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From Iheanacho Nwosu, Pretoria
Nigerians residing in South Africa have been under some torrid air in recent times. But they walked tall in the country’s streets few days ago. That was specifically between Saturday and Wednesday. Reason: For the first time, their government seemed to have taken their precarious condition in South Africa seriously.
“We are elated that for the first time, senior officials of our government are coming to tell the government of South Africa that enough is enough in a clear language,” Peterside Idah, a cleric and Nigeria’s ex-goalkeeper declared.
Between Saturday, March 11 and Wednesday March 15, a high powered government delegation that comprised Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, his Interior Counterpart, Lt. Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazzau, and other officials were in Pretoria, capital of South Africa. There was also another team led by Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila at Cape town. Both delegations were in South Africa for a common mission: Dialogue with South African authorities to come up with a lasting solution to the recurring Xenophobic attacks and harassment of Nigerians by South African nationals.
Setting the ball rolling
Onyeama and Dambazzau were clear-headed on the nature and scope of their assignments in South Africa. Hours after arrival on Sunday, March 12, they held a meeting with the leadership of the Nigerian community, Nigerian Union in South Africa (NUSA) led by the President , Ikechukwu Anyene. The Acting Nigerian High Commissioner, Amb.Martin Cobham, and some top embassy staff were also at the meeting. The interaction opened the ministers’ eyes to some issues. As Onyeama was to later confess, the meeting helped in reshaping the agenda of their parley with South African authorities.
On Monday , March 13, Onyeama, Dambazzau and Cobham met with the South African team at the country’s Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation. Like Nigeria the South African team comprised the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Mrs. Maite Nicoana-Mashabane, her Home Affairs counterpart, Malusi Gigaba and South African High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr. Lulu Louis Mnguni. Hundreds of journalists were on hand to cover the event. Clearly, the meeting was a top event in South Africa on the day. As would be expected, the meeting lasted for some hours. When it eventually ended, there was a noticeable anxiety on the face of many, especially newsmen, who were waiting at the conference for briefing. The demeanor of representatives of both countries when they walked into the conference hall calmed the atmosphere.
Onyeama and her South African counterpart, Nicoana-Mashabane, addressed journalists on the outcome of the meeting. First to speak was Nicoana-Mashabane. She focused more on the need for Nigeria and South Africa to continue to enjoy robust relations. However, Onyeama was to bring the message of the parley home in more lucid manner. He told the journalists that the two countries had resolved to set up a special organisation known as Early Warning Unit, to work out ways of preventing Xenophobic attacks and other actions that are capable of hurting both countries’ relations.
Onyeama described as unacceptable the attacking of Nigerians under the guise that they were criminals. He submitted that every Nigerian residing in South Africa cannot be branded a criminal.
Although he exonerated the South African authorities of complicity in the attacks and harassment of Nigerians in the country, he said the Nigerian government considered it strange and regrettable that its nationals were victims of the attacks.
He announced that the decision to set up Early Warning Unit was a practical step taken by governments of Nigeria and South Africa to act proactively in all issues, concerning the two countries.
Onyeama said: “Unfortunately for some time now, there has been this incidence of attacks and Nigerians have been victims and we as a government have known that this was not state-sponsored and that the South African government always condemned this and it was very often the action of a small minority, a small criminal minority.
“But nevertheless, unfortunately those events have taken place. We also recognise that not all Nigerians in South Africa are engaged in unlawful activities. The vast majority are contributing enormously to creating the dynamic South African society. The vast majority feel very much at home in South Africa and this is the narrative we also want to pursue.
“This incident should not redefine the relationship between South Africa and Nigeria. We have received assurances as a government and the people of Nigeria that the government and people of South Africa are fully with us, fully supportive of Nigerians, welcoming Nigerians in this country and are taking all the necessary measures to ensure that Nigerians here are able to stay here in peace and security and that their properties and their rights will always be respected. And that is, of course, no less than what we would expect.”
The Early Warning Committee, the minister explained, would meet quarterly and would have equal representatives from both countries drawn from the ministry of foreign affairs, interior, police and immigration.
Nicoana-Mashabane had earlier assured that her country was committed to promoting the good relationship between both countries.
Her words: “Our discussions enabled us to further appreciate the vast nature of our countries’ bilateral cooperation, which covers, among others, trade and investment, energy, agriculture, mining, defence, health, tourism, environment, education and transport as well as science and technology.
“In this regard, we further committed ourselves to ensuring that all the signed thirty (34) sectoral agreements and memoranda of understanding (MoU) are fully implemented.
