to lead the Nigerian delegation to Cape Town, venue of the WEF, headed for Ghana to participate in the ongoing 2019 African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Accra.

Nigeria’s withdrawal from WEF, announced by Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, confirmed THISDAY exclusive story on the front page of its yesterday’s edition.

In addition, Nigeria has recalled its High Commissioner to South Africa, Ambassador Kabiru Bala, over the raging xenophobic attacks on Nigerians living in the country.

A presidential source said Bala was recalled to give situation report to the federal government over the attacks with a view to helping the government take a firm decision on the matter.

However, despite Nigeria’s diplomatic offensive against South Africa, the country condemned reprisals on its interests in Nigerian cities with President Muhammadu Buhari saying the retaliations amount to doing same thing “we condemn.”

The reprisals, which have forced South African franchises in Nigeria such as telecoms giant, MTN Nigeria Limited, and one of Africa’s largest food retailers, Shoprite, to shut down operations in some locations, prompted the police yesterday to beef up security around foreign embassies and businesses to prevent recurrence.

The police also said they had arrested no fewer than 125 suspects in connection with the reprisals during which the demonstrators looted and vandalised Shoprite outlets as well as MTN offices and equipment.

Giving details of what the federal government is doing to force South Africa’s hands in ending the xenophobic attacks, Onyeama told reporters in Abuja, after a meeting with Buhari and Osinbajo, that the federal government had drawn a “red line” with South Africa, threatening that the situation is no longer acceptable.

He said whatever was required to end the spate of the attacks would be done as “enough is enough.”

He debunked stories circulating on the social media that some Nigerians had been killed in the current wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, saying whereas no single Nigerian has died in the crisis, some of them had their businesses looted and assets destroyed.

He also said Osinbajo, who had been billed to attend the WEF in Cape Town, shunned the event following a resolve between him and the president to boycott the event.

He expressed the president’s displeasure over the reprisals by Nigerians on South African businesses in Nigeria, stating that Buhari would soon address the country over the matter.

According to him, it is senseless to engage in the same acts that they are condemning, more so that the companies are owned by Nigerians and the workers are also Nigerians.

Onyeama said: “We have made it clear that what has happened in South Africa is totally unacceptable. We will not accept it and as I said earlier, enough is enough and we are not going to come back to this. We are going to address it once and for all. So, this is the position of government that we are going to draw a red line here. Whatever measures that need to be taken to ensure the safety of Nigerians in South Africa, we will take.

“We have been in touch with the South African government at the very highest level with the President of South Africa as to what we want to achieve. The special envoy has very clear directives about the commitment and the guarantees that we expect from the South African government.

“Of course, a lot of things have been circulating on social media which have not helped matters. Some of them have really distorted the situation and because of that have impacted in our response.

“So, number one is that the information we have from the High Commission, from the Consul General in South Africa, is that no Nigerian life has been lost during this crisis. And I think that is very important because on social media, there is a lot of stories going around of Nigerians being killed, jumping off buildings and being burnt. This is not the case. What we know is that premises, shops of Nigerians have been looted and property destroyed.

“The vice-president, as you know, was scheduled to go to South Africa tomorrow (today) to attend the World Economic Forum. Clearly, with this climate, he and Mr. President have agreed that he should not go to the World Economic Forum in Cape Town and we are looking at other measures to take.

“Mr. President is particularly distraught about the acts of vandalism that have taken place here in Nigeria, in retaliation of what is happening in South Africa. The government believes that we have to take the moral high ground on this matter. We are victims here and have made that position clear to the international community and to the South African government. We here in Nigeria must not fall into the temptation of also resorting to the acts that we are condemning in others.

“So, Mr. President has pleaded and he is likely to make a statement on this, addressing the Nigerian people to please desist from acts of vandalism and aggression, destroying properties. Now, these businesses – Shoprite, MTN and others, yes, they are South African; but these are subsidiaries in Nigeria owned by Nigerians. So, as attacks are made against Shoprite and other such institutions, it is actually the property owned by Nigerians within Nigeria and the people working there are Nigerians.
“So, the people that will suffer from those acts of vandalism and aggression are not South Africans or anyone else but Nigerians. But morally, it is wrong not even because of who will suffer and not suffer.”

Onyema assured Nigerians that the federal government was determined to fight the battle to the end, threatening that the government of South Africa must assume its responsibilities by protecting Nigerians and other Africans residing in the country.
He also said the South African government must pay full compensation to Nigerians who were victims of the attacks, adding that whereas Nigerians who had been victims of xenophobia in the past were not compensated, the trend is not acceptable this time.
He also said Nigeria was considering taking other steps against South Africa once the special envoy the president sent to the country came back.

“But on this occasion, the Nigerian government is going to fight for full compensation and hold the government of South Africa to account. And we are going to consider other options to ensure that the message gets across to the government of South Africa.
“It is not a question of weakness or anything of sort, but we have to move decisively and that is precisely what the government is going to do.

“We have all the options on the table and on the return of the special envoy, we will all sit down and look at all the options and assess the report, and there is no measure that we consider to be appropriate that we will shirk from taking. We will take whatever and all measures necessary to ensure that never again are we going back to this whole issue of Nigerians being attacked and properties destroyed and in some cases, killed in South Africa.

“It is an ongoing story. We will keep you informed but the important message is that Mr. President is fully engaged in this process. He is being briefed on an hourly basis and we are not going to shirk from taking all the necessary steps to make it the last time this kind of thing will happen,” he added.

