We have seen all these before. The graphic videos of South Africans attacking foreign businesses are at present trending rivetingly across the public space in Nigeria. Social media is awash with visuals of foreigners in South Africa been subjected to the crudest form of violence.
Animosity between Africa’s two superpowers – Nigeria and South Africa has sharpened in recent weeks over the persistent xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa with strident demands by a vocal section of Nigerians for harsh government response against South African interest in the country. No doubt, these demands have been driven by heightened emotions rather than objective rational reasoning. There is a lot of indignation and anger in Nigeria and from Nigerians as well as a taste for righteous revenge and rightly so, but a few facts need to be considered first.
Nigeria as a country and Nigerians as a people are not as innocent as we seem to believe in this distasteful historical drama of xenophobia. Upset as we are as Nigerians, we cannot forget that in the 1980s, when the Nigerian economy began its descent southwards, it became very fashionable to blame illegal immigrants for the poor state of the economy. Buoyed by anti-immigrant sentiments, in January 1983, President Shehu Shagari ordered the expulsion of nearly two million illegal immigrants, mostly Ghanaians. “If they don’t leave, they should be arrested and tried and sent back to their home countries”, President Shagari threatened. Some two million immigrants headed the warning, they packed whatever they could into trucks, pick-ups, taxis and the famous “Ghana Must Go” bags and fled the country. With benefit of hindsight we can conclude magisterially that their forced departure did not in any way improve the economic fortunes of Nigeria. On the contrary, things went from bad to worse for a very long time with varying economic prescriptions from home and abroad unable to revive our sick economy.
That Nigerians are upset has culminated in widespread calls for extreme retaliatory measures to be taken against real or imagined South African interests in the country. Such calls target groups like the telecommunications giant MTN as well as Multichoice and Shoprite. The truth is that these calls are informed as much by inflamed passions as by ignorance.
Truth be told, is that MTN Nigeria is as much a South African company as it is a company owned by thousands of Nigerians who have invested in the company. The fact that the company is currently the largest on the Nigerian Stock Exchange should be a pointer to its strong belief in the Nigerian economy and Nigeria’s economic future. MTN, Shoprite and DSTV currently employ thousands of Nigerians including suppliers of farm produce, farmers, security firms, cleaners, etc, who could find themselves out of work, thus inflating an already alarming army of unemployed people. In a country with an unemployment rate of 23%, this becomes a national security risk. No doubt, these extreme measures would certainly hurt Nigerians even more than South Africa. Morally, these are companies that responded to pleas for Nigeria to invest in the country, we have an ethical duty to protect them.
A lasting damage would be that we might as well forget the idea of any foreigner making any substantial, visible and viable investment in Nigeria if they felt they could become targets of violence by Nigerians and Nigeria. The harm to Nigeria from acting irresponsibly would be massive and long lasting.
What is required is for both governments to be seen to be taking this issue seriously and to engage in a far reaching and thorough conversation that will cool passions and prepare the ground for a basis to seek profound solutions that will spare us future incidents and harness the potentials of cooperation between the two African giants as promised years ago but never realised. They must seek to understand the underlying reasons why incidents of this nature are reoccurring often and passionately as they do especially in South Africa.
Furthermore, narratives pushed by politicians and other socio-political and economic elite that the reason for South Africa’s social and unemployment challenges is caused by foreigners, particularly Nigerians, needs to be countered and countered effectively.
At the end of the day, the persistent economic malaise afflicting South Africa and expressing itself in low economic growth and high unemployment needs to be addressed and it can only be addressed by the South African government and not be xenophobic attacks. This is also true for Nigeria where the wholesale exodus of well skilled manpower that our country is experiencing is not sustainable. Nigeria must create economic opportunities for economic development.
Nosa James-Igbinadolor firstname.lastname@example.org