Lagos — Returnees: Xenophobic attacks have official approval
'We came back with nothing'
Despite the great relief that they were finally back to Nigeria, most of the returnees from South Africa, following repeated xenophobic attacks, expressed mixed emotions as they recounted different heartrending stories of abuse, torture, violence in the hands of their South African hosts.
Segun Salau, 32, who hails from Ondo State, had spent five years living with his sister who had a stall in South Africa. He said he lived in constant fear and apprehension for those five years because of xenophobia. The latest attack, he said, was the last straw, as his sister's stall was entirely looted and destroyed.
"There is no reason for me to go back there. The last attack was the third xenophobic attack I experienced in South Africa," Salau said.
Forty eight-year-old Paul, one of the returnees, said there were no job opportunities for foreigners in South Africa so the foreigners struggle to build their businesses only to be envied by the South Africans.
He said he was a spare parts seller with a big yard in Johannesburg. But he faced threats from South Africans on a daily basis until his yard was finally burnt down during the recent attack, with many vehicles lost.
"I always lodged complaints with the police whenever my scrap yard is being vandalized, but because I am a foreigner, the police would tell me, 'we are coming, we are coming', and for four hours, I would still be at the station. At the end of the day, they would get there and just chase them away, and nothing happens. No arrests.
"I lost everything there in the last attack. You know what the cops once told me? They said, 'you come here to complain; when you go and build your house by the bank of an ocean, what do you expect the shark to feed on?' That was the statement of the South African police.
"I was in South Africa for five years, and experienced xenophobic attack three times."
Victor Uche Nwocha, from Abia State, said after 12 years of living in Johannesburg and struggling to build a business, he came home with nothing and worse still, left his wife and daughter behind in South Africa.
Nwocha, who supplies pastries to some big stores in Johannesburg, said the shops and properties of his clients were burnt down.
"I went to South Africa on May 15, 2007 in search of greener pasture because I come from a family of eight. When I got to South Africa, it wasn't that rosy. So, I started building my own little business. After a while, the business started booming and growing. I was based in Johannesburg; I didn't go to any other place.
"When they accuse Nigerians of peddling drugs, I don't even know the colour of any drug. I bake this pastry we call Chin-chin in Nigeria and supply to top stores. I built this business from the scratch and supply to some Pakistanis, Bangladeshi, Sudanese nationals that own big shops. But all of a sudden, they started burning their shops and victimizing us."
According to him, the intervention of Air Peace was a life-saver. "Since last year, my mum has been asking me to come back home. The old woman even excommunicated me because I couldn't come back.
"We didn't deliberately sit there in the name of enjoying South Africa because they are not offering us anything apart from the little business we were doing. I only stayed back because I was trying to gather a little more money and then come back home."
"Now, I have nothing again. I left my daughter and my wife. My wife is from Cameroon. I left a daughter who's one and a half years old because I can't bring everybody. I also have to come and see my mum who cries everyday that she wants me alive.
Such were the highly emotional accounts at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos on Wednesday night when Nigerian returnees arrived from South Africa.
After over 12 hours of delay at the OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, and long hours of waiting at the Lagos airport to receive the returnees, the Air Peace B777 aircraft conveying them touched down at the cargo terminal of the airport amidst excitement.
South Africa was like hell - Returnees
The returnees were full of life as they disembarked from the aircraft to the warm reception of officials of the Federal Government comprising the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), among others.
The tales of their ordeals in the hands of South Africans were as harrowing as they were heartrending. Speaker after speaker all had the same or similar experiences though in different dimensions. According to them, the xenophobic attacks were allegedly triggered by the sheer envy of the progress made by Nigerians in South Africa. They said contrary to insinuations, not all Nigerians resident in South Africa were involved in drug.
Most worrisome to them was the fact that the locals unleashed violence on them without security officials taking any action to stop them.
'Nigerians in South Africa not drug peddlers'
Victor Nwocha said despite the negative perception about Nigerians in South Africa being drug peddlers, many of them were into legitimate businesses.
"All Nigerians in South Africa are not drug peddlers," he declared, adding that he had many South African employees who later turned against him.
"What is happening is not really xenophobia because they are only after blacks. They are just unnecessarily angry. If the government and Ramaphosa are not delivering, they should not vent their anger on their fellow blacks. I know how many times they dragged me from school because I was paying that ANC tuition fees. Look at what South Africa paid me with. I left everything. I left my little baby, I left her sleeping, and I came here because I don't want my mother to die."
