In our series of letters from African writers, Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani reflects on her country’s souring relations with South Africa because of xenophobic attacks.
Animosity between Africa’s two superpowers – Nigeria and South Africa – has heightened in recent weeks, with an influential Nigerian student body demanding that all South African-owned businesses leave the West African state.
The National Association of Nigerian Students (Nans) – which represents university students at campuses across the country – has picketed branches of South African telecoms giant MTN, and those of supermarket chain Shoprite, turning away staff and customers.
Those protests were sparked by the death of a Nigerian woman who was reportedly strangled in her hotel room during a visit to the South African city of Johannesburg.
Elizabeth Ndubuisi-Chukwu is just the latest Nigerian to die in South Africa in apparently violent circumstances.
‘Killings must stop’
An autopsy revealed she had died of “unnatural causes consistent with strangulation” but officials say CCTV footage showed that nobody entered her room. Police are still investigating.
The Nigerian media seem to report at least one such incident every month, with numerous news outlets using the same telling headline: “Another Nigerian killed in South Africa.”
While local media reports suggest that 800,000 Nigerians live in South Africa, official South African records say the number is about 30,000 . It is not clear if the official data includes undocumented migrants.
“We have faced enough… These killings must stop,” said Ahmed Lawan, the head of Nigeria’s legislature.ADVERTISEMENT
“The South African government must as a matter of urgency do whatever it takes to protect the lives and property of Nigerians living there.”
But it is unclear whether the South African government is committed to protecting Nigerians or other migrants.
Police arrested more than 650 foreign nationals – including traders who had their goods seized – in Johannesburg earlier this month. A court ordered that 489 of them be deported within 30 days, because they were not legally in South Africa.
During a parliamentary debate, Nigerian legislators suggested that the foreign ministry should from now on issue travel alerts to Nigerians planning to visit South Africa.
A presidential aide, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, met South Africa’s Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, Bobby Moroe, and demanded an investigation into Mrs Ndubuisi-Chukwu’s death.
Mr Moroe was also invited to meet Mr Lawan, and he expressed the South African government’s concern about the situation.
“On behalf of the government of South Africa, we express our sincere condolences,” Mr Moroe said.
About four million immigrants live in South Africa according to official UN data, although some contest the accuracy of this figure .
South Africa has a history of xenophobic attacks by black people who accuse citizens of other African countries, as well as Asian countries, of coming to steal their jobs.ADVERTISEMENT
The wave of xenophobic attacks that swept South Africa in 2008 claimed at least 62 lives. Subsequent incidents, particularly in 2015, have displaced thousands of African migrants and led to the large-scale looting of their shops and other businesses.
We hear that South Africans detest Nigerians because they believe we are criminals, are too loud, and our men steal their women.
“They are arrogant and they don’t know how to talk to people, especially Nigerians,” South African protesters wrote in a petition to their ministry of home affairs during an anti-immigration march in the capital, Pretoria, in 2017.
Nigerians, on the other hand, believe that South Africans are simply jealous of us. Of our self confidence, and our ability to thrive and outshine.
The tension between the two nations brings to mind a proverb in the Igbo language about a man who lays his pile of clothing by the riverbank while skinny dipping: A naked madman comes along, grabs the clothes and dashes away. Desperate to retrieve his clothes, the other man jumps out of the river in the nude and chases after the madman. Two naked men running through the streets – who, then, is the madman?
Presidents to discuss crisis
Nigerians have nothing to gain by being lured into the xenophobia. While the student group’s intentions may be noble, it probably has not considered the thousands of Nigerians employed by MTN, Shoprite, MultiChoice, and the many other South African companies that are household names in Nigeria.
Forcing these businesses to leave, or crippling their operations, would only worsen Nigeria’s already grim unemployment statistics and the loss of the valuable services they provide would leave a vacuum.
“Please, be patient,” Mrs Dabiri-Erewa told students wanting to drive out South African firms, encouraging them instead to exercise restraint while awaiting the outcome of diplomatic intervention.
According to Nigeria’s government, the leaders of the two countries are scheduled to meet in October in South Africa.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa will discuss, among others, “issues relating to the wellbeing of citizens”, the government says.
Nigerians have responded to the news with great hope – that President Buhari will use the opportunity to demand tangible measures from South Africa to deter its citizens from attacking Nigerians at will.