Attacks on Nigerians and other foreigners in South Africa have prompted an angry backlash back at home.
Outbreaks of xenophobic violence in South Africa are now frequent enough that they follow a familiar pattern. Riots targeting foreign-owned shops are followed by clashes, dispersed by security forces with the likes of stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannons.
This was the case in 2008 as over 60 people were killed in xenophobic attacks. It happened again in April 2016 as at least six people lost their lives. And the past two weeks have seen anti-foreigner violence erupt once again with protesters accusing non-South Africans of stealing scarce jobs and bringing crime.
However, this time, there appears to be a particularly strong emphasis on Nigerians. On 24 February for instance, protesters wielding sticks and pipes in Pretoria marched to the foreign ministry with a petition in hand. Amongst other things, the document claimed of non-nationals: “They are arrogant and they don’t know how to talk to people, especially Nigerians.”
Statements such as these as well as media claims that Nigerian businesses have been particularly targeted in the attacks have spurred outrage back home.
In Abuja, for example, Nigerian students retaliated by marching on the offices of South African businesses such as mobile phone giant MTN and television network DStv. According to an MTN spokesperson, the demonstrators stole phones and tablets, vandalised vehicles, and destroyed office equipment.
“We are saying that enough is enough as South Africans have openly attacked and bullied Nigerians,” said Aruna Kadiri, president of National Association of Nigerian Students, which organised the protests.
In a later press conference, he warned ominously that South Africans in Nigeria must leave immediately because their security can no longer be guaranteed, saying: “It is in their interest to keep themselves and whatever businesses they may have safe by leaving our country”.
Other groups have also marched on the foreign ministry to demand concrete actions and expressed their outrage, while some have suggested actions such as boycotts. Lashley Oladigbolu, a media and public health practitioner, told African Arguments: “I have decided to stop using MTN phone line and other products of South African [businesses].”
Shaky diplomatic relations
In South Africa, it is of course a tiny minority that is directly engaging in the xenophobic protests, and many have condemned the attacks.
For instance, Thabiso Mondlane, a student of the University of Cape Town, says of the episode: “South Africa stands before the African community naked and exposed. Today is not a good day to be South Africa.”
The South African government has also denounced the violence. But, at the same time, said it will “respond to the concerns” of protesters and recently deported 97 Nigerian nationals for a range of offences, including lack of documentation.
Abike Dabiri-Erewa, special assistant to Nigeria’s president on diaspora matters, has heavily criticised the South African government’s suggestion that diplomacy is the solution to the attacks, noting that several Nigerians have lost their lives in the past few years. She also condemned the deportations of Nigerians, saying: “They have been arbitrarily raided”.
Relations with South Africa dominated proceedings in the senate this week as lawmakers decided that they would not sever diplomatic relations, but send a delegation to South Africa to demand concrete actions and an explanation.
“This attack has become one too many,” said Senate President Bukola Saraki. “We must put a stop to these attacks. We must take the bull by the horn. That is why we have resolved to meet with the South African parliament.”
Nigeria has also urged the African Union to find solutions to halt xenophobic attacks of other African nationals in South Africa.
Analysts consistently maintain that cooperation between Africa’s two largest economies is crucial for the continent’s overall wellbeing and development. But despite the establishment of a bi-national commission in 1999 to boost economic cooperation, the relationship between the two countries has often been more defined by quarrels and diplomatic spats than collaboration.
For many ordinary Nigerians though, it is the memory of solidarity during South Africa’s experience of apartheid that makes the recent anti-Nigerian attacks most frustrating.
Ngozi Obi-ani, a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, says that Nigeria put Africa at the centre of its foreign policy after its independence and offered invaluable political and financial support to the now ruling African National Congress to fight white minority rule.
Amongst other things, Nigeria chaired the United Nations special committee against apartheid. And at one point, public servants in Nigeria committed to donate 2% of their monthly salaries to help the struggle.
“Who is South Africa to humiliate Nigeria?,” asked Kadiri. “They forget things so soon, let them go back to history and records to see how much financial assistance and what the country did to save them.”
More demonstrations on the horizon?
According to the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, it is on red alert in the southern state of Bayelsa after intelligence reports suggested some Nigerians are planning reprisal attacks on MTN facilities.
At the same time, trade unions, civil society organisations and Nigerian students have made clear their anger at the violence in South Africa, suggesting there are likely to be further protests. With tensions running high, there are concerns these could degenerate into the destruction of property belonging to South African businesses.
As Oluyemi Fayomi, an international relations expert, notes, the attacks against Nigerians in South Africa have had a deep impact – politically, economically and socially – on both countries, from the highest level down to the grassroots. Unless this is resolved quickly, the rift will only deepen.
“Continued xenophobic attacks on Nigerians and other African nationals in South Africa will definitely create tensions and lead to unrest and uproar in [both] South Africa and Nigeria,” she says.
Linus Unah is a Nigerian journalist based in Enugu, Nigeria.