The African Union (AU) has long been nursing hopes of forging closer ties among its member nations, but recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa which have triggered diplomatic rows between the country and other African countries including Nigeria, have cast doubt on the “One Africa” dream, just as it is threatening to hurt ties between the continent’s s two biggest economies.
The latest spate of attacks on foreigners in South Africa which begun from the suburbs of Johannesburg on Sunday, September 1, 2019 has left a sour taste in the mouth of many Africans as it has also led to reprisal actions from countries affected. In Nigeria, series of reprisal attacks were meted out on South African business concerns in major cities including Lagos, Abuja, Ibadan and Abeokuta. Notable firms linked to South African owners like MTN and Shoprite had some of their facilities destroyed.
Although the Nigerian government has condemned the attacks on the business outfits, with several arrests made, the perceived inability of the South African government to stop the carnage, has heightened diplomatic tensions between two brother countries that were once united against apartheid in Africa.
Steps taken by Nigeria in the last 48 hours show clearly that it is not impressed with what South Africa has done so far. Recall that the South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, in a video posted on Twitter on Tuesday, condemned the attacks, saying: “There can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries. Attacks on businesses run by foreign nationals is something totally unacceptable, something that we cannot allow to happen in South Africa. I want it to stop immediately.”
But to the chagrin of Nigerians, the South African High Commisioner to Nigeria, Bobby Monroe, told a press conference, in the presence of Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister, Geoffery Onyeama, that the violence in his country were not xenophobic but simply “sporadic acts of violence.”
Events that followed saw the Nigerian government recall of its ambassador to South Africa, Kabiru Bala, while also taking the decision to boycott the ongoing World Economic Forum (WEF) in Cape Town. The government also announced the commencement of the evacuation of its citizens willing to leave South Africa.
Hours after that announcement, South Africa on Thursday announced the indefinite closure of its embassy and consulate in Nigeria, fully setting the stage for the third diplomatic war between the two countries in seven years.
Newspeakonline recalls that this is not the first time the two African heavyweights would be locked in a diplomatic row. In March 2012, 125 Nigerians were refused entry into South Africa for allegedly being in possession of fake yellow vaccination cards. The action of the South African government prompted the Nigerian government under President Goodluck Jonathan to retaliate by deporting 84 South African nationals.
In September 2014, in the height of the war against Boko Haram, and amid an arms sale embargo placed on Nigria by the United States government, South African authorities seized $15 million meant for the back-channel procurement of arms for the Nigerian military, from two Nigerians and an Israeli. The action of the South African government generated a lot of controversy and bad blood between the two countries before the money was eventually returned in July 2015.
It is now feared that the current war may hurt the economies of the two nations and their citizens, if urgent steps to stop the crisis are not taken.
In the latest attacks on foreigners, more than 50 shops and business premises mainly owned by Nigerians and Somalians, had been burnt to the ground in South Africa. Cars and other properties were destroyed and widespread looting took place across the country.
In Nigeria, office buildings and facilities belonging to MTN were destroyed while popular stores linked to South African ownership were massively vandalised and looted.
In another vein, the diplomatic row is likely to affect the bi-lateral trade and economic relations between the two largest economies in Africa. South Africa imports Nigerian crude oil and 83% of its oil trade is from Nigeria. South African imports from Nigeria have increased by 750% while Nigerian imports from South Africa have increased by 130% in the last 15 years.
The pace and rapid expansion of South African businesses especially blue chip companies in Nigeria points to how the economies of both countries could take a massive hit if the two countries do not find a way to nip the crisis in the bud.
The African Union has been called upon to play a leading role in ending the xenophobia and by extension, present and future diplomatic wars.
The Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2019 general elections , Atiku Abubakar, in a tweet said “urgent steps need to be taken with the SA authorities and the African Union to bring an end to this ill wind that can only end up destroying the fabric of our African brotherhood.”
The Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), Abike Dabiri-Erewa also stated that the intervention of the African Union (AU) would be vital in ending attacks on Nigerians in South Africa.
A former secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, however thinks the two countries hold the solution in their hands, even though he suggested that South Africa had not done enough.
His words: “As the commonwealth secretary-general who played a seminal role in the negotiations that ended apartheid and ushered in democracy in South Africa, I am greatly saddened by the condemnable xenophobic incidents in the country.
“I urge the South African government to back up its condemnation of these ugly incidents with strong action by its security agencies.
“The two governments should immediately establish a bilateral commission that will be meeting regularly to ensure the protection of the two countries’ national interests.”
Nigeria’s condition for truce
Meanwhile, the federal government of Nigeria has demanded for compensation for the victims affected by the attacks.
Speaking at joint news briefing with Monroe, on Tuesday, Onyeama stated that the proposal also includes security collaboration between the two countries.
According to him, “We feel that very definitive measures have to be taken to stop once and for all this act of aggression and criminality against Nigerians in South Africa. For us, Nigerian government, we are determined that we should not have any reoccurrence of this going forward. So, we have to put in place mechanism to ensure that this does not occur.
“We made very concrete proposals to South African government today, and we believe if those measures are implemented, we will have a very good chance of ensuring that this does not reoccur. In the first place, we must address the issue of compensation. There has to be accountability and there has to be responsibility for compensating all those Nigerians that have suffered loss and we are going to absolutely push forward.
“Secondly, we believe that the two security forces (South Africa and Nigeria), can have an arrangement where there will be cooperation on the ground in South Africa to arrest such events and occurrences and this is obvious something we have to work out details with the South African government and hopefully, see us addressing at the field level the challenges caused by this incessant attacks so we have put that forward to the South Africa government. Very clear proposals and we will be discussing that and hopefully the South African government will support us in that initiative as we believe it will make all the difference.”
The minister revealed there are past efforts made to stem the incessant attacks including a jointly agreed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which the South African government was yet to sign.
Buhari sends intelligence boss to Ramaphosa
The special envoy sent by President Muhammadu Buhari, to meet with President Ramaphosa and register his displeasure over the killing of Nigerians in South Africa landed in Pretoria on Thursday. He is the Director-General of the NIA, Ambassador Ahmed Rufa’i. He will be having a meeting with Ramaphosa on Friday, same day Air Peace begins to evacuate Nigerians willing to leave South Africa.
But not many may board that plane. A Nigerian living in South Africa, Adelabu Yemi, said: “There is no way Nigerians can leave South Africa. We have a lot in common, we have married their women and we have businesses here. If we go home, where do we start from? They should just find a way to resolve the problem.”
Adelabu’s words looks like a clear indication that the Nigeria, South Africa and the rest of the continent must find a way to end the xenophobia, mend diplomatic fences and go back on the path that leads to “One Africa” and shared economic prosperity.