Abuja — The presidency yesterday revealed the message conveyed to South African President, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, by President Muhammadu Buhari's special envoy, Mr. Ahmed Rufai Abubakar, which had hitherto been shrouded in secrecy.
The presidential brief showed that the South African government repudiated the general belief that recent attacks on foreigners in the country were xenophobic even as THISDAY independent sources said its senior officials put the deaths since December 2017 at 89.
Abubakar, who is the Director General, National Intelligence Agency (NIA), was dispatched to South Africa in the wake of the xenophobic attacks by South Africans against their fellow Africans, including Nigerians.
The attacks, which are yet to abate, have made the federal government to intensify efforts at evacuating Nigerians willing to return home from South Africa.
So far, 640 Nigerians have registered to come back home from the rainbow nation.
The evacuation plans are going on just as efforts are being made for a peaceful resolution of the diplomatic crisis between the two top African nations.
Already, a former presidential candidate, Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili, and leaders of the Nigerian community in Cape Town have met to proffer a solution to recurring xenophobic attacks in South Africa with a demand that the South African government should apologise to Nigeria.
In spite of the general belief, THISDAY presidential sources said yesterday, that President Cyril Ramaphosa and senior officials of his government insisted to Buhari's envoy that the widespread attacks were not xenophobic, revealing that although between December 2017 and September 2019, 89 Nigerians were killed in the country, 39 of them were slain by their compatriots due to drugs related disputes.
South African officials nevertheless admitted that 19 of the death arose from police brutality while the rest were due to other causes.
The South African authorities were also said to have revealed that between 300,000 to 400,000 Nigerians are in South Africa. Of this number, 10,860 are currently in prison serving various terms but 60 percent of these inmates are in for drug-related crimes.
The authorities reportedly told the envoy that there are three categories of Nigerians in South Africa. The first are professionals, who are doing very well in such fields as medicine and the academics. The second are businessmen, including genuine traders. The third are those into drugs.
"These people (drug couriers) are few but they are very loud. Sadly, it is they that are seen as the faces of Nigeria in South Africa," a senior official was said to have told the special envoy.
The history of Nigerians in South Africa was traced to the face-off between the late President Nelson Mandela and late Gen. Sani Abacha, following the killing of environmental rights activist, Dr. Ken Saro-Wiwa, in 1995. After the spat between the two leaders, Mandela said any Nigerian desirous of relocating to South Africa could do so. Many took him by his word and went.
However, giving details of what transpired between the president's special envoy and Ramaphosa, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, said in a statement yesterday that the special envoy, who was in Pretoria from September 5 to September 7, among others, conveyed to Ramaphosa the president's deep concern about violence against Nigerians in his country.
Highlighting the message delivered by Abubakar and the response of Ramaphosa, whom he said described the attacks as embarrassing, Adesina said the special envoy told the South African president about Buhari's deep concern about the intermittent violence against Nigerians and their property/business interests in South Africa.
He said: "President Buhari stressed the need for South African Government to take visible measures to stop violence against citizens of brotherly African nations.
"President Buhari is worried that the recurring issue of xenophobia could negatively affect the image and standing of South Africa as one of the leading countries on the continent, if nothing is done to stop it.
"The special envoy conveyed the assurance of President Buhari that the Nigerian government is ready and willing to collaborate with the South African government to find a lasting solution to the involvement of few Nigerians in criminal activities, and to protect the lives and property of the larger groups of other law abiding Nigerians and indeed Africans in general, against all forms of attacks including xenophobia.
"President Buhari further assured that the Nigerian Government would guarantee the safety of lives, property and business interests of South Africans in Nigeria."
Adesina also narrated the South African President's response to the envoy's message, saying Ramaphosa "agreed that the violence was most disconcerting and embarrassing."
He also said the South African president told the envoy that his government completely rejected acts of xenophobia, which he said undermined not only the country's image but also its relations with brotherly African countries.
According to the statement, Ramaphosa did not only reaffirm his stance against criminality but also expressed his commitment to doing everything possible to protect the rights of every Nigerian and other foreign nationals in the country.
Adesina also added that the special envoy also interfaced with his South African counterpart where they both reviewed the situation of foreign emigrants in general and Nigerians in particular.
According to him, they agreed to work together to find a permanent solution to the root causes of the recurring attacks on Nigerians and their property.
He also added that Buhari had taken note of the report and consequently instructed the Minister of Foreign Affairs to continue to engage appropriate authorities on concrete measure the South African government is expected to take.
Adesina also said Buhari gave an instruction for the immediate evacuation of all Nigerians who are willing to return home.
640 Nigerians Register to Return from South Africa
Meanwhile, the federal government has said 640 Nigerians have registered to come back home from South Africa.
The federal government had earlier deferred the date for the evacuation following the need to get travel certificates for many of them that do not have legal papers and others that have expired passports.
With the support of Air Peace, the government has scheduled tomorrow to begin the evacuation.
However, the Chairman, CEO of Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, in a statement yesterday, said 640 Nigerians had registered to come back to Nigeria so far, adding that Air Peace in two operations would transport them home.
Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ferdinand Nwonye, had earlier told THISDAY that the evacuation would begin this week, but said the day for the evacuation would be announced.
But a reliable source in the ministry told THISDAY that the evacuation might start tomorrow.
It was also learnt yesterday that the leaders of the Nigerian community in Cape Town have met with Ezekwesili to proffer a solution to recurring xenophobic attacks in South Africa, asking the South African government to apologise to Nigeria
The meeting, which took place on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Cape Town, South Africa, was attended by Nigerian entrepreneurs, professionals and the Nigerian community led by Mr. Cosmos Echie, the acting President of the Nigerian Community Western Cape.
According to the communiqué of the meeting held in the form of an interactive session and made available to THISDAY in Abuja, the group preferred to describe the attacks as "Afrophobia."
"It was unanimously agreed that the crisis is detrimental to the spirit of African renaissance, affirmation of black heritage, progress and development," it said, adding: "Afrophobia compromises everything that the recently brokered intra-African trade - Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement -- represents and aspires to deliver."
According to a copy of the communiqué made available to THISDAY yesterday, the governments of Nigeria and South Africa were urged to guide against provocative comments.
Ramaphosa was also asked to apologise to Nigerians and other countries whose citizens were attacked.
This, the experts said, would ensure that bilateral trade agreements between the two countries would not be affected.