Asked to disclose the identity of the envoy sent to South Africa, Onyeama said “the identity of the special envoy will be revealed in due course,” adding that “there are certain reasons why we don’t want to do so immediately.”

The minister also accused the South African government of allowing the attacks to fester over the years by sitting on the fence, saying Nigeria does not deserve such treatments being meted to it now in view of the enormous roles it played during the battle against apartheid.

Onyeama added that it is noteworthy that the entire Africa is united against the xenophobic attacks, recalling how three other African leaders had pulled out of the WEF and how Zambia had also called off its scheduled friendly match with South Africa and the condemnation from the African Union (AU) over the incident.

Asked why the Nigerian High Commissioner to South Africa was recalled after the government had sent an envoy to the country, he said: “No. it is one of the options we are considering. He will need to come back but we feel he should come back after the envoy has gone there, so that Mr. President will also have the benefits of the full and comprehensive brief from all the individuals who are in position to have seen things at a close range.”

A statement later wednesday by Onyeama’s ministry announced a plan by the federal government to evacuate Nigerians willing to leave South Africa.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the statement by its spokesman, Ferdinand Nwoye, said: ”following the recent unfortunate xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals, including Nigerians in South Africa, the proprietor of Air Peace Airlines, Chief Allen Onyema, has volunteered to send an aircraft from Friday, 6th September 2019, to evacuate Nigerians who wish to return to Nigeria free of charge.

”The general public is hereby advised to inform their relatives in South Africa to take advantage of this laudable gesture. Interested Nigerians are therefore advised to liaise with the High Commission of Nigeria in Pretoria and the Consulate General of Nigeria in Johannesburg for further necessary arrangement.”

Police Arrest 125 over Reprisals, Beef up Security Around Foreign Embassies, Firms

As the rage over the attacks on Nigerians in South Africa spread yesterday with reports of reprisals against South African businesses in Nigeria in Abuja and some other cities, the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Mohammed Adamu, ordered watertight security around embassies, foreign missions, foreigners and their businesses within the country.

The IG, in a statement by Force Public Relations Officer, Mr. Frank Mba, a Deputy Commissioner of Police, put all Zonal Assistant Inspectors General of Police and Commissioners of Police nationwide on red alert to ensure no similar violence is replicated within the country.

Adamu who condemned the violent attacks, said three police officers were seriously injured and a police operational vehicle torched.

However, a total of 125 suspects have been arrested in connection with the incident while the police have also recovered some of the looted goods.

“While recognising the rights of citizens to air their views on salient national issues as enshrined in our statutes, the Force reiterates that these must be done within the confines of the law. Would-be miscreants and criminally-minded persons who masquerade as protesters are therefore warned to stay off the streets of Nigeria as the Force will not hesitate to bring to bear the full weight of the law on any such law breaker,” the statement said.

MTN Customers to Suffer as Firm Shuts down Service Centres

Meanwhile, subscribers to MTN Nigeria network may soon experience service failures as the telecoms giant on Tuesday night took a hard decision to shut down its Lagos head office and all MTN stores and service centres nationwide indefinitely, for fear of reprisal.

The police also yesterday used teargas to disperse protesters who attempted to attack and burn down a Shoprite mall located at the Airport Road in Abuja, in reprisal against the attacks on Nigerians in South Africa.

MTN Nigeria’s decision to shut down operations followed the widespread attacks in Lagos and Ibadan on Tuesday, on most facilities owned and managed by South Africans in Nigeria.

In a letter by the Company Secretary of MTN Nigeria, Uto Ukpanah, which was distributed among staff late Tuesday night through email and text messages, the telecoms company asked its staff to stay away from offices until further notice when tension on the xenophobia attack and killings in South Africa must have died down.

Part of the letter reads: “MTN Nigeria Communications Plc (MTN) confirms that over the last day our facilities, customers and some of our stakeholders have been the subject of attacks in retaliation for the ongoing xenophobia situation in South Africa. We have confirmed reports of attacks in Lagos, Ibadan and Uyo. While we remain committed to providing uninterrupted services, the safety and security of our customers, staff and partners is our primary concern. All MTN stores and service centres will therefore be closed as a precaution until further notice.”

THISDAY gathered that the shutdown would potentially affect network connectivity because staff monitor the operation of the MTN masts and base stations from their offices.

“The base stations are not affected at the moment but if the situation lingers, it will affect network connectivity because network providers monitor base stations from their offices. If there is downtime in any base station, the signal is reported in the offices for actions to be taken. But having shut down the offices, it will be difficult for them to know what is happening at their base stations,” said a contractor who works for one of the telecoms companies.

But allaying the fears that the shutdown might affect its network and service offerings, the Chief Corporate Relations Officer, MTN Nigeria, Mr. Tobechukwu Okigbo, said such shutdown would not in any way affect MTN service offerings since its networks and facilities like Base Transceiver Stations (BTS), commonly called Base Stations, would still be operational.

According to him, only the administrative work of MTN Nigeria would be affected and not the network itself.

Police Teargas Protesters Near Abuja Shoprite Mall

Also yesterday, the police used teargas to disperse protesters who attempted to burn down a Shoprite mall located at the Airport Road in Abuja.

The protesters burnt tyres and a billboard around the area, causing heavy gridlock and forcing commuters to take alternative routes.

The Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Police spokesman, Mr. Anjuguri Manza, a Deputy Superintendent of Police, confirmed that the police were able to ward off the planned attack.