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Understanding South Africa’s Xenophobia (3)


In the previous parts of this series, I had tried to provide my personal insights into the factors that I believe have influenced the xenophobic tendencies amongst the South African Blacks, who in spite of the Black rule in their country, still have not had much to show for it. I had also, through my personal experience, tried to show how far ignorance and lack of education have not only contributed to the dilemma of the Black majority in that country as well as how those had made it impossible for them to correctly identify what and who their real enemies are. I had also posited that the xenophobia in South Africa has largely been brought about by the tendency of their political elite to steer away the anger of their shortchanged people from the failure of their own political leaders to foreigners who are being made to carry the can as the enemy and culprit for the gnawing poverty.

In this concluding part, I want to put it clearly that my x-ray of these issues as they concern South Africa and its people does not, in any way, make South African Blacks exclusive and sole culprits in the heinous act of xenophobia, which has been and is being practised all over the world, in different degrees, even as we read this. In fact, in comparison to the size of xenophobic acts that have taken place in the other parts of the world, the recent South African experience pales into insignificance. Incidentally, as we point one finger at the other people, three other fingers seem to be ominously pointing at our chests. Just last month, the world marked the 100th anniversary of the great xenophobic genocide against the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire of Turkey, which aimed diligently at wiping out the entire Armenian population off the face of the earth, and the dimension of which up till today, the modern Turkish state has still continued to deny. It was similar inordinate sentiments that must have led Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich to move to also wipe the Jews from the face of the earth. When the guns of the World War II were silenced in 1945, over six million Jews had been exterminated at the different parts of Europe by Hitler who had believed that the Jews were polluting his blue-eyed superior Aryan race.

In fact, the Blacks might have been the next vermin for Hitler to exterminate after finishing off the Jews, had his gross empire been allowed to exist. If one trekked a little bit backwards into history, one would recall the huge efforts of immigrants from Europe to exterminate the Native Americans, the sordid event which people of my generation were entertained with in cinema houses, as the purification of the American landscape as we had hailed the American cowboys killing off the Red Indians. Until very recently, the world has been nursed on a diet of xenophobic cruelty. If I have discussed the most recent incidents of xenophobia, it is not because the hatred and abhorrence of foreigners or of people who do not exactly share all our features, was invented by Black South Africans, nor because xenophobia is on its way out of the world on account of our hypocritical protests against it. I merely used the South African example to show how much present and alive the trend is and how even though as we feel appalled when we come at the receiving end, we have often tended to forget that there is a xenophobe in every one of us. Unfortunately, while we always try to find a justification for those times when we have moved against the others, we have always acted like the most sinned against when we come at the end of its rod.

As Nigerians complain and throw our fists in the air against the South Africans, we conveniently tend to forget that apart from perhaps Rwanda where Hutus exterminated over 800,000 of their fellow Tutsi compatriots and moderate Hutus, 20 years ago, Nigeria in its recent history has displayed most occasions of xenophobia in Africa – far worse than whatever might have happened in South Africa last month. Even as the South African authorities are running around to dissociate themselves from the on-going fracas against foreigners in their country, the situation in Nigeria, a mere 20 years ago was different and officially generated. In one fell swoop and almost without justification, the 2nd Republic administration of President Shehu Shagari, in 1983, ordered every Ghanaian resident in Nigeria to leave the country. The ‘Ghana- Must-Go’ policy was not repudiated by the General Muhammadu Buhari regime that took over from him on the last day of that year, but even had strengthened the policy by ordering the May 1984 deadline for all the Ghanaians to leave.

