A man holds a brick near the hostels in the Jeppestown area of Johannesburg where clashes broke out / Mujahid Safodien /AFP
What eminently captures the tragedy of contemporary Nigeria is that its citizens who lack a huge helping from the national treasury are vulnerable to being haunted at home and abroad. Overwhelmed by the hostility of their home country sired by decades of the monumental failure of government, they go overseas with the hope of finding succour. But here a bleaker fate awaits them as their supposed host becomes their haunter.
Nigerians could bear their tragic lot if there were no expectations of warm reception in the first place. And these expectations were by no means misplaced. In the case of Nigerians in South Africa they justifiably expected to be treated well. Clearly, Nigerians who are in South Africa have only gone to reap where their country has sown. The resources of Nigeria were used to secure South Africans freedom from the apartheid stranglehold.
Notwithstanding, Nigerians have not asked to be allowed to enjoy the benefits of staying in South Africa without bringing their own contributions to the development of the society. Most of the Nigerians who are being harassed are effectively contributing to the economy of their host country. They are running their legitimate businesses. It is these businesses and the lives of Nigerians that often come under attacks. If there were some Nigerians who violated the laws of South Africa, these should be punished and every Nigerian should not be treated as a villain. But we should be alert to the possibility that these recurring attacks are being provoked by South Africans’ envy of the success of their guests. Or why do these South Africans often target Nigerians’ shops for looting?
The South Africans who do not know how to use their post-apartheid freedom over two decades after blacks took the reins of governance should be humble enough to ask enterprising Nigerians in their midst to teach them how to be successful in their own country. South Africans should not blame Nigerians if their lack of competitiveness makes the latter to take over their jobs. If these attack-obsessed South Africans were profitably engaged, they would not have the time to trouble Nigerians. So instead of being befuddled by the allegations of Nigerians being criminals, prostitutes and drug dealers, the South African government should find ways to profitably engage its citizens.
Optimism about an easy resolution of this crisis would not have been out of place if it were only the younger generation who do not know their history that are responsible for the xenophobic attacks. But apparently, these young people are perpetrating these attacks with tacit official approval. This explains why when these attacks occur, the police do not come to the rescue of Nigerians. Apparently, the police see these attacks as a fulfillment of their wish that Nigerians be subjected to such brutalities. This is because the South African police have on several occasions brutalised Nigerians to death. Even the intellectual class seems to accept that all Nigerians are criminals despite the stellar achievements of Nigerians like Prof. Kole Omotoso who is better recognised as “Yebo Gogo man” in adverts in South Africa. Ignoring these exemplary Nigerians, novelist Phaswane Mpe echoes the mind of the South African when his character laments in Welcome to our Hillbrow that “Hillbrow had been just fine until those Nigerians came in here with all their drug dealing.” If an intellectual and writer like Mpe can give expression to such xenophobia, it is not surprising that the less educated and idle South Africans easily believe that Nigerians are a blight on their society that must be radically uprooted for the citizens to enjoy abundance and peace.
Again, unless South Africans have forgotten their recent history so soon, they must keep alive the dream of a rainbow society that made Nelson Mandela to forgive his white oppressors. If Mandela understood this imperative, those who are the contemporary beneficiaries of his sacrifice are obliged to respect Nigerians who helped him to realise a free South Africa.
However, we must take cognisance of the fact that what the South Africans are doing to Nigerians is just a reflection of how the Nigerian government treats its citizens. Indeed, little or no value is attached to the life of a Nigerian at home. Or why are there killings of Nigerians at home without the government’s taking decisive steps to break this propensity for carnage? As far as the Nigerian leaders are concerned, only their lives and those of their immediate families, including their unborn generation, matter.
Still, the government is responsible for the plight of Nigerians in South Africa by engendering a hostile environment at home. It is not that if the Nigerian environment were so conducive Nigerians would not travel abroad to pursue their economic or educational dreams. But in that case, only a negligible number of Nigerians may go abroad and if they find their host community hostile, they could easily return home and still live a fulfilled life. But the stark reality is that most of the Nigerians who are now under attacks in South Africa were driven abroad by the failure of the Nigerian government to create an environment for them to thrive at home. Why would they not go and pursue their business interests in South Africa where they are guaranteed stable supply of electricity unlike their country Nigeria? Yet the government’s commitment to their wellbeing abroad is imperative in view of their remittances home. For in 2015 alone, Nigerians in diaspora remitted over $21 billion.
So there is the urgent need for the government to go beyond righteous indignation at the killing of its citizens in South Africa. It must seize this tragic moment for introspection and do what is necessary to improve the lives of the citizens at home. It is not only when they are subjected to xenophobic attacks or there are reports that after crossing a perilous desert into Europe where they have been turned into sex machines that the government would pretend to be concerned about their wellbeing. It is the same attitude of the government not attaching little or no value to the lives of Nigerians at home that its missions abroad are replicating. This is why the Nigerian mission in South Africa does not come to the rescue of Nigerians when they are under attacks.
Until recently when it espoused the platitude of reining in its xenophobic citizens, the South African government failed to decisively deal with the attacks on Nigerians. Thus, there is the need for the Nigerian government to collaborate with its South African counterpart at the highest level to arrive at a strategy to avert a recurrence of these attacks.
After all, the Nigerian government and its citizens have been good hosts to South Africans and other foreigners who are doing businesses in Nigeria. This is despite the fact that some of these foreigners and their companies have often abused the tolerance of their host government and its citizens. They not only overwork and underpay Nigerian workers in their own country, they sexually exploit them. Yet there have not been xenophobic attacks on them. Ultimately, the ordeal of Nigerians in South Africa would not be in vain if it imbues the Nigerian government with the consciousness of the imperative to be more protective of its citizens both at home and abroad.