“The most important element of a free society, where individual rights are held in the highest esteem, is the rejection of the initiation of violence.”
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, must have been having some sleepless nights over renewed xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa, including innocent Nigerians. This is one crisis too many. Coincidentally, the recent bout of violence is coming on the heels of World Economic Forum (WEF) for Africa taking place in Cape Town. Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, was expected to lead Nigeria’s delegation to the forum, but the Federal Government had to put off the arrangement in protest against the unprovoked violence meted out on Nigerians.
Left to him alone, the urbane, reticent, and unassuming minister would have preferred an alternative peace resolution. But it appears the government has rightly gauged the mood of the nation, and feared the escalation of reprisal attacks and over ruled his disposition. The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Muhammed, announcing Nigeria’s decision to boycott WEF, as well as recall of its High Commission to South Africa, said other punitive measures were still being considered. “Nigeria is recalling its High Commission to South Africa in addition to boycotting the world Economic Forum taking place in Cape Town, South Africa. Nigerian government is also ready to evacuate Nigerians willing to return home from South Africa in addition to other measures being decided to tackle this cankerworm,” he declared.
The ongoing diplomatic row is merely begging the question, for xenophobia in South Africa is not a new phenomenon. Its anti-migrant sentiment dates back to the early ‘90s, when the new government was in the midst of planning new economic policies and politicians of all shades began drumming up anti-immigrant sentiment. Owing to its peculiar history, South Africa is multiple ethnics, languages and nationalities. And its economy relies heavily on migrants who make up for the massive skills shortage or as cheap labour in farms and mines. Despite its hostility to foreign nationals, South Africa still serves as preferred destination for those seeking greener pastures. But successive governments had failed to demonstrate enough will-power to curb the menace of violence meted out on foreigners. Instead, they perceived the incidents as benign, unexceptional acts of criminality. As such, there is no genuine acknowledgement that these incessant attacks constitute ‘hate crimes’. More often than not, spontaneous mob action by unemployed youths that form the front lines of protests and repeated attacks against foreign nationals are masterminded by business owners who fear competition with foreigners. According to some unconfirmed reports, South African unemployed youths particularly accused Nigerians of taking away their jobs and women.
Under the present regime of President Muhammadu Buhari, there have been series of unprovoked attacks on Nigerians. Similar incidents had also been recorded in 1998, 2000, 2008, 2009 and 2013. In 2013, the Nigerian government had to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with its South African counterpart with a view to preventing further attacks, but to no avail.
At this point, it has now become crystal clear to both sides that no nation, individual, or collective group has monopoly of violence. What makes the difference is the will-power to tame the animal instinct that promotes violence and aggression. In all the years of unprovoked violence against Nigerians in South, the Federal Government had demonstrated the “big brother” that she is to African countries, taking assaults on its nationals with calm fortitude. But it goes without saying that Nigeria as a nation has more than enough supply of miscreants than can cause crisis. Left alone, the South African businesses in Nigeria would have been in flame by now in retaliation for the attacks on its citizens. But as a responsible government, every effort had to be deployed to calm the frayed nerves.
In the event of future resolution of the current face-off, some analysts say, Nigerian government must put on the table those basic demands that could put an end to the incessant violent attacks on its nationals. Part of this, they suggest, is for the government delegation to provoke a kind of conversation that would reawake a deep sense of history in the South Africa government to appreciate the enormity of financial and human resources Nigeria had sacrificed in order to dismantle the regime of apartheid in that country.
A statement by the Spokesperson for the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ferdinand Nwonye, disclosed that Onyeama following a closed-door meeting with the acting High Commissioner of South Africa to Nigeria, Bobby Moroe, made concrete proposals to President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa to find a lasting solution to the imbroglio. But as experts say, the current situation demands more than just mere recall of High Commissioner or the usual vicious cycle of apologies without action. The primary issue of concern for fresh negotiation should be how to guarantee the continued peaceful co-existence of Nigerian nationals in South Africa without any further harassment, intimidation or molestation.
In the opinion of a Human Right activist, Femi Falana (SAN), it is also imperative for government to demand compensation for those who suffered losses during the attacks, while at the same time anyone found culpable in the latest incident must also be prosecuted to serve as deterrent to others. This is a test of the bargaining power of the articulate Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Onyeama was born to the family of Nigerian jurist, Charles Onyeama. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (B.A) degree in Political Science from the Columbia University, New York in 1977 and a Bachelor of Arts (B.A) degree in Law from St John’s College, Cambridge in 1980. He also holds a Masters of Law (LL.M) from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1982 and a Masters of Arts (M.A) in Law from St John’s College, Cambridge in 1984. Onyeama was admitted as a Barrister-at-Law of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1983 and was also called to the English Bar of the Grey’s Inn in 1981.
Onyeama began his career as a Research Officer in the Nigerian Law Reform Commission Lagos from 1983 to 1984. He then worked as a lawyer with Mogboh and Associates in Enugu, Nigeria from 1984 to 1985. In 1985, he joined the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as an Assistant Programme Officer for Development Cooperation and External Relations, Bureau for Africa and Western Asia. He rose through the ranks at the WIPO to become Deputy Director General for the Development Sector in 2009. In November 2015 he was appointed Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs by President Muhammadu Buhari.