The killing of 116 Nigerians in South Africa

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Following the collapse of the Apartheid regime in 1994, South Africa threw open its borders to migrants from the rest of Africa and visitors from all over the world. Migrants from other African countries were welcomed, even celebrated, as brothers, sisters and ideological comrades whose sacrifices had helped to liberate South Africa from Boer rule. Because Nigeria, though geographically distant, was a ‘frontline’ state in the anti-Apartheid struggle, Nigerians were accorded special treatment as leading South African politicians openly acknowledged the material generosity and moral support of successive Nigerian administrations for the cause of South African freedom.

Alas, this situation did not last. As the self-described ‘Rainbow Nation’ found it increasingly hard to deliver on the promise of economic prosperity for all, frustration mounted, especially among the poor in the townships and urban areas. With the hospitality of those early post-Apartheid days virtually forgotten, the poor turned their anger on ‘foreigners,’ who became an easy scapegoat, even as a new black middle class gorged itself on the riches of the country.

From that time forward, the experience of African migrants in South Africa began to change. For various reasons which space and time do not permit, Nigerian migrants have been a focal target of xenophobic attacks by frustrated South African youths, and at different times, we have condemned such attacks and demanded that the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the High Commission in South Africa step in to defend the interests of Nigerians.

This is why we are particularly heartened by last week’s visit by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and the Diaspora, Mrs. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, to the Head of Mission of the South African High Commission in Nigeria, Mr. Lulu Louis Mnguni. The most poignant part of Mrs. Dabiri-Erewa’s visit to the Head of Mission was the revelation that, within the last two years, 116 Nigerians have been killed in South Africa, the majority of them by South African police officers acting extra-judicially. Instructively, Mr. Mnguni did not deny these numbers or the involvement of the South African police in the murders.

We commend Mrs. Dabiri-Erewa for courageously expressing the feelings of millions of Nigerians, and for taking the South African Head of Mission to task. At the same time, however, we are disappointed that it is Mrs. Dabiri-Erewa who has had to step up to the plate. Why has the Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, elected to become anonymous? And why is the Federal Government not doing more to protect the interests of Nigerians in that country?

Following Mrs. Dabiri-Erewa’s visit, Mr. Lulu Louis Mnguni has promised an investigation into the killings of Nigerians by South African policemen. We hope that he is true to his word, for that is the minimum desideratum to begin to address the skepticism of other Africans who are mystified at the contradiction between South Africans’ verbal  championing of Ubuntu (‘I am what I am because of who we all are’) on the one hand, and consistent maltreatment of foreigners on the other. If Nigerians and other Africans cannot feel at home in South Africa, what hope for Ubuntu?

In our view, any country that could treat the loss of 116 citizens  in a foreign land with levity is simply a basket case. To say the least, the attitude of the Nigerian government to  the  killings in South Africa is disgraceful. A serious country would have extracted more than facetious promises of action in similar circumstances. The Nigerian governmemt should have made it clear in  the diplomatic circles that there would be  very grievous consequences for the callous murder of its citizens. The murder of Nigerians in South Africa and elsewhere will continue for as long as the government maintains its cavalier attitude to the life of its citizens.

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