Can’t Fight Xenophobia with Xenophobia
By SIMON KOLAWOLE
Something unNigerian happened in Abuja on Thursday: protesters vandalised an MTN office in an apparent reprisal mission over the perennial xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa. MTN, being the biggest South African company in the country, is by far the easiest for reprisal. This, I suppose, was meant to send a message to South Africans that their interests in Nigeria are also at risk if they do not relent in their shameful targeting of Nigerians. It would seem Nigerians in the former apartheid enclave have committed an offence by doing well economically. When you flourish in a foreign land more than many of your hosts, envy and resentment are to be expected.
I said the Abuja reprisal is unNigerian because, to the best of my memory, Nigerians do not assault foreigners unprovoked. We even tend to treat foreigners better than fellow Nigerians. We must rank among the most accommodating societies in the world. Like a Nigerian who suffered xenophobic attacks in South Africa two years ago told the BBC: “If I should take you to my place, my mother would make your food first every morning before making my own food. That is how welcoming we are. That is how we show appreciation to foreigners.” He was described as “Ibo” but I can assure you that my mum would do the same thing. It is very Nigerian!
In a funny way, the attack on MTN in Abuja did not hurt South Africans — it hurt the Nigerian employees instead. Their phones and laptops were stolen. They were assaulted. So Nigerians are being robbed and molested in faraway South Africa — and, to retaliate, Nigerians are robbing and molesting fellow Nigerians in Abuja! You may say this is the dumbest thing to do, but I could see that many Nigerians — including those who should know better — were delighted. They even asked for more South African companies, such as Multichoice and Shoprite, to be targeted. Indeed, Nigerian students have asked a couple of South African companies to leave the country.
Why are South African thugs always attacking Nigerians? I think there are political and economic roots to the malady. Politically, Nigeria and South Africa have become fierce rivals since the end of apartheid. There is a struggle between the two to lead Africa. Nigeria, having contributed so much — more than any other country, I dare say — to the liberation of South Africa from apartheid, believes it deserves some deference from the southern African country. South Africa, having been built into a mini-Europe by the apartheid government, believes it should be the pre-eminent country in Africa. They feel superior to the rest of Africa, Nigeria inclusive.
When the question is asked, for instance, on the African country that should get a permanent seat in the Security Council of the UN — in the event that the Big Five are in a generous mood to admit more members — the battle is directly between Nigeria and South Africa, with Egypt putting up a slight fight. Nigeria displays as its credential the role it plays in peace-keeping across the continent and its financial and material support to poorer African countries, not forgetting its enormous population. South Africa flaunts its economic might and level of physical development, which is clearly ahead in sub-Sahara Africa. Pride is thus at play between the two countries.
However, the ascension of Mr. Jacob Zuma to power in South Africa seems to have magnified the rivalry between the two countries, who are working very hard to outplay each other in the politics of African Union. We should remember that South Africa and Nigeria took different positions in the crisis that rocked Cote d’Ivoire after the defeat of the recalcitrant President Laurent Gbagbo in the 2011 elections. In the crisis that engulfed Libya, eventually leading to the death of Muammar Ghaddafi, Nigeria and South Africa did not see eye to eye. We can safely conclude that there is no love lost between the two countries.
The political rivalry, I suspect, has spilled into other areas of human endeavour. The South African white economic elite, empowered by massive accumulation of capital under apartheid, had invaded the rest of Africa at the end of white minority rule. They had the biggest telecom companies, the biggest supermarket chains, the biggest banks and the biggest media companies. They were always going to dominate Africa. In no time, South African Airways, MTN, Vodacom, Shoprite, Pick n Pay, Spar, Steers, Debonairs, Hungry Lion, Mr. Price, Woolworths and DStv were all over the continent, prospering spectacularly in the huge Nigerian market.
Bu there are two South Africas in this game. There is the White South Africa and the Black South Africa. White South Africa is prosperous and adventurous while the Black South Africa is poor and desperate. The poor and desperate South Africa was created by the white supremacists who treated blacks as foot mat under apartheid, denying them good education and oppressing them mindlessly for decades. It will take several generations to undo this damage. White South Africa owns the big corporations, although the black middle class is gradually being initiated into the inner circle. Nevertheless, the majority of blacks are still struggling to breathe.
