The standoff between the Federal Government and South Africa over the deportation of Nigerians continued to fester yesterday with a Senate committee calling for the suspension of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
In an apparent retaliation, Nigeria on Monday night deported 28 South Africans who arrived in Lagos, while yesterday the Federal Government threatened to go tough on South African companies operating in Nigeria.
The row sparked off at the weekend when 125 Nigerians travelling by Arik Air and the South African Airlines were deported on arrival in Johannesburg allegedly because they were carrying fake yellow fever vaccine cards.
Yesterday, Foreign Affairs Minister Olugbenga Ashiru appeared before committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives, where he said Nigeria would retaliate what he called the xenophobic tendencies of the South Africans.
Ashiru, who is a former Nigerian high commissioner to South Africa, told the Senator Mathew Nwagwu-led committee on Foreign Affairs that the deportation of 28 South Africans from Lagos was because of irregular travel documents and that this was only the beginning of retaliatory moves.
He said Nigeria had asked the South African government to apologise and punish officials involved in the deportation of Nigerians, and to also pay compensation for the affected travellers and Arik Air.
Ashiru said also that the Federal Government would soon sanction South African firms operating in Nigeria for bringing in what he called half-baked graduates to occupy positions that could be occupied by Nigerians.
"Nigeria has done so much for South Africa, and will not tolerate a situation where South African police and immigration officials fuel tension between both nations," he said.
"We must take tough actions against any country that takes delight in the ill-treatment of Nigerians. Nigeria will react in a mature and calculated way on the assault on our people to show that when you show disrespect to our people, we will hit back. South Africa has no monopoly of maltreating travellers."
The biggest South African company operating in Nigeria is MTN, which is the largest mobile phone operator in Nigeria with more than 42 million of the 95 million total active subscribers.
Nigeria is also the biggest and most lucrative market for MTN, which has operations in about 21 African and Middle East countries.
Stanbic-IBTC Bank is another company with major South African stake operating in Nigeria.
Supermarket chain Shoprite, also a South African company, has outlets in Nigeria. A South African retailer Massmart is planning to open up to 20 stores in Nigeria, according to the website of the South Africa-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce.
The Senate committee told the minister to "go and close our embassy and close theirs here. You should also recall our ambassador and ask any company that has a link with them to go, while any of their companies handling projects in Nigeria should also be stopped. It's time we told them we are not fools."
At the House of Representatives, Ashiru told the Rep. Nnenna Elendu Ukeje-led foreign affairs committee that "the underlying problem is the xenophobic attitude of ordinary South Africans to Nigerians, but South Africa and indeed all other African countries should stop taking Nigeria's maturity and friendliness for granted."
"This government is determined to ensure the dignity of Nigerian citizens anywhere in the world, so henceforth we will reciprocate such actions one way or the other," he added.
The South African high commission in Abuja when contacted yesterday refused to make comments, but instead referred our reporter to a statement issued late Monday night by the Foreign Affairs ministry after a meeting with the South African High Commissioner.
The meeting referred to was held with the Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Affairs ministry, which was convened to express the Federal Government's anger over the deportation saga.
Part of the statement, said, "The South African High Commissioner assured the Permanent Secretary that the (yellow card) policy was not aimed at Nigerians alone, and that Nigerians were not being targeted for any kind of treatment.
"He maintained that it was a general requirement for all passengers coming into the country from what he called 'Yellow Fever Belt,' which included many West African countries."
Minister says South Africa flouted WHO regulations
Yesterday, Health minister Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu said the South Africa government's action flouted "international health regulations issued by the World Health Organization 2005, section 32."
The IHR 2005 regulation requires travellers from countries at risk of yellow fever to show an international certificate of vaccination against yellow fever--which is in turn required to procure travel visas.
Chukwu said, "It is obviously very curious that a country that has issued entry visa to intending travellers, whose issuance was in the first place predicated on the presentation of a valid yellow card, will then turn around at the point of entry to deport those travellers. If those travellers had fake yellow cards, the question will then be how come they possessed valid visas?"
Classification by the World Health Organization indicates Nigeria is one of 44 countries with a risk of exposure to yellow fever virus.
Chukwu said Nigeria had no yellow fever prevalence and as such its citizens should not have been subjected to such an action from the South African government.
He said the last confirmed cases of yellow fever in Nigeria was in 1995 when 25 cases and one death were recorded.
"The validity of the yellow card extends for a period of 10 years beginning 10 days after the date of vaccination or in the event of a revaccination, 10 years from the date of the revaccination," the minister added.
"Some countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, India and Saudi Arabia require that Nigerians coming into their country produce evidence of vaccination against yellow fever.
"On our part, Nigeria requires travellers coming into the country from Yellow Fever at-risk countries to produce evidence of vaccination against Yellow Fever in accordance with the IHR 2005."
28 South Africans refused entry to Nigeria
In an apparent escalation of the row, Nigerian Immigration officials on Monday night denied 28 South African nationals entry into Nigeria.
The South Africans flew into the Murtala Muhammed International Airport on a South African Airways flight at about 8pm.
But they were refused entry because of what airport sources said was "improper documentation of yellow fever cards," the same offence over which the Nigerians were deported from South Africa.
A top official of the Nigerian Immigration told Daily Trust in Lagos that "the South Africans were deported due to improper documentation bordering on yellow fever cards.
"They were deported at about 10.30pm in the same South African flight that brought them."
Nigeria's former Ambassador to Sudan and former representative at the United Nations, Ambassador Suleiman Dahiru, yesterday said Nigeria should not allow the yellow fever card row with South Africa to escalate.
Speaking to Daily Trust last night, Dahiru said every country has its own rules and regulations, and it is not just a question of having visa when you are travelling to other countries, as there are other requirements including the vaccine card.
"If the Nigerians went there without the cards, or if the cards were discovered to be fake, South Africa is perfectly right to take such action. But if they had the genuine cards, then South Africa acted wrongly," he said.
"Let me give you an example from a personal experience. When I was in Pakistan, a deputy governor of a state went to that country without the card, and he was quarantined. I intervened, and the Pakistanis said even the president could not intervene in the case.
"If Nigerians went with genuine cards, then it was rather unfriendly of the South Africans to act that way and Nigeria has the right to retaliate. But if you talk of retaliation, you have to find out very well before you act."
Ask whether he sees the saga as an extension of cold rivalry between Nigeria and South Africa, Dahiru said; "The question of rivalry is almost there. South Africa and Nigeria lay claim to leadership of Africa. In recent times, the two countries had differed on foreign relations issues such as the crises in Ivory Coast and Libya, and the chairmanship of the African Union Commission, the rivalry can easily overlap into other areas."
But he advised that Nigeria should handle the situation with maturity. "I don't want us to allow this to escalate, I don't want us to expand it into a media issue in order not to aggravate the situation," he said.
Austin Odoh, Ruby Leo, Isiaka Wakili, Turaki Hassan, Judd Leonard Okafor and Chris Agabi