While Nigerians are rightfully feeling angered by the xenophobia going on in South Africa resulting in the killing and harassment of our citizens there and the destruction of their businesses, I’m hoping those at the very top of leadership in Nigeria are by now learning the right lessons from these attacks. Despite the recent meeting between Presidents Muhammadu Buhari and Cyril Ramaphosa in Japan on the sidelines of the TICAD meeting to discuss this, and the South African president’s promise to deal with the matter, we now have more reports of attacks against Nigerians and Nigerian businesses.
In the not-too-distant past, we had what we called Citizen Diplomacy, which was a Nigerian foreign policy objective with the welfare, security, and well-being of the Nigerian citizen abroad placed at the centre of foreign policy. It was initiated by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration in 2007, amplified by the Umaru Yar’Adua government and continued by the Goodluck Jonathan administration; but the Buhari government seems to have effectively killed it off for whatever reason. From what we are witnessing now, the Nigerian citizen abroad is not part of the consideration of any foreign policy objective because if he or she were, we wouldn’t have these killings still going on in South Africa.
Okay, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama is now blowing hot saying enough is enough and promising government will do something about it. Also, a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Kingsley Chinda from Rivers State is already calling on the Speaker, Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila to recall the House from recess to discuss this matter immediately. We’ll wait to see what they’ll actually do if they do. I have a few suggestions, but instead of stating them in detail at this moment, I’d rather we do a little bit of self-reflection as a nation because such honest self-reflection will invariably provide us the best way forward.
That self-reflection must start with us looking at what is going on in Nigeria. When we have Fulani herdsmen going around and killing Nigerians in their homes and in their farms without the security services dealing with them or the state prosecuting them, when we have these people killing at random and the Miyetti Allah and the presidency justifying or excusing their actions, how do we expect others in other countries to treat our citizens? A few days ago we started seeing a picture of the governor of a state meeting with bandits and killers in the company of military officers ostensibly to negotiate with these bandits to stop the killings and kidnapping they’ve been engaging in for quite a while now. Some were justifying and defending this meeting on the basis that these bandits may have some hostages and that all the governor was doing was possibly negotiating for the release of these hostages.
Of course, this is just conjectural as no facts or any form of evidence were tendered by these defenders to support their speculations as per the reason a governor would be seen in a picture with killers and bandits. Well, whatever the reason, I just know that the optics of a governor smiling on meeting an armed bandit in the company of an unarmed army officer to negotiate anything is the worst case anyone can make for the security of citizens in Nigeria.
And it’s obvious the world isn’t impressed with us. The international community as a whole sees what we are doing to ourselves and are not impressed. For instance, no one outside Nigeria and the other nations whose nationals are affected by the South African killings are discussing it anywhere in the international scene.
Yet, on Monday, 1 September 2019, a day after the latest spate of killings started in South Africa, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings, Dr. Agnes Callamard was calling on Nigerian authorities to take urgent actions to end the killings and violence in Nigeria. She is worried that Nigeria’s inability to tackle this matter will allow the killings to spread throughout the sub-region, due to the nation’s important role on the continent. Yes, our citizens are being killed in South Africa and the world is discussing us killing ourselves and they’re asking us to stop!
That is the irony we need to deal with - the irony that our own killing of ourselves makes better international news and raises more concerns in the international space than the killing of our own people in another African country!
Of course, this isn’t to blame the UN or other nations for not intervening on behalf of our citizens in South Africa. After all, in international relations, every country takes care of number one and every country is left to take care of its own interest as it deems fit within the international system. At all material times, every country is on its own. So, all I’m saying really is that others around the world see how our leadership treats the life of the citizen within Nigeria and their governments and citizens would not on the basis of what they see feel that they have an obligation to treat our own citizens in their countries better.
So, when we see these things in South Africa before we begin to fume in righteous indignation, we must first reflect deeply about what we are doing to ourselves at home. If we cannot hold our own government responsible for the many avoidable deaths through citizen-on-citizen killings in Nigeria, how do we hope to hold another government and citizens of another country responsible for the killing of our nationals in their country?
Again, let me point out that this is not in any way condoning or underplaying the seriousness of the xenophobia and the resultant killings going on in South Africa. This is not saying the Federal Government should not act tough on the matter. In fact, I believe they should have acted firmly from the very beginning of this crisis this time around because this isn’t actually the first time. Whatever the socio-economic problems in South Africa, Nigerians cannot be used as scapegoats or morbid exhibits of misplaced aggression.
Indeed, I was watching a clip of a comment by Mr. Bongani Mkongi, the former South African Deputy Minister of Police Affairs and I was shocked that a Minister in an ANC-led government could say the rubbish he was saying publicly, which was effectively a defence of the xenophobic attacks.
The former Minister said: “The question arises and we must investigate also what is the law of South Africa says. How can a city in South Africa be 80 percent foreign nationals? That is dangerous. That in Hillbrow and the surrounding areas, South Africans have surrendered their own city to foreign nationals, the nation should discuss that particular question. You won’t find South Africans in other countries dominating a city into 80 percent because if we do not debate that, that necessarily means the whole South Africa could be 80 percent dominated by foreign nationals and the future president of South Africa could be a foreign national.
