South Africa must fight xenophobia
By Levi Obijiofor
Stung by that decision, the Federal Government retaliated on Monday this week by deporting 28 South Africans. The essence of the prompt reprisal, it seemed, was to convey a blunt message to South Africa that it did not have an exclusive right over the way it humiliates citizens of other countries.
The Federal Government’s strategy seemed to have worked effectively because by the middle of this week, South African authorities were already talking in softer tone about resolving the diplomatic mess caused by their immigration officers in an agreeable manner. This goes to show that sometimes, it is necessary to apply the Mosaic Law of an eye for an eye in order to advance international relations.
When he appeared before the Senate on Tuesday (6 March 2012), Foreign Affairs Minister Olugbenga Ashiru spoke in no uncertain terms about Nigeria’s readiness to match South Africa’s stubbornness measure for measure or, if you like, to engage them eyeball to eyeball. In a voice that exposed the degree of his anger over South Africa’s belligerent action, Ashiru said: “I find the action as totally unfriendly and un-African. You don’t treat fellow Africans that way and we will not leave any stone unturned to get to the bottom of the matter. They should know that they do not have monopoly of deporting travellers and if we feel that the action against our nationals was discriminatory, we will take action to reciprocate and there are various ways of reciprocating.”
It is reassuring to see a senior government official defending the rights of Nigerian citizens to fair treatment by other countries. Over the years, Nigeria has had a bad record of standing up against countries that treat her citizens unfairly. Indeed, Nigerian diplomats have been accused of failing to protect the interests of their citizens in foreign countries. Of course, this does not include representing the interests of citizens who have clearly committed a crime in the countries in which they reside. All this seemed to have changed last week when South African immigration officials refused to recognise yellow fever vaccination cards presented by Nigerians who arrived in that country, even though some of the passengers claimed they had entered South Africa on previous occasions with the same documents. Now South Africa has been placed on notice that any callous treatment of Nigerians in future will not go unpunished.
The Federal Government and the National Assembly members were clearly embarrassed and baffled by arguments advanced by South Africa’s immigration and Port Health officials who said they did not recognise the yellow fever vaccination cards from Nigeria because, wait for it, they were mostly counterfeits. While Nigeria might have an image problem across the world, while many Nigerians might be involved in criminal activities worldwide, it does not imply that everything and everybody from Nigeria must be fake. While there might be a racket on yellow fever vaccination cards in some issuing centres in Nigeria, this should not be interpreted to mean that every card is fake.
The South African authorities must admit they mishandled this matter that could have been dealt with diplomatically and politely without the need for the two countries to engage in a tit-for-tat. If South Africa’s immigration remains rigid and refuses to recognise yellow fever vaccination cards issued in Nigeria, a simple alternative could be for Nigeria to request all South African passport holders to show valid yellow fever vaccination cards before they are allowed entry into Nigeria. This would be seen as retaliatory but if it would help to end the discriminatory practices by South Africa’s immigration officials, so be it.
When The Guardian (Monday, 5 March 2012) enquired from Foreign Affairs Minister Olugbenga Ashiru about what action the government would take in response to South Africa’s deportation of Nigerians on Thursday last week (1 March 2012), the response was robust but measured. Ashiru told The Guardian: “This is unacceptable. It is quite unfortunate. This is an affront to diplomatic norms. The South African immigration officials do not have a monopoly of maltreating other nationals.” The minister said further: “I have directed our mission and the consulate in Johannesburg to launch a first recourse protest. This is strongly worded. Nigeria would get to the root of the matter. We are meeting with the South African authorities on Monday… after which we will take the appropriate action. Nigeria will not stand by and watch Nigerians treated that way. We will take a firm and mature stand on the matter...”
It is somewhat extreme for a country to deport international visitors on the ground that the visitors did not possess valid yellow fever vaccination cards. It is irresponsible. It is inconsiderate. It is harsh. Such a decision failed to take into account the fact that some passengers had valid yellow fever vaccination cards. You cannot visit on all passengers the sins of a few. Of course, South Africa can claim that passengers are required to be vaccinated at least 10 days prior to arriving in the country but still, some of the deported passengers had valid cards.
Obviously incensed by the action of South African immigration officials, Ashiru said: “We are amazed by the insistence of South Africa on yellow cards before Nigerians can enter that country when Nigeria does not have a yellow fever epidemic. How can some people sit somewhere and say that a card issued by another sovereign country is fake? … We shall also be demanding yellow cards from their nationals in reciprocity... We have made it clear that fair treatment of Nigerians is now a major foreign policy drive by our government. But they (South Africa) do not have monopoly of making life difficult for others.”
It’s gratifying to note that “fair treatment of Nigerians” will become the basis on which Nigeria relates with other countries. This is long overdue. The overbearing behaviour by South African immigration officials seems to have violated international conventions for dealing with this kind of situation. The usual practice, even in a country such as Thailand where non-possession of international yellow fever vaccination card is viewed as a major oversight, is to vaccinate the visitor right at the airport and allow them entry into the country, as long as they have other valid travel documents. But the South African authorities seem to operate on a different platform guided by their laws and regulations that allow immigration officials to make arbitrary decisions about when visitors should be denied entry into their country.
The Minister’s reference to South African immigration officials and their record of abusing citizens of other countries is based on historical facts. There is a history of excessive abuses by South African authorities of Nigerian citizens visiting or residing in South Africa. In 2005, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka was denied entry into South Africa by immigration officials despite having been invited officially to speak as a guest at a lecture organised to mark former president Nelson Mandela’s birthday. Anyone with Soyinka’s pedigree would be rightly outraged to be denied entry into a country in which he was officially invited after being delayed for over eight hours at the airport. That was the indignity the South African immigration officials heaped on Soyinka before the gridlock was untangled.
As further evidence of South Africa’s excessive maltreatment of Nigerian citizens, in 2001, the then Aviation Minister Kema Chikwe was detained by South Africa’s Port Health and denied entry into the country on the ground that she did not possess a valid vaccination card. When the authorities persisted that the minister must be inoculated or denied entry into South Africa, the minister told them to go and jump into the river. She maintained her stand and let the authorities know the choice before them was to let her enter the country or she would go back to Nigeria. The matter was eventually resolved.
Nigeria does not deserve to be humiliated by South Africa or indeed any African country. In the 1970s and 1980s, Nigeria led an international campaign against the apartheid government of South Africa. Nigeria invested human and financial resources to fight apartheid in South Africa. Some Nigerian soldiers and civil society activists lost their lives in defence of the rights of Black South Africans to be treated equally as their white counterparts. It seems South African authorities have forgotten so quickly and conveniently the noble role that Nigeria played at the time.
One reason to worry over the maltreatment of Nigerians in South Africa is that it could be an extension of the high level of xenophobia in that country. It is no secret that Nigerians are hated and targeted by official and unofficial groups in South Africa. In fact, on a scale of detestation of foreigners in South Africa, Nigerians rank second only to Zimbabweans. Intolerance of foreigners is widespread in South Africa. Unfortunately, such intense dislike of foreigners is driven by the misleading impression that foreigners are taking over the jobs that South Africans ought to perform.
In South Africa, there is a common term used to describe black African foreigners. It is Amakwerekwere. This term pejoratively and connotatively means “foreigners are taking our jobs”. It is a synonym for xenophobia. South Africa must learn to deal forcefully with the challenges that confront it in its post-apartheid relationship with other African countries.