Xenophobic Attacks and Economic Implications of Revenge

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Animosity between Africa’s two superpowers – Nigeria and South Africa- has sharpened in recent days over the persistent xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa, with strident demands by a vocal section of Nigerians, including the media, for harsh government response against South African interests in the country. That Nigerians are upset has culminated in widespread calls for extreme retaliatory measures to be taken against real or imagined South African interests in the country. Such calls target groups like the telecommunications giant MTN as well as Multichoice and Shoprite. The truth is that these calls are informed as much by inflamed passions as by ignorance. Nosa James-Igbinadolor reports

Nigerians have seen all these before. The graphic videos of South Africans attacking foreign businesses are at present trending rivetingly across the public space in Nigeria. Social media is awash with visuals of foreigners in South Africa been subjected to the crudest form of violence akin to what happened in Jos, Makurdi, Kaduna, Zamfara and other parts of Nigeria when we turned on ourselves. South Africa has since the end of apartheid in 1994 become a major destination for economic migrants from neighbouring countries such as Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. But others come from even farther than the neighbouring countries- from South Asia and Nigeria. The influx has led to intermittent epidemics of violence against foreign businesses, sparked by the perception that jobs are being taken away from black South Africans.

Nigeria and South Africa have in recent days witnessed rising tension over the persistent xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa with strident demands by a vocal section of Nigerians including the traditional and social media for harsh government response against South African interests in the country. These demands range from the boycott and nationalisation of South African owned companies to recall of Nigerian diplomats and even the breaking off of diplomatic relations.

Trade boycotts, embargos and sanctions are all policy tools that have become increasingly ubiquitous in global international economic relations. With globalisation and the easy movement of people and capital across borders, many countries have used these tools to drive and support their international relations policies.

No doubt, these demands have been driven by heightened emotions rather than objective rational reasoning and understanding and it is what has triggered oasis of retaliatory violence and massive looting of South African-owned brands in Nigeria over the past couple of days.

There is a lot of indignation and anger in Nigeria and from Nigerians as well as a taste for righteous revenge and rightly so, but a few facts need to be considered first. At various times in the past, thuggish elements in South Africa have attacked foreigners in a frenzy of xenophobia and lately it has become fashionable to go after Nigerians and their businesses. There is a widespread belief among black South Africans that immigrants from Africa, especially Mozambiquans, Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Somalis and Zambians are “taking jobs away from South Africans”. The unemployment rate in South Africa is about 28 per cent, the highest since the labour force survey was introduced 11 years ago. What this means is that a large section of the South African population has no access to formal employment and hence is deprived of credible means of livelihood. This has culminated in growing resentment against other Africans, who are seen to be thriving against all odds.

That certain classes of foreigners have always been a convenient scapegoat when things aren’t going right, is nothing novel. History is replete with pogroms, concentration camps and graves of economic minorities that stand as witness to the global nature of xenophobia.

Nigeria as a country and Nigerians as a people are not as innocent as one seems to believe in this distasteful historical drama of xenophobia. Upset as we are as Nigerians, we cannot forget that in the 1980s, when the Nigerian economy began its descent southwards, it became very fashionable to blame illegal immigrants for the poor state of the economy. Buoyed by anti-immigrant sentiments, in January 1983, President Shehu Shagari ordered the expulsion of nearly two million illegal immigrants, mostly Ghanaians. “If they don’t leave, they should be arrested and tried and sent back to their home countries”, President Shagari threatened. He added ominously that “illegal immigrants should in fact not be given any notice whatsoever. “If you break the law, then you have to pay for it”. Some two million immigrants heeded the warning; they packed whatever they could into trucks, pick-ups, taxis and the famous “Ghana Must Go” bags and fled the country. It was a sour of how not to be our neighbours’ keepers and how easy it is for countries to blame the immigrant for their own problems.

The Ghanaians, Togolese, Beninese and other illegal immigrants left Nigeria. With benefit of hindsight one can conclude magisterially that their forced departure did not in any way improve the economic fortunes of Nigeria. On the contrary, things went from bad to worse for a very long time with varying economic prescriptions from home and abroad unable to revive our sick economy.

That Nigerians are upset has culminated in widespread calls for extreme retaliatory measures to be taken against real or imagined South African interests in the country. Such calls target groups like the telecommunications giant MTN as well as Multichoice and Shoprite. The truth is that these calls are informed as much by inflamed passions as by ignorance.

South Africa has emerged among the top investors in many sectors of the Nigerian economy. South African companies’ presence is visible in the Nigerian economy, especially in areas such as telecommunication, engineering, banking, retail, hospitality, property development, construction and tourism.

Nigeria and South Africa account for nearly a third of Africa’s economic power, and have driven much of the conflict management initiatives in the continent over the last two-and-a-half decades. Both account for at least 60 per cent of the economy of their respective sub-regions in West and Southern Africa.

Truth be told that MTN Nigeria is as much a South African company as it is a company owned by thousands of Nigerians who have invested in the company. The fact that the company is currently the largest on the Nigerian Stock Exchange should be a pointer to its strong belief in the Nigerian economy and Nigeria’s economic future.

MTN, Shoprite and DSTV currently employ thousands of Nigerians including suppliers of farm produce, farmers, security firms, cleaners, etc, who could find themselves out of work, thus inflating an already alarming army of unemployed people. In a country with an unemployment rate of 23 per cent, this becomes a national security risk. No doubt, these extreme measures would certainly hurt Nigerians even more than South Africa. Morally, these are companies that responded to pleas for Nigeria to invest in the country, we have an ethical duty to protect them.

Nigerians also need to realise that there are major Nigerian investments in South Africa that could also become targets of South Africa’s retaliatory actions. Dangote cement remains the single largest foreign direct investor by an African in South Africa. Across the continent, the company is investing tens billions of dollars in new and existing cement plants

A lasting damage would be that Nigeria might as well forget the idea of any foreigner making any substantial, visible and viable investment in Nigeria if they felt they could become targets of violence by Nigerians and Nigeria. The harm to Nigeria from acting irresponsibly would be massive and long lasting.

What is required is for both governments to be seen to be taking this issue seriously and to engage in a far reaching and thorough conversation that will cool passions and prepare the ground for a basis to seek profound solutions that will spare Nigerians future incidents and harness the potentials of cooperation between the two African giants as promised years ago, but never realised. They must seek to understand the underlying reasons why incidents of this nature are reoccurring often and passionately as they do especially in South Africa.

Furthermore, narratives pushed by politicians and other socio-political and economic elite that the reason for South Africa’s social and unemployment challenges is caused by foreigners, particularly Nigerians, needs to be countered and countered effectively.

At the end of the day, the persistent economic malaise afflicting South Africa and expressing itself in low economic growth and high unemployment needs to be addressed and it can only be addressed by the South African government and not be xenophobic attacks. This is also true for Nigeria where the wholesale exodus of well-skilled manpower that the country is experiencing is not sustainable. Nigeria must create economic opportunities for economic development. On both sides, there are governance issues that must be seriously and promptly addressed so that both countries can play their rightful roles within the contest of the new African growth story.

It will be sad if at a time the African continental free trade could be a catalyst for improved cooperation and economic growth for African countries, these unwarranted challenges could be an impediment to cooperation and coordination.

Violence, whether caused by South African xenophobia or resultant revenge actions can never help issues.

Let’s not forget that those Nigerians who levied violence on South African owned businesses could tomorrow levy that violence on segments of the Nigerian population.