"We are surrendering our land and it is not xenophobia to talk truth. We fought for this land from a white minority, we cannot surrender it to foreign nationals. That is a matter of principles. We fought for this country, not only for us, for the generations of South Africans. The arms that are being used here in Hillbrow are arms of war, which are unlicensed. The hijacking of buildings here in Hillbrow is a sign of taking over power. The question of dominance of foreign nationals in illegal trading and also businesses that are here in Hillbrow is economic sabotage that is taking place against our people that are supposed to be those running those particular businesses. We are facing here service delivery protests.”
Though I’ve now been told that the comment above by the former Minister was made sometime in 2017 when he was still in office and I do not know if it contributed to him eventually leaving office in May this year, what is obvious is that this comment is still trending and not a few people think it’s still contributing to the present spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa. But whether it is still contributing to the attacks or not, that comment is a clear example of irresponsible populism that costs lives.
And like all such expressions of populism, it conflates issues, frames lies as facts and uses these to attack legitimate foreign residents they harbour hatred and jealousy against. I mean, what are the facts? First, Hillbrow is only an inner-city neighbourhood of Johannesburg. If we accept his claims that this part of Johannesburg is occupied by foreign nationals, that is not the same as the whole Johannesburg city being occupied by 80 percent foreign nationals. It’s also not a crime or cause for concern in genuine democracy and in a country or in a cosmopolitan city that claims to welcome all persons from around the world who have legitimate reasons to live and work there.
In big cities around the world, we have China towns outside China, but no one in these places complains that China has taken over these cities. South Koreans and South Korean businesses dominate New Malden in London, but you don’t get the English crying that South Koreans or Chinese are dominating their city of London. The basic principle is that anyone who is in the country legally can set up a home or business and with others can set up a community anywhere within the country where the state must guarantee their safety and freedom.
If there are criminal elements operating in these areas, whether they are foreigners or South Africans, the job of the state is to protect all others, citizens and foreigners, from these criminal elements. But what this man was doing in the name of the South African government was isolating innocent foreigners for mob actions by South African citizens. This is not governance; it’s state-sponsored xenophobia.
Secondly, the man talked about South Africans fighting for their land against a white minority, but he quickly forgot that the fight against white minority rule in South Africa was an African fight supported by the whole of Africa, especially Nigeria and those frontline states whose citizens they are now killing in South Africa. Is this how you show appreciation for the help you received from others in the days of your struggle? Would South Africa have been free today if not for the sacrifice citizens and governments of those they are murdering today made for South Africa? Of course, nobody is saying criminal elements amongst foreign nationals should not be dealt with by the South African state, but listening to this former Minister, this wasn’t the case here.
He was complaining about “illegal trading” and “businesses” dominated by foreign nationals and he thought his people should be running these businesses, but what exactly does that mean? Was he saying only his people are entitled to do illegal trading in South Africa or only his people are entitled to run businesses? Certainly, illegal trading is illegal, no matter who is doing it and the job of the state is to apprehend these persons, be they foreigners or South African nationals, and prosecute them lawfully. You cannot say only your own people must engage in illegal trading because that in itself is antithetical to the purpose of the state. You cannot say only your people must run businesses in South Africa because those foreigners doing so are doing so legally. The state cannot work to hand over legitimate businesses run by foreigners to their citizens simply on the basis of the owners being foreigners.
We have many legitimate South African-owned businesses in Nigeria and our people are happy to patronize them and compete with them; we are not killing them and getting our government officials to say we should be running the businesses because we are Nigerians. Thus, what the killer South Africans are engaged in is not a service delivery protest as Mr. Bongani Mkongi claimed because this wasn’t a case of Nigerian businesses not delivering on the services they offer. This is xenophobia and it is a most uncivilized way to handle a matter of public security in any country.
Thirdly, the claim that the supposed dominance of foreign nationals in one part of a South African city portends the possibility of a foreign national becoming president of South Africa in the future is an idiotic claim with no basis in fact and in law. I mean, by the very wording and operation of the South African Constitution, a foreign national cannot be elected into the National Assembly from where a president of the republic is chosen. Section 21(2) of the South African Constitution accords only citizens of South Africa the right to vote and be voted for, so what exactly is this Minister talking about?
Where in the constitution he’s presumably sworn to uphold is it stated that a foreign national can be president? That same constitution in section 19 grants every person, foreigner or citizen, the right freely to choose his or her place of residence anywhere in the national territory of South Africa and that same Constitution under section 28 grants every person, foreigner or citizen, the right to acquire and hold rights in property. So, what was this former Minister afraid of? What debate was he looking to have over the corpses of foreigners when the law of his country is clear about their rights in South Africa as residents, workers and business owners?
