The barrage of xenophobic attacks against Nigerians and other African immigrants in South Africa came to a head last week with the murderous destruction of Nigerian lives and businesses by South Africans. These were coming only weeks after Nigerians became targets in series of isolated but sustained attacks launched against them and their businesses under the watchful gaze of the South African Police. Only recently, a Nigerian business woman died under suspicious circumstances while another well-known socialite was brutally assaulted and beaten by South African security agents. The situation last week was remarkably different as the attacks were evidently coordinated, fierce and as was the case in the past, appeared to enjoy some measure of official support.
The other remarkable thing about the attacks is that unlike in the past, nationals of other African countries were also target. They were lumped together with Nigerians who were the usual victims of such herd onslaughts. And it would appear that this last point, the inclusion of other African nationals, made all the difference to Nigeria's official response. These countries were quick to respond to the outrage from South Africa by either calling off scheduled meetings or sport events among other diplomatic steps to register their displeasure at the treatment meted to their citizens.
The steps taken by these "smaller" countries called world attention to the outrageous and unacceptable behaviour of South Africans and no doubt prompted Nigeria into taking some steps, however, late or lame they may seem. Otherwise, Nigeria's response in the past has been almost apologetic and tinged with a sense of national shame. We blame the victims of such attacks by accusing them of improper behaviour abroad while doing our best to say nothing in order, apparently, not to call further attention to the shame that we imagine should be our collective lot at such moments.
We make this same response pwhen Nigerians are accused of criminal behaviour abroad. We go all the way to put a distance between our country and the accused persons. This is just one step from accepting guilt and an open invitation to these foreign countries to do to and with our citizens whatever they like. Except where those privileged by their background or connections are concerned. That is when our slumbering giant stirs. The simple principle of presumption of innocence is never remembered. Neither is any request to meet, ascertain the true state of things or the condition under which Nigerians accused of crimes abroad are held, made.
Our attitude is to throw them under the bus and abandon them to their fate. But following the example of our smaller African brothers, we summoned courage to act. Our usually retiring Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, who appeared to have ceded his responsibilities as far as Nigerian immigrants are concerned to the Chair of the Nigerian Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri, decided to "summon" South Africa's High Commissioner, Bobby Monroe, to a meeting.
President Buhari sent a special envoy in the person of the boss of the National Intelligence Agency, Ahmed Abubakar, to President Cyril Ramaphosa. These series of diplomatic initiatives prompted from abroad are, lame as they are, the most far-reaching Nigeria would take in the many years since our country and Nigerians became victims of post-apartheid South Africa's hostility. So far, South Africa has not committed to implementing any of the demands placed before them by Nigeria.
Nigeria is demanding compensation for Nigerian businesses destroyed in the wave of the xenophobic attacks and the introduction of Nigerian security agents at the Nigerian High Commission in South Africa. While the first demand makes a lot of sense, the other one sounds like its exact opposite. What is the sense in expatriating Nigerian security agents to South Africa? Is it to protect Nigerians from attacks in their different locations in the so-called Rainbow Nation that can no longer endure the sight of other Africans? Under what type of community policing that the Buhari government has refused to implement here in Nigeria, despite electoral promises, would this come?
If our security agents are located at the Nigerian High Commission, would Nigerian businesses be moved there as well? The security model being proposed here for expatriation is the same that has roundly proven useless in combating crime and insurgency in different parts of Nigeria. President Muhammadu Buhari is wont to combat Nigeria's security inadequacies by ordering his Service Chiefs to relocate from Abuja to wherever happens to be the current "headquarters" of insurgency or crime. His security chiefs have had cause to change base (or refuse to do so as was the case with Idris Ibrahim, the former Inspector General of Police) from Abuja at different times to such places as Benue, Taraba or Zamfara to the states of the North-East.
As he does this, he conflates the role of the paramilitary forces with that of the military that are forced into paramilitary operations. Today, Nigerian soldiers man checkpoints, protect our streets with police and civil defence officials, and engage in border patrols with the Nigeria Customs. Not satisfied with this militarisation of our society we are now talking of expatriating our police (or is it military) personnel that are already too thinly spread around the country abroad. Is this to keep or make peace between Nigerians and their hosts in South Africa?
What would the South African police or military be doing in the face of all this? Rather than demanding that South Africa protects our citizens as they would citizens from other parts of the world we are busy making useless, impractical demands of them? Did South Africa have to deploy its security agents to their businesses in Nigeria that were attacked last week? We provided necessary security for their businesses and even opened fire on and killed our citizens.
Let us learn to demand what is our due. Only irresponsible countries and weak leaders count on the goodwill of others where they should demand their due. We should demand, as a matter of diplomatic reciprocity, what is our due. If South Africans are not random targets of attacks or homicide in Nigeria, if we offer protection as a matter of civilised conduct to businesses owned by nationals of other countries, we should be able to demand same treatment for our citizens abroad. When America demanded parity with Nigeria in visa fees, they did not wait to consult us.
They did what was in their interest. We waited open-eyed until a United Kingdom court imposed a multi-billion pounds fine on us for allegedly reneging on an agreement and are now scrambling for a way out. When the Nigerian Communications Commission imposed a fine on South Africa-owned MTN, our leaders went about seeking a soft landing for MTN. Nonsense!