By Tony Ekata

In 2009, in the wake of xenophobic attacks that targeted Nigerians along with other foreign nationals, former Nigerian High Commissioner to South Africa, General Mohamed Buba Marwa, took the proactive step of hosting the maiden Nigerians in South Africa Achievement Awards (NISAA 2009) to showcase Nigerians contributing actively to the socioeconomic growth and transformation of South Africa.

Precisely ten years later, there are once more echoes of xenophobic violence, with some hapless Nigerians yet again being victims of wanton and unwarranted carnage. This, ironically, is at a time when there is an upsurge in the number of Nigerian professionals, businessmen and artisans having thousands of South Africans either on their payrolls as employees in legitimate businesses, or as students and mentees.

Incidentally, the year of the Achievement Awards, 2009, marked the 10th Anniversary of the Nigeria-South Africa Bi-national Commission (BNC), which was established in 1999 within the broad framework of promoting trade and investment in the African continent, as well as enhancing people-to-people cooperation and institution building.


Some of the award recipients







Some of the award recipients












Specifically, the Nigeria-South Africa BNC was “borne out of a commitment by South Africa and Nigeria to effectively structure bilateral relations through the establishment of a Bi-National Commission”.

The questions that are triggered by the recurring animosity, looting and death visited on Nigerians and other foreign nationals by their hosts with little or no justifiable provocation is: 20 years down the line, is the BNC still relevant? Have the objectives of the BNC been realised over the years? Voice of Nigeria put this same question to former president Thabo Mbeki in an interview at his Killarney, Johannesburg home that same year, 2009.

President Mbeki acknowledged, in glowing terms, the role Nigeria played  in the liberation of not just South Africa, but Southern Africa from the shackles of apartheid:

“Nigeria has always had, talking about independent Nigeria, has always had a critical role to play in terms of the progress of our continent. Even if you talk of Angola, you’d remember that at the time of the independence of Angola in 1975, the apartheid regime invaded Angola in order to put UNITA in power in Angola in the place of the MPLA. That caused a lot of discussion and division on the African continent. For many months, the OAU couldn’t take a decision on the recognition of the first government of independent Angola because of this until Nigeria took a decision that Nigeria would recognize this new government of the MPLA as well as contribute and assist that government to defeat the invasion of the apartheid forces and that is how the OAU then finally took a decision to recognize that government of Angola. So, I’m saying that it was not just South Africa but the whole struggle against apartheid wherever it manifested itself. And you would know of course that even in the UN, the Committee against Apartheid, for many, many years was chaired by Nigerian ambassadors because of that level of commitment and of course it was inevitable. At that time, the Western governments were very supportive of the White Minority Government in South Africa. It was inevitable that they would react very negatively to the position that Nigeria was taking, especially because of the influence that Nigeria would have on the continent”

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki in a chat with VON Southern Africa Bureau Chief, Tony Ekata.

Why then would citizens of a country that did so much at the risk of the wrath of the apartheid regime and its collaborators be so vilified and maltreated by the beneficiaries?

Well, it may very well be that it’s our fault – that we have not in fact educated the South African public about what Nigeria did and so people would not feel the connection because they don’t know. I mean, the matter that you are mentioning, Nigeria was the first country to take large numbers of young people who came out of the Soweto students’ uprising here and they came in large numbers, were absorbed in Nigerian schools, were looked after and so on; but as I’m saying, it may very well be that it’s our fault that we have not sufficiently made available this kind of information to the population; so they don’t know. Maybe it’s something that needs to be done, that needs to be corrected. So, it is important, I agree with you, that the South African population needs to know more about that history, that past, because it would help to explain to them why this matter of the relations between Nigeria and South Africa continues to be such an important matter” President Mbeki proffered.

Yes, the BNC may have registered substantial trade, exports and imports growth over the period, but does that justify the loss of innocent lives that cannot be evaluated in Naira and Rand terms?

What might be considered some consolation, however, is the fact that a few political leaders, especially members of opposition parties, have been strident in their condemnation of xenophobic tendencies among South Africans, and the apparent lethargy of the authorities to do something tangible about it.

For instance, Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the third largest political party in South Africa, condemns in very strong terms, the stereotyping of black immigrants as criminals:

“It is wrong. Crime is crime. Let’s deal with it as crime. When it’s a white person in South Africa, undocumented, we call them investors; not only a white person, including Indians and Chinese. These Guptas didn’t have proper papers… no one dared call them kwerekweres (illegal foreigners). But if it was my African brothers, they were going to be called kwerekweres because they don’t have papers – self-hate. It must come to an end. If it means making the EFF lose votes, let it lose votes on principle… This country belongs to Africans the same way Nigeria belongs to Africans. Nigeria is South Africa, South Africa is Nigeria. We are Zimbabweans. We need to do away with this nonsensical idea that was imposed on us by the colonizers.”

Watch the full video here, courtesy eNCA:

Indeed, it is not as if the leadership in South Africa does not know that xenophobia is alive and well in the country. But political expediency, as Malema indicated, is a major impediment to tackling the perpetrators head-on.

In February 2017, the Nigerian government called on the African Union to intervene urgently to stem the tide of xenophobic violence against Nigerians. In a statement issued on behalf of the government, a senior presidential aide on Diaspora affairs, Abike Dabiri, described the attacks as “unacceptable to the people and government of Nigeria.” Two years on, it is not clear what urgent intervention measures, if any at all, the AU has taken so far.

If recent reprisal attacks on South African citizens and the burning of their trucks at the South African border with Zimbabwe, and in Malawi are anything to go by, then it is expedient for the South African authorities to act urgently to check the scourge of xenophobia before it escalates to irredeemable proportions.

Nigerian authorities, on their part, must do more to protect Nigerians all over the world from undue harassment, loss of property and death. A good point to start from would be to collaborate with host countries to fish out the few Nigerians giving the majority of hardworking and law abiding citizens in the Diaspora a bad name and deal with them mercilessly within the ambit of the law.

Also, the efforts to stabilize Nigeria’s socio-economic environment should be fast tracked and consolidated to discourage the relentless exodus of Nigerian youths, in particular, to other lands in search of the proverbial greener pastures.


What do you think Nigerian and South African authorities can do to tackle the problem of xenophobic attacks in South Africa?

Have your say.





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