That xenophobic policy against its Ghanaian neighbours was carried out despite the fact that a mere 10 years earlier, in 1973, Yakubu Gowon’s administration had been instrumental in the establishment of the ECOWAS, which had sought the economic, social and political integration of the West African sub region. It had hardly mattered to Nigeria that had touted Africa as the centrepiece of its foreign policy that Ghanaians who had flooded Nigeria as a result of their temporarily disturbed economy had done so in the spirit of the ECOWAS and its integration desideratum. But then, Nigeria could not offer what it did not have. Even as Ghanaians were expelled, it was very fresh in the minds of other Africans that Nigerian people did not treat their own compatriots any better. In 1966, as a result of a military coup, in which a section of the country believed that the putschists had assassinated more leaders from their own part of the country, there ensued a spate of murderous xenophobia that has become comparable only to what happened in Rwanda years later.

Over 300,000 South Eastern and Midwest Nigerians were despoiled and massacred in the Northern parts of Nigeria, in three very organized waves of pogrom, orchestrated by some people who are revered and decorated as national heroes today. A consequential civil war that ensued resulted in further occasion of xenophobia to the effect that as its result, property of fellow Nigerians were seized and dubbed abandoned property in another part of the country. Of course, in other parts of Nigeria, xenophobia has continued to rear its ugly head in different dimensions, from time to time. The persisting instances of murderous conflicts between the so-called nomads and communities though which they pass with their herds have had their roots not just in the inability of the communities and herders to find a common ground, but also in the internecine hatred that had been allowed to build up. The situation has been exacerbated by the apparently irreconcilable differences between the Fulani and the other host communities.

In the same way that envy and hostility have built up against the foreigners in South Africa who are conceived to be doing better and therefore enjoying better welfare than their hosts, the native-settler situation has developed all across the Middle Belt parts of Nigeria. When these basic socio-economic conflicts are laced with religious and ethnic sentiments, and has often become the case in many parts of Nigeria, the outcome becomes very incendiary. The resultant outcome always becomes the build-up inordinate hate between groups – xenophobia ensues in different forms. When discussing xenophobia, we should not always advert our minds to when it takes place on a grand international scale that attracts international media attention. Because the eyes of the world are often focused on such instances, they might end up not being as dangerous as the ‘lesser’ instances which have the tendency of being played down, because they happen outside the purvey of the world.

In recent times in Nigeria, I have watched Nigerians of Northern origin face the murderous rage of some Yoruba in Lagos and nearby state of Ogun; I have watched Northern traders attacked at Onitsha and Aba leading to a mass exodus of Northerners out of the region, not to talk about the several times that Easterners have been hounded and haunted in Kano and Kaduna. Most recently, the Oba of Lagos, just like King Zwelithini of Zululand recently made the most shameful vituperations against a section of the population that was capable of giving rise to a xenophobic violence. Significantly, many Nigerians would have sworn that had President Jonathan not had the serenity and state of mind to accept defeat at the March 28 presidential elections and had gone to the unprecedented level of congratulating his opponent even before the results were fully declared, Nigeria would have experienced a level of xenophobic violence that would have shaken the world and made Rwanda look like a joke.

It did not happen, so it might be convenient to dismiss it as a figment of the writer’s imagination. In conclusion, it is my contention that xenophobia – wherever and however it happens and in whichever scale – is a product of irrational minds and is, therefore, dangerous and abominable. It is unfortunate that as a longstanding human phenomenon, it has continued to repeat itself in a regrettably quick regularity. Even as it is being frowned at, it is still being perpetrated in different parts of the world, merely because in spite of the regular preachments, the world never learns from history. Unfortunately, as xenophobia adopts a religious toga, it mutates into something very murderous and senseless, as has become the case with the campaign of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram.

It would be very presumptuous of anybody to suggest an omnibus solution that would be applicable to all the situations. Suffice it however to say that at the root of most hatred and violence against others are poverty and deprivation. Whenever a group feels short-changed or experiences an undeserved want, it become easy to blame someone else and vent unmerited anger against them. The first step, in my humble estimation, is to fight poverty through better distribution of resources. In Nigeria, for instance, we can generate resources that would be enough to satisfy everybody’s need, but hardly enough for the greed of a few. Who will bell this cat? (Concluded)

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