Xenophobia: When Revenge is Counter-productive

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Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that the recent xenophobic attack on Nigerians by South Africans and its attendant reprisal by the former was a typical case of cutting one’s nose to spite the face given that the means of livelihood of innocent citizens were affected

On the morning of Tuesday, September 3, 2019, Mr. Jide Oluwole got information that some Shoprite stores in Lagos, notably the one located in Surulere, were attacked in response to the xenophobic attacks in South Africa. As MTN Nigeria Team Lead covering the Lagos Mainland axis, he had anticipated potential local backlash to the events happening in South Africa, but not on the scale of what transpired.

A week earlier, on Wednesday August 28, 2019 to be precise, it was reported that a South African taxi driver in the Pretoria region of South Africa, while attempting to stop a drug sale by an alleged group of Nigerian drug dealers, was shot dead by the dealers. In typical xenophobic style, South Africans reacted to this unfortunate news by looting businesses owned by fellow Africans residing in their country, destroying their properties, and killing some.

The carnage and looting was so bad that on Monday, September 2, 2019, at about 2:00 pm (WAT), news of the dastardly acts was trending on social media. The circulation of posts showing the gruesome burning of alleged non-South Africans made matters worse. 48 hours later, there were outcries and reprisal by other Africans, especially Nigerians.

In Nigeria, the reprisals were rampant in Lagos, owing to the fact that the nation’s commercial capital hosts the headquarters of most multinationals, including those of South African origin. While all of these was playing out, Oluwole was making contingency plans and reaching out to the business contact centres to be sure necessary precautionary motives were taken to forestall human and property damages. It was when he put a call through to Oseigba Isaac, the manager of MTN connect stores outlet located in Surulere, that he got the bad news.

Narrating his ordeal, Oluwole said, “On the said date, the first information that we got was that protesters were in the Shoprite in Surulere. I called to make sure that he was aware and if he was not, to inform him. I asked him to confirm the authenticity of the information. I think it was while he was still trying to confirm from people around that that they attacked his shop.”

Shedding more light on what happened that day, Isaac said that when he got wind of a possible reprisal attack, he quickly locked his shop. He said it was not long afterwards that he saw about 20 people come into the premises where his business is located, “throwing bottles” and shouting, “Are they still in the office; are they still in the office?”

They succeeded in destroying the windows of the shop before retreating. However, about 15 minutes later, Isaac said he saw what was like 2,000 people surging to his shop. “I was destabilised when I saw them. They brought fire, took so many objects, and wanted to burn the building. They came saying, “We must burn MTN office, we must, we must.” Helpless and destabilised, Isaac said he could not do anything to stop them because, “I knew quite alright that even the Bode Thomas Police Station , combined with Aguda can’t stop them.”

The attackers came in two sets. They stole the office furniture, such as printers, TV, Air Conditioning units mounted outside, laptops, and a lot of other equipment and furniture. When there was nothing left to steal, they destroyed what was left in the shop. While that was going on, Isaac, speechless, could do nothing but watch as his investment and source of livelihood was pillaged by fellow Nigerians for a crime that he did not commit.

Isaac said when he asked them why they were destroying his business, their only response was that “they are killing our people in South Africa, they’re killing them.” After they were done looting, Isaac said there was one of them who had fire in his hands, and that he pleaded with him to no avail not to set his business on fire. “I pleaded with him, still he set my shop on fire. They also came outside and set fire to the canopy”, Isaac said.

It would be pertinent to note that prior to this recent violence, and counter attacks, there had been earlier reports of xenophobic incident about three months ago. That incident resulted in a meeting between the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) and Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri, where NANS issued an ultimatum to businesses of South African origins operating within Nigeria to vacate the country.

At the time, same as now, several Nigerians had argued that it would be counter-productive, as the said companies were major contributors to the economy of the country and have Nigerians occupying the majority of their workforce. Take MTN Nigeria for example, with over 60 million subscribers, MTN is the largest telecommunications company in Nigeria and Africa, and has invested over N3.2 trillion, and counting, to the Nigerian economy. Its workforce is about 98 per cent Nigerian.

Since inception in 2001, MTN Nigeria has contributed over N1.6 trillion in taxes, levies and regulatory payments to the coffers of the federal government. The company provides jobs to millions of Nigerians directly and indirectly. This is not to mention the over N18 billion spent through its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, and the over $3.5 billion worth of businesses spent in the Nigerian hospitality and entertainment industry.

According to industry watchers and economists, when looked at rationally, asking MTN to leave Nigeria, will have more adverse effect on poor Nigerians than on South Africans. From Surulere to Sangotedo, Lekki to Alagbado, and from Lagos to Akwa Ibom State, thousands of Nigerians lost their jobs, properties and businesses to the reprisal. In Lagos alone, the governor pegged the figure at over 5,000. When figures from other states are added, the number will skyrocket.

Just as most Nigerians have argued, Isaac and Oluwole believe that the reprisal attacks were uncalled for, and that any reaction to the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, should have been left for the federal government and relevant stakeholders. Their argument is that Nigerians nonetheless own the companies, though having South African origins. At the same time, Nigerian citizens are the people working in these companies.

According to Oluwole, “I don’t see us hurting South Africans if we are to be honest. Isaac is not a South African; it just happened that he’s doing business with MTN. Destroying his source of livelihood is more like an attempt to destroy our own business. How can anyone agree to cut off their nose to spite their face? It doesn’t make sense.”