Here’s the truth, what is happening to the psyche of some South Africans, including some of them in government like this Bongani Mkongi fellow, is comparable to an extent with what’s happening with the psyche of some of us who are Nigerians today due to the effects of previous bad governance and bad political culture. This is the equivalence of untreated national trauma. In the case of South Africa, this is the effect of Apartheid on the psyche of citizens. I mean, was the Minister proposing for foreigners to be put in Bantustans, away from the cities, just as blacks were segregated under Apartheid?
Or was he proposing that foreigners should leave South Africa entirely? The South Africans doing what they are doing now in and out of government are doing so in the tradition of white minorities in and out of government in Apartheid South Africa. These white minority people saw the black population as a threat, just as these South Africans today see African foreign nationals in South Africa as a threat. They have imbibed the cruel, ignoble and negative culture of Apartheid and are not ashamed to be exhibiting it today because they think it’s a continuation of their fight for survival as a people.
In Nigeria, though I’ve stated this is only comparable to an extent, it is what we also exhibit in governance when we operate our democracy like a military regime. The many cases of government impunity and attacks on the rule of law and the lack of regard for citizens’ lives are carryovers from military rule. We have been exposed to a bad political culture that we think is normal. Even when the new political culture clearly states in law that we should not follow that past culture, we still go on to interpret the law with a military mentality and in practice act as though we are still under military rule.
Yes, military rule and apartheid cannot be compared fully, but their effects on the psyche of citizens can be the same, just as we see with the cases of South Africa and Nigeria. The basis of that negative response to national responsibility is total neglect of history. If South Africans remember that without the efforts of those they are killing, they wouldn’t have the freedom they claim to be protecting today and if Nigerians in government realize that without the sacrifice of the citizens they’re oppressing today, they wouldn’t be in elective and appointive positions to rule over them, good governance would have ensured that in both places these injustices and uncivilized conducts are immediately done away with.
But, having said the above, I return to my core argument in this piece, which is the need for our own self-reflection as Nigerians and as a nation. Sure, our government must now act firmly and we must all support them in doing this, as far as whatever they do protects the lives of Nigerians in South Africa and sends a clear message to the South African authorities that Nigeria will stop at nothing to protect her citizens in their country. We don’t have the details of the discussion between Presidents Buhari and Ramaphosa in Japan, but we clearly heard the South African president taking responsibility and promising to act firmly to stop the killings and harassment.
That’s what Nigerians must hold President Ramaphosa to. However, on our side, we must acknowledge that foreign policy is the other side of the coin with regard to governments and their overall policies. Foreign policy is and should be a reflection of the domestic policy abroad. If we are not dealing appropriately with the question of law and order at home, we have no moral right to expect the government of another country to do so in their own country. Mr. Ramaphosa can as well begin to regurgitate Buhari’s excuses with regard to the Fulani herdsmen killings in Nigeria.
He can tell us that those doing the killings in his country are not South Africans, that they are foreigners who are streaming in from other parts of Southern, Central and Eastern Africa in search of the good life in South Africa because droughts have taken over their own countries. He can continue promising to bring these people to justice without lifting a finger. South Africans committing the offence can look at our country and say if we can do that to ourselves, they too can do the same to our hapless citizens in their country.
So, while we are trying to respond to this problem as a responsible nation concerned about the welfare and security of her citizens abroad, my hope is that we also begin to see how we undermine ourselves at home by not acting firmly on these ethnic-inspired killings going on in Nigeria. You might call it xenophobia when foreigners kill your citizens abroad but it’s no different from your own citizens or even foreigners killing your own citizens at home in their farms, on the roads, and in their homes.
I know that some of our cynical public officials may not even see it as I’ve stated here because, after all, those being killed in South Africa aren’t their children, brothers, sisters or relations. That may be true, but only for now because what they really need to know is that the death of any Nigerian abroad in these circumstances is a reflection on them as individuals and as public officials. They are not going to be in office forever. One day, the example they set in public service would be the fate of their own children and descendants. The blood of all innocent Nigerians killed outside would not only be on the heads of those who are doing the direct killing in South Africa, but also on the heads of Nigerian officials who are looking the other way and doing nothing when these killings are going on.
As Nigerian citizens, we need to advise our compatriots in South Africa to do all they can to protect themselves. Self-defence is a natural right every human being can exercise anywhere on earth in the face of danger. They should be careful where they go and how they move around. They must come together in their communities to develop and implement plans to survive while hoping the governments of their country and the South African government resolve this quickly. They should not take the law into their hands, but, as I said, they have a right to protect themselves.
Now, while the rest of us leave the governments of both countries and the governments of the other countries whose nationals are affected too to act and find a way to deal with this shameful problem, we must remain vigilant and continue to use every forum available to preach against xenophobia and ethnic killings at home and everywhere else in Africa. We cannot on one hand be blaming imperialism and neocolonialism for our age-old African problems and on the other hand, be hacking ourselves to death on the suspicion that a black brother or sister is depriving us of the resources of the same African land that belongs to us all.