Now, the narrative of “Superior South Africa” is no longer limited to White South Africa; the black “nouveau riche” are also in on it. The poor and desperate blacks have also apparently been indoctrinated into seeing other Africans, particularly Nigerians, as different from themselves. They possibly see themselves as “black Europeans”. The success of immigrant businesses in South Africa is thus viewed by them as a threat and a nuisance. They cannot understand how Nigerians will come into their country and be making it big while they are struggling. The result is that Black South Africa now “beefs” us. We are easy targets when their economic frustrations boil over.
It gets complicated that some Nigerians are into crime — drug, fraud and prostitution. This provides an excellent excuse for South Africans to lump everybody together and conclude that Nigerians are “destroying” their country. Although Nigerians may not be able to run big corporations very well (most of our so-called big companies are one-man businesses that can hardly survive in a competitive economy), we are not bad in small business. Nigerian SMEs are doing very well in South Africa. Therefore, the poor and desperate South Africans cannot but envy and despise the prospering Nigerians. Their frustration and resentment are conjoined. Hence the attacks.
I have two conclusions. One, it is time for the Nigerian government to stand up strongly for Nigerians. Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, the foreign affairs minister, should summon the South African high commissioner and deliver a firm message to him. Also, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo should call up Zuma and let it be known that we too have the capacity to hurt them without throwing a single stone. It appears the South African government is deliberately not doing enough to protect Nigerians, maybe for political reasons. In fact, Nigerians complain that the authorities look the other way when they are being attacked. What a shame.
Two, the federal government should continue to protect South Africans and their assets in Nigeria. Nigerians are not known for xenophobia. We must not allow some misguided and deranged hate-mongers down below to distort our culture. We should, I propose, not repay evil with evil. We should not allow the conduct of the thugs to shape our own reaction. Hospitality to foreigners is a cultural thing for Nigerians. We cannot afford to lose it. An eye for an eye, it is said, will only make the whole world blind. We cannot fight xenophobia with xenophobia. When they go low, Michelle Obama said, we go high. Word.
“It appears the South African government is deliberately not doing enough to protect Nigerians, maybe for political reasons. In fact, Nigerians complain that the South African authorities look the other way when they are being attacked”
You will never understand how overjoyed I was when I heard that the acting president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, paid an unscheduled visit to the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos on Thursday. Not just that, he even inspected the God-damned toilets, conveyor belt, travelator, escalator and carousel. Osinbajo expressed dissatisfaction with most of what he saw. I love that. We have been complaining about this intercontinental embarrassment for years but we were ignored. It appears the airport has been deliberately left to rot in order to market Nigeria as an unserious country. Yet we keep saying we want to promote tourism, trade and investment. Jokers.
THAT N500K GIFT
Mr. Kola Awodein, a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), has admitted giving Justice Adeniyi Ademola, a judge now facing corruption trial, a “gift” of N500,000 for his daughter’s wedding. Judges are normally not expected to accept gifts from lawyers — neither are lawyers expected to give gifts to judges. But this case is particularly interesting because Ademola was handling a case involving Awodein’s client, President Muhammadu Buhari, at the time. The bigger problem, though, is that since many judges are on trial for receiving “gifts”, Nigerians will be watching how this particular case goes. One gift can certainly not be more equal than others. Intriguing.
ASSESSING THE ASSESSOR
The University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) appears to be the first Nigerian public university to introduce student assessment of their teachers. UNN students will now grade their lecturers on the quality of instruction. The days of the “almighty lecturer” may be over — assuming the authorities will do something about teachers consistently rated poorly. It’s a common practice abroad. There is another practice I would want Nigerian universities to adopt: appointing two markers for every paper (preferably one male and one female). If both cannot agree on a grade, an external marker will make the final decision. The issue of sex-for-marks will be tackled forever. Innovative.