“We took note of more than 120 South African businesses, operating in Nigeria in telecommunications, mining, aviation, banking and finance, retail, property, entertainment and fast foods industries. They also noted and welcomed Nigeria’s small, micro and medium enterprises as well as big companies like Dangote Sephaku Cement that are entering the South African market.”
On the Xenophobic attacks, she said: “I also used the opportunity of this meeting to brief Minister Onyeama on the recent unfortunate attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa, including Nigerian nationals.
“In this regard, I highlighted the South African Government’s condemnation of these attacks, emphasised that no single death has occurred during this unfortunate spate of attacks against foreign nationals.
“I reiterated South Africa’s condemnation of all forms of discrimination based on race, religion, sex or creed, including xenophobia or afrophobia.
“I also dispelled the notion that the attacks on foreign nationals were targeted at the Nigerian nationals only, as other foreign nationals were also affected. I assured my counterpart that the South African government was fully in control of the situation and several interventions, including meetings with diplomatic community and emigre communities, security operations, policy and legislation reviews were taking place.” Onyeama and Dambazzau did not waste time in articulating the benefits of their meeting. The ministers in a 16-point communique reaffirmed the strategic relations that existed between Nigeria and South Africa and committed themselves to working together to enhance close political, economic and social cooperation in keeping with a mutual desire to establish special relations between the two countries.” The communique further explained: “During the discussions, we agreed to establish a multi-sectoral mechanism between the two countries to meet quarterly to exchange information on prevailing developments and act as an Early Warning System.”
The communique noted: “Minister Nkoana Mashabane also used the opportunity of the meeting to brief Minister Onyeama on the recent sporadic violent incidents in South Africa, affecting foreign nationals.
“She highlighted the government’s condemnation of these incidents, emphasised that no single death has occurred during this unfortunate spate of violent incidents, reiterated South Africa’s condemnation of all forms of discrimination based on race, religion, sex or creed, including xenophobia or afrophobia.”
Visit to home and workshops of victims
Soon after addressing journalists on the outcome of their meeting with South African authorities, Onyeama and Dambazzau headed straight to Pretoria West where sizable number of Nigerians, who were victims of the recent xenophobic attacks reside. It was pleasant surprise to the victims.
Their first port of call was at Simon Auto Mechanic located at 442 Christoffel street, CNR Rebecca, Pretoria West. The workshop housed the 28 vehicles that were burnt by the attackers.
A sight of the charred vehicles provokes tears. It was even more touching when Simon Adeoye, owner of the workshop, opened his mouth to relive how the February 18, 2017 happened.
His heart-wrenching story is not different from that of another Nigerian, Adams Okon whose house was torched. His offence was that he should not have owned a house in the area. In the case of Aboyomi Oyetoro, who resides at 225 Court Street, Pretoria West. At 8am when the attackers swooped on his compound, he had to throw his two children and wife to the other side of the fence. He was lucky that they did not die when they landed on the ground. They inflicted injuries on him.
Several other victims came out to recount their repugnant experiences. Onyeama and Dambazzau gave them their ears. “Things are changing, in this life, in this South Africa, that government officials can come and listen to us this way,” a Nigerian, who identified himself as Waheed Rahman, told Daily Sun.
The victims told the ministers that though nobody was killed, some Nigerians were injured and their property looted by locals, who attacked them. Onyeama asked the victims to collate their losses and forward them to the High Commission. He assured that everything would be done to ensure that they were compensated.
Meeting with the Nigerian community
If the visit of Onyeama and Dambazzau to the workshops and homes of victims at Pretoria West afforded them a first hand and deeper understanding of the depth and scope of the attacks, their interaction with thousands of Nigerians on Tuesday, March 14, was an eye opener. The meeting took place at the Nigeria High Commission, Pretoria. The hall was filled to the brim.
From the start to the end of the meeting, the atmosphere was charged. Soon after Anyene, NUSA president, delivered his speech, scores of Nigerians, one after another, stood up to share their touching experiences in the hands of South Africans. Their stories were the same – attacks on their businesses, hijack of their houses, threat to their lives and unleash of terror on their families.
Although it happened two years ago, Mrs. Ann Ozo-Okoye, a South African, relived how her husband was murdered in Johannesburg by locals.
Clearly not happy with the silence of Nigerian government over the years, a man who identified himself as Onowu, accused the Federal Government of looking the other way while their nationals are murdered by South Africans. He claimed that the xenophobic attacks and harassment of Nigerians had continued because nobody had ever been punished at the end of the day.