"Chief Allen Onyema has really tried. Again, we must applaud our consulate. They really stood for us. The South Africans still tried to frustrate us because we would have come in very early. We came to the consulate since 4am, and they kept turning us up and down because they didn't want the press to show what was happening.
'Every crime is blamed on Nigerians'
Lanre Emmanuel from Ogun State said despite the difficulty of living in South Africa, many Nigerians managed to build genuine businesses which were destroyed in the twinkle of an eye. He said there is an existing stereotype in South Africa which portrays every Nigerian as a criminal or drug pusher.
"I was into buying and selling of cars. They burnt two of my cars. I came back with nothing. A Tanzanian killed a taxi driver, and they took it out on Nigerians. In South Africa, whenever a crime is committed, they believe it was done by a Nigerian. I think those people are sick. You can't sleep with your two eyes closed in that country."
Now that they are back home, he said they would need government's help to rise again having lost everything they laboured to achieve for many years.
Emmanuel said: "I can never go back there. If government can help us, we would be glad because we came with nothing.
"Most of us were made to sign an undertaking not to enter South Africa in the next five years. I don't care because I'm not going back there again. We spent almost six hours at the airport; we had to start shouting that we were going home, and not coming back."
Richard Kehinde, another indigene of Ondo State, alleged that xenophobia in South Africa had official approval, saying it was caused by the envy of Nigerians whom he said were industrious.
He said, "My experience was terrible, I don't want to explain it. Their leaders would see the truth and never say it. All these attacks are as a result of envy. They know we are a very hard-working people. They know we are very strong; so they just envy us for nothing sake. We created our own businesses in that country. Nigerians are always singled out. They go to Nigerian homes; drag them all out and kill them.
"I hope everything would be okay now that we are home. Our government can assist us with a little token to start our lives again because they destroyed everything we laboured for, we don't have anything again."
Daily Trust Saturday reports that the returnees were provided with SIM cards with N40,000 worth of airtime and 9GB of data valid for two months as well as transport fare to their respective destinations.
But beyond that, some of the returnees said they had acquired some skills which the Federal Government can tap into.
"Some of us while in South Africa acquired business and other skills. If only the Federal Government of Nigeria would take advantage of that and tap from our skills, it would be very beneficial," one of the returnees said.
It would be recalled that violent attacks by South Africans on Nigerians and their businesses in early August this year led to a diplomatic tension between the two countries. The Nigerian government thereafter decided to repatriate about 600 citizens from South Africa.
Nigeria's foremost airline, Air Peace, came to the rescue by offering to evacuate the stranded Nigerians back home free of charge. President Muhammadu Buhari welcomed the idea and gave his nod while the Nigerian Consulate in South Africa facilitated the process of registering the voluntary returnees.
At the end of the registration, over 700 people were registered out of which only 187 formed the first batch which arrived the airport on Wednesday.
The South African authorities, especially the immigration, reportedly erected several road blocks to prevent massive repatriation of Nigerians, according to the returnees who narrated that the country was not happy that Nigeria was repatriating its people.
Chairman/CEO Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), Mrs. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, confirmed that the South African government frustrated the flight "for no just reason" but assured that the issue would be handled at a higher level.
She said: "The flight was delayed for no just reason at all but despite all those frustrations, you could see the excitement, you could see the joy. They frustrated us deliberately. Out of 317, Air Peace was able to bring 187. But they have landed and we are glad to receive them."
Daily Trust Saturday learnt that the next flight is expected either on Saturday or Sunday barring any unforeseen occurrence as the Consulate interfaces with the South African authorities to get clearance for the flight to avoid a repeat of Wednesday's incident at the airport where some Nigerians billed to return home were allegedly turned back.
Chairman of Air Peace, Mr. Allen Onyema, said the airline is ready to evacuate all Nigerians willing to return home.
"We are ready tomorrow, if the South African government agrees. I was told that they picked up some people and said they wanted to ask them how they entered into the country in the first place but I thought these people are now leaving your country, so they should have been left to go home. However, we are waiting for the Nigerian High Commission to inform us of the next time. If they tell us to leave for South Africa this night, I have enough pilots to go into this aircraft and go back to South Africa this night."