Nigerians are rightly outraged by the xenophobic attacks committed by some South Africans against Africans from other parts of the continent. The attacks bring shame to the country of Nelson Mandela. In condemning the attacks, there should not be the mistaken belief that all South Africans are xenophobic – the xenophobes are the minority.
It is also justifiable for anyone to criticise the South African government for not doing enough to stem the tide of xenophobic attacks that first started in 2008, because if it had, xenophobic attacks would not be recurring. It would also be right to be critical of the South African media for their reportage of crimes involving Africans from other African countries that profiled such criminals by nationalities. Such reporting fueled hatred against foreign African nationals.
The South African Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, has rightly said crimes should not be associated with nationalities. When people commit crimes, they are not representatives of anyone other than themselves, hence it is wrong to profile criminals based on nationalities as a section of the media tend to do at times. Criminals are criminals, short and simple, and should be treated as such. More important, most Africans from other parts of the continent in South Africa are living legally and are law abiding citizens. And they are contributing to the growth and development of South Africa. Furthermore, there is no correlation between illegal immigrants and crime. Most illegal immigrants are not criminals. Again, as Minister Gigaba said during his press conference this week, criminality and immigration should be treated separately. The South African media has a role to play in this regard by not profiling criminals by nationalities.
When Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaimed South Africa as a rainbow nation, he meant that it is not only for those who were born in the country but all those that live in it. Its rainbowness captures its diversity.
Those who are arguing for a stricter immigration regime in South Africa should have a rethink. They need to have a better understanding of the pull and push factors of immigration. It is puzzling that a European backpacker without a cent in his or her pocket can come into South Africa without a visa while Africans, including Africa’s richest person, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, and Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka, are required to have visas to enter South Africa. Generally, African countries, including South Africa, need to liberalise their visa regimes to ensure free movement of Africans across the continent; and here they could learn a lesson from Rwanda and Ghana that issue visas to Africans on arrival. It will be a clear manifestation of African integration. African countries cannot continue with immigration regimes that objectify Africans.
South Africans, including political leaders, businesspeople, scholars, religious leaders and representatives of civil society organisations, need to find ways to grapple with the problem of xenophobia that is denting the image of the country across the globe. One thing the government needs to do is to introduce African history as a subject in high schools so that kids can learn the history of the continent. Another issue for consideration is exchange programmes between education institutions in the country and their counterparts in other African countries. This way South Africans from a young age will have a better understanding of the continent. In the same vein, Africans from other parts of the continent will have a better appreciation of South Africa and its challenges.
At this juncture, it is important to point out that xenophobia is not peculiar to South Africa but something pervasive across the African continent. I will use the Nigerian situation to illustrate this point.
First, it is therefore important to understand xenophobia and see how it manifests itself in other African countries. Xenophobia is the fear and hatred of those considered as the “others” or foreigners. This hatred fuels stereotypes and demeans the lives of the “others.” By this simple definition, xenophobia is pervasive in Nigeria. In this country, the “foreignness” is along religious and ethnic backgrounds as well as states of origin. Thus those born in a state which is not the state of origin of their parents are considered foreigners even when they have lived their whole life in that state. Consequently, they are discriminated against in employment and other areas. Besides Lagos, where those from other ethnic backgrounds are in the state cabinet and assembly, most states only have those who are considered indigenes in their Houses of Assembly and cabinets. I doubt there is any state in Nigeria that has a senator or member in the House of Representatives who is not a so-called indigene. This too is xenophobia.
Just as they are outraged about the xenophobia against Nigerians in other countries, Nigerians should be equally outraged by xenophobia within Nigeria, which is based on religious and ethnic lines. We cannot condemn xenophobia based on nationalities abroad while we are silent about xenophobia based on religion and ethnicity at home, Nigeria.
Nigerians should therefore be outraged about the Southern Kaduna crisis and similar conflicts that are based on the “otherness.” The Southern Kaduna crisis has been going on for more than thirty years. Hundreds of lives have been lost and properties worth billions of naira have been destroyed. Yet some Nigerians are calling on people to arm themselves in self-defence. There is no different between such people and the xenophobes in South Africa.
History teaches us that justice, peace and development cannot be achieved through violence and wars. The intra-ethnic crisis in Plateau State is abated not because of self-defence by people who armed themselves but through dialogue among the warring factions. And just like foreign criminals in South Africa should not be profiled by their nationalities, disagreement between John and Salisu should not be framed along religious and ethnic terms. Such disagreements might be personal or due to competition for economic resources. They should be treated as such without bringing in religion and ethnicity. And where there are genuine religious and ethnic disagreements, they should be addressed as such. Just to be clear, attacks and counter attacks will not bring peace and development to Southern Kaduna and any other parts of Nigeria. Peace and justice can only be achieved through dialogue.
Every Nigerian must be treated as equal irrespective of religious and ethnic backgrounds and so-called state of origin. How do people live in a particular state and community for generations and still be considered as foreigners?
It is also a foolery to argue for secession, as some people tend to do. Every part of Nigeria is a victim of the poor management of the country by inept political leaders since independence. Secession is unlikely to bring development to any part of the country and we do not need to look any further than the quest for states and local governments – the creation of more states and local governments has not resulted in the desired development to the country. With the right leadership, Nigeria’s diversity can be its strength.
Nigerians should embrace their common humanity and citizenship for the country to prosper. All Nigerians must become ambassadors of peace and unity. As such, we must speak up against the wanton killings and destruction of properties taking place within Nigeria against those considered as the “others.”
Xenophobia against people of other religions and ethnicities in Nigeria is as inhumane as xenophobia abroad against so-called foreigners in South Africa and elsewhere.
You can follow Omano Edigheji on Twitter @omanoE.