Onowu received applause from other Nigerians in the hall. He warned that if Nigerian authorities continued to treat with levity the killing and harassment of of Nigerian nationals in South Africa, they would be compelled to fight back by clamping down on South African businesses and nationals in Nigeria. He accused the ministers of coming to South Africa to drink tea and dine with the South African authorities.
The comment was not taken kindly by Onyeama. His scowling expression was visible for those in the hall to see. Dambazzau was equally not pleased with the comment.
When he rose to respond to the comments and pitiable tales earlier rendered by some people in the hall, Onyeama kicked off from Onowu’s outburst. He explained the reason the incumbent administration did not take extreme measures against South Africa in the wake of last month’s xenophobic attacks on Nigerian nationals. He said the country chose the path of dialogue because it offered a better and lasting solution to the tetchy issue.
Earlier, President of Nigerian Union in South Africa, Mr. Ikechukwu Anyene expressed satisfaction with steps so far taken by the federal government on the issue. He particularly praised the setting up of the Early Warning Unit , describing it as a platform that would afford Nigerians a good opportunity to present their complaints as they unfold.
Although some Nigerians in South Africa have reservations about their situation changing, many believe the intervention by Onyeama and Dambazzau, especially the agreement reached with authorities of South Africa to set up Early Warning Unit, will go a long way to arrest the ugly trend.
According to the minister Nigeria had several options on the table including going on full diplomatic war with South Africa, recalling her envoy, asking Nigerians residing in South Africa to return home , among others but settled for dialogue because it will serve the two countries better.
Onyeama told the gathering that the agreement with South African authorities to set up Early Warning Unit was a long term measure aimed at ending the continued harassment and attack on Nigerians by locals .
He said “We will not take extreme measures against South Africa because it will serve the two countries better “. He asked “Would it have been better if you were asked to return home? A shout of no!no!! rented the air.
The minister however assured that Nigeria will act if “she sees that nothing much is being done to address the incessant attacks and harassment of Nigerians”.
Regretting that Nigerians had several of their properties destroyed and taken away from them, Onyeama promised that compensation would be paid to them by South African authorities .
He urged them to compute their losses and take them to Nigerian High Commission who he said will present them to the Early Warning Committee, assuring that “by the time these processes are completed you would be compensated”.
“We will not take our eyes out of the issue, compensation has to be paid for the losses”, the minister further assured.
While Nigeria would stand with them on the issue, Onyeama counseled them to obey the laws of South Africa. He specifically counseled against engaging in criminal and unlawful activities.
Offering similar advice , Dambazzau kicked Nigerians taking laws into their hands. He said the government will continue to interface and engage South African authorities to bring an end to the “shameful acts”.
Earlier, President of Nigerian Union in South Africa , Mr. Ikechukwu Anyene expressed satisfaction with steps so far taken by the federal government on the issue.
He particularly praised the setting up of the Early Warning Unit , describing it as a platform that would afford Nigerians a good opportunity to present their complaints as they unfold.
He bemoaned the losses and harassments so far suffered by Nigerians in the country in the hands of South Africans and implored the federal government to prevail on South African authorities to protect them from their nationals.
Apart from beating and constantly harassing innocent Nigerians, Anyene said that houses and properties of Nigerians were being taken forcefully by some South Africans.
“We are at the mercy of some South Africans, they are intimidating and taking houses belonging to Nigerian”, he lamented .
Although some Nigerians in South Africa have reservations about their situation changing, many believe the intervention by Onyeama and Dambazzau especially the agreement reached with authorities of South Africa to set up Early Warning Unit will go a long way to arrest the ugly trend.
Idah said “It is a good move, it will help to address the problem. We have always had a situation where police will be on the sideline and watch their people attack Nigerians. Now that police will be part of the Early Warning Committee, they will know and appreciate the position of top government organs on the matter.
“ All of us are pleased that the ministers took their time to meet with other layers of the South African society and even our people , we pray that the peace initiative will begin to settle in everybody. Any Nigerian in South Africa who is telling you that he is not happy with the visit of these ministers is not sincere. We are happy and we want our government to follow it up with other discussions and meetings so that the matter can be resolved permanently”.
Sure, Onyeama has every reason to raise his head high after the South African visit. Not only has the visit resulted in the striking of deals by both countries and corrected some claims and lies earlier bandied around , it also infused confidence in majority of Nigerians in South Africa.